Sarah (*name changed to protect anonymity) pushes aside a strand of soft, long hair and focuses thoughtfully on a little ink stain on her left index finger. She sits across from me curled up on a heavy, gray couch, between us two cups of still steaming tea.
And my recording device.
Bulimia, excessive overeating followed by some kind of compensatory behaviour like vomitting, is not a beautiful topic. As excruciating as it is, anorexia, food restriction caused by a strong desire to be thin, walks hand in hand with the delicate picture of a petite, fragile woman eating child-like food portions. As a society we slowly learn to speak about anorexia and eating disorders. But bulimia is ugly. The image of a weak, nauseated body bending over a toilet and gagging leaves a bitter aftertaste on our tongue.
Sarah successfully fought bulimia and has been eating healthily for the last two years. I wonder how often this bitter taste has haunted her as I watch her carefully smooth the wrinkles in her black T-shirt.
“The first time I realized what I was doing is wrong was when I posted a related picture on Instagram. It made me think about my motivation behind posting such a picture. I started googling, started researching. Back then I didn’t know I was sick, I simply did. For me it was perfectly normal: I eat. I throw up. That’s all. I remember working at a restaurant and I was allowed to eat their amazing food during my breaks. On Sundays there was always this great all-you-can-eat brunch buffet. While all of my colleagues enjoyed the buffet on the spot, I took everything with me and stuffed myself at home. I ate it all and then went to the supermarket and bought more food. And threw up again.“
Did anyone know?
“Not really. But it was so confusing to see others behaving in a different, even in nicer way, only because you look “thinner”. I kinda stopped when I started work at the office, though. Mainly because of practical reasons, it just got more and more difficult to eat so much and then run to the toilet without getting caught. It was very hard, especially the part where I forced myself to eat “normally” again. You also need to give up eating tons of delicious but unhealthy junk food. So I over-ate and threw up only on the weekends instead, but this, too, wore off, month by month.”
I want to know if it is still hard for her now.
“Today, whenever I am about to throw up I have this weird, unpleasant feeling. Some people might call it guilt. This is why I rarely get drunk”, she smiles, “I am too afraid to fall back into this old pattern. I want to avoid vomiting at all costs. But whenever I have my period, it reminds me of back then. Because of the munchies”, she laughs and blushes. “Just like in those days when I ate all these chips, these burgers, all this candy. Eating, throwing up, eating again. Until there was no food left.”
I am curious if Social Media, with its polished, filtered and glammed up world, has an impact on her as it has on many women out there- including me.
“Oftentimes I see other women and I think to myself “oh, she has a great figure”, sure. And it is true. I do take care that I don’t gain or lose too much weight. Ever since I stopped I try to eat as well as possible. I focus on foods that make me feel good, energized and, foremost, healthy. I avoid products like white bread, well, because they don’t really satisfy your hunger and you eat more and more afterwards. But for now, I feel good.”
It takes me some time to choose my words and ask her the question hanging in the air between us.
“Do you miss it? It sounds like it was part of your daily routine, linked to intense emotions, both good and bad. And then it was suddenly gone. How did it feel, dissociating yourself from something that determined your life in so many ways?”
“It was difficult, but also quite a relief. It showed me how it had been pushing me away from people all of this time, only because I wanted to be liked. Only because I wanted to reach some distorted, faked ideal I had in my sick young mind. Back then I stopped hanging out with friends, in order to stay at home and eat. You always stay at home and well, the rare times you spend outside, you are always overconsumed by questions like What do others think of me when they look at me?, Are they starring?, Am I standing out?“
I notice whenever an intensive memory comes up, Sarah swaps the “I” with a “you” in her word flow. Maybe it is an attempt to distance herself from the person she used to be? A minor grammatical difference, holding her world together on this heavy, grey couch. I am overwhelmed by the respect I feel towards this scarred but blooming young woman sitting across from me.
“So to come back to your question regarding Social Media: Why destroy yourself in order to be liked by others? In some cultures, looking “fat” will make you look like a saint. It is all about the where and when you are living in and not so much about how you really look. There is nothing such as objectivity. Only happiness and peace with yourself.”
Will the trend towards body acceptance and positivity make a difference?
“I don’t think so. It won’t stop. People will get thinner and thinner, prettier and prettier, supermodels will always be supermodels.”
Sarah lights up a cigarette. Her eyes follow the feather-light wave of the smoke fading into the air above her head. She takes a moment, as if she first needs to finish her thought in her head before saying it out loud.
“But I think we need to talk more about it. I would tell my daughter to accept the way she looks and if she wants to change that, then for her- not for society. Don’t destroy your soul and your body, you will need both for the rest of your life. It just isn’t worth it.”
Has she ever talked with boyfriends about her bulimia, I ask.
Sarah proudly smiles. Until this very moment she gave the impression of a grown up, confident woman, but I can see her beautiful eyes widening with bright, warm joy when she tells me:
“I can talk about it now. That was a part of me and I accept that, as painful as it is. If I were avoiding speaking about my bulimia, then I would be carrying the problem inside me, right? I have talked about it with boyfriends of mine. Why not? It made me who I am now. And like I said, I feel pretty good now.”, and giggles carefree like a little child.
We both fall quiet. The young woman who battled her own body and won, whom I admire more and more as the minutes pass, and me. Outside the sunset steadily dyes the sky nature’s deepest pink, its brightest purple, its softest blue; I wonder how astonishing this world is. A world able to host such beautiful skies and such strong souls like Sarah’s.
If a beloved person of yours finds herself in a similar situation like Sarah, don’t hesitate to ask for help. In Vienna there are numerous information centers, for example the Kompetenzzentrum Essstörungen , Hotline für Essstörungen or here.