The Truth Teller
Nina is beautiful inside and out. She’s a musician and plays the flute. She’s an amazing Mama, with three of her own and one adopted because she’s got that kind of heart. And she makes gob-smackingly good cakes.
We nearly met at her son’s birthday party in 2013. Weirdly I was early, which is unheard of, so we never actually met in person as Nina isn’t the kind of woman who waits in her living room an hour before the party begins to greet annoying early guests. Her husband kindly suggested my son come back once the balloons were blown up. What’s weirder than me being early but never meeting is that three years later, once I was back in New Zealand, Nina and I found out via the Interweb we have one big thing in common. Yep. We both like wearing bright lipstick. And then there’s that other thing: bulimia.
Nina’s story is such an important read. Not only because she battled, like everyone on this site, but because she talks so openly about fat shaming. If we see an anorexic girl, as Nina reminds us, “People are concerned and worried for her but you don’t see that for people who are heavy. People don’t worry, they make jokes or say you’re disgusting.” She has a good point. We have empathy for the dangerously thin, we have none for the dangerously large. We view people as lazy.
“You can’t shame people into healing their pain and loving themselves,” says Nina. Which is about the wisest thing I’ve heard recently.
Here she is.
What was your relationship like with your body when you were young?
I can never think of a time when I didn’t feel awkward about my body. I spent a lot of time being, what I felt, was the chubby kid and now I look back and think really? Some people in my family were particularly mindful of my weight and they were trying to be helpful saying things to me, asking if I should be eating that or really be having a second helping. They were well meaning but as a kid I took it as critique.
I never really knew what was the right thing to do with food because I was both encouraged to eat less while simultaneously encouraged to eat at some celebration or family event. This confused me for as long as I can remember, as far back as kindergarten.
Did you have brothers or sisters who were being told what to eat and not eat?
I have an older bother, there’s sixteen months between us. And we have two younger brothers who both have autism. I read somewhere how disorders are all related to each other on a spectrum, and that autism has food related problems. My two young brothers binge eat. One will eat until he pukes, and we have to be careful not leaving food out. It’s interesting to me that food issues play a part in the disorders of all of us.
What was your Mom’s relationship with her body like?
She was the typical mom growing up, always saying, “I’m fat” and “I’m going to go on a diet.” Everyone’s mom was like that. The usual American woman thinking I need to lose weight. It didn’t bother me then but it bothers me now.
Why does it bother you now?
It bothers me now because I want better for her. Feeling okay with yourself starts from inside and I wish I could just make that happen for her. I sometimes feel like her feelings about herself project concerns for me that don’t apply anymore. I understand her past concerns but it’s hard for me to make her understand that I’ve got this.
So when did the trouble begin, did you go on a diet?
I ended up chubby as a pre-adolescent and a lot of that was the way we ate – unhealthy, cheap food.. I started getting teased in middle school, which is the worst time of your life anyway, and it started to really hurt.
I don’t remember trying to go on a diet. After eating McDonald’s and feeling disappointed in myself and depressed I went into the bathroom and made myself puke. I felt better. All those pent up feelings went away. It went right to disordered eating, straight for the jugular!
How did you feel about making yourself sick?
I was like well, as long as nobody knows and I don’t do it again then I guess I’m alright. I was 13. Of course it was all to easy to do it again. I was scared that I was letting myself do it.
It wasn’t happening a whole lot at first. Then I went through a phase of being bullied and moved schools, but the teasing continues wherever you are. I couldn’t do anything about bullies but I could try to make myself less of a target. I just decided that I wasn’t going to eat. For maybe about six months I wasn’t eating a whole lot and I got really skinny.
Then people started noticing and commenting on my shrinking body. Looking back now, I’m sure everybody knew what I was doing. You know – a moody adolescent girl behaving weird around food. As if they don’t know what that is!
Did you get attention for the skinny-ness?
I wanted to lose weight to be invisible to bullies. I didn’t anticipate the flip side of that coin. I didn’t want attention positive or negative. I got compliments with people saying, “you look so good.” I knew I wasn’t being healthy so I felt bad. I was pretending everything was fine.
Were you fine?
I remember feeling like shit at the time. I did not feel good and my friends were worried about me. I met my husband during that time. He would always express concern for me, and try to get me to eat and talk to me about it.
Did your (not quite husband) ever say anything to you about what you were doing?
My (not yet) husband and I became good friends during the roughest part of my eating disorder. He didn’t compliment my weight but he didn’t critique either. He was very genuine in a way that no one else was. He was very caring. He talked to me, not at me. He said at one stage, “This is stupid and dangerous. You have to eat,” and I thought I want to keep this person in my life. I can’t let this push them away.
It was clear how much he truly cared and he was right. It didn’t make sense but emotions rarely make sense. So I started eating more and I managed to control it enough that people weren’t worried about me anymore. I could pass as ‘normal’. I would try to eat normally in front of people and still throw up once a week. It never went away it just got quieter for awhile. The bulimia became a way to cope with life, emotionally. I would be doing fine but then I’d be faced with stress or anxiety and it made me feel better. It was my way of coping.
Sounds like your husband was terrific.
I feel like my husband, literally, saved my life. He is my hero. I’m so thankful he was round then. It never caused problems in our relationship. He just stood by me as I worked it out and had patience for me. We got married when I was 19.
When I got pregnant with my first child I remember being terrified – not because I was going to give birth but a person was growing in my body and I had to figure out how to be functional. You can’t binge and purge when you’re pregnant.
In pregnancy we have no way of knowing if it’s our crackpot disorder or the baby who wants to pig out on pizza right? It’s confusing.
Yeah. And we don’t know how to listen to our bodies. I never wanted any of my issues with my body or food to impact my daughter’s life, even before she was born. I didn’t know what to do other than just eat. So I got fat. My first pregnancy is the only one I never purged. I gained 80 pounds. When you get fat while pregnant everyone says, “don’t worry, when you breastfeed it will come off”.
When she was born I had issues with breastfeeding and I couldn’t produce enough milk. It was devastating. Being a young mom, I felt like such a failure. I was angry and disappointed and managed those feelings the way I knew how.
Us bulimics are good at punishing ourselves huh?
I would never be OK with anyone treating themselves the way I used to treat myself. At the time, I would never say I was punishing myself because it sounds so self indulgent but it was something I couldn’t stop. I was trying to figure things out and it grew into this monster.
How bad was your monster?
Over the course of the next four-five years it grew very out of control. We adopted a child when our daughter was two years old, and I had my next pregnancy two years later. It got easier to purge with each pregnancy and I was terrified by my growing inability to control it. It only got worse. I ended up abusing laxatives which was something I had always thought only crazy people did. That was a boundary I thought I’d never cross. At my very worst I took 75-100 laxatives at one time, getting up in the middle of the night violently ill because I was more than my body could handle.
Were you hiding it from your family then?
I hid it from everyone except my husband. I tried hiding it from him at first but I can’t keep things from him. I need him.
Did you hit rock bottom?
I started having pain my joints and I was so miserable. I developed a B12 deficiency and things with my body started getting really wonky. I got so crippled I could barely get out of bed, button clothes or sleep. I was having an inflammation response that was really painful and scary. I was diagnosed with Psoriatic Arthritis. It probably would have been an issue in my life at some time but the bulimia was destroying my body and I think it brought it on sooner and more intensely.
And how did you cope?
I knew I needed help. I started going to therapy then seeing a behavioral health doctor. I participated in a support group and at saw a nutritionist. It was a really long and difficult road and many times along the way I thought I’d never get there. One step forward, two steps back. I got in my own way so many times. It was hard for me to focus on myself with 4 little ones. I had to do it a tiny bit at a time.
That’s a shit load to deal with.
I got to the point where I hit a wall about a year and a half ago. I thought I had gone as far as I could. I was back in that place of “normal enough.” You can’t magically be normal about food if you are still allowing your disorder to quietly call the shots in the back of your mind. I wasn’t purging very often but it was still happening at times. I didn’t believe I could be completely better.
The studio my son does karate at also does fitness. They have a 12 week course which includes intense workouts five mornings a week and an outline for healthier dietary choices. I saw it on their board one day while watching my son and I thought ‘fuck it, I’m doing this.’ I needed something with structure and support. Having a concrete timeline was perfect. I thought I could be brave. It’s only 3 months. It was literally one day at a time. Everything I had been working on started to come together and I lost weight.
Awesome! How do you feel now?
I feel in charge of my body. I feel like with every good food choice, with every time I say no to trigger foods, with every step I run, every workout I complete, I’m stronger and my eating disorder dies away. It’s a healthy outlet. It’s tricky for us bulimics – anyone who’s struggled with an eating disorder knows we have to be so careful about monitoring our food and bodies especially while losing weight.
We’re like dogs, we have to be exercised every day or so to stay sane.
Exercise burns off the crazy, pent up anxiety– exercise has helped me feel like a whole person.
How have people responded to all that change with you?
I live in a small town. It’s been a really interesting and a weird experience. I have to accept that I get a lot of acknowledgement about losing the weight. Most people are so kind but not everyone knows how to give a compliment. I will come home and say to my husband, “I can’t believe what this bitch said to me…”
Like, “You look So Much Better”
Or somebody said to me husband “Nina’s a keeper now”
He’s so sweet, he was like, “she’s always been a keeper”
I have to not let it hurt me if it’s not said the right way but I’ve gotten to where I just laugh about it. “You look so much better now” is a running joke in my house.
What’s the best line someone’s said to you about losing weight?
My friend, Annie, told me how beautiful I look and she said it’s because I am glowing and I seem very happy in my skin. She was able to perceive the change in me that had nothing to do with what my body looked. She could tell I was happy.
I feel happy now. I just ran my first 10km. When I ran over the finish line I totally teared up. It was a very powerful moment for me. Nobody knows how far I’ve come.
What would you say to 12-year-old Nina if you could?
I don’t think I could have said anything that would have changed it. It would probably fall on deaf ears but I would tell myself to be gentle, and not just with my body but gentle with my heart, with my soul and with my brain.
I had to be able to have this experience to grow. And it did unfortunately take a long time but it was an experience I had to go through. Every person has something and this just happens to be mine. People who drink or people who smoke or people who have unhealthy relationships. Everyone has to learn how to become and adult and overcome their baggage. You can’t have growth without pain and struggle. It doesn’t come easy no matter what it is.
I am so grateful I had enough of an open mind that I was willing to try things and not get stuck. Some people repeat cycles and never learn. Thankfully I’ve had enough dedicated and patient people in my life to help me.
What made you want to share your story?
Bulimics don’t talk about being bulimic. I love your blog because it opens it up. There are so many more people who deal with it than are willing to say it out loud.
And being a fat bulimic?! Forget it! It’s still socially acceptable to judge and shame fat people. That’s shame on top of shame. I feel like if somebody is obese then there are underlying issues. I am sure it’s not the case for all but I’m willing to bet it’s the case for most.
You wear your problems on your body when you’re heavy. You’re walking around with your vulnerability right there for all to see.
That’s so true. We have concern for too skinny but not too fat.
If you see a girl who is anorexic, people are concerned and worried for her. But you don’t see that for people who are heavy. People don’t worry, they make jokes or say you’re disgusting. There isn’t any empathy or concern for that person’s well being. People are just viewed as lazy and indulgent. We say fat people do it to themselves. Well anorexics to it to themselves too. You can’t shame people in to healing their pain and loving themselves.
It’s a big problem. People are shamed into not speaking up or asking for help. We need to be supportive of each other.
That’s so true. And it just adds to the fear and shame of fat, which feeds the cycle. I am so glad you shared your story. You are one fucking awesome woman. Can you tell me three things you like about your appearance?
Normally I would have nothing good to say about anything but my face. While the number one thing I like about my appearance is my face I am happy to say I can now add my arms and legs to that list because they not only feel strong but they are looking pretty strong too.
Want more? Taryn’s Brumfitt’s documentary, Embrace, is out now. Embrace uncovers why poor body image is a global epidemic. Funny, and sometimes gut wrenching, its a true story of how Taryn went from a body hater to a body lover (and posing nude for the whole world to see).
And a former Victoria Secret’s retoucher reveals the dirt and secrets behind bikini shoots.