Jennifer Harrington

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Eating is Beneath Me

Having spent the first eight years of my life growing up as a mixed race child in the rural Midwest, I was exposed to very dichotomous cultures early on. There wasn’t an Asian cultural presence until my mother came around, and her arrival was met with some considerable friction in this small, predominantly Caucasian town. One of the most obvious ways in which this cultural dichotomy manifested itself, especially to a child, was through food.

My father’s family subsisted on food that is best described as “meat and potatoes,” derived from their predominantly Scottish heritage. My mother on the other hand, who ate a traditional Korean diet consisting largely of (but not limited to) fish, vegetables, spices, and rice above all else, made it no secret that she didn’t enjoy such a simple, bland and heavy diet. It wasn’t uncommon for there to be two separate meals prepared at dinner time, and I was often faced with the task of choosing one or the other. Neither parent attempted to mask their glee or disappointment in which meal I chose for the evening. To them, I was choosing more than food, I was essentially, in their minds, choosing which parent I liked more.

So it’s likely no surprise that I developed a rather complicated relationship with food at a young age. Choosing no food meant avoiding any guilt trips set forth by my parents. Add to the fact that at five years old I had made the connection between food consumption and bowel movements, which I considered disgusting and beneath me (I was a very pretentious child, okay?), I swore off eating most foods for the better part of three years. I ate only mashed potatoes or rice, because I wanted to, and consumed a lot of PediaSure, because my doctors made me. Apparently, rice and potatoes don’t make for a very healthy diet.

In retrospect, it’s easy to see how these early interactions with food, through which I learned how to influence and control the world and people around me, paved the way to my developing a restrictive eating disorder.

Finances were never much of an issue in my family growing up, and I was able to participate in a multitude of traditionally expensive activities: figure skating, classical piano lessons, and language instruction. When we eventually left our sleepy town for the west coast, there were so many more opportunities to pursue these endeavors and so many others trying to do the same. I learned to be competitive, excel in whatever I did, and was always encouraged to be better than my peers. To me, food was just another means of achieving perfection, and I began to view hunger as a sign of weakness. Everybody needs to eat, right? But, I wanted to be better than everybody.

After graduating high school and a failed first year at university (turns out you have to actually do stuff…), I ended up joining the Navy’s very challenging and rigorous Nuclear Propulsion Program. In this highly competitive and perfection driven program (it’s nuclear power, would you want anything less?) my eating disorder grew and it thrived. In my mind, it seemed like the appropriate response to the pressures placed on me. I was determined to be the smartest, thinnest, and generally the best “nuke” they had ever seen. I was going to be perfect.

That backfired. Quickly. I lost any muscle mass I had and began failing my physical fitness evaluations. There weren’t any obvious warning signs since my already baggy uniforms hid any weight loss. Before weigh-ins, I would gorge myself on food and drink so much water that the scales said I was at an acceptable weight. Unfortunately, there’s no easy, short term way to fake physical performance and I ended up on the Fitness Enhancement Program, or FEP.

The people who failed to maintain what the Navy considered an acceptable body fat percentage were in FEP, so I fell in the “obese” category. For this reason, the workouts were all geared towards maximum weight loss. The people leading these workouts would shout at the group during mandatory workouts about losing weight. The meetings always featured a balding, senior enlisted, male authority figure (with a beer gut for irony of course!) yelling at us for being on FEP because we were “eating too many cheeseburgers,” making us horrible human beings, apparently. While neither of these things were directed at me specifically, considering that my situation was fairly uncommon, I still became extremely vengeful. I was better than they were. I had more self-control. And I would show them, I thought to myself often.

Within a year and a half of being in the military, I had gone from having a strange, yet relatively sustainable relationship with food, to subsisting on an average of under 500 calories a day. A small scoop of white rice with a small piece of garlic butter salmon (one of my mother’s specialties), a few sips of Dr. Pepper, and half of a Luna Bar was my go to “safe” meal. I’d spend hours on a stationary bike at the base gym, only because I was too lightheaded to keep myself upright on the treadmill.

I became high on hunger. Not specifically hunger, but the euphoric sensation that came after those painful, internal stabbing sensations that would bring any sane person to the dinner table. The pain where it felt like your stomach was trying to consume or murder itself. If I could just make it through that intense pain, the feeling that came after was amazing. The more intense the hunger pains, the better the high. And since eating is such a primal human need, it felt like I was transcending what it meant to be human. I was superhuman in my mind.

I don’t remember exactly what or how it happened, but eventually my mental health started to reflect my caloric intake, and my demeanor became erratic and impossible to ignore. I could no longer hide how thin I had become. I was involuntarily pulled from the program just days short of graduating my last class in the two year training. From then on I became very intimate with the workings of Navy Medical and the VA system. Eventually it was decided that I would never be able to return to a healthy weight and mental state while still in the environment, so upon reaching a minimally healthy weight, I was permitted to be honorably discharged.

Food is now something I’m constantly forced to be aware of. I have this innate ability to ignore my body’s needs, which unfortunately, isn’t as great as it sounds, and if you’re a “normal” person, it probably doesn’t even sound great at all. What could be considered a slightly lower than appropriate caloric deficit for most people, can trigger, in me, an onslaught of “crazy” and erratic behaviors. When I’m feeling overly stressed, I still have a tendency to want to turn to these habits.
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Jennifer Harrington is a senior majoring in Applied Mathematics at Old Dominion University. She hopes to pursue a PhD in Mathematics and/or Astrophysics someday.
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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
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