This article was sent in by Charlotte Kurz, 22, from New York.

My experience with diet culture & my eating disorder

I truly cannot remember back to a time and place where I was happy with my body and myself. I was bullied severely throughout middle school for the way my body and weight were. This lead to me wanting so badly to change my body that I used to write “LWN!” on my hand in pen every day. This meant: lose weight now! I didn’t know exactly how to do that so from time to time when my self-esteem and confidence got really low, I would try to test myself and see how long I could go without eating. I would eventually give in, eat my packed lunch from my parents, and then feel disgust and shame in myself for not being “good enough”.

Throughout my childhood there were also a lot of food rules that I began to internalize. Sugary drinks, soda, and treats were pretty much off limits. I remember bringing up to my therapist recently that I stopped drinking soda in 5th grade. I was SO proud of myself for this, and never thought anything about this. She pointed out to me that it’s pretty disordered to be proud of giving up and restricting foods, especially as a young child, and it hit me just how deep my rules around food go.

My struggle with my weight and body continued into my time in college. I remember finally starting to feel “comfortable” with my body and myself, only to have both my parents confront me about my weight and how it was a problem. My self-esteem, as low as it already was, was shattered. My first year in college consisted of binge-drinking and eating foods that I had never been “allowed” to have before, which led me to become even more uncomfortable in my body. Towards the end of my freshman year, I experienced trauma, which led me to finally “commit” to the dieting thing for good. It was the perfect storm for the onset of my eating disorder after years of body-shame, body-hate and living in diet culture.

I went into a bookstore, innocently enough, to go pick up a dieting book. The one I picked out had some ridiculous title like “lose huge amounts of weight fast!” or something like that. This book was designed for people who “had” a substantial amount of weight to lose and wanted to do it within a couple month time span. RED FLAG! The diet was extremely low calorie and was paired with an intense exercise routine. I was hooked. I lost over 30% of my body weight in less than a year. (For reference, in “healthy” weight loss, it’s recommended to lose 5% and wait for 6 months before attempting to lose more). The compliments came, and no one recognized that I was engaging in disordered eating and compulsive exercise. I had medical professionals congratulate me, not willing to dig in deeper and see what was truly going on below the surface. To everyone around me, I had been a successful dieter, and that was something to celebrate! I was living in a smaller body, so what could potentially be wrong with that? I was healthy, right?

Until I started to have crippling anxiety and panic attacks over food. What had started as a “simple” harmless diet had quickly turned into an obsession and was spiraling quickly into dangerous behaviors.

I felt like I was completely out of control unless I was engaging in behaviors that controlled my food, body, and shape. The title of “successful dieter” was something that stuck so deeply with me. My mental health tanked, and I began to use more eating disorder behaviors to cope with my high anxiety and depression. It took me almost 2 years from the time I started dieting to the eventual eating disorder diagnosis I received. Diet culture is so common and celebrated that no one really noticed when I was struggling and miserable mentally, because on the outside I pretended that dieting was great and amazing and so #healthy.

I am grateful to have been able to go to treatment several times and learn coping skills to replace my eating disorder behaviors. I now have a wonderful treatment team that I work with to tackle and process the depression and anxiety, instead of avoiding it. And for the first time in a long time, I’m finally feeling hopeful that I can recover and be at peace eventually with my body and food.

And for me, recovery alone is not enough. It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do, and I know I still have a long road ahead of me. I also think it’s extremely important that we begin to change the conversation around diet, bodies, and exercise. So many people are being hurt by diet culture and it’s something that can be avoided. Eating disorders are mental illnesses, but diet culture and growing up being taught to hate ourselves makes finding recovery significantly harder. Had this change started a long time ago, it might have saved me from years of struggling with dieting. While we can’t go back in time, we can start to create change right NOW. You can even start right now—show yourself a little compassion, try to listen to your body, and look at your intentions with your diet and exercise. We can start a revolution of change, there’s one happening right now—we don’t have to live our lives struggling and suffering.

Follow Charlotte on Instagram at @chacha_livesfree to keep up with her mental health journey.