August 10, 2011

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

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)

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