By Elizabeth Arnold

Even at 5 feet 4 inches and 89 pounds, I never thought I had an eating disorder. Never thought I could. I was a good girl, and good girls don’t have problems — or so they told me. Eating disorders are for Hollywood celebrities and New York fashion models, not 4.0 students with dreams to change the world.

For five years, I’ve battled anorexia nervosa. I am far from celebrity or model. I’ve never thrown away or thrown up food. In fact, I love food. But when you’re praised long enough for perfection, high performance comes not from a desire to succeed, but rather from a fear of failure.

I was a normal American good girl. I played flute in the high school band. I made straight A’s, never partied and volunteered with National Honors Society. I dressed modestly, attended church and went on a mission trip to Zambia, Africa. On the surface, I had it all together.

People used to comment on my size. “You’re so skinny!” they’d say. “You should be a model!” I distinctly remember our hairdresser, a family friend who’d known us for years, complimenting my small frame. Her heavily made-up face looked me over with an admiring eye as she declared, “My, you look like you’ve lost weight! Your mom must be happy.” Ironically, my mom and I had spent the 20-minute drive to the salon debating my decreasing desire to eat, a recurring conversation those days.

When did it become okay for grown women to praise 15-year-old girls for being too small for their size zero jeans?

People often assume those with eating disorders drop 20 pounds in a matter of weeks, but I just never gained the weight. I was the same height and weight in sixth grade as twelfth. After one year, I stopped having a period, and at 15 I sat terrified in a sterilized gynecologist’s office explaining to the lady that, no, there was no way I could be pregnant. By the time I saw a dietician, I was 85 percent below average weight. My BMI didn’t even show up on the chart.

Yes, I recognized I had a problem. I just had no idea how big the problem was.

Like most teenage girls, I searched earnestly for what could make me unique, and in the process quickly learned I was really, really good at being skinny.

The problem with “skinny” as a talent is that after a while, you stop seeing yourself as skinny. I no longer knew who I was. Thoughts of food and exercise consumed me. I lifted weights while flipping psychology flashcards, ran on the treadmill while drilling Spanish vocabulary and did crunches while memorizing Bible verses.

If someone had raised warning signs earlier, maybe my family and I wouldn’t have been so shaken the night we sat in a dietician’s office as she pronounced “anorexia” like a death sentence.

I spent the next five months and remainder of my senior year in intensive outpatient therapy. My friends and family offered hamburgers, milkshakes and cookies, which in retrospect was probably like offering a lung cancer patient a pack of cigarettes, but, hey, it’s the thought that counts.

I ate more during those five months than I had in my entire life combined. I didn’t even know a body could physically consume so many calories in one day. Note to the wise: don’t ever try to consume 700 calories in six minutes as you’re racing out the door late for school. Also don’t put wheat germ in orange juice, because as they say, what goes in must come out one way or another.

I gained 20 pounds in four months. Four months that happened to be the same four months every other girl was trying to lose weight to fit into prom dresses and graduation getup. The doctor said my number one goal was to stay alive. Any faith I thought I had crumbled.

Once you hit rock bottom, there’s only one way to go–up.

After five years and by God’s grace alone, I’m continuing to learn what healthy really means. Some days I go running, some days I sleep in. Some days I chop a salad, some days I polish a burger. On occasion, I even look in the mirror and think, “Dang girl, you’re cute.”

I’ve learned I’m a fighter. I’ve learned God is good and He is faithful. I’ve learned I’m stronger than I think I am, and the world is more accepting of real girls than everyone makes it out to be.