I found beauty in a world across the ocean when I was three.
I would stand by the wire fence for hours, the red dirt between my toes, staring at my ebony neighbors whose smiles were like the crescent of the moon.
My parents were missionaries in Nigeria and Congo. Mom knitted afghans with the women while Dad taught the men to farm.
Mom's laundry hung from the line, drying stiff in the sun, and the air smelled like the mangoes that littered the ground. Mom stewed them and slid them into glass jars that lined the window.
Our neighbors waved at me in their colorful print dresses, and their children ran to me and hugged me, their hair thick like rope and their eyes like water, and I pinched my skin trying to make myself black like them because black was beauty, and Africa was my home.
Even though I'd stopped speaking when we moved to Africa in my 18th month, I had a voice there that sung and laughed and carried across the yard. I tucked all the colors and the sounds and the smells in my heart like folded napkins and carried them home when we left, just after I turned four. A long flight back to a world of white.
White snow, white skin, and I found my words on the other side of the ocean, but my neighbors no longer liked me staring at them. They made faces at me and stuck up their middle fingers, so I started looking at my feet a lot, and my words came out in whispers like a snuffed candle.
I was good, the pastor's daughter. The one who did what she was told, who was seen and not heard, who did her homeschool and practiced piano and read while most kids were outside playing with their friends. We moved so often that I had no friends, and eventually, I stopped eating.
Because eventually, the words catch up with you.
The ones you haven't been able to say, the ones lodged in your throat.
And your throat is so full of words that you can no longer swallow the food your mom piles onto your plate, and it starts slowly, the anorexia: it starts with saying no. And the no feels good.
And then one day, you're thirteen and lying on a hospital bed in a white room. And the nurses, they're astounded because you're purple from hypothermia and you weigh 60 pounds and they say you should be dead.
And those words, they somehow find their way to the edge of your mouth, and you say, "Why? Why am I still alive?"
And God hears those words, so you pick up your fork and eat.
According to the National Eating Disorder Association, 20 million women battle an eating disorder at some point in their life. One in 200 will struggle with anorexia nervosa; 3 in 100 will battle bulimia nervosa. And what is the effect of this on children? TIME Magazine says 80 percent of female children have been on a diet by the time they've reached fourth grade.
As a child I made forts. I would pile couch pieces and sit beneath them and while away the world, for I was queen of my cushions, my plaid, thrift store sofa fortress.
An eating disorder is a type of fortress. It's a way for a child or teenager who feels as though the world is a scary place to regain a sense of control, a sense of belonging.
At the same time, it's a way for children to punish themselves for whatever they did to bring on this scary side of the world. By isolating themselves, they feel as though they cannot be hurt, nor can they hurt anyone. There is comfort in this self-erected world, for it is predictable. Soon, it becomes home.
The only way to truly reach a child in his sofa fortress is to get down on all fours and knock on the cushion door and hope she allows you to enter.
And by sitting there in that darkened space beneath the plaid fabric, by sharing in that comfort zone, you'll begin to understand why your child needs this space. And your child, in turn, will realize there's at least one person in the world whom she can trust because you're not threatening to take away the only safe place your daughter knows.
If your child becomes very sick, there is no doubt that you need to knock down those cushions. But otherwise, it's a waiting game: waiting for your loved one to learn to trust, to believe, and to desire more than this cushion-shelter.
My mom and dad waited for four years. They tried threatening me with cod liver oil; they made menus, they grounded me, they begged me, and they put me in school hoping that friends would solve the problem.
And school helped, but it also hurt, because beauty became a kind of competition for me, marked by Maybelline and skinny girls and Roots sweaters and Exclamation perfume. Beauty became hair dye in a box and a number on a weigh scale, and I could measure beauty. I could measure it until it controlled me, and there was nothing beautiful about it anymore. There was just a hungry girl crying into her pillow every night.
I didn't let my parents hug me or touch me, but often when Mom thought I was asleep, she'd sneak into my room and lie beside me and put her arms around me.
Those were good nights.
Because I missed her hugs. I missed the warm sun of Africa. I missed the smell of mangoes and the joy leaping off faces like exclamation points. I missed the red dirt between my toes and the songs of the people rising into the night, hymns as they dug the soil, hymns as they knit their afghans.
And even though there was pain in Africa, there was community, so the pain was contained among those arms, held tightly by the people. But in the West, pain was such an isolated affair. It made you stare down at your toes and mumble words and starve yourself because you didn't know how to process a white person's culture.
And the only way to get noticed on this side of the ocean, I figured, was to ascribe to Vogue's set standards for beauty, and that's when we miss it.
Love. We're so busy trying to calculate affection and control emotion and keep ourselves from feeling anything because it might hurt too much that we close up our hearts altogether.
And beauty is born when the heart opens.
It's born, like a caterpillar curled tight in the cocoon of your chest, and when it's time to let that butterfly out, you feel a flutter. It's like your heart is breaking—and that means love is growing too big for you to contain it. And it will hurt, yes, but it will be the most beautiful thing you've ever seen. It is a bright yellow butterfly dancing in the wind, your heart wide for the birthing.
This winter I had the opportunity to return to those red roads, to the land of the ebony skin and the crescent moon smiles. I held babies that smelled of plantain and salt, who had brightly colored elastics in their hair; I held mothers who'd seen the pain of genocide, and still they praised God. I held Africa tightly to my beating chest, and beauty became me.
Even as it was all around me—in this world across the ocean.
Emily T. Wierenga is an award-winning journalist and the author of five books including the travel memoir, Atlas Girl: Finding Home in the Last Place I Thought to Look, releasing July 2014 with Baker Books. She is a blogger with World Help, and traveled to Uganda and Rwanda in January of 2014. She speaks regularly about her journey through anorexia, and lives in Alberta, Canada with her husband and two sons. You can find her on Twitter, Facebook, or Pinterest, or at her blog: www.EmilyWierenga.com.