Tess Holliday: I was as shocked as everyone when I learned I had anorexia

·5 min read

I started using food to cope after my mother was shot when I was 10 years old.

I remember my aunt gave me a bowl of soup and I put a whole pack of crackers in the soup, little by little, and I remember how it made me feel. I started overeating. Even though I’m from the South, where larger-bodied individuals are more common than in some other parts of the country, my family was critical of what I ate. I started hiding food. As I got older, I struggled with anorexia. I didn’t know that’s what it was until last year — but for over 10 years, I have restricted food.

That means I don’t eat — or when I do eat, it’s very little. Or sometimes it’s one large meal a day. My dietician, Anna Sweeney, first brought it to my attention. She told me, “I’m not licensed to diagnose you, but if I could, I would diagnose you with anorexia nervosa.”

When she said anorexia, I laughed. I thought, “Do you see how fat I am? There’s no way that word could ever be attached to someone my size.” She referred me to a psychologist, who confirmed the diagnosis.

When I shared that I had anorexia on social media last year, it blew up. I posted it on a whim, sitting on my bed where I’m sitting now. I just needed to talk about it. That’s how I’ve always operated. I have always been as transparent and honest as I’m able to in hopes that it will help someone else feel less alone. My manager said, “Why didn’t you tell me first?” I didn’t think it would be that big of a deal. But I had no idea how broken the eating disorder community is. I had no idea how few resources there are for people like me.

People said I was lying. There are people who believe I was saying this to get attention. I’ve had some people say, “You’re doing this to stay relevant.” I laugh because I know it’s untrue, but it’s so indicative of what a large problem this is. I feel grateful that I’m tough enough to talk about this, but I’ve since taken a lot of steps backwards in my recovery. I’ve regressed. I haven’t eaten today. It’s 11 o’clock and I’ve had two sips of coffee, and I feel sick. This has been extremely hard on my mental and physical health.

Tess Holliday (Jon Kopaloff / FilmMagic)
Tess Holliday (Jon Kopaloff / FilmMagic)

I chose to share my diagnosis because it’s not just about a desire for thinness. I’m not restricting because I want to be thin. I’ve just done this for so long. I wish I could tell you that I’m good at feeding my body, but I’m not. I tell myself, “Oh, I’ll eat later,” but I didn’t realize that by not eating, I was starving my body. Your body just holds onto whatever food it can because it doesn’t know when you’re going to feed it again.

I still struggle with wrapping my head around, “How can I be in a fat body and be starving?” Then I realized that bodies of all sizes and shapes starve. (Editor's note: It is a myth that anorexia only occurs in patients who have extremely low body weights. Atypical anorexia nervosa is a restrictive eating disorder that occurs in patients whose body weight is at or above normal, and experts say it is under-recognized.)

So many people who are in larger bodies have messaged me and said, “I never thought I restricted until you started talking about this.” It’s been very empowering, but it’s also made me incredibly sad. To get a diagnosis when there is so much weight bias and stigma in the medical industry is difficult. It’s tough when you hear the word anorexia and it’s only equated with one kind of image. It’s detrimental to so many people, including myself.

Recovery for me is messy. It’s lonely. It’s hard to deal with something for which there isn’t enough support. Having a diagnosis has been liberating and it has made me feel less alone, but the confused look on people’s faces when I say anorexia or the stares I get if it comes up in conversation — that’s hard.

I remind myself that my feelings are valid. I go to therapy. Talking about it has helped. I surround myself with people who can gently say, “Have you eaten today?” or, “Let’s have a protein shake." I make sure I have things in my house that are easy to grab and eat. Moving my body makes it easier for me to feed myself because it makes it harder to ignore the feelings of hunger.

There is no space for people who are in larger bodies to ever exist in the world where we aren’t being told that we need to lose weight or change our bodies. January is an extremely hard time because it starts with the diet talk and the “new year, new you” messaging. Then it migrates into getting your body ready for summer. It never ends, and fat people are more aware of this messaging than anyone because it is shouted at us from the moment we present as fat in the world.

For folks who claim they actually care about fat bodies and plus-size people and want to “help” us, the way you can help us is by supporting our mental health, and by understanding that there are so many people struggling with what I’m struggling with, but they don’t know it, and they can’t name it, and they can’t get a diagnosis, because our system has never been set up to support folks in larger bodies.

And to people who are struggling, I say to find support. One of the bright spots that has come from COVID-19 has been increased access to mental health professionals online. I found someone to talk to through just Googling someone in my area. I literally would not have been able to do any of this if I didn’t have that help.

As told to Rheana Murray

If you’re struggling with an eating disorder and need help, information or resources, visit the NEDA website or call 1-800-931-2237.