How an Eating Disorder Taught Me Body Love (Eventually)

Please don’t see me for who I really am.

Please don’t try to help me.

Please don’t look right at me. Look through me instead.

I am broken. I am scared. I am drowning.

But even I don’t know that yet.

For right now, I’d like you to notice that I’ve attained a standard of beauty I’ve been taught to believe makes me worthy. Tell me how thin I look. This gives me just a moment of knowing I’ve gained your approval.

That’s what I really need.

Anorexia is a disease of dichotomy. It is self-annihilation through self-control. It is a desperate cry for help from someone that is not even sure she wants it.

It is the act of literally trying to disappear, whilst wondering if anyone will notice, or whether you’re worthy of notice.

We live within a perplexing set of messages in Western culture.

Beauty and hard work and value get all mixed up together.

“Thin is beautiful.”

“No pain, no gain.”

“Willpower and drive get you ahead in this world. If you don’t have it, you must be lazy.”

And where does beautifully thin end, and hideously thin begin? We don’t really know.

One day you’re receiving compliments. “God, you’re so lucky. You look amazing. I wish I was as skinny as you.”

The next day people are concerned.

It is difficult to know when to stop, when you don’t know where to start.

I was only doing what I thought everyone admired, because I had no idea how to give myself the love I so desperately craved.

I became a high achiever. A perfectionist. A striver. People praised my drive and determination.

These qualities didn’t create my eating disorder. My lack of self-esteem created those qualities, and those qualities were then very easy to transfer to the progression of my eating disorder.

I knew how to set goals and I knew how to push myself through just about anything.

If you loathe yourself enough, you can.

I played sports in high school. I ate healthy-ish. In my teens I measured my body worth (and general worth) by whether I had a boyfriend, and most of the time I did. Obviously, this is a terrible measuring stick.

In college, I realized I’d gained the famed Freshman fifteen pounds. We weighed ourselves and calculated our Body Mass Index (BMI) as part of a Physical Education class. Two more terrible measuring sticks.

Fifteen pounds is a small number, but I’m also not tall (another arbitrary standard of beauty). I’m 5’2”. I freaked out.

I started losing weight. Other people complimented me. I thought, “Well this is easy. I’ll lose more.”

I applied all the qualities I’d been praised for throughout my life and became my very own sadomasochistic ass kicker.

I was terrified of butter, cheese, cream, cream cheese, avocados, salad dressing, mayonnaise, sugar, or anything with a high fat or calorie content. Being invited out to dinner made me feel physically ill. I’d lie. I’d chew and chew. I’d hide food. If I had to make a show of eating, sometimes I’d make myself throw up afterwards.

From what I can remember from this period, I ate mostly soda crackers and drank Diet Pepsi. I kept up with going out almost every night to the bars though, to hide more insecurity, so that gave me a few more calories.

Sometimes, my body couldn’t take the starvation anymore and I’d binge. I’d beat myself up for days, in my head and on the treadmill or the track.

This went on for a good few years. Or rather a bad few years.

And then, the long journey back.

Eventually, some signs were placed on my path. I already knew that my family and friends were concerned, but they truly didn’t know how to help me. Like I said, I wasn’t sure I wanted any help.

Something made me take a Nutrition class. We had to hand in a five day assessment of our food intake. I thought it was an off the charts pig out. My instructor kept me after class to talk to me about the deprivation.

Something after that made me seek out a counsellor. She helped me begin to understand, but I wasn’t quite ready. I was still in some denial.

The long journey back to learning to love my body didn’t happen overnight.

I did gain some weight. But for many more years I kept my body at a weight it couldn’t naturally be at. I had a really unhealthy relationship with food and exercise, like so many people do.

I had a lot to learn.

Over the course of much self-discovery, life coaching, yoga, meditation and two children later, here is some of what I have discovered:

  1. It was never really about the food, or the weight, or the label of an eating disorder. Mental health labels are there only to educate us. They should never be used to define us.  Mere words can never really ever define a person. One of my very favourite quotes by Beau Taplin is this: “But people are oceans, she shrugged. You cannot know them by their surface.”
  2. You are loved and cared for and supported. We all are, if we can allow it. For me, this is the Divine. For you, it can be whatever floats your boat.
  3. Total surrender makes life immeasurably easier. If we can’t manage that, partial surrender definitely helps. Like everything, this is a practice.
  4. There is no one to blame. My parents, my extended family, and my culture were all doing the very best they could with what they knew. I was doing the best I could too. I learned lessons about self-love the hard way, but this is often the way. When things are difficult, we tend to remember. I don’t blame the media either, but we do have an opportunity to change the societal status quo around images we see of other people’s bodies in the media and how that impacts our view of our own bodies. That is happening, and we can ensure that it continues to happen by loving our own body and continuing to make sure that the images we see are real, rather than airbrushed to an unattainable and ridiculous standard.
  5. It is futile to hate your body. Completely futile. But it is also difficult to just change your mind about your body all of a sudden. For me, it has been immensely helpful to access the wisdom that helps me remember the ultimate purpose of my body, which is that it is my vehicle for this journey.  Why would we insist on beating something that allows us to partake in this life, that allows us to breathe in fresh air, to laugh, to love our partners and husbands, to enjoy our kids (and not enjoy our kids sometimes!), and that carries out thousands of functions every day that we don’t even have to think about? There is no technology that is as intelligent and well-formed as our bodies. There is no substitute for what they can do.
  6. Loving your body happens with practice and more practice and more practice. You have to keep practicing. Don’t give up on your body. Don’t give up on you. Keep convincing yourself you are lovable. Look in the mirror and tell yourself if you can. When I first did this, I felt really weird. When I tried to do it naked, I felt hot and sweaty and panicked and a little bit sick. Actually quite a lot sick. But it got easier. I do not love my body every single second of every single day. But I keep working through it. During pregnancy with so much weirdness happening to my body, the after children sag, and “middle” age. Things are always shifting (usually down) and you’ve got to keep working on loving all of it unconditionally. Our bodies were already programmed to age when we were born. We can keep ourselves young in many ways (healthy and unhealthy) but we can’t change the aging process completely. We have to make the choice to accept it gracefully – or not. And we have to do that over and over and over again.
  7. Guilt has no place in your life, and especially not around food. When I started to treat my body as something I cherish, my body went back to its ideal (for me) weight, without me doing anything. It turns out that when I got out of the way, my body self-regulated to exactly where it needs to be. I eat healthy, nutritious food because I appreciate my body and because I want to treat it well.
  8. Exercise because it makes you feel good, not because you feel the need to punish yourself. Your body knows when to work and when to rest. Keep trying to hear it. Keep listening. Keep intending to honor yourself and you will get it.

Your body is more precious than the rarest gem. Cherish it. Find your peace with it, however you can.

Don’t ever give up. I’ll be cheering for you.

This post appeared on Positively Positive in February 2016.