We have all been there. We have all had an experience that changed us forever.
I remember it like it was yesterday. The day was October 1st, 1999. It was my cousin’s birthday and everyone was gathered together to celebrate and spend time together - something we used to do a lot when I was growing up. Everyone was gathered in the family room for cake and I was helping hand out slices to be sure everyone got a piece. After handing out the last one, I went in to grab a piece for myself. And as quickly as I grabbed it, I heard a voice, a voice that would change my life forever. “Of course you would grab the biggest piece of cake,” one of my relatives bellowed from the corner of the room, glaring at me like I had just got caught stealing. Confused, I stood still in my tracks and looked at her. And then she repeated herself, “Of course you would grab the biggest piece of cake”.
These words cut through me like the knife I had just used to cut through the cake. “Of course you would grab the biggest piece of cake.” These words imprinted on me and I was no longer the same. I was no longer a free-spirited kid blind to the societal pressures and ideals lurking around the corner. The veil had been lifted and I was now a part of a culture filled with self doubt, pain and loneliness.
I looked down at my body, confused and fearful and the first thing I remember thinking was, "Am I fat?" At the time, I was just 11 years old so I didn’t have the insight I have now to understand there were likely a multitude of reasons she said what she said. All I could see was that A must lead to B and so, the only logical answer was that I was fat. My heart sank. My head rushed with thoughts. “What do I do now?...What do others think of me?...How am I ever going to find a boyfriend?...Am I the fat friend?” The sounds of laughter and joy from the living room had all been drowned out and I remember for the first time, feeling a deep isolation and sadness that I unknowingly would carry with me for years.
From that day on, I started noticing not only my body, but how my body compared to others. I noticed the flat stomachs my friends had that I began to long for. I watched my cousins play sports without breaking a sweat whereas I could barely make it 5 minutes in my soccer game without needing a sub. I started to hate shopping because all of my friends were wearing sizes 3 and 5 whereas I was wearing sizes 7 and 9. Magazines, music videos, movies, etc were no longer forms of entertainment but became the barometer within which beauty lied and I was determined to figure out a way to fit in. This one event set off a cascade of events that led me straight into the arms of one of the most abusive partners one could have - my eating disorder, or as she so fondly became know, ED. One comment. A few seconds. That was all it took.
Now it is important to note, I am not blaming my relative for my eating disorder. Not only do I refuse to give her that much power in my life but I now understand how the feelings I had, the loneliness I felt, were not because of her comment but by what was waiting behind her comment - a society with completely fucked up ideals and values. No matter what, her comment was terrible. Even now, understanding A does not mean B and being able to surround this experience with knowledge and empathy, there was nothing well-intentioned about it. The problem is, I don’t think she would even remember saying that. I doubt she has any idea how her words affected me. And i don’t think she would even understand why what she said would hurt me so much.
As I said, we have all been there. We have all had something change us in ways we couldn’t have possibly imagined - both good and bad. The problem is, once we have these experiences, we no longer have the option of life the way it was before. Better or worse, this is the life we have now and we must learn how to respond to it.
This is still something I have to work on daily. Even as a mental health professional, helping clients every day break away from the chains of their past, I still oftentimes find myself shackled. Like the screams of a dying animal, I still hear these words loudly and clearly - often played on replay as they have become one of ED's favorite songs, playing it in the hopes of luring me back into her arms. This is why I fight. This is why I keep pushing into every inch of my discomfort to be bold and say the things no one wants to say and call out a culture we tout as superior and forward-thinking that is riddled with oppression and “otheredness”. We deserve a world where kids can be kids and grabbing the biggest piece of cake doesn’t change their lives forever but is simply a big piece of cake and a possible stomach ache later. Change can happen, but I need you to stand up too. We may not be able to protect everyone or stop every cascade but we can bring light to as many cracks and holes as possible and hold out our hand in the hopes of creating connection where it is needed most.
Want to know the weirdest thing? I never ended up eating the cake. And I don’t even think she noticed.