Disordered Eating in the Body Positivity Era
The other day, I had an unexpected and candid conversation with a sweet friend and former coworker initiated by one of her social media posts. It was about how body positivity and fitness goals aren’t mutually exclusive. And when I read the post, something resonated so strongly with me to the point I compulsively messaged her about some thoughts I’d been experiencing lately (most of which I can’t even decipher fully at the present). She was incredibly kind and receptive and said she’d wrestled with some of those same feelings and behaviors previously. Her post and subsequent conversation and empathy helped begin to untangle the myriad of complex feelings, beliefs, and mentalities I have around my own body.
I thought I would share some of my former and more recent experiences here because after speaking with my friend, my initial, guttural thought was, “we’re all so much more alike than we think.” But when it comes to this topic, I believe there isn’t as much discussion, likely due to shame or fear or embarrassment (feelings with which I am well-acquainted). I’m just going to do my best here, and I’ll probably misstep and not convey something exactly as I intend. I appreciate your grace.
This is a highly sensitive topic for many. I’ve tried to write this post several times, and by “tried” I mean I’ve written, not published, and buried it every single time. I never felt like I was coming at it from the right angle. Too dark and detailed. Too emotional. Too aloof so as not to upset my family who will inevitably read this. I’m going to navigate this multi-faceted subject to the best of my ability. If you find yourself feeling overwhelmed or a little too connected to the subject matter, maybe pause and take a breather (or skip this piece altogether). I assure you I’ve done that often throughout the duration of writing every version of this post.
Here we go…
I have struggled with disordered eating for much of my life. Originally, the previous sentence read “for much of my adult life,” but upon further reflection, it’s pretty much been a lifelong battle. I ate an unhealthy amount of snacks and sweets as a coping mechanism for a traumatic childhood (I’ve spent the past year actively trying to undo that behavior). I remember being told “you shouldn’t eat all that sugar,” but I didn’t know why I shouldn’t eat it. Between dance, softball, cheerleading, or just biking around the neighborhood, I stayed pretty busy. And because I constantly bounced around between my mom’s, dad’s, and friends’ houses, the result of these tendencies wasn’t as obvious.
Growing up, I don’t remember anyone in my family being overtly positive about their bodies. Actually, I remember quite the opposite. My mom has never spoken kindly about herself, often in front of me.
As a result, I have foolishly believed for a very long time that I could hate my way into loving my body. I’m here to tell you that is absolutely impossible.
Around the time I turned 21, I experienced a massive upheaval in my life that impacted me really negatively. About 4 months after uprooting my life and moving to Tennessee, the friends I moved here with distanced themselves from me and eventually left. And another month after that, my boyfriend at the time, who I absolutely adored, broke up with me. And I felt lost, aimless, discouraged.
I withdrew from college and spent most of my days holed up in my studio apartment by myself, sleeping and listening to my favorite Copeland album and spiraling further and further. Very few people knew how I was living. Absolutely no one in my family had a clue. I isolated and numbed myself to the point that there are entire months of that winter that I have zero recollection of. And although I couldn’t identify it in the moment, I can now say I was experiencing full-blown depression.
Because I was depressed, I barely ate. Aside from baking, my culinary skills were essentially non-existent, so I was relieved to not have to think about feeding myself. But as the warmer weather slowly began to creep in, I found myself kind of coming alive more. And as the clouds slowly began to lift, my appetite returned.
And I was furious.
So I spent my days obsessively counting calories, pouring over nutritional content, and working off every single crumb of food I consumed at the university gym (that I somehow still had a membership to).
I went back home that summer to work and save up some money to return to school in the fall, and as you might imagine, my new body drew all kinds of attention. Generally positive.
When I returned back to Nashville at the end of the summer, I began dating a friend’s roommate. Until a few weeks ago, he was the only person to which I’ve confessed, “I think I have an eating disorder” out loud. Unfortunately, this person was fairly destructive to my emotional health and generally unsupportive of my illness. As I resumed to a healthier weight, I was no longer attractive to him, and he let me know it. Often.
And after we broke up, it came back. Same symptoms. Stress. Depression. Starvation.
And as this was a third of my life ago, I anticipated that it was something staunchly in my past. I was younger, unequipped with the coping mechanisms necessary to handle life’s challenges. And it was. Until last month.
Losing my job a few months ago was completely devastating to me. It still is when I think about it. But that’s the thing — I didn’t really think about it until a little over a month ago. I occupied myself with project after project around the house until physical exhaustion took its toll and I was forced to rest and reflect. And opening up and wrestling with the associated emotions and dealing with a few other obstacles along the way was a brand new kind of hell I never anticipated. I felt lost and scared and ashamed. I still do.
At my worst, I told my therapist I was in so much emotional pain, I just wanted to disappear.
And I sat with those feelings and fears for a good long while. And my appetite disappeared. And I let grief wash over me in a way I hadn’t let it yet. It was paralyzing. I tried writing more to work through it all. I tried reframing my mindset that this is an opportunity for a new trajectory. But I can’t help but feel those really big feelings often and when I least expect them.
Not being hungry turned into my appetite resurfacing, but I restricted it to an extent because it was the only thing I could control. I think writing was (and is) helping me positively occupy my time, but in focusing on it for hours on end everyday, my body was aching from being in a stationary position. So I started going to the gym a few times a week just so I wouldn’t be in so much physical pain.
And that has translated to going to the gym often and to offset whatever I consider to be any poor eating choices. This is slightly different than the other instances in that previously, I obsessively counted calories and worked out every single day and weighed myself multiple times a day. When I was 21, I remember wanting to be able to see the bones in my chest just like an actress I saw on TV. I feel gross even admitting that, but that’s what I understood beauty to be: bones. I was 119 lbs. A size 2. Tiny by all standards, let alone for someone who’s 5’ 9”. And I still didn’t think it was good enough.
This is not entirely the same as then. I haven’t owned a scale since college. I don’t have a weight goal. I don’t even know what I weigh currently. I don’t want to be a size 2 anymore. I just want to be comfortable in my body. I’ve never been the size I currently am (whatever it is) without some negative mindsets or stressors impacting me. And I think that’s what I feel most guilty about because that’s how I arrived where I am presently. I want to love my body. I love the hell out of my friends’ bodies. I think most of them know — if they need someone to pump them up, they can call or text my number. But I have the hardest time doing it for myself. Apparently, you can’t love your friends’ bodies enough to begin to love your own, either. The work has to be done on the inside.
My fitness goals are arbitrary. I want my legs and butt to be more toned. I want to be active and have energy for when I have children. I want to be able to stay awake past 9PM when daylight savings time ends! But I also want to eat pizza and not hate myself. I want to eat a meal that I don’t know the nutritional content of and not silently freak out the entire time. I want to have a night out with friends that doesn’t end with me laying my head on the pillow and lamenting the fact that I can’t go to the gym at a completely unrealistic hour.
It’s a conflicting mix of emotions. I want to feel like I look good, but if I eat an unhealthy meal, I’m convinced I look drastically different. And I like the way my clothes fit me better, but if someone acknowledges it, I instantly feel uncomfortable. I look in the mirror, and for the most part, I still see the same person I saw at every size, my ribs just protrude a little more now (but I still look in the mirror every single day to make sure they’re still sticking out there).
So when I’m told I look skinny or healthy, I don’t really know what to do with it. Part of me is still stuck in these old mindsets of feeling guilty for having an appetite. For feeling like I’m inherently worth more if I make myself physically smaller. For feeling like some kind of a fraud because even if my body is healthier, my mind just isn’t. But part of me is trying to work against those mentalities and tell myself that I’m okay and trying my best to cope in a weird and difficult time.
I did everything I knew to do to prevent losing my job, and it still happened.
I’m trying to regain control, and this is the only thing I have control of.
I’m just trying to find balance, and it is so incredibly hard.
A few weeks ago I told my therapist that I’d struggled with an eating disorder in college, and I wasn’t sure if I was actually focused on getting healthy now, or if I was falling back into my old patterns. He told me I probably knew the answer. But that’s the thing about it — each thought is in direct conflict with the next and they’re so overpowering that I have a tough time knowing up from down.
Maybe there is something wrong?
I don’t know…
He often asks me what I’m feeling when I talk about it, and I use the same phrases: embarrassed, weird, uncomfortable, overwhelmed. He asked what it would say if it had a voice, and with my hand over my throat as I felt it slowly close up I replied, “stop talking.”
But the thing is, not talking about it for over a decade hasn’t helped me or anyone else. And I’m so damn tired of being held hostage by this.
So I guess what I need you to know is what you already know — that loving yourself is hard work. And just because you’re 33 and feel like you “shouldn’t be dealing with this at this point in your life” doesn’t mean you won’t. And no eating disorder is the same.
Waking up and being pissed because you’re already hungry
Being annoyed you want a banana first thing in the morning
Telling yourself to get over it because it’s just a damn banana
Drinking coffee to delay your appetite
Chewing gum when you really want to chew a steak
Knowing the nutritional content of literally everything
Not having a period for almost a year
Turning the burner on and off multiple times before you actually make yourself food
Feeling accomplished when you realized you haven’t eaten all day
Taking laxatives because your body can’t do its job anymore
Feeling highly sensitive
Working out relentlessly to punish yourself
Obsessively thinking about every single ounce of food you have (or haven’t) put in your body
Laying your head on the pillow and knowing it all starts again tomorrow
Wondering how long it will last this time
It’s pervasive. It never goes away, just hides for a while and then resurfaces. I’m trying my best to handle it, and I’m so used to self-managing that the thought of letting anyone in on this is terrifying. But if it helps one person, then it’s worth it.
If you are in the trenches, I’m so sorry. You are not alone, even though you probably feel like you are. I hope you know that you are so much more than what you look like. That there is nothing wrong with you. Not one single thing to fix. You are perfect. And I hope you can quiet all of those voices competing for your attention and find the one that really matters. The one that speaks infallible truth. And it will tell you you’re absolutely perfect, just as you are.
And I’m writing that to myself, too. I hope one day I can really, truly believe it.
I’m desperately trying.
If you made it this far, thank you for listening. If you find yourself in need of someone to listen, I am here.
Sending you so much love.