The nitty-gritty on eating disorders, love & beauty.

Via on Aug 10, 2011

I used to have this secret little ritual. I’ve never shared it with anyone before. Today I am telling you. Okay, deep inhalation, and here I go. (Oh! And thank you Waylon and JC for the inspiration.)

It started when I was fifteen and lasted about three years. I think it was my way of reaching into eternity, into the part of me that was unflawed, into places that were perfect. I did this by obsessing over what I thought of as my imperfections. And in an unconscious and unfair casting of roles, my body became the symbol of everything I thought was wrong with me. Even though it was young. Even though it was healthy. Even though it was naturally thin and attractive. To me, it was horribly flawed.

Every day I would lock myself up in my bathroom, strip down to my underwear and measure myself in five places: my bust, my waist, my hips, my upper arms and my thighs. I kept the secret measurements in a little notebook I hid in my bathroom cubby. The last dreaded number to get jotted down was my weight. Then I would exercise for at least an hour, followed by a shower, after which I would record all the measurements all over again. I did this nearly every day for about three years.

My ritual had a calming effect on me. I could say it made me feel in control during a time in my life in which I felt terribly helpless. I could say it restored a bit of my own sense of power: my ability to create an impact, or effect, if only on myself. But it was more than that. It was a search for nourishment.

I wanted nourishment I didn’t have to rely on an outside source for. All those outside sources had, after all, proved themselves to be unbelievably unreliable. I knew I couldn’t count on them. So I unconsciously began to look for independent ways to feed myself. Oddly enough, I did this through starvation.

At the age of fifteen, and a five feet nine height, I considered my body grotesquely overweight at 110 pounds. I made painstaking efforts to subsist on grapefruits, diet cokes and chewing gum. My body stopped menstruating. Then at sixteen, my ugly binge eating and purging cycle began. I got a job at a donut shop and would lock myself in my bedroom after work with mountains of donuts, and ice cream, and frosting, and devour everything, usually followed by tears. Then the anxiety of getting fat would set in, followed by self-induced vomiting. That behavior of mine disgusted me then. But tucked into the disgust was an incredibly desperate and energetic effort to feed my heart. I ached to feel loveable.

Eating disorders, at their core, are about starving hearts.

They are about a very real human need for love: that magical ingredient which, when babies are deprived of it, turns them into failure-to-thrive infants, even when they have all their physical needs met! So it seems like we are all hardwired to expect love, as if our whole purpose for existing is to give and receive love. When enough love is not delivered we automatically assume it is our fault. It’s sad that children do this, but they do: They blame themselves for the shortcomings of those who try to love them.

That’s when it starts: the dangerous misbelief that we are somehow unworthy of love, that we must not deserve it, that we need to be “better” to be loved. Ultimately, we become tormented with the view that we are defective. It might start small, and then grow; or come out all vicious and violent like an exploding volcano—that inner dialogue that tells us we are ugly, we are stupid, we are worthless and we are unlovable.

Needless to say, people who suffer from eating disorders do not like what they see in the mirror. I sure didn’t. They may as well replace their reflection with a big sign that says: “Terminally defective!” since it feels like the perceived “defect” will eventually kill them. But the body in the mirror is only a symbol of the harder-to-locate imperfection they perceive inside of themselves. Obsessing with their body image, they unwittingly attempt to carve a tunnel into that part of themselves that is valuable. Presumably, that would be their non-defective part. I was looking for this part of myself.

Reminiscing on my need to practice my body measurements ritual when I was a teenager, I see myself trying to measure my worth. In my estimations then, lower measurements equaled greater worth. The skinnier I was, the less defective.

This is an irony many people with eating disorders mold their reality around: the more of their body they can lose, the more of their own intrinsic value they hope to gain. It’s as if they tune into the universal law that demands that for every new creation, something old is destroyed. This is usually the purpose of ritualistic actions: to instigate a transformation. It makes perfect sense then, that rituals are rampant among those with eating disorders.

To see something in a new way, we must transform our old ways of seeing it. An eating disorder forces us to reevaluate, and change our views of ourselves, staring with the most basic symbol of who we are: our body.

Regardless of how much, or how little, our body weighs; our value as a person remains unchanged. Even if our body is covered in stretch marks, or cellulite, or scars, or moles, or wrinkles, or is deformed or broken, our worth remains unaffected. Our lovableness never dies! (Easier understood than experienced though.)

Rituals attempt to reach for this inextinguishable part of our being, even when they involve the breaking down of our bodies. Something dies so that something else can live. In eating disorders, we destroy our body to find our self. It may not be a conscious aim, but it’s as if we are saying: I know I am more than this body, while simultaneously investing a myopic focus on our body. Believe it or not, there is some sense in this contradiction. As I experienced it, the more weight I lost, the closer I felt to being my true self.

In Yoga philosophy, they call the process of peeling off layers to find the permanent part of our being as neti neti, “neither this, nor that”. We eliminate what we aren’t, to find the most authentic part of what we are. Of course, the yogis didn’t mean a literal peeling of our body! Yet this is the sacrifice those with eating disorders make:  Whether we mean to or not, our relationship with our body and food, is taxing on our health. In worst cases it will even kill us. Yet food is meant to nourish and heal us, not exterminate us!

Hippocrates said “Let food be thy medicine, and medicine be thy food”.

Sometimes our attitudes towards food mimic our attitudes towards love. This is often the case with those struggling with eating disorders. For example, I wanted food but deprived myself of it, perhaps because I felt unworthy of love. Then I would binge on lots of sweets, maybe because they represented love’s sweetness to me, which I was starving for. I think it’s safe to say that Hippocrates would have told me I was doing it all wrong. Let my food be my medicine? Mmmmm.

Love is the medicine that never fails.

When we stop using food as our medicine and begin a toxic relationship with it, that’s a pretty good indication that we’re already in a toxic relationship with love. I found that the best way to exit my eating disorder and mend my own relationship with love was to relax into my body, no matter how skinny I thought it was, and no matter how chubby, no matter how pretty I thought it was, and no matter how ugly, I was determined to be comfortable just being me. Imperfections and all! It would have to do. It was all I had. So I let go.

I have to let go of my body, to be able to embrace my body. When I do, all judgments begin to fly out of the window and in enter the luxurious oil massages, the warm bubble baths, the long yoga sessions, the breath work, the healthy foods, and the bathing suits. Yes, I didn’t wear a bathing suit for years because I thought my body was too unsightly to be seen in public. It wasn’t. I know that now. And although I’ve promised myself to never again be ashamed of my body, keeping that promise has not been easy. I admit.

Self-Portrait by the author

I still struggle on a regular basis with feeling comfortable in my discomfort with my body. It’s a feeling that comes and goes. But instead of letting it dominate me, I just watch it, as it rolls in and out of me, like tides on a beach. Some waves are stronger than others, but they rarely knock me down anymore. Part of the way I stand strong in honoring my body is through my self-portrait photography. Unlike when I was a teenager (and hid from cameras), I now bravely step before the lens, and use my form in my art. It’s not always easy. It’s sometimes very scary. But at least it’s a ritual that heals me instead of destroys me. So I guess you could say that I’ve traded in my measuring tape and notebook for a Leica camera.

And while I don’t have all the answers, and I still suffer the physical effects of my eating disorder (and my body is not as young and healthy as it was when I was a teenager), I feel more connected to a deeper beauty and love than ever before. I am well loved. But it is a love and beauty that honors imperfections. Just like the Japanese fill the cracks in broken objects (like teapots), with gold, making them more valuable in their aesthetic originality. We all have our own aesthetic originality. It is a reflection of the deeper value intrinsic to us all.

Kintsugi Japanese Bowl

This Japanese practice of kintsugi tells us that our unique history enriches us, no matter how many cracks it leaves in us. No matter how many times it breaks our heart. No matter how much damage we think it’s done. And no matter how embarrassing it may sound. So don’t leave those broken teapots in the cupboard, take them out, fill their cracks with gold and share their beauty. Once the secret is out you’ll feel so much lighter! (No pun intended)

About Katarina Silva

Katarina Silva is an artistic self-expressionist who thrives on the spontaneous thrill of creating photographic images in ten seconds, and inevitably employs witchcraft to do so. Her autobiographical art reflects her emotions and dreams, and is characterized by the mysterious absence of her complete face. She lives unafraid of darkness, wrapped in nature, in an obscure corner of the planet with her magical kitty. You may view her work at The Art of Katarina Silva. Or connect with her on Facebook or Twitter

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47 Responses to “The nitty-gritty on eating disorders, love & beauty.”

  1. Lacey says:

    I can't give you a gazillion upvotes. I wish I could.

    As someone who struggled (struggles?) with a similar story, I love that you shared this. It's beautiful.

    • Than you so much! I was kinda scared writing about this. I had never done it before, but this encouragement is such a sweet reward. Thank YOU for taking me time to tell me, and I wish you well with your struggle Lacey.

  2. misa says:

    Such amazing article! I have tears, and I want to hug you, and I want to tell you how beautiful you are. I lived the struggle with the body for short period in my life, and now I have this struggle with my loved one, and it is hard to watch…still much harder to live it! As I put on my FB comment, your writing should be shared with all teens, in all Middle schools and high schools, with teachers and parents, because you are sharing not only the way down and how it feels, but also the way out and permanent struggle. Thanks you and sending you big hug !!!

    • Wow… This brought tears to MY eyes! Thank you Misa. Your hug is MUCH appreciated! I was so worried people would give me a hard time in the comments, for some reason. It's kinda scary being this vulnerable, but comments like yours make it all worth it. I REALLY appreciate it. And I wish you well with your relative. And I send you a big hug back! You can never get enough of those. :-)

  3. Scott Robinson YesuDas says:

    Beautifully insightful, Katarina, and inspiringly brave. I have often thought that some of the Christian ascetics were trying, through their austerities, to "tunnel to their inextinguishable selves." Lovely piece.

    • So interesting about the Christian ascetics. Yes! I have also wondered about this with some of the female, catholic, mystic saints. Thank you so much for this angle, Yesu, and for noting my courage. Yes, this was WAY out of my comfort zone!

  4. Hannah Siegle Hannah says:

    Thanks so much for sharing this! Sharing about eating disorders help to heal AND to take away the stigma that is attached. I opened up about my 14 year battle over a year ago and blogged through my last round of treatment…so liberating!

    So often with eating disorders (and body image) we already know what we are going to see in the mirror before we look and what we think we "see" isn't there. Have you every caught yourself in a reflection and been surprised by what you saw? You didn't have the chance to expect to see yourself and got a glimpse of what was really there at least before the recognition of yourself kicked in.

    Again great article and beautiful photography on your site!

    Hannah

    • Thank you so much for taking the time to share, Hannah. I am so overwhelmed with all the appreciative outpour! And thank you for confirming that sharing such as this helps the healing process. It is a real stretch for me to put it all out there, but now that I am receiving all this loving support, I am so happy I did! I nearly pulled the article down last night, so thank you for your comment, your example, and your own courage to share. And yes! The mirror can sometimes give me a nice surprise! So true :-)

  5. KatieP says:

    Thank you. This is wonderful.

  6. Tanya Lee Markul tanya lee markul says:

    Just posted to "Featured Today" on the Elephant Yoga homepage.

  7. Tanya Lee Markul tanya lee markul says:

    Love.

    Posting to Elephant Yoga on Facebook and Twitter.

    Tanya Lee Markul, Assoc. Yoga Editor
    Like Elephant Yoga on Facebook
    Follow on Twitter

  8. Brittany says:

    Very well written. I absolutely love the kintsugi analogy you used. Thank you for braving this one out and sharing :)

  9. shannon says:

    I just read this and I can't really put down what I feel here, but felt compelled to write. Thank you so much for this. I recognize myself in so much of it. The struggle to love myself some days is huge. Thank you so much again for putting into words and images something that affects so many in so many different ways.

    • Thank YOU Shannon! yes, so many of us are affected. I think more than we know. It is such a taboo subject still, and it sure was not easy for me to put this up, but reaching others like yourself made it all worth it to me. If I can inspire just one person to try loving themselves a little ore each day, my job is done here.

  10. Tanya Lee Markul tanya lee markul says:

    Just posted to "Popular Lately" on the Elephant Yoga homepage. xo

  11. Ben Ralston Ben_Ralston says:

    Beautiful and inspiring piece Kararina. I will share it – with full acknowledgement, of course, and if you don't mind – with my clients that suffer from eating disorders. There is much insight here, and I also love the idea of filling the cracks with gold. Something I'd never heard of before.
    Thank you!
    Ben
    Also, posting this to the EJ facebook page now.

  12. Daniel says:

    Sometimes you just have to re-read something so good. And I just did <3.

  13. Pearls and Poets says:

    Beautiful.

  14. "Love is the medicine that never fails." YES! Beautifully written Katarina! I am enjoying the openness about eating disorders on EJ lately…I do want to add one caution (not criticism) to be careful when including details of behavior, weight amts, rituals….some of these things can be very triggering for people early on in the recovery process. And I know that when I was early on, I would read ED articles not for encouragement on how to heal, but for tips.

    Love that you shared….glad that you are healing:)

    • Oh! I am sorry. I had not considered that! Yes, I can imagine that such details could be used to support the eating disorder, instead of discouraging it, as they did with you, who used to read such essays for tips! I must say that it was hard for me to write about such details. In fact, I haven't really given away any of my really good "tips" here. (thankfully). But I did want to paint a personal picture of what my struggle looked like, in hopes that it would leave others who suffer similarly not feeling so alone. I know I felt VERY alone during the height of my eating disorder. Oddly enough, I did not read about anyone else's. But I imagine that if i did, it may have triggered things in me, as well. So thank you for this perspective I missed considering. And yes, love is the best medicine! I am happy you are healing too. :-) xoxo

  15. [...] mutating from a small thought to an entire paradigm that separates us from the present moment. As a many-headed monster it not only promotes a false, utopian self, but it seems to care for you with such patience and [...]

  16. [...] The nitty-gritty on eating disorders, love & beauty. [...]

  17. Jen says:

    It was all good…except the "disgusting I know" comment. Not really necessary.

    • Thank you Jen. I suppose I got kinda self conscious there. That was the hardest paragraph to write. I guess there was some shame connected to the "disgusting, I know" sentence. Maybe I was projecting what I feared OTHERS might think when they read that. Kinda scary to reminisce on that time of my life, and recall what it's like to vomit that much food out into a toilet bowl. It comes out with such force it also exits through your nose and splashes, and, let me tell you, many would indeed agree that "disgusting" would be an effective adjective to describe such a scene. However, I apologize if it sounded like I was not being compassionate towards myself at that time, or towards others going through such a struggle. I suppose what I was REALLY saying was that, at the time, my behavior disgusted MYSELF. I no longer see it that way because now I understand it more. Again, I am sorry you felt it was unnecessary. Please say more as to why that is, if you wish. I did not mean to sound like I was judging anyone. Just the way I harshly judged myself then, as anyone with a body-image issue does.

      • This was my first time writing about this, so thank you for the suggestion. I just changed it so it would better reflect what I meant. Again, sorry if I offended you.

  18. lisa says:

    a lovely essay Katrina…I can certainly relate on all levels! Yoga has been a huge part of my own personal journey of recovery, however, the old grooves are still inside somewhere and it is imperative for me to stay aware and in the moment to avoid sinking back into them. Thanks for your heartfelt and honest article!!

    • Thank you Lisa! Yes, yoga is a wonderful lifestyle for recovery of not just eating disorders but nearly anything, I think! :) Thank you for mentioning the importance of being in the moment. This is a big part of my own healing journey as well, of yoga and of avoiding slipping back into destructive old habits! (mental and otherwise) Thank you so much for sharing and for your appreciations. They are very encouraging to me.

  19. [...] “different-ness.” Of course, it’s easiest to look at a magazine and decide that the skinny, bony model has exactly what you want. And while that decision may cause you a considerable amount of [...]

  20. [...] The nitty-gritty on eating disorders, love & beauty. [...]

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  22. MarySol says:

    Just came across and read this article. I found it so insightful. Thanks for again bravely mining your life for such valuable literary gems. I especially loved your conclusion, how life's struggles and breaks enrich us. I needed to hear that just now, thanks!

    • I just read this comment from you Marino. Not sure how to keep up with all the comments under my blogs yet, as I'm new at blogging here. I fear I miss many of them! But so happy to read your appreciations again. Yes, life's struggles can enrich us, if we let them. Thank you for sharing.

  23. MarySol says:

    Oh, no worries Katarina. I see most of the "intense debate" takes place in the first few days, after which few comments are made. For a writer with multiple articles here it must be hard to keep up on all of that. But I'm newer still here and for me many of your "old" articles are "new". So you may find an occasional stray comment here or there from one of your "new" readers:-)

  24. Thanks for your courage in sharing your vulnerability with us so openly Katarina. It is a gift much to be admired as you enlighten and help others who have struggled and/or are struggling with these issues. I never heard of kitsungi before and think it a marvelous analogy. <3 Elly

  25. Len says:

    I struggle with anorexia and can relate to this. Thank you so much for sharing!

  26. Yes, Megan! Always in recovery, like an alcoholic! Exact;y! I also experience that. Thank you so much for sharing! It really touches my heart to read such comments, and I am so happy you liked my kintsugi visual. Love to you. xoxo

  27. Thank you Lopa. The journaling is a wonderful practice! I used to do that when I was a teenager, and it really helped me. I have been meaning to start it up again. Thank you for reminding me, and for the idea on keeping a inspirational quotes journal! LOVE THAT! Thank you for sharing, and I wish you the best.

  28. Thank you for sharing this, Lopa. I loved the part about saying good mantras about yourself, and surrounding yourself with positive energy people. Yes! That makes SUCH a difference. And to know the difference between letting yourself experience your difficult emotions, and letting them carry you away in a repetitive pattern or cycle. Thank you for all these keen observations. I've enjoyed this dialogue, and I feel happy to have facilitated a bit of discussion on this subject. Oh! And Ganesha rocks! :)

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