trigger warning: eating disorders
For help, please contact:
Address: 17b Yinusa Adeniji Street off Muslim Avenue, Ikeja, Lagos
Mentally Aware Nigeria Initiative (MANI)
How does one write about their journey into, through and out of bulimia?
With honesty, transparency, empathy, vulnerability and ultimately, with love.
Have you every asked yourself what your first memory of your relationship with your body is? Maybe you were nicknamed 'orobo' (Nigerian slang for a fat person) or 'lepa' (Nigerian slang for a slim person). Maybe passing comments that rubbed you in the wrong way. Maybe you were the "fat one" or the "skinny one" in your friendship group.
My first memory of my relationship with my body was when I was about 7. I have three sisters and one of them was obsessed with Barbie dolls. We had over 100 Barbies in our home. No, I'm not exaggerating; my older sister and I once lined them all up along the window sills to take stock. It was an issue.
I recall looking down at my thighs and comparing them to Barbie's. My thighs seemed huge. Of course they were huge compared to an 11.5 inch doll but a 7 year old's mind does not understand that. Why couldn't they be like Barbie's? Why couldn't my waist go inwards like Barbie's did? Of course, my mum explained to me that Barbie is a doll and isn't realistic. She told me I am beautiful over and over. I still internalised Barbie's body as what a woman's should look like.
Fast-forward to secondary school.
Puberty kicked in for me pretty early so by JS2 (the equivalent of year 8 in the UK), we had to do some digging in the adults' bras for me because I was a DD cup. I also realised that with puberty came more of "the enemy"-fat. In reality, little did I know that my curves were developing to sculpt the feminine figure I would grow to have, own and love. My developing femininity meant I would look more like my beautiful older sister and mum. I looked up to them both as the standard of beauty. Unfortunately, instead, I ascribed to the negative and misguided opinions of others.
'Karina, you're gaining weight. Watch it'
'Oh no, what happened to my beautiful gazelle' (weird flex, but ok)
'You're so big now! Be careful o, so you don't get too fat like ....'
I craved the reversal of these statements. I wanted their jaws to drop when the new me was revealed. I craved their validation.
As I still do now, I loved food then. I also did not want to keep hearing these comments. So I reasoned that the only way to keep enjoying food and lose weight was not to keep the food down.
It started as a once in a while thing at first. Just on days I had eaten a bit more than I should have and felt full, uncomfortable and guilty. Birthdays, Christmas. The guilt then stretched to whenever I ate something 'bad'. Chocolate today? Bread? Too much at lunch?
Of course I never did it at school. I went to a day school and someone would hear. Someone would hear and know my deepest secret and I would have gotten into trouble. It would have been pitied. I would have been shamed. "Why are you doing this?". Somehow, it would have been my fault.
But then I began to get uncomfortable at school too. So I ate very little at lunch or didn't have any at all. I could easily do this because I was the cafeteria prefect. After I was done with my prefect duties at lunch, I would either run off to class, sit with my friends and gossip as I waited out the hunger pangs or pretend to be eating a descent amount of food at the table while my friends and I were distracted by the day's gist.
I would get home ravenous and eat all I could. Then head straight to the bathroom.
It was my release. It 'helped relax me'.
I didn't tell a single person. Not my sisters. Not my best friend. No one.
Until I missed my period one month.
Then the next.
Two months rolled into 8 months and since I wasn't sexually active, I knew something serious was wrong. So I told my mum and a hospital visit was scheduled.
A couple of days before the appointment, I began to Google. 'Dr Google' told me a lot of scary things but one word stood out to me:
Bulimia was a topic which was ever so lightly touched on in TV shows and books. It was watered-down because that made it easier to package and put out to the public. No one talked about the low self-esteem, the erosion of dental enamel, the swollen salivary glands, the risk of a ruptured oesophagus, the irregular heartbeats, the stomach ulcers and risk of stomach rupture, the constipation, the dehydration, the fatigue.
The 8 months of missed periods.
God forbid someone spoke about it in real life in Nigeria!
Eating disorder ke?
Abeg, are you oyinbo? (Nigerian slang for white person)
You’re just looking for attention.
You’re getting ideas from all the Western TV you’re watching.
There is nothing God cannot do (end of conversation).
We visited the doctor in a prominent hospital in Victoria Island. As my ever supportive mum and I explained to him why I was there, he took a look at my vitals. His face curled into a smile as the baritone words tumbled out of his mouth; matter-of-factly:
"It's because you're overweight, naw!”
He laughs. I wince.
"That is why you have not seen your period."
I cannot tell you what happened after that because although I was physically present in the room, it had gone pitch black in my mind.
I am fat. Even a doctor has confirmed it.
The uncontrollable tears rolled silently in that back seat drive as we wove through light traffic on Ozumba Mbadiwe on the way home.
What do I do now?
I thought I was doing great.
I’ve been puking so much. I thought that would be enough.
I remembered faintly that he had said something about a BMI.
I went home and I devoured all the information that I could on BMI’s.
What weight do I have to get to to be in a healthy BMI range?
If only I knew back then what I know now:
Healthy comes in different shapes and sizes.
Health should stem from a place of self-love.
Health starts in the mind.
Research has since shown that the body mass index formula is flawed. It is impossible to group people of various backgrounds, ethnicities and diets according to their height and weight without taking into account so many other factors such as their age, sex, overall health, body shape, metabolism, diet, measurements, muscle and fat percentages. I wish someone had explained this logic to me back then.
I went full-throttle with my habit. My gauge of how well I was doing was when I went to church each Sunday. I would wait for the adoring comments. The validation that unknowing to them, encouraged me to continue kneeling and worshiping the porcelain god every evening. Sometimes twice a day.
'Karina, wow, you've lost so much weight!! What are you doing?'
'Keep it up girl, you're looking good!'
I looked good.
My jaw was constantly swollen, swallowing was painful most days, I coughed up blood ever so often.
But I looked good.
Chest pains and irregular periods plagued me.
But I looked good.
I kept going because 'I couldn't start to gain the weight back!', I thought.
I eventually confided in my cousin on MSN (#tb!) and she begged me vehemently to stop. She asked whether I knew the seriousness of what I was doing. Of course not. To me, it was just my little habit. She asked me to Google the effects, so I did. I skimmed down the list but one made me stop.
I wasn't even 18! Of course I wanted to have children someday! So I promised her and myself that I would stop.
If only I knew this was not just some switch on/switch off type thing.
It was a full blown eating disorder.
There is an isolation that an eating disorder comes with.
It's hidden. It's addictive.
You get very good at keeping it a secret. Good at covering up and lying. At pretending. At faking.
You feel as though you are alone in it; you must be the only person doing these things.
You feel a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction that you are taking control of the situation. That’s what your mind tells you; that it’s a method to take control and fix the problem.
No one who does it talks about it.
No one speaks out against it.
So it can stay my secret.
No one will understand. They all have beautiful, perfect bodies.
I'm the tall, fat one.
I have to do this.
An eating disorder does not have a face. It does not look like a skinny caucasian girl with her spine protruding through her back. It does not look like anything or anyone because it is a mental illness which ravages through race, gender, age and circumstance.
I struggled with bulimia for 8 years in total. Through secondary school, A Levels and the beginning of university. During A-Levels, I tried to get healthy. I placed myself on a strict diet, set a goal weight, over-exercised and did not stop until I reached the goal. I posted my before-and-after photo on Tumblr and revelled in the comments of validation. They didn't know how I swore by extremely unhealthy quotes from the same app like 'skinny feels better than food tastes.'
My "goals" were women who had extremely different body types, genetic make ups and lifestyles to me. I lost so much weight I could feel the bones in my bum on chairs when I sat down. It was too much weight to lose for my stature. For my health. My head was unproportional to my body. I can say now what I could not then. What no one would have believed then.
I was unhealthy.
Today, I am free from bulimia. I am healthy and I have a much healthier mindset, relationship with food and relationship my body.
According to the scale, I am at the heaviest I've ever been.
I am also the kindest I've ever been to my body.
I didn't 'get over' bulimia.
I didn't get through it by simply willing myself to stop.
It wasn‘t prayed out of me in a session of binding and casting. Through a relationship with Him, God patiently taught me how to love, appreciate and care for the body He has blessed me with.
I didn't know where to go for therapy in Nigeria then; I wish I did.
I assumed all medical professionals in Nigeria would be like the one who threw laughter and blame in my face as a response to vulnerability and, unbeknown to him, a cry for help.
I learned and watched out for triggers. I learned loving self-talk.
I found women who I thought were beautiful; women who looked like me.
I spoke with loved ones about what I was struggling with and asked for help.
I read other women's stories on how they recovered from bulimia. I do wish I could have read a story about someone who looked like me. Someone Nigerian and curvy and not the 'poster-child' for bulimia.
This is the story I needed.
I am the representation I wanted, I needed and still need.
If I could go back and speak with 7 year old, 13 year old, 18 year old Karina, I would tell her what I will tell any other young girl going through a tough time with her body: it will get better. You are so much more beautiful than how you see yourself. You are so much more than just your body. You are a multi-dimensional, charismatic, talented human being who was crafted by The Creator. He calls you His Masterpiece (Ephesians 2:10). You are. You are loved eternally by Christ. He understands. You don't have to hide it from Him. You can cry to Him, speak with Him about it and He will be there to help. Not to chastise, not to bring you guilt or shame but to bring you freedom, an appreciation and a love for the body He has blessed you with.
In her episode on Oprah’s Super Soul Conversations, Sheryl Sandberg shared something that resonated with me. Her friend, a filmmaker, talked to her about the fact that when he does a story he doesn’t know where it will fall. He advised her not to try to put her story in a box with a bow on it after she had analysed, understood and made it presentable to the world.
I‘ve edited this post more times than I can count. My major worry was that it would be triggering for those struggling. Please know, that is not my intention. My second concern was how raw and vulnerable it is. If I’m being honest, an ongoing concern is that people will miss the point and pity or praise me instead of paying attention to the intention of me sharing my story-to raise awareness and get the conversation going towards solutions.
I have decided this is the last time I’ll edit it. This was my story. This is my story. As Cece Olisa so rightly says, "I am she and she is me”. God saw me through it so I can tell my story today and through that, He can bring healing.
This blog post isn't one that ends in a cute kumbaya quote. It is the breaking down of a locked door of conversation that so desperately needs to happen in Nigeria. Take it off its hinges. The stigma, secrecy and shame in relation to mental health struggles/eating disorders is exhausting. Resolution can only meet what is brought into the light.
Please reach out for professional advice and help if you are struggling. If you know someone who is struggling, please do not turn a blind eye. Life is worth living; wholly and healthily.
For more help, please contact:
Address: 17b Yinusa Adeniji Street off Muslim Avenue, Ikeja, Lagos
Mentally Aware Nigeria Initiative (MANI)
Photography: Deji Adejuyigbe
Creative direction & styling: ItsPhugo