*Caution: this article is about eating disorders and could be triggering.
When I was 26, I stood in front of my mirror a few hours before a first date, feeling nauseous with disgust as I looked at my body.
I cancelled the date.
Because of my ankles.
The thing about eating disorders is that they cause us to see something reflected in the mirror that is irrational and untrue — and yet we actually see it. When I stood in front of the mirror that day, I actually saw my ankles as being so grotesquely large that the thought of going on a date and having them — or any other part of my body — seen by that person made me feel sick. It was all I could see when I looked at myself, and I was certain that it would be all they could see.
When I was 70 pounds, covered in a fine layer of hair that was my body’s attempt to keep me warm and so weak that I couldn’t carry a stack of books across the room, I used to stand in front of my mirror and pinch the skin of my thighs between my fingers with a degree of loathing that is different than anything I’ve ever experienced before, so is difficult to describe. But if you’ve come through an eating disordered past, I don’t have to describe it to you because you know.
No matter how much or how little of you there is, it’s always too much. And you’re always going to see way more than is actually there. It doesn’t matter how many times someone tells you different, you’re not going to believe it. That’s the disordered thing about it.
It started when I was a young teenager trying to disappear from a reality that I was struggling to survive.
Everything about my childhood was about control — but none of it was mine. I was controlled, in every way, but I had no control. So in addition to wanting to literally be invisible, this was another element of my early years with anorexia. How much food I put in my body — this was something I could control.
My home life was a reason for my early years of eating disorders, but it only got worse after I left. A few months after being raped as an 18-year-old college freshman, I found myself in a relationship with a guy who preferred his girlfriends to be all jutting bones and sharp angles. An athlete, he would bring me into the locker room every week and have me strip and stand on the scale. The number that flashed up on the screen would determine his treatment of me that week.
The number hadn’t reached anywhere close to triple digits in months, but his biggest fear was that someday we would have a child and that I wouldn’t lose the baby weight fast enough.
I had purged occasionally in high school, but this was the season of my life where it became a daily thing.
At 21, I learned during a visit to the dentist that after a lifetime of no cavities, I had 15. This made the loathing all the more intense, but I couldn’t stop. I just got more careful about oral care when I purged.
I purged in the woods on camping trips with friends. I purged in port-a-potties at events. I purged in crowded restaurant bathrooms after “special” dinners while my family waited outside, oblivious. I purged until blood roared in my ears, my heart skipped, and I couldn’t stand up without falling over.
And then, four months before we planned to get married, I found out that he’d been cheating on me throughout our entire relationship. Routinely, with girls whose names he didn’t even know. Girls whose weight he didn’t care about because he wanted them only for a good time, not for a wife to show off to his world.
I put thousands of miles and an ocean between us. As I sat with the betrayal and the heartbreak, I started to eat. I was hungry. Years worth of hungry. I didn’t binge, but because my body was in complete starvation mode it hung on to every bite like it would be its last. And that number on the scale crept up. Slowly at first, and then alarmingly fast. And no matter how much I purged, it kept creeping up — because somehow, I’d lost my ability to starve myself.
Seven months later I was at the highest weight point of my entire life, and even though that weight was within the “normal” range for my height, I’d stopped showering because the loathing was so great that I couldn’t stand to be in my own skin, unclothed, for even a few minutes.
Even now, 10 years later, the remembrance of that loathing is a tangible, palpable thing.
I was living in another country with a group of people that I felt alienated from and judged by. Some of that alienation and judgment was in my head, a symptom of my own self-loathing, but much of it was very, very real. This was one of my last experiences with religion before walking away, and my experience during this time with this group was one of the catalysts that prompted me to turn my back on Christianity and its god after 21 years of struggle to “fit” into that world — a world that felt so intrinsically wrong to me.
I’ll never forget the look of pity in a girl’s eyes as she turned to me one day after finding out I’d been raped and asked, “How do you deal with that though, knowing that now you won’t be able to offer your husband your virginity? And that he’ll have to miss out on that by choosing to be with you? If I were you, I’d probably just never marry rather than ask a man to make that sacrifice.”
I moved back to the US and lost 10 pounds in as many days without even trying. My weight soon normalized to the low end of a “healthy” weight, and I made the commitment to myself that I was done purging.
My struggle with the number on the scale and the image reflected in the mirror continued on and off for years, though, as evidenced by my 26-year-old self who cancelled that first date because of ankles.
I was living on the other side of another ocean and was happy, healthy, and active. Healthy, that is, except for my relationship with my body. That day in front of the mirror was the beginning of the end of my struggle with active eating disorders.
The thought popped into my head shortly after the ankle incident about how much of my life had been spent hating my body and obsessing over its size — and how much I’d missed in the process.
And that was it — I was done living in that space, so I went about transformation relentlessly, as I’ve done at various points with so many other areas of my life.
I recorded affirmations and played them on repeat as I fell asleep every night. I surrounded myself with positive, purposeful girlfriends who had a healthy relationship with food and their bodies. I plastered affirmations over my mirrors, doors, and wall space. I started running and practicing yoga asanas on a daily basis, building a degree of strength in my body that was empowering and intoxicating — and was something that I was not willing to compromise, no matter how I felt about my reflection in the mirror on any given day. My inner voice gradually shifted from one of criticism to one of love, acceptance, and kindness. I stopped allowing myself to “punish” myself with either food or exercise. I stopped weighing myself, stepping on scales backwards at doctor’s offices. I stopped restricting food — ever. I stopped dieting. I stopped “fasting.” I started allowing myself to enjoy food and to eat whatever I wanted. I began to eat intuitively, rather than mindlessly.
I still do many of these things as part of my ongoing recovery and commitment to health and self-love.
For me, there were three significant factors that marked a certain level of healing and recovery:
Even on those hormonal days when I feel irrationally negative about my body or its size, I recognize it as just a feeling that will pass
I developed the ability to hold space for those “feelings” — to sit with them and their discomfort while realizing they don’t define me, and meanwhile continue on with doing my rhythms of self care such as feeding my body nourishing foods and doing a workout that empowers rather than punishes
My sense of worth and value moved from that external thing to an internal, inherent thing.
Am I ever triggered? Of course. Especially during times that feel especially stressful or “out of control.” But my wonder at my body and its strength and my gratitude for what it has survived and is capable of is stronger, always, than any trigger, and I am not willing to compromise even an ounce of that strength.
Does my body change? Absolutely. I know that, even without stepping on a scale. Sometimes clothes feel tighter, sometimes looser. Becoming vegan a couple of years ago changed by body type to be even leaner, which occasionally causes me to be criticized for being “malnourished,” which doesn’t bother me one way or the other because I know how conscious I am of nourishing my body with a mindset of abundance and awareness of nutritional needs.
I observe these changes with curiosity rather than any judgment as much as possible, and my focus, always, is on moving my body and the absolute joy that this brings to me every day, and on savoring food and eating anything that my body craves, be it lentils or vegan ice cream.
One of the biggest parts of my recovery was learning that I have a right to take up space on this earth — and not being afraid of doing so. Learning to feel safe in my body. Learning to implement boundaries and create a reality around myself where I WAS safe in my body. Giving myself permission to exist and to take up space.
Perhaps it sounds odd to say that I needed permission to take up space .
But in my years of working with women I’ve discovered that this is very, very common. Often as women we feel the need to tread lightly, contort ourselves into unnatural shapes, apologize for our existence, and make ourselves as small as possible — both physically and energetically.
It’s time for the culture that promotes this to shift.
That shift starts with me, and it starts with you.