My Tribe and Me: The Push and Pull of an Eating Disorder

I had a lot of guilt and a lot of fear when I began the recovery process from my eating disorder-- not only was I recovering from years of eating and body image problems, I was also simultaneously a part of a social tribe who cares far too much about what they eat and what they look like. Quite frankly, thinking about the messages that my tribe has engrained in me disgusts me. Lately, and in the past few months, I have felt so much shame for not only following the messages of my tribe, but even living by them for the past six years. I was maybe even living by these messages “better” than the girls in my tribe were all along.

In 8th grade, my friends began counting calories using different websites. I wanted to be able to participate in their conversations.  I wanted to fit into their tribe. “What did calories mean?” “How many calories was I eating a day?”, I innocently wondered. Becoming quite curious, I eventually found myself doing some research on my own. I would soon discover the pancakes with peanut butter and chocolate milk I was having for breakfast every morning and the bagel I was having for lunch at school was “too much”. I was far over the calorie “limit” that my friends had told me they were at. Intense judgments regarding the food I was eating and insecurities regarding how different I was from my friends began to build up.

In High School, my best friend stopped eating lunch. Soon after that, a couple of my other friends began drinking coffee and eating a power bar for lunch. So, every morning when I got to school, I’d throw out the peanut butter and jelly sandwich and chips that my mom packed me for lunch just so that I’d fit in.

In high school, I also made a really good friend who was outside of my smaller friend group. We connected a lot over our passion for gymnastics. We connected over the fact that we actually really enjoyed food, unlike my other friends. But, this “really good friend” of mine quickly began to remind me of a lot of my other friends. She mimicked them in behavior and practice even though she wasn’t close to them. I’d watch her throw out her food, which only normalized what I was doing. I vividly remember the videos that she would send me of her purging at night and the laxatives and suppositories that she would bring in her little black Herschel backpack to school every day. If all of the people I hung out with were using all of these “weird” behaviors, then maybe it was the norm. And if it was the norm, I felt I had to do the same to fit in. I just didn’t want to be the outcast.

I thought that college would be a break from all of this. I thought that maybe if people actually ate and didn’t care as much about the way they looked, I’d be able to do the same. I thought that maybe instead of seeing comments on people’s pictures like “so skinny” or “how do you look like this” I would see comments like “you look so happy”  or “you are so strong”. But, my Freshman and Sophomore college experience was quite the opposite. My friends talked about food just as much and about the way they looked even more. I quickly noticed that I felt I had to learn all of the coolest, most expensive brand names, the newest trends and look “put together” to fit in and feel ok with myself. My friends refrained from all carbs, sauces were always ordered on the side, they ate these card-board like fiber crackers instead of bread, sushi was ordered with no rice, cucumbers or jicama was ordered instead of chips, only the cheese or vegetables was eaten off of pizzas and only the insides were eaten from sandwiches. The fight felt too hard and my fear of being judged by myself and also by my tribe was too strong — I gave in. I hated what I was doing, I hated what I had become, I hated the way I probably made others feel when they ate with me but I also couldn’t stop what I was doing. Relationships are what I valued most in my life, so without being part of my social tribe what would I be?

What I’ve begun to realize is that all of this time I felt the desperation to fit into my social tribe because I was lacking an inner tribe within myself. However, through the healing process and working on myself and recovering from this battle I believe I have pieced together an inner tribe of my own that will allow me to give myself the compassion and support that I need-- even if my social tribe is not doing so. I no longer need the approval of my social tribe.

And if I no longer fit my social tribe, then so be it. At least I will fit me.