By Amanda Taylor, Unplug Founder
Edited by Lia James and Sarah Desouza
TW: mention of eating disorder, suicide, addiction
At my last doctor’s appointment before leaving school, the doctor told me “It’s okay if you don’t eat food, your body has enough fat to sustain you. Just drink Gatorade.”
This was the morning after I had been rushed to the hospital—in the middle of COVID-19, at that. I had been starving for the past few months (and loving myself for it), but my body had given out. My blood sugar and iron levels were so low that I couldn’t function. In the months before colleges closed, I would not eat unless my friends brought me food and ate with me. It’s important to note that at this point I’d been in eating disorder therapy twice a week, and simultaneously running The Unplug Collective, an anti-fatphobia and body positive social media platform. All this was leading people to believe that I am this strong, anti-fatphobia champion, without insecurities of my own and the solutions to everyone else’s. Not the case.
I’m addicted to the feeling of being hungry. This addiction has almost cost me my life many times. And the hardest part is that doctors and society want me to be hungry too.
Sometimes it feels like I’ll never be okay; my eating disorder is brutal. It’s life or death and doctors tend not to understand it when it doesn’t manifest on a skinny body. I live with atypical anorexia. It’s a lonely world to live in, one where you go to the doctor and they tell you to lose weight by any means necessary, and on the same day your therapist tells you if you want to heal from the inner emotional turmoil, you have to let go of your addiction to starvation. In other words, if I want to recover, I can never diet again.
There have been so many times throughout my recovery where I want to just give up and go back to my life in high school. The life where I had all my favorite diets saved in a folder: the boiled-eggs-and-spinach-only diet was for upcoming events (prom, pool party), and the intermittent fasting diet (eat only within 8 hours of the day) was to keep the weight off a little longer. The guaranteed 20-pound weight loss, or however many I felt I needed to lose at that moment. I had it down to a science.
The problem was that these were the same diets that gave me pounding headaches, led to more weight gain in the long term, caused extreme body dysmorphia and eventually, heart palpitations. I would exercise 7 days a week, regardless of any back or joint pain I would feel, until my back became so damaged that I couldn’t walk without excruciating pain. All because we live in a society that has simplified physical health into a synonym for thinness, without considering the mental and physical health atrocities that can happen in its pursuit.
Now, though I am in therapy, am no longer dieting, and have immersed myself in the Unplug community—with all the education, the representation and the research I should need to learn to let my body exist without restriction—I still find it impossible to break the addiction to hunger.
It’s taken two years of therapy for me to begin to understand my eating disorder. It’s taken me two years to learn exactly how eating disorders are often coping mechanisms. And it’s taken a specialized eating disorder doctor to validate to me that this was all true. After all, we’ve been taught that a physician is the most authoritative person in medicine—a therapist or psychiatrist telling me I had an eating disorder wasn’t gonna be enough for me.
While I’m happy that eating disorders are becoming more of a conversation on social media, we have to talk about how having an eating disorder is not just wishing you were skinny. It’s an illness and I wish people would treat it as such. Illness means you’re sick. I was, and am still, very sick. My eating disorder manifests as an addiction to hunger and exercise. One that has led me to illness, pain and unbearable emotional turmoil. For me, it’s an addiction to the feeling of hunger in my stomach, the deep emptiness at its pit that makes me feel like I’m on the way to being a better and more presentable person.
Aside from the obvious, “society rewards weight loss,” it’s so much deeper than that. It’s self-harm, and like most forms of self-harm (cutting, etc.), starvation gives me something to distract myself from the overwhelming, constant and unavoidable thoughts in my brain. “Don’t go outside today, you’re so ugly and everyone is disgusted by you,” my brain literally tells me. The thoughts are constant, but as I can literally feel my stomach growling, it gives me the validation that one day, those thoughts will disappear.
Still, my brain is looking for every way to validate that those negative thoughts are the truth. “Everyone knows it, you look like a monster.” And with my weight constantly fluctuating (in part due to genetics and in part because of my ED), my brain isn’t the only one with unwelcome commentary on my body. And for me, these comments aren’t just someone else’s thoughts. They become my reality for at least a week. A simple “Oh, you gained/lost weight” or even a certain look from someone will repeat in my head over and over again for days, leading me right back to “using”. The comments happen every day, every time I’ve returned home from school, every conversation where people are looking for advice on how to love themselves or not be problematic. The comments even happen when they’re not about me, with almost every space being infiltrated by conversations about goals to be smaller and foods to restrict. My brain fixates on the thought of starving, thinking maybe the person’s comments will disappear if I just starve some more. I starve until I can feel proud of myself for not eating. The longer the better.
I live in a world where fatphobia is constant. Sometimes it feels like no matter how many therapy sessions I have, I will never be able to drown out the noise. So as embarrassing as it is, I have to take you through my thought process. I want people to understand how this is, in fact, a mental illness. And if we don’t stop sending these daily messages, we are making people more ill. I know how problematic fatphobia is logically, but again, my illness tells me otherwise. As someone whose experience is never validated in the media, I say to my doctor or my therapist once a week, “Listen y’all, you got me mixed up. I don’t actually have an eating disorder.” I wish so badly that I didn’t. But it’s always, “No Amanda, you’re a textbook case. You have a severe eating disorder and we’re working to fix it.” I just want to go back to not eating and overexercising. I love the feeling more than anything and society validates me the most when I do what my illness tells me. The messages are constant, “you’re less lazy when you exercise”, and “eat right,” all while completely ignoring the fact that some people do not have access to “eating right.”
Here’s something I want everyone to understand: people with eating disorders either do not have access or cannot understand what it means to “eat right.” That’s the whole point, my brain does not allow me to eat right. My brain does not LET me eat right. My brain does not let me eat. Without the help of a therapist, a doctor AND a nutritionist, I can only starve or binge from hunger after starving. There is no in between. And it’s a cycle that in the long term actually leads to rapid weight gain, not weight loss, which is part of the reason why Unplug is so determined to expose the diet industry. It’s a lie, and I know that intellectually but I… I have an illness. Something I’m still trying to understand every day.
What I do know now is that there are a million and one ways this ruins lives. Your obsession with perfection can often show itself in relationships as well. The longstanding practice of putting others’ needs (how they view and feel about your body) above your own (how you actually feel in the moment, whether you’re hungry/full, whether you like your body as is—none of that matters when you have an ED), often translates to trying to be the perfect person for each friend and for the outside world, sharing only a shell of yourself so as not to place any burden on the other person. You feel your body is already a burden to the world, and so you try to minimize yourself in every other way possible.
So, I quickly became a sponge for everyone else’s problems. Someone who didn’t bring my full self, my feelings or my opinions to relationships. I did and said what I thought people wanted to hear. I’m at this point in my life where I talk about boundary setting a lot and I try to practice it, but it is difficult every single time. I think people around me see me as strong and competent, and don’t realize that every time I share something difficult or even engage in anti-fatphobia work, it is extremely hard for me. But I’ve made it a daily practice, because for as long as I can remember, people have seen me as this strong, competent person. “You’re a smart girl, you’ll figure it out. You always do.” It became my identity. Bob the builder. An expert at fixing other people’s problems. Spending an abnormal amount of time trying to make other people’s situations better, since I had lost all hope for my own. I don’t want that.
So I write this as my annual reminder to let you know that I am not perfect. I am not above anyone for running this platform, for doing the work. I need it. I am a community member just like you. And the truth is, no matter which press or big partnership Unplug gets, on many days I think about how good it would feel to die. Not because I don’t absolutely love the life I live, but because the pain is so much. Often so painful that it’s unbearable. Sometimes, going into a permanent slumber seems like the only way to drown it out.
And that’s the thing. I feel like we should be able to say these things out loud without it becoming our entire identity. As my favorite YouTuber, Tami Chin Mitchell, said, “I am not broken because I choose to share my brokenness with you.” As Unplug grows, I hope it remains a non-judgmental and safe space. Every story, every educational post, every picture celebrating someone’s body makes me feel less alone.
In these and so many other ways, the Unplug community saved my life.