photo: Dorkys Ramos

“Count your blessings.”

“I wish I had your ‘problem.’”

“Hey, at least your clothes are cheaper.”

These are all things I’ve heard whenever I’ve complained about being too skinny. I’d always been slim and petite, clocking in at just 4'9" and 86 pounds. But as I got older being this skinny turned into a health problem.

As a child, dinnertime was an absolute nightmare. Mom would demand that we stay seated until we ate a plate of food even a grownup would have trouble finishing. There was no concept of portion control in my family. She’d shovel mountains of rice, beans, and meat piled onto a big spoon and there we’d sit, teary-eyed, cheeks full and refusing to chew. There was many a napkin full of food hidden in corners around the house just so I could be set free.

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Then came the hefty helpings of false bribes.

“If you eat all your food, we’ll go to McDonald’s,” Mom would say as she tried to pry our mouths open with the hard tip of the spoon. Lies.

I’m sure that created an unhealthy association with food for me and it’s only recently that I’ve been able to consistently finish my food without feeling full and overwhelmed just at the sight of it all. When I’ve asked Mom about her unscrupulous feeding tactics her response is always the same.

“If I hadn’t done that you would have died of starvation.” Or maybe I would have had a better view of eating and not felt like this was her way of imposing her overbearing will on her child? Who knows.

Each time a medical professional or therapist asks me about my weight, I know they wonder if I’m anorexic or bulimic and I’m not. But while I’ve never wanted to be thinner, I don’t doubt that I have some form of an eating disorder, emotional non-eating perhaps. When I look into the mirror I didn’t see myself as someone who desperately needed to shed more weight. Instead, I saw how my collar and hip bones stuck out and was disgusted by the sickly skeleton standing before me.

It made me want to hide, and hating my body made me less excited to eat and nurture myself. Work, school, hobbies, social engagements, they were all distractions from facing the fact that my weight was a legitimate concern; everything else was more important than my own health. At 86 pounds, I was just barely in normal weight territory and I didn’t have any reserves if something devastated me enough to stop eating for days, which inevitably happened.

A day after I saw the lowest number stare back at me from the scale — 76 pounds — I nearly blacked out on my way to work. I remember my vision going fuzzy, the street noises sounding muffled, and each painful inhale getting jammed in my throat. Somehow I managed to cross the street and walk back to my apartment where I collapsed on the bed, heaving and sweating profusely without an ounce of energy left to take off my clothes. I spent the rest of that day with an IV in my arm, crying because I’d finally landed myself in the hospital as my parents warned me. I felt like such a helpless idiot.

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For the next two years, I had to be extra mindful at the start of my menstrual cycle. If I didn’t drink or eat enough on that first day, I was sure to feel weak and want to faint. I remember one time it slipped my mind and I had to send out an SOS via instant messenger to a coworker on the other side of our cubicle wall because I was about to faint at my desk and couldn’t muster the strength to walk over or call out for help. She and another friend walked me over to a couch where I drank a bottle of Gatorade and laid down until my blood sugar level rose.

I’ve yet to climb back up to my original baseline weight and when I saw 76 pounds on the scale this past fall, I freaked out. Not only because I had dipped so low again, but because this time around I didn’t even feel it. My body had grown so used to being no heavier than 80 pounds for years that it wasn’t a shock to the system. So I tried and failed and tried over and over again to practice healthier habits, to nurture my body, to address the mental barriers that had been keeping me from taking care of myself. I also met with a nutritionist and removed myself from stressful situations that were wreaking havoc on my emotions. I eat to live instead of live to eat, so any little disruption or agitation is enough to make my appetite disappear.

Fortunately, something seems to have stuck in the new year because right now I’m three pounds away from crossing back into normal weight territory, a feat that’s taken me eight years to accomplish. Seeing those numbers increase has served as motivation to keep going, keep trying, keep eating better. This past winter was brutal on my body. I was sick every few weeks for four straight months and when I approached my doctor about my constant bouts with the flu, his suggestion was simple: Gain weight so that my body would be better equipped to fight off the germs. These days, I’ve been doing a much better job of building a still small yet mightier me.