‘I’m still learning what an eating disorder means for me in my body’
A conversation with writer Julie Gallagher.
Julie Gallagher is a writer living in the Pacific Northwest who publishes “Weightless,” a newsletter about eating disorder recovery. Since we both cover that topic in our work, we chatted about the process of writing about vulnerable topics, the catharsis of exploring personal pain, and how newsletter writing can help deconstruct perfectionism.
Our conversation has been edited and condensed.
MJ: It’s been a little over a year since you started your newsletter. Tell me: Why did you want to start it, and what’s happening with it now?
JG: I was working at CNN and they were doing a series of dispatches from employees around the world about their experiences during the pandemic. I was like, “Oh my god, this could be a really interesting thing for me to do.” I went to residential treatment [for an eating disorder] in February 2020. My grandmother had passed away in February. My grandfather passed away exactly three months later. While all this happened, I just started writing, I was journaling.
I wrote the piece. It was very scary and shocking, but the response was so much more beautiful than I thought it would be. So many people reached out saying they felt similarly, they’ve had similar experiences, they struggle with eating disorders, or disordered eating, or their relationships with their bodies. Here I was thinking I was so isolated in this. Then, when I wrote about it, I found community.
Why do you think the response was stronger than you expected?
I think part of my fear writing the first piece on CNN was that people weren’t going to believe me [about the disorder] because I’m not super thin. I was not what you imagine a stereotypical person with an eating disorder would look like. When I showed up for treatment, I remember being like, “I don’t fucking belong here. You’re all lying to me, I can’t have an eating disorder, I’m not emaciated,” for lack of a better word. [But] I was shocked by the variations of body size and backgrounds and experiences. The way I viewed eating disorders is so different than what it actually is. I feel like I’ve grown up seeing a very narrow view or very specific, extreme cases. In reality, that’s not the experience everybody has, but you’re still valid—I think that’s why people felt so connected.
“I’m just trying to make my way through, and I’m going to write about it.”
Tell me a little about the act of writing the newsletter. When you’re writing about these things, what’s coming up? Is it a cathartic or therapeutic experience?
It’s a lot harder than I thought. I thought, “It’s going to be so easy, I’ll definitely write every week,” then I found myself actively avoiding it. I still do sometimes, I think because these are uncomfortable emotions for me to sit with, as they are for a lot of people. It is cathartic because every time I write something that feels really vulnerable and scary, the response—even if it’s just like, from my mom—it’s very validating to have someone understand you better.
When I first started writing it, I was like, “Oh, I’m recovered now, I’m going to write about it.” But no, I’m still very much fighting my way through recovery. I would not call myself recovered at all. It’s very much an active journey.
Something I said in my intro post was, “I have to be very in my own face about recovery.” I am talking about recovery, people know I’m in eating disorder recovery, people are here for me and supporting me and I have committed myself to recovery. That makes it harder, I feel, to slip backwards.
I’ve seen the benefits of recovery through writing the newsletter, but also there are moments when I’d write a newsletter [post] when I’m still struggling. And I kind of realized that’s the whole point—it doesn’t have to be figured out. I’m just trying to make my way through, and I’m going to write about it.
Are there things you feel like you haven’t written about yet that you want to? Or, are there things you don’t want to write about because you don’t have enough distance, or it’s too raw or too hard?
Something I have been a little hesitant to talk about is co-existing mental illnesses. I have depression and anxiety and I think they go hand-in-hand with having an eating disorder. There are times I feel afraid to talk about those things because I’ve kind of claimed the eating disorder identity … I’m afraid of people thinking I’m lying.
Lying about what?
Like: “How can you have these many things wrong with your brain?” Which is not true, logically, I know that.
Something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is how I show up when I’m dating, or trying to date—the way I feel about food and my body, the fear of not being loved because of what my body looks like has been something I think is going to be the hardest for me to shake.
“I want to heal my relationship with my body and food so I can think about other things and have a really full life.”
It’s almost like, how do we decide what vulnerable things we’re going to share? I’ve written about so many super vulnerable things but it’s like…“These other ones…”
Right, why am I comfortable with these things that are vulnerable as opposed to others?
Something else I’ve thought about a lot is the line between my personal eating disorder recovery and broad social activism. In this space of somebody who writes about eating disorders and bodies, right, I understand I’m learning all the ways bodies are political. I want to talk about those things, because there’s so much to talk about, but it’s hard. I’m just trying to feel recovered and make sure I eat three times a day. I’m still learning and trying to understand what an eating disorder means for me in my body.
Right. I’m certainly not claiming to be any kind of body activist. I’m just a person talking about bodies. I don’t really know what to claim as a “brand,” because as soon as you do, it feels like you always have to be speaking for that cause.
Right. I have been very nervous that this is going to be the thing that defines me in a way I don’t want later. I want to heal my relationship with my body and food so I can think about other things and have a really full life. I don’t want this to be the thing I’m always talking about.
Do you feel like you’re writing the newsletter almost so that one day the newsletter doesn’t have to exist?
I think we’ll always need to be having conversations about what it means to accept your body. Right now I’m writing my newsletter about going through recovery. I haven’t thought so much about what it will look like in the future.
I don’t think you have to.
Take it day by day.
On this current moment in “body stuff” discussions—can you pinpoint something that feels different about how we generally talk and think about bodies versus when you were, say, 15?
One of the biggest things is this rise of mid-size fashion. When I was in high school, there were not TikTok influencers who were my size showing you outfits. I have seen some of the girls rocking their bodies. You think of what could have been as a teenager—would I have never had all these issues?
I remember being a size 12 in sixth or seventh grade, and that was the end of the sizes in “juniors.” I cannot believe how big I felt as a size-12 teenager. Now the average American woman is a size 16 or 18.
Yeah, I just really feel for my younger self. Growing up I felt so isolated in that feeling or being bigger than my friends and struggling with body image. It has been very cathartic to have conversations like this—a lot of us felt like that.
Back to publishing the newsletter–do you have a publishing schedule, or do you just roll with it?
I started writing every week and it was a lot of self-inflicted pressure. It wasn’t realistic.
My friend Jessica DeFino [who writes The Unpublishable] said: “It’s nice to have a little surprise in your inbox sometimes.” I write when I’m compelled to write something. It’s been a good lesson in deconstructing my perfectionism. A lot of things in my life are like: If I’m not doing it 100% perfectly, what is the point? No, actually, it’s still valid. And people are so wrapped up in their own shit, they aren’t counting how many newsletters they’re getting in their inbox.
Would you continue to write this newsletter even if no one ever read it again?
I think I would continue writing because it’s helpful in figuring out my own thoughts and feelings. That’s how I process. Whether that’s through the newsletter, the notes app in my phone, or in my journal, it’s how I make sense of the world. I learn more about myself when I put words on paper.