During junior year of high school, I was a “vegetarian”. The word vegetarian certainly carries a lot of weight for me. I (as many people can relate to) hated the way my body looked. The only solution to the problem of my body seemed clear to me; I needed to diet. To avoid suspicion from those around me, I had made it clear that my intentions were to go vegetarian, and so no one questioned when I ate only chocolate flavored protein shakes on sparse occasions.
An important note must be made of the chocolate protein shakes, they tasted disgusting. They had a very chalky taste, as if this drink was meant to be dry but had somehow melted into this indigestible soup. It was very difficult to drink all of it in one sitting, as if it was a battle every time you opened the cap to it. How those obsessed with the gym and all things working out will drink these beverages on the daily will forever be lost on me. I could at least ration that I needed to drink them to stay alive, but if things were different, I would have avoided them like the plague. So, my junior year of high school was filled with memories of chalky aftertaste and consistent headaches.
There was a rather large factor that went into why I had pushed myself so far into dieting, a conclusion that I did not just reach on my own, and that was because of a boy I liked. We had almost every single class together, and with it being a small-town high school, it was impossible to avoid certain people. He was thin and lean, played on the varsity soccer team, and was generally loved by everyone (he was my polar opposite in almost every sense of the word, everything I ever wanted to be growing up). It was a classic queer coming-of-age story: boy one likes boy two, boy two doesn’t like boy one, and so boy one waits for the day that boy two will change his mind, but boy two will never change his mind because he does not have the same accepting family boy one does, and so boy one waits for a day that will never come.
Just like every relationship, there were nicknames given. He called me “big mike” and I called him by his name. I liked a boy that would constantly remind me of my own weight, to make me feel shame about my body for his own personal enjoyment. I hated that name he had given me, and yet, I loved so much the attention I got from it, the way he was finally noticing me, how this felt like the smallest of victories in an unwinnable war. I still physically cringe when someone calls me “mike”, as if I’m hearing it through his voice all these years later. It was this nickname that was the final push for dieting, figuring that if I could look more like him, then he would change my mind and see me as beautiful. I did all that I did so I could lose the “big” associated with my name, and for quite some time after this I survived on only drinking the chocolate protein shakes, punishing myself for the reward of someday being noticed positively by a boy that would never have feelings for me.
During this time of dieting, my weight would yo-yo back and forth, gaining several pounds one week, losing several pounds the next. I remember talking to a friend recently, and how he described wrestling in high school. He was forced to binge eat and diet every few weeks just to be able to play for the team. The rules around weight classes in wrestling were very harmful for young boys, requiring their weight to yo-yo the same way mine had. I often wonder today what could be so alluring about this, why go through all this pain for the sport, and I realize that the same way he liked wrestling I had liked this boy, and there would be no obstacle that couldn’t be overcome when chasing this goal. I wish someone had checked in on me, a parent or a friend, who noticed what I was doing to my body, and helped me in getting better, but no one was there for me, and I realize most people don’t have anyone there for them; either the boy who starves and binges to wrestle for a high school team or the boy who diets for a crush, masculine food insecurity is rarely acknowledged in a toxically masculine world.
The time to leave for college had finally arrived, and I had slowly gotten better with my food insecurity (the reason for this being multiple, because it would be too simple if there was only one universal cure: I had seen the boy I liked less and less and so I stopped hearing “big mike” as an everyday occurrence, I had grown more comfortable with my queer identity and this made me more comfortable in the body I occupy, and my mother had finally sat with me and explained how she was worried for me. These are only three reasons in a multitude of factors of learning self-love, and even though these helped me, the simple truth is that they are not universal applications of healing, and everyone must eventually find their own terms to settle on). I still struggled with food and my weight, like there will always be a voice in the back of my mind (a voice of self-hatred and fear), but at least I have learned ways to keep this voice as quiet as possible, where it is now an echo of what it once was.
Over this first year of college, I learned that my little sister, a freshman in high school, had been diagnosed with an eating disorder and was currently in the hospital. I did what every older sibling does when something like this appears, I sobbed and wept and tried to reach out to her. I was over two hours away from home, not the farthest distance away, but I didn’t have a car to get home, and with all the stress back home, no one had the time to come pick me up so I could be there for my sister. I didn’t know what to do in this situation, there aren’t many rulebooks that tell you exactly how to be there for someone in this situation. The same food insecurities I struggled with she was now facing, and it felt like the same self-love I gave to myself could be applied to her situation. And so, I would call her constantly, doing the best I could offer was often just being a person who listens to her.
At the same time this was happening, the world was struck with the Covid-19 pandemic, another obstacle on the journey of recovery. As quickly as the first year of college began for it, it had ended. I was sent home, like the rest of the world, over spring break to begin lockdown procedures. When I got home, I immediately went to find my sister, to hug her and hold her and try to comfort her, but she was not home. Right before the lockdown began, she had been admitted to a psych ward to help treat her mental health and eating disorder. I wasn’t told about this until the drive home, with just my father and I in the car, as he described the whole situation that I had been absent from. I wished so badly that I could have been home during that year, that if I was there then maybe I could have helped her, and seen the signs of her struggling, and let her know that there is a way out of all this struggling but often it just takes time; however, I couldn’t do any of this because I was not present in my families lives while off at college.
When I get home, I go to my family’s fridge to find something to eat for lunch, and that’s when I notice something that makes my heart drop. The same chocolate protein shakes that I survived on my junior year of high school stacked in the fridge door, staring me down. Asking who’s they were, I learnt that they were my sisters, that they were practically the only thing she would eat at this point. All the thoughts come flooding in, the hindsight thoughts, the thoughts of “if only I was here, I could have noticed the signs, I could have helped her get through this”, and I wonder what my parents think about this pattern, if they recognize how I once gravitated towards these chocolate protein shakes, whether they gave her proper medical attention so she could be helped by professionals, and finally, I begin to blame myself; if only I was there home and there for her, and what if I was the one that taught her this behavior in the first placed, was this something she had learned from watching me? These thoughts terrify me. There was nothing I could do with these questions, who would listen to this chaotic, rambling ranting?
I figure the only thing I can do, rather than blaming myself for not being there in the past, is to be as present as possible in the present. Every person’s relationship with their body is different, and I can’t just give her a solution to learning to love her body, but what I can do is be present. I rarely open up to family about these personal issues (and most people agree that family is often the hardest people to be vulnerable with) but if I begin to break down those barriers of my life, then hopefully I can begin by showing those around me that I can empathize with them, and that I am there for them, offering a person that cares for them when that was all I ever seemed to want when I had struggled.