Hey sisters, when was the last time you felt bad about your body?
When you hated it, shamed it, covered it up, starved it, fed it junk, avoided it, weighed it, measured it, wished it was different, prayed for it to be different, and asked “why?”—why can’t it be different?
Oh sure, we have the “body positive” movement and some mannequins at Target that look sort of like regular human women—only if you ignore their faceless stoicism. We have a wider range of clothing sizes and see pictures of people wearing them, all be it they still are photoshopped and manipulated, to underscore for us the eternal Western truth—that you need to buy something (or a lot of things) to be okay, to feel okay, and to earn your right to exist.
It’s impossible to separate the ideas of consumerism from how we live in our bodies in this “modern” age, and if there’s one thing I know, it’s that a lot of people have profited from my, and other people’s, self-hatred for a long time.
Well, f*ck that.
Here’s the thing, we need to do a better job at challenging the ideas we’ve been taught since pre-consciousness that are only about keeping everyone in their places and keeping the money flowing at the expense of what’s spiritual or of personal value. Just slapping Ashley Graham on the cover of Sports Illustrated doesn’t cut it. We need to take a deep dive into the actual cause and effect of our behaviors and experiences, and respond to the data that we find.
Okay, that sounded pretty intimidating. Not to worry, I’m here to share some straightforward thinking about how to do that, and hopefully start to pry you off the hamster wheel of self-loathing. It’s a wheel that I know too well—and still climb aboard in my weakest moments—but I’ve found that I can make it smaller and slower, and sometimes even disappear for a while if I look at things through the right lens…my lens, which turns out to be a lot more accurate and perceptive than I have ever gave it credit for. I’m willing to bet yours is too.
First things first. Let’s call all body and food related obsessions and compulsions what they are: symptoms of anxiety, depression, or both.
These symptoms go by many names—among them anorexia, binge eating, body dysmorphic disorder (BDD), self-harm, and obsessive–compulsive disorder (OCD). However, they are all indicative of negative emotional states and have evolved to help us manage those moods. So, if you struggle with any disordered thinking or behavior related to food or body image, you may be struggling with an underlying depression and/or anxiety.
I’ll put it in another way: no truly mentally healthy person can also sustain harmful or negative thoughts about food or their body…which is fine. Because if you do grapple with these things you’re not alone, not sentenced to a life of misery, and most importantly, not crazy—just in need of deep healing work.
Why do we mask anxiety and depression with these behaviors and how does it exactly work?
The thing about anxiety/depression is that they make us feel bad. They make us feel so terrible that we do basically anything to cover up our emotions—which might be equally bad, but since it is different it seems preferable. It’s kind of like when an unhappy parrot rips out all of its feathers to the point where it’s naked, bloody, and is incapable of flying. On the surface it doesn’t make any sense that a bird would hurt itself because it’s in distress. How does adding pain to pain equal less pain? But for the parrot, the pain of self-harm is something which it can control, and a great way to switch gears from a deeper pain to one that it can’t.
That said, we’ve accepted the truth that disordered thinking and behaviors around food or body image is a sign that we, like that parrot, are in psychic distress. Let’s call that overarching approach to alleviating it “magical thinking.” Magical thinking tells us that if we were only “10 pounds lighter,” everything would be better, or that if, “no one sees me consume these calories, then they don’t count.” Or, “if I avoid looking at my body then the issues I have with it disappear,” or more profoundly, “if I look like X, I deserve love, respect, and success, but if I look like Y I deserve contempt, judgment, and failure.”
These magical thoughts give us a task to undertake which feels nearly impossible, but which is better than the so-called possible task of healing our pain. In other words, it appears to be the lesser of the two evils. The problem with this is that it doesn’t make any sense—as you’re likely able to see looking at it in the cold light of day.
I started to figure this out when I had an accidental and exquisitely rare moment of self-acceptance. It had been months since I got on the scale—the holidays had kept me off of it, then my birthday, then a vacation during which I’d really let loose with the food and the booze. Not that there’s a problem with not getting on the scale—for some of us that’s exactly what we need to (not) do—I avoided getting on it because I was in a state of denial about how healthy I wasn’t.
In short, I hadn’t gotten on and I happened to catch a reflection of myself naked as I was getting dressed (although I work hard to make sure that I don’t see my reflection). And I had this truly unusual and spontaneous thought, “hey, I look pretty good.”
Well, I went around the whole day feeling that, which is unusual to the point that the next day I was calm enough to get back on the scale. And I was 15 pounds heavier than I thought I was. Whomp whomp. I don’t have to tell you sisters, but my heart sank right into the basement. I got on the scale again: how could this be? Was this thing broken? I made my husband get on to check, but the scale was fine—it was me that was broken.
I felt my brain trying to snap into self-hatred, but something was different this time. The image of myself looking good in the mirror kept overriding the old program. I couldn’t forget that one powerful moment when I was “fat” but I felt okay anyway. I thought, what if it isn’t the state of my body that determines my mood, but the quality of my mood that determines how I perceive my body?
I reached back into my memory when I had been “thin” and wondered if I was really happier then; an assumption that was essential to challenge. These times are generally defined for me by someone else noticing that I’ve lost weight, which indicates in my sick mind that I’ve lost enough weight that it’s noticeable, and that I am therefore a better human being now.
They are indelibly etched on my brain and thus, quite easy to pull out from what I call “the body files.” As I thought about those times, I had indeed experienced a brief, but strong endorphin rush for a minute and then it lingered there for a few hours. In fact, I had been quite happy when I was “thin.” But what did I have to do to get there, and what happened next?
To get that feeling I needed to be militant about food, exercise, and self-hatred for months, if not years. I’d consumed things I didn’t want to, didn’t eat when I was hungry, didn’t eat when I wasn’t hungry. I beat myself up at the gym, thought about food when I could’ve been thinking about any other thing—like how beautiful my kids are or the beautiful house I get to live in, or the fact that the breeze is so light and fragrant today, and the million other habits of self-control that are required to beat my body and mind into submission.
That’s a pretty high price for a couple of hours of endorphin. And right after my brief endorphin rush which was purchased with my happiness, peace of mind, and sanity, I immediately slipped into an exaggerated state of anxiety. One, because I knew I had to maintain this weight or I would never be happy again, and two, because I knew I could never be happy whilst doing the things that are needed to maintain this weight.
Over and over again I engaged in this cycle. I knew it, hated it, but I couldn’t stop. Thinking about it now, after “Scale-Gate,” I started to understand that those were my choices, and that I could have made different ones.
As I have mentioned earlier, all of this starts as a reaction to a negative mood, but it gets entrenched by habit, and if we can both look at the real causes of our emotional distress—and develop new habits—we’ll get in a much better shape. The real causes of distress and the new habits we choose will certainly be different for everyone. For me, it’s about understanding the true cost benefit analysis of my disordered behaviors. If I focus on that, on how deeply I’m wounding myself just for some momentary relief from something else, it seems I can begin to change.
Consequently, my beautiful sisters, when we cry out “why can’t I be different?” the answer is, we can. Acknowledge that the degree to which you are obsessed with food or your body is the degree of emotional distress you are actually in. Acknowledge that this sickness is encouraged by a culture that profits from it, and that by succumbing to it we are being exploited.
Know that by looking at things differently, we can begin to release ourselves from the prisons of sickness and exploitation, and find a place of real health, where our perceived value is not based on our appearance, or what we do or do not eat. We can find this place, and even if we sometimes forget where it is, we can find it again, and the more who do so, the easier it will be for the rest of us to follow.
~ Dedicated, with love, to Brooke M.