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Olivia Chin: Unlearning perfectionism

TW: eating disorder

I am short. There is no way to beat around the bush or for me to avoid the purely objective fact that I am short. Standing at 4 foot and 11 ¾ inches, (no, the doctors never give me that extra quarter of an inch) my height is something I cannot overlook, though it makes it easy for people to overlook me. Since the first day of school, being “the small one” has been a label that has stuck to me; always being in the front for school pictures, not being tall enough for rides on field trips, and never being able to reach the top cubby. Rather than letting this phase me though, I started embodying my size as a part of my personality and what made me who I was, searching for ways to stand out and impress others despite my vertical challenge. This desire took the shape of perfectionism quite early on. Never did I dare to color outside the lines, wear a dress that was not pristinely ironed by my mother, or eat my peanut butter sandwich at lunch if the crusts had not been cut cleanly off.

In high school, I joined the cross country team. I use the term join loosely, considering that my Ironman-triathlon-competing father gave me no choice in the matter. Despite this, it quickly became a sport I grew fond of, even signing up for a cross country summer camp going into my junior year. When I arrived at this camp though, it was hard to ignore that I visibly stood out from everyone else. Nearly all of the girls towered over me, and even though this was something I was not unused to, I became so caught up in and quite jealous of how tall and fast they all were. Looking around me at the other campers, all I saw were lanky, lean, and speedy girls. Obviously my height was not something I could control, but I found myself looking in the mirror, pinching my waist and thighs and sighing hopelessly. Another aspect of this camp was its focus on proper nutrition, so I took this newfound knowledge home with me, skewing it though to get away with dietary changes with the facade of attempting to improve my performance.

The seed of my eating disorder started simply with giving myself a caloric cap on the lunch I brought to school. Gone were the days where I ate a peanut butter sandwich as part of my lunch. Quickly, this snowballed into a desperate grasp for control in which I ultimately lost control. Food rules multiplied by the day, each one becoming more restrictive than the next. Running was no longer something I did because it was an activity I enjoyed; it became an avenue such that I was “allowed” to eat. My days lacked freedom and followed a strict, completely inane, schedule revolving around what and when I ate, how much I worked out, and the number I saw on the scale the dozens of times a day I weighed myself. The finish line to the goal weight I had originally set for myself kept on getting pushed farther and farther down. I would sit on the cold marble floor of the bathroom and break down in tears if my weight went up the slightest. When I looked in the mirror, instead of noticing that my bones jutted out of my body, I criticized myself in areas I deemed to be “problem spots.” Despite how unhappy and dissatisfied I was, my times were significantly faster than they were the year before, so I told myself that something must be working and I just had to keep on chugging along.

That spring, the Covid-19 pandemic broke out, and therefore I was at home basically all the time. This only worsened my ever-growing eating disorder. I could spend more time fixating on arbitrary rules, not having to pretend I was not mentally calculating calories during class, and avoiding seeing my classmates, who I worried thought I looked fat. No longer did I have to face the people I grew up with, the people who I had internalized being the small one around. I was quite literally running on empty, but could only see a warped vision of myself in the mirror. My competitive and perfectionist nature though drove me to restrict more to lose more. The new goal I created for myself going into senior year was to come back truly as the tiny Olivia everyone had grown up knowing.

Luckily, this plan hit an obstacle towards the end of summer. It was obvious to my doctor when I showed up to my physical that there was something seriously wrong with me. My weight had plummeted, my blood work came back extremely abnormal, and my heart rate was dangerously low. I had become a shell of myself, and this was the wake up call I needed. My doctor wanted to immediately admit me to inpatient therapy for the eating disorder I had yet to admit to, causing me to sob uncontrollably, begging not to go, claiming all was well. My dad, who is also a doctor and had gone to the appointment with me, was visibly torn by this display of emotion, and negotiated with my doctor to let me do treatment from home but to come back regularly for weigh-ins and check-ups.

It would be an extreme lie for me to say that recovery was easy; I had to unlearn innumerous rules and let go of control in order to regain it. It also caused a hitch in my hopes of maybe running competitively in college by not being able to close out my senior cross country or track seasons. However, upon being accepted into Dartmouth College, I was more determined than ever to recover since I was not going to be able to go in the fall if I was still a danger to my own health. The work I put into recovery that spring and summer allowed me to go up to Hanover in the fall, fresh-faced and excited to start anew. Once at Dartmouth, I decided to walk onto the Women’s Rowing Team as a coxswain. This was daunting to say the least. By starting a new sport in college, I had to let go of any notions of being the perfect coxswain. Not to mention, my role being heavily dependent on my size was a bit worrying to me. Newer rules in rowing though enforcing a weight minimum for coxswains quelled the latter fear for me, and for that I am grateful. Coxing has become an avenue to empower myself via my size rather than an excuse to shrink myself down yet again. For one of those rare moments it seems, being short has not been something that has defined me but instead provided me with an opportunity to learn and thrive in a new environment.

I still run regularly up here in Hanover. Running has once again become my stress release, letting me let go of the academic and athletic rigor of my daily life and allowing me to take in the scenery of New England. Without doing specific running training, I have unintentionally also gotten faster and massively increased my endurance. Aside from actually fueling myself, improving that aspect of my life has given me energy to devote headspace and time to being present in the moment with my community. I am now not afraid to lean into my extensive support systems and provide that support for others too. It may sound counterintuitive, but part of me is grateful for my eating disorder. No, I would not wish the experience on anyone else in the slightest, but the way in which I’ve changed — positively that is — and still continue to has largely been because of this struggle. While I am not 100% recovered and am not sure if or when I ever truly will be, the perfectionism I so closely-associated with my size no longer rules my life. I know that it would truly be impossible to take in the community I have gained here at Dartmouth without having taken the difficult steps to choosing and pursuing recovery. There are still really hard days, but recovery is not linear and everyday is another opportunity to learn and grow (albeit maybe not physically).



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