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November 19, 2018

How I turned my personal struggle with body image and food into a practice of compassion

I never ate as much as I did when I was 14 years old. I was an above average grade 9 student, ran on the cross country team in fall, competed on the track team in spring, and was a high-level technical dancer most days of the week. now , before you start thinking that my parents were the super overbearing type who insisted their children be registered in 5 sports clubs, 3 extracurriculars, maintained good grades, and had friends, don’t. Because they weren’t those parents.

I loved – and still do love – running, and it was that thing that lit me on fire. And I’d been taking ballet since I was four years old and it was a part of who I was. I loved them both, so I did them both. I saw my friends at school, did homework on the weekends and had the occasional sleepover.

But this isn’t about my social life. It’s about my appetite. And holy sh*t did it peak that year. Not only was I incredibly active, I was also going through puberty (having only gotten my period for the first time the summer of grade 8, when I was 14) and growing like a weed. I remember one night sitting at the dining room table with my family, eating spaghetti (my mum makes the best marinara sauce – but who’s mum doesn’t?) and going back for seconds, filling my plate higher than my dad’s. I looked over at his plate to my left, and was proud that I could eat more than my dad, who had always been athletic and a good eater.

I kept eating like that through the year. And I kept growing. In every way. I got taller, my boobs got a little bigger, and I started to get hips. I started to look like a woman. I found stretch marks on my hips and thighs for the first time and was horrified. It wasn’t that I was getting fat, it was that I shot up to a 5”7 height in a short time, and all of a sudden could not longer fit into my boys sports shorts that I’d been rockin’ to gym class for the last three years.

In gym class one day, we were learning about body composition and weight lifting, and we had to have ourselves weighed. In front of the whole class. Boys and girls. I was mortified. I wrote 125lbs on my paper beside the word weight. I felt terrible.

That’s the first time I remember feeling ashamed about my body. I saw that number and couldn’t believe it. I associated it with not being good enough. I was a medal-winning athlete, and I felt that my body was failing me because I wasn’t as thin as I thought I should have been. I was 14.

So as my body continued to grow into this beautiful womanly shape, I associated the change, the stretch marks and softness around my stomach and hips to be from how much I was eating.

And then my relationship with food slowly started to change.

By the next summer, I was equating my worth to my physical appearance, and food was the direct way to change my changing body. So I started to control what I put in my mouth. But rather than eat healthy foods, I only ate once or twice a day, and only enough so that I felt like I was tricking my mum into believing that everything was fine.

We grew up in a healthy home, where our meals were always home cooked by my mum. My little sister and I would bake with her when we were little, as is evidence in family photo albums full of pictures of naked babies standing on chairs in the kitchen, covered in chocolate and flour. We were always given packed lunches (we didn’t have a cafeteria until high school, and even then, we brought our lunches from home). Fruit salad was a common desert, and veggies were always on our dinner plates. My mum once told me that one of her biggest parenting regrets was giving us white bread before whole grain bread was known to be the healthier option.

Boxed cookies and sugary cereals rarely found a home in our pantry, and pop was only allowed on the rare pizza night. Needless to say, I wasn’t raised with junk food as a main food group, but because we naturally ate pretty healthfully, I didn’t learn until later just how important vegetables and other healthy foods were.

So I restricted myself. The summer I was 16 was the one and only time I really ever restricted myself. School was out for two months, I didn’t have a job, or hobbies (dance season was over and I’d stopped running earlier in the run due to an injury). It was the days of MSN Messenger, so I would spend all morning on the computer, chatting to a boy I liked who I’d met through my cousin when I was in Ontario earlier that year. I’d wait until about 2 or 3 pm before eating anything, because that was the time I really felt myself draining. I’d have something small. I remember eating a lot of frozen chimichangas from Costco whilst sitting at the computer that summer. The food never made me feel good, most likely because it was garbage covered in cheese thrown in the microwave. Then I wouldn’t eat until dinner.

When my mum called me to come eat, I’d tell her I wasn’t hungry. She insisted I eat something. To this day, I believe my mum knew what was going on, but I have zero memories of her ever addressing it. She just let it play out. I’d sit at the table, eating a very small piece of lasagna that consisted of about four bites (compare this to the two huge helpings I was eating just a year before), then excuse myself.

This went on for about six weeks to two months. This may not be considered “long” for an eating disorder. But I consider any length of time to be too long. I don’t remember when it started. I do, however, remember when it stopped. I was supposed to have dinner at my friend Chris’ house one night, then we were going to go out after. But earlier on in the afternoon I started to feel sick. I thought I must have been getting the flu because I hadn’t eaten anything that would have upset my stomach. I went to the bathroom and regularly transitioned from hugging the toilet bowl, thinking something was going to come up, to feeling tired, and lying down on the bathroom floor. The bathroom door was open. My mum walked past. “Get off the floor,” she said. “But I don’t feel good,” I replied. “You’re not sick.” She said it so matter of factly.

I got some crackers from the kitchen, thinking if there was something in my stomach, it would help me to barf – as one does when they have the flu. But as I sat there on the bathroom floor, slowly and pathetically eating stoned wheat thins, I started to feel better. I need to eat something. When I walked into the kitchen to get more to eat, I told my mum I was feeling better. “You’re starving,” she said in the same tone as before. And that was it. We never talked about it again, and I ate a full meal when I went to Chris’ house that night.

I continued to eat, eventually putting on weight, although with my slender frame, no one considered me to be overweight or fat. And I wasn’t. But in my dancer’s body and mind, I was too big. I needed to be smaller. I started using the charts from Weight Watchers and counted points for all my food. I remember feeling so hungry but not being able to feed myself. By desire to be thin and accepted was stronger than my desire to nourish my body. I was 16 years old.

It took me years of mental and physical struggles, crying on the bathroom floor depression and low self-worth to reach a point where I was able to lift myself up just enough to start offering myself the love I deserved.

I believe that day on the gym floor when I was 14 sparked years of unhealthy eating habits in an otherwise healthy girl. But it’s also what led me through a journey of self-love and acceptance, and a strong desire to nurture and nourish my body.

Now I can look back and offer love and compassion to that girl who felt shame of her strong body because it didn’t look a certain way. It’s what led me to work with other women who suffer from dysfunctional and disordered eating patterns, because I don’t ever want another girl to feel the way that I felt about myself for nearly two decades. And it’s what has led to this place where, even though I sometimes have mental battles with my body, I’m still happier in this skin than I may have ever been.

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