The Active Activist

Katie’s always been a women’s woman; fighting for females’ rights and health in college and moving into public policy after she graduated. Now she’s working to ensure women have access to all of their choices in the mysterious world of reproductive health.

Born and raised in Florida, this 31-year-old feels like she’s found her place in New York City where there are less tans and more interesting hats.

Katie wrote to me after Rachel, another fucking awesome bulimic wrote this brilliantly bold article in nymag. Katie said, ‘As an all-out “FAB” through my late 20s I can totally relate to all of it – the shame, the grossness, the secrets. I’ve always wanted to come out so people can see it really can happen to anyone, even a liberal, feminist, like me.’

Ladies and lads, thanks to Rachel’s article we have a new acronym: FABs. And thanks to all of you for signing up recently. I am thrilled to introduce you to Katie, a savvy, sharp, warm-hearted FAB with one of those authentic voices that make you think of leather and vanilla when you hear it. Here is her story:


BB: How common do you think it is?

KS: I think bulimia is a lot more common than people realize. Or the whole eating and thinking about food is much more common. I loved that title in nymag – Bulimia is out of the Closet. I thought ‘this is me!’

I consider myself a feminist, I work in women’s health and I’m well aware of issues of women and the media. But even someone like me could let all of that go to the side, and have this happen. It’s sad, but at the same time not surprising considering all women can be up against. I want to tell people that bulimia can happen to anyone. It’s so secretive and those inflicted with it look like normal women – and in normal I mean not unhealthily skinny – all shapes and sizes. I never really lost weight from this. I maintained.

BB: Same. It’s a crappy diet.

KS: It’s a really shitty diet. The maintaining was comforting. In middle school I was a chunky kid but I really didn’t notice until other kids made me aware of it, you know, that I was a little bit heavier. My parents didn’t say anything to me but it wasn’t neglect; we’re never going to be super slim in my family. In high school I started to take laxatives if I felt like I had overeaten, and I used to think, ‘if I eat this [pill] then it will go away.’ There may have been some deliberate overeating involved, but for the most part it was me feeling guilty or bad or thinking I shouldn’t be eating this.

BB: Were you consciously wanting to be lose weight?

KS: I think so. I had started to feel that. I am 5’5”, and in mid high school, a lot of my friends went to 5’10” and I stayed the same. All my friends were the pretty ones, I was always the funny one. I never thought of myself as much but I was the one with the personality more than anything. At that age people got into clothes and buying MAC make up and I didn’t even know what it was. How I looked wasn’t a priority, I didn’t care. I miss that.

The laxatives were a way to make sure I didn’t get any bigger. I remember waking up in the middle of the night with horrible cramps. I didn’t take a ton, you know a dose or two at night, and I remember saying (and I don’t even believe in god), “Oh god, I will never do this again, make this pain go away.” But then I would just do it all again when bad eating happened.

I had no idea what I was doing was something. I didn’t know what it was.

Between high school and my early college years I began chewing on food and spitting it out. Especially when carbs became bad. I have always been a bread lover and suddenly it became wrong. So when I had a long drive I would buy a loaf and just chew it and spit it out in a bag. I mentioned the chewing and spitting to my sister once and she said, “Katie that sounds like it could be an eating disorder.” She wasn’t super serious, but I was like, wait a second. Even though I wasn’t throwing up there was a desire to eat but not ingest.

Putting it in that type of perspective I knew it wasn’t normal.

BB: Eating disorder can sound so serious right? Nobody wants disorder on their resume, I think it’s natural to deny, or ignore any sense of seriousness at the beginning.

KS: Yes, you know anorexia is known as The Illness, it sounds dangerous, whereas bulimia or disordered eating is not taken so seriously. With bulimia it just looks like we lose control of our food.

When I was about 17, I had some harmless (and unrelated) rectal bleeding. When I went to a doctor I was terrified that the bleeding was all my fault and I knew I had to tell him – who, of course, was this old white man – just embarrassing. As he was reviewing my patient history, I told him about the laxatives. But he said nothing. He never asked why I was doing it or whether I was having problems to make me want to take them, nothing at all. Looking back on that now it’s appalling that this asshole – no pun intended – never said anything. Not one fucking thing about why was I doing it.

Then things calmed down as I went to college and 20, 21 it started up again and I finally learned how to throw up.

BB: What a shame.

KS: Yeah I know. I think I was at a pizza buffet and it was that guilt of I shouldn’t have. For a long time I didn’t binge but I overate like any other college student. My first binges were with bread – it wasn’t like I was eating 20 twinkies, just bread. It’s that whole other issue, you know the good/bad dichotomy.

That’s when the secrecy began. Living with two other roommates and our bathroom was right by all of our rooms so I had to make sure I did it when the shower was on or they were out of the house or sometimes I couldn’t finish.

Or going home to my parents’ house and they wanted to feed me and I would go up to my room and pig out.

BB: I did that too, there was something so safe about going home.

KS: And you feel terrible because it’s the family meal but you don’t want it in your body. Everyone has that story “I ate too much and then you might as well keep going because you’ve already fucked up so you know, have the cake too.” I turned into the classic Lifetime Movie, driving from Burger King to Mcdonalds…. I worked at a health centre and during the weekend I would clean it and it was perfect because I could go there, eat too much, and you know how it is – I could do it in total privacy. So healthy!

In 2008, I was living by myself, first job out of grad school and nothing was necessarily wrong but being by myself facilitated it to happen easily. It became more a routine, not triggered by anything, it just happened. Around that time I came out to my parents – we went out to eat – and I was so nervous. I told them, “I don’t want you to do anything, this is my thing and I don’t need to be put into a hospital but I want you to know you can call me out on something” I was starting to get scared that it could get out of hand someday. And so then when I would go home and I would go to the bathroom my Mom would ask me and I would get kind of angry at her. Because she was right sometimes.

BB: Were your parents shocked?

KS. Well my Mom knew about those laxatives in high school. I am sure they were surprised but I used to talk about my weight and appearance all the time, so the link between the two made sense. They were very supportive and they just let me talk. My Mom was worried that she caused it and I don’t think that was the case. At all. At that point I was an adult and I think I told them I would talk to someone but I didn’t.

I didn’t tell my Mom much about my bulimia, but later at one point she asked me if I was still doing it and then said, “Just stop it’

I think there is that lack of understanding about it. Had I been anorexic, with such a visual cue, then it would have been more like a condition I needed to get help for – but “just stop it” seems like we have more active control to be able to stop than we actually do. It aint that easy.

BB: No it isn’t. That’s the insidious thing about bulimia, it becomes a secretive, addictive way to deal with life; it’s a lot harder to break then just stopping. We have to re-program our brains and habits and hearts.

KS: I think food when I was younger, was comfort – my parents worked a lot and I was bored. My time with bulimia started from a place of wanting to be thin and then it moved to total control.

I had my worst year in 2010. My boyfriend broke up with me out of nowhere, my parents separated and my life was all over the place. That was really hard. It was very stressful, everything was up in the air and my family was crumbling. That was my worst year. Eating was something I could control; it was the only thing I could handle.

BB: What was your pivotal moment of change?

KS. I started to think over the years how much time I had spent thinking about food. In college I had a male roommate, who became one of my best friends. And at the end of 2010, luckily, we moved back in together. He was out of law school and I was out of grad school. He would give me crap for buying low fat stuff – as a guy he ate whatever – and one time I pulled him up and said, “This is why you have to lay off me.” I didn’t tell him the full scope but enough to explain why.

I would explain to him how much time I would spend thinking about what I was going to eat, when I was going to eat, should I eat this now or later, or worried about what I looked like or what people thought I looked like. It totally blew his mind. He was a “normal” eater – and it was interesting to see his reaction to all the ramblings that were going on in my head. He said to me, “Katie I’ve never seen anyone so hard on themselves in my life.”

BB: A therapist said that to me once too. So true. We set ridiculously high standards for ourselves.

KS: Once I really I thought about how much energy it took – I realized how much calmer and how much more free I would be if I stopped obsessing over my weight, about food, and the bulimia.

Then I realized I was done. I was exhausted. I couldn’t do this to myself anymore.

Plus I was thinking about making a big move out of state and I did not want it to be part of who I was. You know it’s always part of you, a bit like an alcoholic, you may not have a drink – but you think about it from time to time. I didn’t want to bring bulimia into a relationship or, now that I have nieces, (I kicked it right when my first one was born) I thought ‘I cannot tell them not to do this if I’m doing it myself’.

Eventually I went to a doctor and went on some low anxiety medication and some long talks on a couch helped. But for the most part it was a shift in thinking. Clearly, body issues and food, they’re always there but I’m much easier on myself now.

BB: Kindness is the only way out. I love this piece of art by Rob Reynolds that says, ‘Note to self: be kind, be kind; be kind.’

KS: After I stopped bingeing and purging I got into exercise. I did a mini-triathlon and when I finished it was the best feeling I ever had; it helped me get focused and out of a slump. And I wanted to do it again, but I definitely felt I was replacing the bingeing and purging with exercise, thinking, ‘I ran five miles this morning so it’s OK if eat three pieces of pizza…’ I used to be really hard on myself if I couldn’t do my run or bike ride for the day so eventually I went to a therapist. They made me realize the pressure I put on myself to exercise was replacing eating behaviors. So now I’m at a point where I exercise a few times a week but I’m over doing the races and if I don’t work out on any one day then the world’s not going to end.

It’s nice to be free. When I read the Homecoming Queen story she mentioned Radical Acceptance. I also read it and it made me realize I was always finding ways to make myself better somehow and I finally came to the conclusion that I Am Enough.. Accepting who I am doesn’t mean I will never want to improve myself – self-improvement is wonderful. But it’s really about improving yourself for the right reasons. I feel like women are pressured to do so many things and prove themselves for no reason at all.

BB: So true. And often we put all that pressure on ourselves.

KW: I wanted to mention the whole love your body stuff – can we stop talking about bodies please? I’m sick of hearing about them all the time. It’s stressful, you feel guilty for hating your body for one day, like you aren’t allowed to feel bloated or gross or sick. But you know, it’s OK to be in the murky middle and say ‘I’m alright. I don’t have to have unconditional love all the time.’ I think loving your body is a great message but sometimes it’s OK if you don’t love it all the time.

BB: Not loving your body has become another way to fail. I really like this piece from Sally McGraw, who talks about it as more of a gentle acceptance rather than an all-out love. You mentioned that feeling you had when you were young – when you didn’t think about your body, it was something that did things, was an amazing transport system and not something to categorize into how it looked. It’s sad we lose that.

KS: And we forget about the amazing things bodies do. We’re only worried about the outside and as bulimics we know it hurts our bodies.

BB: So back to the good/bad food concept. Did you read this story by another FAB, Patricia Moreno? She believes that focusing so heavily on bad foods gives them more energy, and ultimately weight, in our bodies.

KS. There’s another book called Mindful Eating. It essentially talks about all the ways we live to eat and not eat to live. When you’re hungry you put food in your mouth. I was joking to my friends that’s my new diet, eating when I’m hungry and stopping when I’m full. For a long time I never understood the concept of appetite and being hungry. I guess I ate for reasons other than hunger and never got that concept. It seems silly, but I get excited when I am really hungry. Reminds me that it is OK to eat and this is how “normal” people eat. It’s not always easy but I’ve finally got it down and I don’t have to think about it. Sometimes there’s food on my plate and I don’t want it. Or I finish food and I didn’t even think about it. No. Big. Deal. I don’t want to be a stick and I may never be the goal weight I want to be but I’d rather be happy and free of this on a daily basis than kill myself for six months to a year to hit that number on a scale.

BB: It’s funny that normal can be such a satisfying goal to reach but it is.

KW: The last time I binged and purged was the Christmas before 2010. A year later I went to Hawaii with a friend, and it was so liberating and laid back. I kind of had an epiphany where I thought, ‘I’ve got this’ When I was there I got a big lotus picture tattooed on my arm, the one in the photo. My one year anniversary. The Buddhist story of the lotus is about going through the mud to bloom into something beautiful (the struggle); it’s my constant reminder about where I’ve come from and conquered.

I have had one or two times since then where I was so stressed that I wanted to, but I don’t go to food in that kind of way anymore, like a resource. I still love my ice-cream when I’m stressed. I actually had a nice big bowl of ice-cream before this talk. Not even for stress, I thought ‘I want this, I’m eating this. I don’t care.’

You know five years ago I would have had another bowl and maybe sneak a few more bites, and then sneak upstairs and get rid of it.

BB: How do you feel about the messages your nieces are getting?

KS: They are being inundated with images, and I see teen patients where I work and they grow up so much faster than we did. They appear so much older and are so aware of their looks. I am so very appreciative of my innocence – I was pretty much a naïve dorky lil’ kid until I was 15 or 16. In this case, ignorance was the best bliss.

I think women hold a higher standard for ourselves whereas we would say to our friends, “Girl, you look great, you’re not fat, you’re fine,” but when it comes to talking about our own selves, it doesn’t matter. We would never let our friends do this to themselves or talk to themselves like we talk do. It’s crazy that we don’t hold ourselves in the same regard as our friends.

BB: What a great note to end on. Thank you so much Katie for sharing your story.
Want more? Barfbag came OUT on national radio in New Zealand last month. Our friend (and FAB) Nicole over at mybodyboop shares a little story about it.

Psst: If any of you feel like supporting these amazing brave FABs then please leave a comment, or share. Or like the story over on our Facebook page. Thank you for reading.