I vividly remember watching Barbie in the Dreamhouse as a 7-year-old impressionable little girl, wondering why my stomach had these rolls when I looked in the mirror. My body was always mediocre in my eyes. I was not too fat or thin, but I felt overweight and unwanted because I didn’t look like or have the same shape as the women I saw in advertisements or on TV. The feeling that society wanted me to look a certain way clouded so many of my decisions, especially about food.
Though my journey with food was never perfect, the summer after freshman year was when it got bad. I put on some weight freshman year, what some call the “freshman 15.”I went home for summer, and most of my clothes didn’t fit me. Mind you, my body was also changing as I was getting older, and that was normal, but trying to squeeze into clothing that clearly doesn’t fit me, really hurt. So I told myself I was going to lose all the weight I had gained because I didn’t look the way I thought I was supposed to look. What started as an effort to “become healthier and lose weight” became a summer of restrictions, filled with no dessert and too many “no thank you” to all of my favorite foods. Losing weight became the dominant factor in my life. As a result, I wasn’t present or enjoying life because I was so set trying to make sure I was only eating healthy foods and not gaining weight.
When September of my sophomore year hit, I had successfully lost all the weight I had gained and more. I received so many compliments that I “glowed up” and “look so good,” “you’re so tiny.” I loved hearing these comments, but they made me think that I was ugly before. These comments reinforced my idea that continuing to lose weight, to distance myself from my ‘ugly’ self from freshman year, was the right way forward. At this point, I was sick, trapped in an illness that was bigger than me. But I had no idea. I was blind to the reality of what I was doing to myself … or my body.
I had no energy; I was always tired and never wanted to leave my room and socialize, something I loved doing before. My hair was falling out in clumps. I was convinced I had alopecia. My body was shutting down.
I hated the mirror.
Even after losing the weight from freshman year and then some, I still saw a skewed version of myself, an overweight version of myself, in the mirror. I hated that mirror, and yet was addicted to it. I constantly analyzed myself. My hips were too wide, my legs were too short, my arms were too big, and my cheeks were always something to critique in my eyes. I became a girl that (I) Sophia didn’t know. Falling for the unrealistic trap of the media, following careless diets, yet I was blind to it and the damage I was doing to myself. Yet, no matter how much I tried to change and lose weight, I was never satisfied. I always craved for more.
Some of you might think of an ‘eating disorder’ and see it as a superficial illness, one that revolves around your looks, but it’s so far from that. An eating disorder is a mental illness. It is not something you can turn on and turn off. It is something very serious. Eating disorders come in all shapes and scopes.
To everyone outside of my close circle of friends, I was a normal, happy girl who had her life together, but inside I was numb, constantly sad, and losing myself. Although at the same time, I was fixated that nothing was wrong with me. I blamed it on the winter weather and made every excuse to try and justify my sadness. My parents told me I had to gain weight. If not, they would remove me from Blair and put me into an eating disorder facility.
Through this, I thought I had reached the ‘skinny’ that I priorly envied, but I still wanted to be thinner and thinner. Yet, I thought society would accept me and love my body now, but instead, I was “Too boney and looked like a skeleton.” I wish I could have been kinder to myself and understood that the version of perfection that I was chasing does not exist.
My recovery began when I woke up on a Sunday morning after crying myself to sleep, choosing to be alone and pity myself while all my friends were in Hardwick that Saturday night; I had a massive clump of hair on my pillow. This was the day after my doctor told me I didn’t have alopecia, and this was caused by what I did to my body. He said very clearly that I wasn’t alone, and sadly he had seen many of his patients come to him and say they were convinced they had a hair loss issue when it was really the consequences of an eating disorder. He said if I continued, I could lose all my hair. I was so scared. I realized I was abusing myself, and I knew I had a problem and needed to stop, eat, and fuel my body, regardless of how much it would hurt. So I started eating little by little. As crazy as it may sound, eating little bits of food, amounts that would barely sustain me, and allow my body enough fuel to prevent my hair from falling out, was incredibly difficult at first. I tried to take it day by day and listen to the people around me, but every meal was a struggle.
Though I started recovery, My eating disorder didn’t just go away, but I stopped allowing it to consume my thoughts. It was so hard to accept myself not being that tiny stick girl that I so desperately wanted to be. But I had a lot going for me. I had an army as a family. I loved and loved me so much; I had beautiful friends. I was so blessed, so I tried to appreciate what I was already given. I filled this space of negativity, hatred, and the physical and mental cages of an eating disorder with friends, art, conversations. I created a sustained investigation in ap ceramics that documented the “beauty behind the imperfect” as a physical example of my progress and growth. As I molded the clay to these imperfect pieces I realized that I can mold my thoughts about myself. Our bodies are skin. They’re just skin.
I began not associating my beauty with weight and associated beauty with what lay inside. For beauty is a feeling. It’s something you create, not something that can be explained or labeled with a number or size. Our bodies are meant to have stretch marks, scars, cellulite, rolls, acne, wrinkles, and so many other imperfections that make every one of us beautiful in our way.
I was so open with my friends about my struggles and leaned on my parents to help me regain confidence. Looking back now, I could have never done it by myself. It showed me that in life, you are never alone. Times can be challenging and feel like you’re at rock bottom, but there will always be people who lift you even when you think you can’t be lifted.
For a while, after I began recovering, I carried around a lot of guilt for putting my family, my friends, and my body through something that I caused. But then, somehow, I realized I didn’t choose to have an eating disorder. No one decides to have an illness. It’s more important what you do after your struggle than the struggle itself. That’s when I realized I’m no longer going to feel guilty, and I’m going to fill that void of guilt with love. I’m going to help destigmatize this illness, and I’m going to talk about my experience. I am so much more than my previous eating disorder. This is only a tiny bit of my identity, and there is so much more to me. Like all of us in this room, I am more than the hardships I endure.
I started telling myself that it didn’t matter if I didn’t like my body because it was the least interesting thing about me. I was kind. I love art. I cared about my friends; I have so much to offer that makes me beautiful, rather than just my body. So instead of focusing on everything I didn’t have, I focused on everything I did. I learned how to grow self-love and inner peace. I found satisfaction in helping others through their issues, which in the end, helped me love my body’s imperfections. I reminded myself that it’s not the number on the scale or the size and shape of clothes that you wear. It’s self-love, kindness, and your soul that radiates beauty in the world.
I’m giving this chapel not to ask for pity because I’m so blessed and thankful that I got through this and I got help. I’m confidently standing here today, fully recovered from an illness that could have taken my life. I wouldn’t take back any of what happened to me. My parent’s sleepless nights, memories with my friends, the depression that came from the illness, my sophomore year.
I am giving this chapel to all of the people in this room who have faced or are currently facing any sort of eating disorder, big or small. Or for the many others of us that are victims to diet and health culture even without being diagnosed as having a “disorder. You are not alone, and you will get through this. Let yourself be helped. It’s ok not to be perfect, and sometimes you have to lean on people when you can’t find the strength to hold yourself up. Life is a team effort. Everyone is dealing with something you don’t know about. We all have struggles and dark patches, but if we change our mindset and focus on the blessing we have, it’s easier to make it through these dark times.
If you have never experienced a body disorder or you face it every day, try and remember that life has so much beauty everywhere. Our bodies are machines and food programs, and our bodies are just bodies. Outside of your physical appearance, true beauty lies in your heart and how you treat others. If we realize how special we are in our way, we find clarity in every insecurity, whether it’s about our size, intelligence, social-economic class, race, sexuality, or anything. Life is beautiful and has so much to offer if you take advantage of all you have and all you can give.
I know this isn’t an easy thing to talk about so I am going to ask you to do two things. First, if you are worried about someone, but you don’t know what to do, talk to an adult that you trust. And second, if you are worried about yourself, or if you see a piece of you in this chapel, know that Mrs. Jimenez and Mrs. Thomas are free following this chapel A1 and A2 and you can also email them. Look around; there are so many people in this room who are routing for you, and we are so blessed to go to a school where everyone cares and wants to help.
I now look at my reflection in the mirror and feel this overwhelming pride as this body is mine. It fights against illness, bounces back after I put it through immense struggle, and carries me through life.
(Copyright, Sophia Papadopoulo 2021)