The night before I turned 27, I decided it was time to enter therapy and figure out why I wasn’t Mrs. Ryan Gosling already. Or, you know, happy. I was soon forced to confront a secret so shameful, I had never even admitted it to myself.
I always felt sorry for girls with eating disorders, but I never considered myself one of them. After all, I wasn’t going to be bulimic forever. As soon as my YouTube videos went viral or my boyfriend got sober, I wouldn’t need to throw up anymore. I was a feminist, dammit—I couldn’t keep puking. But I couldn’t stop, either.
Growing up, I was never chubby, but I definitely inherited my dad’s sturdy dark features—looking more like an adorable Guatemalan boy than mommy’s little princess. Meanwhile, my mom’s relationship with food fascinated me: She could eat whatever she wanted and never gain a pound. She’s one of those freak people who prepares a bowl of ice cream, takes one bite, then forgets to finish the rest. Why was everything always falling off her boney hips and tugging at mine? I was downright jealous of my mom’s body, and furious that I inherited her anxiety but not her metabolism.
My bulimia was born in those early days, before I even knew what a calorie was. Like many addicts, it was birthed from a feeling that, deep down beneath my Jewfro, there was something terribly wrong with me. That if you ever knew me, the real me, you would be horrified. And so I made it my mission to be happy all the time. To control the version of myself I presented to the world. And I was great at it—my parents even nicknamed me “the smile machine.” I was happy, but I was also hurting, and I didn’t even know it.
One night in my early teens, instead of accompanying my parents and older sister to Atlanta’s latest cheap new ethnic restaurant, I decided to stay home. As soon as the coast was clear, I devoured an entire Papa John’s pizza. I then knelt beside the toilet and, like I had seen many of my girlfriends do, let it all come out: the pain, the fear, the “too muchness” of being me. At first it felt awkward sticking my fingers down my throat, but it quickly became the most natural thing I’d ever done. Puking out that pepperoni, I felt more like myself than I ever had before.
Later that night, when my parents got home and commented on the empty pizza box in the trash, I casually explained that my boyfriend had come over and devoured it. I promised myself this was a one-time thing.
But the cycle continued for the next decade—the secret sickness and the complete denial of it. After all, I couldn’t be bulimic. I was so loved, so privileged. Yet no matter where I went, my bulimia came with me: to college in California, study abroad in Vietnam, the streets of New York City, the beaches of Bora Bora, and the backlots of Paramount Studios. It manifested in every horrible way imaginable: puking, binging, starving, laxatives, over exercising, chewing and spitting, and drugs. But more than the physical compulsions, I struggled with the mental real estate the eating disorder seized in my brain. I spent so much time counting, managing, hiding, and most of all, hating myself.
Eventually, I realized I was not the only one battling these demons. After a few years of living in Los Angeles, I was hard-pressed to meet a woman without some kind of “food issue.” And yet, when I looked for real depictions of eating disorders in the mainstream media, the screen was totally blank.
I’ve always been a television addict and relied on the screen to help me understand myself and the world around me. But I never saw anything that resembled my fucked-up experience with food. The few Lifetime-esque shows and movies that did tackle eating disorders only made me feel more alienated, because I didn’t look or act like those girls. I wasn’t a prima ballerina or Kelly Taylor on 90210—I wasn’t even skinny. I thought, I’m not bulimic enough. And then, after binging and purging my 27th birthday cake, alone and desperate, I thought enough.
As I entered therapy and began to recover, I felt a new sense of clarity, healing, and self-acceptance. How much time had I wasted punishing, hurting, and hating myself for no reason? I began to celebrate all aspects of myself—including the messy stuff I had spent my whole life running from. Hiding my bulimia from the world began to feel suffocating. For the first time in my life, it didn’t feel crazy to be vulnerable. It felt crazy not to be.
Last year, I was truly humbled by the success of my comedic short Meet My Rapist, in which I attempted to bring humor to a sexual assault I survived years earlier. Who knew that opening the floodgates to my personal trauma could be so cathartic? The response inspired me to attempt to fill the media’s eating disorder void and create my new web series, The Skinny—because, like rape, eating disorders are both everywhere and nowhere to be found.
The Skinny follows the adventures of a feisty feminist comedian in L.A. working to live, love—and get over her bulimia. As we began to shoot the pilot, I totally freaked out: Am I better enough to do this? Am I funny enough to do this? Am I thin enough to do this? Making this show has left me little time to answer them. Turns out, the best medicine for my bulimia is to show up, warts and all, and live the shit out of my life.
Our first day of shooting took place in my apartment. I was extremely nervous, because we had to film a scene where I was binging in my kitchen—talk about triggering. We did one take, and it was 15 minutes long. Just me stuffing my face. After the scene ended, our usually gregarious crew was eerily quiet. I looked over at one of the lighting guys, and because I’m an insecure comedian, asked, “Was that funny?” He let out a deep breath and said, "It was really funny, but also really sad." And I thought yes. That is the sweet spot of The Skinny, because that is where life happens.
With the help of my Kickstarter campaign, I’ve been able to raise enough funds to finish The Skinny’s pilot episode, which will be released on Wifey.tv in the spring. The online love the show has gotten has humbled me all over again—and further convinced me that this is a topic that needs to be discussed.
We show sex, drugs, violence, and gang rapes on TV, but we don’t show eating disorders. This silence only reinforces the message that you’re the only one dealing with this problem, and you have to get better on your own. Unacceptable. If you are out there suffering, just know that you are not crazy or weird or a bad person. And most of all, you are not alone.
Jessie Kahnweiler can’t afford therapy, so she makes films. Her latest series, "The Skinny," a comedy about bulimia, is being produced by Wifey.tv. She lives in Los Angeles with her plants.