A little while ago, Waylon Lewis wrote a brave and honest article about his own struggles with an eating disorder, and put a call out to the rest of us to own up and talk about it if we’ve been through the same thing. With an estimated five to ten million women and one million men affected in the U.S., that’s a lot of us, yogis and otherwise.
Well, I’ve been through it.
I’ve started and deleted and restarted this article a few times—it’s really hard to talk about.
There’s a lot of shame surrounding eating disorders, and what a lot of people don’t realize is that they are rarely actually about losing weight. If all you wanted to do was achieve a healthy body weight, you would never starve yourself or puke up the nourishment your body had just taken in. That goes right against your own most basic survival instincts. Dieting is one thing, but it takes a massive amount of willpower, or a serious mental problem, to actually ignore your body’s signals when you are hungry. This is probably the most obvious and easy to discern a message your body has ever given you or ever will.
Hungry? Eat food!
Very simple—we all know it so well. So how can someone actually turn it off to the point that they don’t hear that plea anymore?
I didn’t know I had an eating disorder for years. I had no idea. Sure, I didn’t eat for about a year (my mom would force the occasional piece of toast on me). I went down to 102 lbs on a 5’9 frame (I was sickly proud when I saw that number on the scale). My arms looked like matchsticks, and my size 9 feet looked like flippers on my little shins. But I didn’t think I had a problem. I probably thought I looked good too.
My parents, of course, begged to differ. They sent me off to counseling (this was along with all the usual raging teenager, breaking glasses, sneaking out to get drunk at night, screaming at my father until he checked right out) and I was diagnosed with Food Phobia. Because I was afraid of food, right? I thought, If I eat that piece of toast, I will lose control. I would calculate I have 6 more hours until I will next be expected to eat food. If I wait that long without eating, I will be okay.
What I didn’t realize until I read an article about it years later, is that that is Anorexia. There is an impression out there that the hallmark of Anorexia Nervosa is a desire to be thinner, a fear of gaining weight. And yes, it can start there, and I imagine for many people (including me) that’s a part of it, but you wouldn’t turn off your basic survival instincts just to look like a fashion model. It’s got to go a lot deeper than that.
For me, it had a lot to do with control. I was going through a lot of changes, and especially as a teenager, the one and only thing I had control over was what I put into my body. If I could maintain this supreme power over my own body, it would stop changing so quickly, it would stop being terrified of meeting new people, it would stop betraying me, it would stop becoming sexual so quickly. I wasn’t able to get my period for years. My body was a slave to the dictator in my mind, and that sick comfort kept me starving myself for a long time.
In 1984, a Chilean torturer spoke on his experiences and said this:
You don’t look at their face, even when you put prods in their mouth. You keep their eyes covered. The secret is not to look into their eyes.
This man was able to do terrible things to human bodies, awful, hurtful, soul-scarring things, because he didn’t look in their eyes. He never had to look at them as something similar to him, as sentient beings, as humans like he was.
I think it’s like that between our minds and our bodies. The problem isn’t necessarily the skinny models and the fat phobia and the dieting pills and all that stuff out there, though that’s a part of it. It’s that we treat our own bodies as objects, as pieces of meat, things we can shape and move and surgically alter and epilate and dye and put on display.
Even aside from all that, so many of us are trained to live from the neck up—to address everything from the rational mind, through logic, and to swallow the feelings and desires and sensations that aren’t rational or socially acceptable, things that are in the universe of our controllable bodies, not our ultimately powerful minds.
Our minds truly are under the terrible, cruel illusion that we can control anything.
As a teenager, I was shunted off to therapy, where my therapist and I used our brains to analyze my problems. I was forced to drink that Ensure crap that they give babies so that I didn’t die. I understood that I needed to get better, that this couldn’t be my little secret anymore. But I still dabbled in it, here and there, eating that just-a-bit-less when I felt stressed, reminding myself that I still had that modicum of control (okay, honest? Still do that sometimes when it gets really bad. I’m lucky I have friends who notice [probably because they know it well themselves] and make me eat a sandwich.)
I didn’t really start to heal this thing with myself and my body until I found yoga. Through yoga, I started to really feel things. In a way that was beautiful and amazing, not out of control and terrifying (okay, sometimes terrifying). I started to get bigger in ways that was really freaking awesome (have you SEEN my biceps? They are MADE of fighter jets!).
It became this gorgeous rebellion of taking up more space, more luscious, powerful space with muscles and fat. My body started to become my friend, and I started to feel more powerful because I AM more powerful. I understand myself better. I trust myself more. I talk to my body now. It is so smart, it turns out. The best friend a girl could ask for. Especially my gut—it tells me a lot more now than just when it’s hungry. It is this wellspring of intuition and knowledge that helps me get through pretty much everything, if not perfectly, and certainly not with that much control.
I remember the sorts of conversations I used to have with myself. They were mean. I remember the literal sensation of yelling inside my head. It’s not like that anymore. Yoga lifted the veil, and I saw my body’s eyes. I saw that it was me. How could I treat my body so cruelly anymore, knowing that it is so intelligent, so beautiful, so full of possibilities?
There will be a lifetime of work and forgiveness here for that. I know I’m not done here. But I know my body and I can get through this, that eventually we will figure out that we are not two entities in one being, we are one and the same, body and mind. I know now my brain is not my only source of intelligence, nor is it nearly as in control as it thinks. And if we keep on talking about this, face the shame surrounding it, and obsess less about the body image thing and focus on healing our relationships with our own bodies, maybe the estimated 11 million of us suffering eating disorders will become a lot less millions of us, and we will all be more powerful and more compassionate and kinder and all have biceps made of fighter jets. And I like that.
So I’m going to go eat a sandwich now. Join me?