The verb “consume” has many meanings. Eat, drink, or ingest (food or drink) — synonymous with devour, swallow, gobble. (Especially a ﬁre) to completely destroy — the fire spread rapidly, consuming everything in its path. (To use up) a resource — electric vehicles consume less energy than the traditional gasoline engine. (Of a feeling) absorb all of the attention and energy of (someone) — she found herself consumed with love. Late Middle English: from Latin consumere, from con ‘altogether’ and sumere ‘take up.’
My body is an all-consuming entity. I monitored the food I consumed as my thoughts consumed every semblance of tranquility in my mind, consuming the energy I spent thinking, dreaming, hoping, living, consuming me with guilt and sadness and shame.
The first time my body became something actively consuming was towards the end of eighth grade. The girls in my friend group began playing a game I never quite saw the point of but would wait in earnest anticipation for the results: Who do you think the top ﬁve prettiest girls in the grade are? I wasn’t often on everyone’s list. But when I did make an appearance, it thrilled me to my very core. My body, my face, and everything beyond my control were evaluated more than my intelligence or humor or personality, yet it held so much more weight. Funny, we began to reduce our worth to two dimensions all on our own, doing nothing but damage no matter the result. Fourth-grade girls can be ruthless, but fourteen-year-olds are worse. In hindsight, I wonder whether that’s innate. I wonder whether it’ll get better in generations to come as we lose sight of the narratives that it’s a girl-eat-girl world. In 2015, however, that ideal wasn’t especially prevalent. Towards the end of the year, there was a book and movie that swept my grade and ended up having an inexplicably large influence on my body. Another piece that became all-consuming.
The Designated Ugly Fat Friend (The DUFF) by Kody Keplinger.
The book, on its own, was a powerful commentary on the nuances of high school popularity, body image, and pretty privilege. What the word “fat” begins to morph into when you hit teenage years. The meticulous scrutiny with which girls begin to examine themselves. The story follows seventeen-year-old Bianca Piper, who gets casually referred to as the “DUFF” of her friend group by a popular school jock and the emotional rollercoaster that follows. It ends with everything prettily wrapped up in a bow: she gets the guy, her self-esteem is intact, and she realizes true beauty is on the inside.
Real life, unfortunately, is not like that.
The moral of the story flew over everyone’s heads. “Who do you think the DUFF of our friend group is?”
“Hahaha, Alekhya, it’s probably you.”
All consuming. Shame, discomfort, a profound feeling of sadness and ineptitude.
It’s just a joke. Body dysmorphia.
The DUFF became a normalized part of our social interactions. “Alekhya, I look kind of ugly, can you join this photo so I look cuter?” Laughter from everyone, including me, even though I felt like a piece of thin glass that was lightly hammered, cracks spidering across dangerously, ready to shatter. Each laugh felt physically painful. What was this thing I was trapped in? What was this horrible prison of sexualization and repulsion packaged into one that I was forced to exist in and look through?
Crying in the bathroom, staring into the mirror so deeply I could trace every pore on my nose with my eyes closed. Glaring asymmetry. I began to lose sight of what I looked like, disassociating from reality and watching a stranger watch me with wide, sunken eyes.
It was just a joke it’s not a big deal don’t be a snitch.
My history class decided to film a movie for our final project. There was a screening. I played Susan B. Anthony in a modern-day rendition of the suffrage movement. I loved the role. Watching the movie play on the screen for my class, however, made me cringe. The white formal shirt I’d worn and tucked into a pair of pants was too big for me. The camera angle was unflattering. I looked unattractive.
“Wow, Alekhya, you look so fat here,” a friend of mine laughed. I joined in, embarrassed.
A few other people who heard laughed as well.
“Yeah, haha, weird angle,” I murmured. I wished the ground would swallow me whole.
Encouraged by the laughter, she proceeded to hit a final blow unknowingly. “Like
seriously,” she said between giggles. “I would starve myself to death if I looked like you.” I politely excused myself and headed to the bathroom.
That was the first time I forced myself to throw up.
I eventually left the school but took with it this new habit I’d picked up. I learned that I did not want to be the DUFF of any group. I wanted to be skinny. I wanted so desperately to be pretty enough. To not be made fun of or talked about or ostracized.
The Pretty Little Liars series was huge when I was in the ninth grade, its revitalized interest attributed to the wrapping up of their final season. Hanna Marin, one of the protagonists, had a fascinating plotline: a former fat kid who managed to redesign her entire identity by purging over the summer between her freshman and sophomore years of high school. She became the popular, pretty girl.
To me, it was aspirational.
What a great life hack this seemed to be. I could enjoy the taste of food without any of the side effects of eating it. I quickly figured out which foods made me feel sick the quickest. How to come up with convincing alibis to leave the table. How not to draw attention to what I was doing.
All consuming. Ironic, because I was trying to consume as little as I possibly could. The very thing I was avoiding was eating me up on the inside instead.
Two and a half years. That’s how long I worked tirelessly, hunched over a toilet at home, at a fast-food restaurant, at school, in a mall. The siren song of success as I heard my stomach rumble, vibrating to my very core.
Hair loss. Irregular periods. Mood swings. Brain fog. Constant hunger. At least I was getting skinnier. That was the goal, wasn’t it? That I’d finally be happy at the end of all of this?
I started going to the gym a little more. It felt almost shameful. Obsessively used the standalone cycle until my heart rate went over a certain number. Until the “calories burned” section on the blinking screen read only a number my eating disorder was satisfied with.
A few months into my quest for physical success, I opened my email to look through that day’s Teen Vogue piece. I read each one religiously. The association with pop culture and popularity was never too far off, right?
Demi Lovato Reveals the Heartbreaking Reason She Expected to Die Young “I didn’t
think I would make it to 21.”
I felt my heart rate speed up as I skimmed the article. I didn’t even know what an eating disorder was. But it sounded scarily familiar.
“What eating disorder did Demi Lovato have?” my Google Search question read.
“What is Bulimia?”
noun. an eating disorder characterized by regular, often secretive bouts of overeating followed by self-induced vomiting or purging, strict dieting, or extreme exercise, associated with persistent and excessive concern with body weight.
“What are the harmful eﬀects of Bulimia?”
Like all eating disorders, bulimia is a serious illness. It can permanently damage your body and can even be deadly. Bulimia nervosa is a potentially life-threatening eating disorder with severe long-term physical and mental side effects.
Only months into my eating disorder did I find out I even had one.
I couldn’t get what I’d read out of my mind. I knew this was worse than I could possibly imagine. The detrimental harm I was doing to my body. There was a newly created line that broke my stomach into two halves: the part of my body that bent every time I crouched in front of a toilet as if in prayer. It spread itself across my abdomen like a faultline taunting me with the proof of my self-destruction. I found that I hated my body even more.
I only recognized how imperative it was for me to stop when I became unable to do so. I stopped being able to consume anything without it instantly washing back up. Reflux and regurgitation hit me at different periods during the day: at school, at home, with my friends.
I still couldn’t stop.
I confided in two friends. They sympathized but visibly didn’t understand. I wasn’t sure I did, either.
I was scared. Felt guilty. Felt so deeply ashamed.
Months later, I won a “special mention” in a large model UN committee I’d just participated in. The boys from my school who had been there when I won the award informed me that they thought I had most certainly “flirted my way into the win.” While this was obviously an offensive thing to say for many reasons (and blatantly untrue), the very fact that they thought I’d have even been capable of a win via flirting rendered me speechless. I’d lost the ability to evaluate the way I was perceived by people. How pretty I was or wasn’t. In my head, I never stopped being a DUFF.
My best friend had come home as I chattered away about my accomplishment. She kept exchanging conspiratorial looks with my little sister.
“We need to talk to you, Aunty,” my friend said to my mom, who was sitting on our living room couch. “Without Alekhya.” They had shy smiles on their faces.
I smiled. A surprise. Christmas was coming up. How cute.
I couldn’t stop the smile from splitting across my face. “What are you guys planning?” I asked. “Should I leave?”
I stood up.
“Alekhya throws up her food,” she blurted. The next minute played out in slow motion.
I felt my heart sink to my stomach. I could faintly register that there was a conversation happening around me, but my ears were ringing loud enough to drown everything else. My mom was yelling at me. I felt tears stream down my face.
“HOW COULD YOU?” I asked, sobs wracking through my body. The betrayal stung like a million cuts, lodged in my throat, and suffocating me.
“I always thought you were smarter than this, Alekhya,” my mom yelled. “How could you be so stupid and superﬁcial? How could you care about such stupid things? What’s wrong with you?”
Shame Guilt Sadness Anger Betrayal Humiliation Frustration Ineptitude.
My dad pulling me aside to talk to me; softer, but the same message. “You’re smarter than this. What were you thinking?”
I don’t know I don’t know I don’t know. I was now ugly and fat and stupid.
The next few weeks felt like hell. Suspicion, snide comments, yelling, violent disappointment in my stupidity. Monitoring when I went to the bathroom. An abject lack of understanding. A deep-rooted sorrow blossomed across my heart, seeping into every part of my body. I anxiously swallowed food, crying when I lost my coping mechanism. Abrupt, shameful cold turkey. Multiple members in the family talking to me.
Finding out the gossip had spread across the aunties in my apartment complex.
Alekhya has an eating disorder. So much shame.
“You don’t need therapy. It’s a waste of time. Anything that’s wrong, we can solve as a family.”
Doctor’s appointments. Endoscopies. “Does she have serious gastrointestinal issues?” Numb. Embarrassed. Disappointed. Ashamed.
I found ways to sneak in a few sessions from time to time, at random intervals. Used a public bathroom. The feelings didn’t disappear. I felt more unattractive and alone than ever. Somewhere, somehow, I believed I had lost an infinite amount of control and was left exposed and vulnerable, naked, without this shameful, horrible habit that no one seemed to understand at all.
What a strange thing it was to be an insecure teenage girl, convinced of your isolation when your turbulence is possibly the most relatable experience you could have.
Midway through my Sophomore year of high school, I announced to my friend over the phone: “I think I need to go to therapy.”
“Why don’t you?” he responded.
“My parents won’t let me,” I said. (It was true; the subject matter had been met with “you’re not crazy,” “what do you need it for,” and “therapy isn’t really a solution, Alekhya; it’s not in a therapist’s best interest to lose you as a customer. It’s not like a doctor, where they can tell you exactly what your ailment is and how to fix it and it’ll go away. It’ll be useless to try. We’re here to help.”)
“So what then?”
“I found this website,” I informed him. “Online therapy. I think it’ll be great. It’s like peer-to-peer counseling.”
I discovered 7 Cups of Tea when I was desperately combing the internet for avenues to work on my issues. I realized that not throwing up did not mean not actively thinking about my weight, looking at my stomach in the mirror, and knowing exactly which places I would snip off if I had the right scissors. Sucking in my cheeks and feeling the crushing guilt of enjoying a dessert. An all-consuming sense of inadequacy.
7 Cups is an online platform that provides counseling and therapy. The site connects
users to “listeners”, who have been trained in active listening, via anonymous text or voice chats. The site features distinct groups for adolescent minors and adults over the age of eighteen. Need Someone to Talk to? Our Counselors and Listeners Are Standing By.
Except I did something that would change my life forever. I just didn’t know it yet. I signed up as a listener.
After a brief training session and quiz, I had the stamp of approval: I could talk to other people about their issues with eating disorders and weight management. And in some convoluted way, I felt like that would help me.
Around 3 months had passed since I had completely seized my binge and purge cycle. It felt odd – almost like a routine part of my day had been taken away from me.
I began to want to learn more about having an eating disorder. What it meant. How many people had it? Why it was never talked about. Why had it taken me so long to even recognize I had one, to begin with?
Being a listener helped. I found that the thing I needed most was to be heard and felt and seen and understood because I’d felt so perpetually stupid for doing what I did and caring so much about something so stupid and superﬁcial. I wanted to know I wasn’t alone.
“No, you’re not crazy,” I wrote. “Having an eating disorder means you have a complicated relationship with food. Why don’t you try finding other avenues for positive reinforcement? Maybe use post-its and write down everything you think is good about yourself that has nothing to do with your appearance?”
Words I needed to hear. My own advice. I had ideas when I needed to help everyone but myself, and then I found ways to integrate them into my life.
The post-its worked well. It felt silly, so I kept it a secret. But I read it every morning and changed it every week.
I love that I’m always smiling.
I love my conﬁdence.
I love my ability to become friends with anyone. I love that I’m a good writer.
I love that I’m always willing to learn new things.
I began to wonder whether I was actually changing people’s lives; even incrementally, even marginally. It felt addictive. It made me feel good, knowing that I could help. Then the reviews came in, displayed like a trophy on my profile: five gold stars and “[Alekhya] has helped me so much, I feel better about myself. She’s great to talk to, and I appreciate how much she opened up to me, too.”
A month into my experience with 7Cups, I stopped throwing up.
I wasn’t the best listener, though. I was a talker. But that’s how I realized I had so much to say, so much to share. So much to try to change.
I knew I had the benefit of open vulnerability.
“I’m a therapist,” I reinformed my friend. He started laughing. “No way.”
“Remember that website? Yeah, I actually signed up as a therapist. By accident,” the last part was a lie — it made for a funnier story when I pretended it was a silly stumble. And I hadn’t meant to sign up as a listener, but I hadn’t backed out when I did, either. “There was this quiz and everything. And now I’m talking to other people about eating disorders. Isn’t that crazy? It’s been really cathartic, though. And now I’m realizing I want to talk about it more. I think there’s so much people don’t know. I didn’t know a lot, either. I bet you didn’t.”
“I think that’s a good idea,” he said, earnestly. “And I think this is great.”
We both found out a few months later that his little sister suffered from an eating disorder. A case of anorexia. I was a listener, but strangely, almost more importantly, a talker — I’d spent so much time in my own head trying to figure it out that I could finally find words to describe what I wasn’t able to when I was dealing with it.
“It’s so nice to know I’m not alone.”
“You’re not,” I promised her. “There are days I still feel like this, too. But I don’t have bulimia anymore. And that’s already a step.”
Because all of this meant I wasn’t alone, either. That this was bigger than me, and I was a part of it, and now had the opportunity to help ﬁx it.
I held a “positivity drive” towards the end of my sophomore year of high school. It was ultimately a relatively poorly executed event, but a fun one. I publicly talked about my experiences with bullying and eating disorders and body dysmorphia. I called upon other students to talk about their experiences with other rarely talked about issues – anxiety, depression, gender dysphoria, and neurodivergence. I organized self-esteem games and cliche “you’re not alone” speeches.
Within a week, seventeen girls texted me saying they had different variations of body dysmorphia and had never been able to talk about it before. Two boys.
Our bodies are all-consuming. What a funny thing to be trapped in, to fight against, to run and jump and play in, to love in, to hate.
In 2019, I started an Instagram page dedicated to eating disorders, body dysmorphia, and bullying awareness. It grew, by high school standards, relatively rapidly. I posted infographics and owned a rather drab website to publish articles and resources. It felt fulfilling. It was the graduated next step from 7Cups. I knew there were people who needed to know they weren’t alone.
I spoke to parents at an event I held about the best ways to communicate with their children if they had an eating disorder or were getting bullied. How to spot signs. How to respond with empathy. My parents had come a long way since their initial response to my eating disorder. They finally (kind of) understood it. They were trying to. And the parents in the audience asking questions and revealing to me that they thought their child had a disorder and didn’t know how to deal with it reiterated the need and importance for me to keep talking about my experiences to ensure people got the help they needed.
There was something self-fulfilling about working on body image as a whole rather than mine as an individual. By the time college rolled around, I’d become a passionate advocate for what I believed in. Recognizing people needed to hear my voice. But when I stood on the scale in my parents’ bedroom right after my first semester in college, I felt a sinking feeling in my stomach. I’d fallen prey to the notorious “Freshman 15.”
Being in college makes you painfully aware of the control you have over the meals you eat and don’t. It traps you in a chamber with people who echo each other, saying things like, “I’ve only eaten one meal all day” until it turns competitive. Until you’re stuck feeling like you’ve failed if you’ve indulged too much; like you have to give something else up to accommodate a treat.
I realized I had the benefit of cumulative knowledge. A platform and a voice. Realized I’d be a hypocrite for slipping into patterns I’d researched and learned from. I knew better than this. But all the knowledge in the world can’t save you from intrusive thoughts; from the quicksand that body dysmorphia can often suck you into. But I needed to pull myself up. Most people don’t even know they suffer from eating disorders. Most people are too trapped in stigma and shame to discuss what they’re dealing with; they need help and work and active attempts to understand an endemic that bleeds into so much more. Physical and mental health detriments become parasites to what’s swept 30 million Americans.
Eating disorders are, ironically, all-consuming.
I managed to find the light by surrounding myself with people who actively lifted me up. Focused on what I was good at: in school, in clubs, with hobbies. Started using post-its again to remind me of my worth. I am more than my appearance, my weight, and my numbers on a scale. My beauty is defined by so much more.
That for every pound I’d gained in college, I’d had a freshman “first.” Although I had been aware of the fact that my whole life had changed, it finally hit me that this was the first time in my life that I had been this independent. This was the first time that my parents weren’t checking up on my meals and how much I was eating, no one was watching over the (steadily dwindling) hours of sleep I got, and no one noticed the changes I had faced. I had just been thrown into an environment where I knew no one and had never lived on my own. There are emotional ups and downs. Seasonal depression. Drastic changes in social life. Intense workloads and pressure. Self-imposed budgets, deadlines, and rules. A totally different cuisine and style of meals than the ones I was used to back at home. Of course, I was going to have gained weight in the process. I had so much on my figurative plate that it was hard to keep something as irrelevant as food quantity control in mind.
I realized that I probably would never step back onto my weighing scale having lost the weight I’d gained in Freshman Year. That I might even gain more. But I realized if I can attribute a new wonderful experience for each pound, no matter how big or small, then that’s weight well worn.
Because there will always be changes in my life; changes which will impact my relationship with control and food. Turbulence I haven’t seen yet. Heartbreak and job searching and stress. I imagine that I’ll experience more complications with my body: pregnancy, growing old, wrinkles, weight changes. But the fact that this body with all its skin and fat and bones can go through this many changes and still be there for me is such a beautiful thought. That this body works with this mind to speak in front of you all today and share my story. To learn more about yours. To nourish it for all it does for me is a privilege.
What an honor it’ll be to live and laugh and grow old in my body. To wear those wrinkles and fine lines and stretch marks.
To really love my body — what an all-consuming feeling.