Reclaiming A Body: Learning to Accept Body Positivity as Healing After a Disordered Past

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(Content warning: discussion of disordered eating behaviors, calorie counting, restricting, binging, purging, mental illness, etc. If any of these topics are at all triggering for you, please don’t read, or read with extreme caution)

I have a secret. It’s not a complete secret because there are people in my life who know about it, or at least parts of it. But it is secret because it is not something that most people know about me, would suspect about me, and not even something that is recognized even by some people I’ve told about it (namely therapists, doctors, and the like).

I have a history of disordered eating habits. I’ve restricted. I’ve binged and purged. I’ve gone through periods where I ate less than 500 calories in a day.

I am also fat. I am also invested in the body positivity movement, and fat acceptance. I hate diet culture and understand that it doesn’t work and is dangerous.

I have spent years, and am still working on, learning to accept a body that I have spent a lot of time and energy hating. I am working every day to reclaim a body that was stolen from me by the media, well-meaning parents, coaches and teachers, 8 year old girls, the diet industry, eating disorders, and so much more.

I remember the first time I ever really thought consciously about my body. I was about 9 years old and it was at my friend’s birthday party. We were at her house and all off just playing around, the party activities pretty much done, and someone had the bright idea to all gather around the scale in the bathroom and each take turns stepping on. It came to my turn and I got on, and it hit somewhere in the ballpark of 90-100 lbs, and everyone had a field day. “Oh my gosh, you weigh 100 pounds?” someone said. There were snickers, and whispering and I quickly got off. I was tall for my age, and at least a year older than all of the other girls there, I was a dancer, I was athletic so I had muscle, and I also had never thought about whether I weighed more, less, or the same as other girls. I was me, I’d never had anyone concerned about my size – not even my doctor – and I had never felt fat. All of a sudden I was questioning everything. I was not a fat kid, but from that day on I thought about my body differently.

I remember in middle school when they sent the “fat letters” home to kids whose BMI test was in the above average percentile, but I still wasn’t fat. I had already grown bored with sports and had recently quit dancing due to multiple foot and ankle injuries, and a lack of interest, and I had gained a bit of weight, but I still was a pretty healthy and active kid. I had started my period before I got to middle school so my body was going through a ton of changes already when my parents received this letter about my weight, and luckily they were not the kind of parents to buy into all that bullshit…but it didn’t matter, because the psychological damage was done. My body was already becoming foreign to me through puberty, and then my school or the state or whoever sent those heinous things out was calling me fat, and I felt like that 9 year old girl again.

Flash forward through countless times I hated my body, times I wished I could look like the other girls in my high school who were skinny and had boyfriends, who wore size 2 prom dresses and had dates that weren’t their closeted gay best friend they were secretly in love with. My junior year of high school was the year I experienced my first bout of severe depression; I wore sweatpants to school every day (which if you knew me then or know me now, I don’t wear sweatpants in public) and didn’t care at all about what I looked like, and it’s sad that the period of time where I actually didn’t care about my appearance was a time that I wanted to just disappear altogether. I had never experienced that feeling in a healthy time, and I wouldn’t really until after college.

College is when my manic-depressiveness showed up and also when I was at the height of body issues, and when my eating disorder really took hold. I also have a history with self-harm, which I thought I had conquered by the end of high school; however, when my illness manifested and I was also dealing with my eating issues and body dysmorphia, it all bubbled back to the surface. Not only was what I was doing to my body through my disorder a form of self-harm, but I also was back to old habits…it wasn’t as bad and not as frequent, but it all goes hand in hand with each other. At the height of my disorder I was cycling through different dangerous behaviors. Some days I would meticulously eat less than 500 calories, others I would just go smoke anytime I felt hungry, I would go on disgusting binges where I went through 3 or 4 different drive thrus, it was a vicious cycle and mixed with the up and downs of mania and depression, I was a wreck.

In my depressions, I wouldn’t care what I looked like, dressing in big sweaters and just going about my day, or skipping classes to lie in bed. Or in the height of my manias, I would skip class to go shopping, go drink black coffee and chain smoke, or get dressed up like I thought I was the hottest person in the world and go out to bars and get trashed. I was a wreck, and I was living completely recklessly, all the while I didn’t know who’s body I was living in but it surely wasn’t mine. I was out of my body, I was out of my mind. I was using coffee, cigarettes, alcohol, and shopping as a substitute for food when I was on my highs…and then I would come crashing down and go on a binge. I would hate myself, berate myself for eating so much food before going to the bathroom to purge. The funny thing is that in movies and tv they make it look like it’s easy, and like it’s not disgusting, and both of those are false. As someone who hates vomit and throwing up, how did I do that to myself for years? It still baffles me.

I have had therapists that one of the first things I mentioned during intake was that I had an unhealthy relationship with food and my body, and out right told them I struggled with disordered eating habits. They would nod, seem to make note of it, and it was never mentioned again unless I was the one who brought it up. Mind you, this was when I was in the height of my disorder. I knew I had a problem, I was practically screaming for help, and no one did anything.

I’ve never had doctors who ever sensed that there was anything wrong. I have never been what anyone would consider a “typical” eating disorder candidate. I have never been severely underweight, in fact, throughout even the worst points of my disorder I remained overweight (not as uncommon as mainstream media would have you believe). However, this assumption is dangerous because I was suffering and doing really dangerous things to my body, like popping laxatives like candy and restricting to the point my entire body was in pain from hunger…but no doctor would ever think there was a problem because I wasn’t rapidly losing weight, and even if I had been, I’ve always been encouraged by doctors to lose weight since I’ve always been the “big girl”, in fact the last time I went to the doctor was for a routine meds check in to get refills. He spent about two minutes talking about how I’m doing with my medications before coming out with “what are you doing about your weight?” When I said “not a whole lot” he was less than thrilled. He immediately launched into an attempt to push me and shame me into a diet that not only sounded physically dangerous for anyone, but also specifically volatile for someone with a history of disordered eating – fasting and hyper-restriction just isn’t a good idea for someone with an eating disorder. I didn’t bother to tell him about my disorder (which is nowhere in my medical records, by the way) because I knew that if he was saying the things he was and already had, he would dismiss me the same way so many others had.

It’s more common than the general public would think for people suffering from eating disorders to not look like the stereotype of hyper-thinness and be severely underweight, though this is the image that is perpetuated, and the knee-jerk image we think of when we hear the words eating disorder. This stereotyping becomes a big problem when it comes to those who have average or even overweight bodies, an arguably dangerous problem. A lot of people who are struggling – and yes, their struggle is just as real and legitimate – may think it’s not bad to keep hurting their bodies because their pain can’t be “that bad” because their behavior isn’t as extreme as somebody else, because their weight isn’t down to double digits, because they’re not as sick as some other girl they know with a disorder, because they’ve never had to be committed to a hospital or gone through inpatient treatment, because it’s just not that bad.

But no matter your size, your pain is real.

If you have an eating disorder, and if you are “curvy”, or “average” or fat, or “seemingly healthy”, your pain is still just as real as all those other people. There are many forms of scars left by eating disorders, even when it may be invisible. I have premature acid reflux issues from purging, and stomach issues that were never a problem before, probably due to laxative abuse. A dear friend of mine has suffered with bulimia for more than a decade. She has never had a body type that looked like the typical image of someone with an eating disorder, but her throat is internally scarred and damaged from years of purging. She has put in the work for her recovery, she has gone to therapy and is doing well, but she is still left with those scars – physical and mental – of an eating disorder, even though you couldn’t ever “see” it. That doesn’t make her suffering less valid, doesn’t make her pain any less real. Another good friend of mine whom I have known her entire life was one of those girls who got scary skinny, at her lowest point she dropped to about 87 pounds and was threatened with hospitalization and a feeding tube (this is the friend that had the birthday party with the scale when I was 9, fyi). She refused to go to therapy, she somehow never ended up in a hospital, she never ended up with a tube, and she’s doing okay now…but she was lucky, we were all lucky. She doesn’t own the fact that she ever had an eating disorder even though she hit that threshold. The first friend has never been “that girl”, yet she will forever wear the scars left by bulimia. I’ve never been “that girl”, yet I wear my eating disorder, I own it, maybe more than the second friend ever will because for me it’s always been invisible.

It’s an interesting juxtaposition that I spoke about times I felt like I wanted to disappear, and how invisible this struggle has been and still remains to be.

My disorder was never dealt with in a h formal setting and therefore, I am still violently triggered at any suggestion that I regulate what I eat in any form that resembles calorie counting or restricting. I still picture purging any time I throw up for any reason, to the extent that I often keep it secret even if it is due to illness, because eating disorders are built on secrets, and those habits die hard. And though I personally have half-dealt with the actual behaviors, I still haven’t mended my relationship with food.

For a long time, I haven’t been what anyone would consider “small” in size. I’m tall, and as a kid I was always tall for my age so my weight, while still above average, was distributed fairly well. I don’t remember exactly when I became fat, somewhere in college maybe? Or was it during high school? I guess it would depend who you ask. But I do know that I’ve never felt, since I was probably in middle school, that I had a normal or average body type. I’ve always felt like the “big girl”, whether I was or not.

reclaimed-bodies

Source, Quote: Kelly Duarte @kellayday, Artwork: Shannen Roberts @cusicoyllurmusic

So I find myself at an interesting crossroads. I love the body positivity and fat acceptance movements, I love the Health At Every Size movement in the medical community, I have read and resonated with countless articles, blogs, and books such as Jes Baker’s “Things No One Will Tell Fat Girls” and “Landwhale”. I have preached that being fat isn’t the terrible thing that the media and society tells us it is, that we don’t have to fit into the image they perpetuate to be happy or successful humans.

But there is also a large part of me, despite my knowledge of the horrors of diet culture, my issues with eating disorders, and the like, that still wants desperately to lose weight, and not necessarily for the right reasons.

I want to be able to wear a smaller size, having been in the same size jeans the majority of my adolescent and adult life. I want to be able to go into any store and find clothes that I love and that fit my body, not having to order special sizes because they aren’t sold in that store but the company carries them, not having to shop in specialty plus size stores where clothes are twice as expensive, not having to settle for clothes that aren’t my personal style just because they fit. I want to look the way that I’ve always thought I needed to for people to want to date me or sleep with me. And I also hate that there is a part of me that wants all these things when I also know that I am not the problem, my body is not the problem. But how do you unlearn a lifetime of these feelings? Having them legitimized and reconfirmed by everyone and everything around you? How do you reclaim a body that has been forever stolen and twisted by these ideals we’ve always been told it’s normal to have?

How do I teach that part of myself that the fashion industry has pigeonholed me into the category of plus size because they have, for centuries, dictated what “straight size” meant and what sizes were included in mainstream stores? How do I teach that part of me that there are people out there who will want to date me or sleep with me with this body and actually find me attractive without wanting me to be a certain size or body type, and also not fetishize my fatness?

I know that diet culture is bullshit; always unhealthy, and often unsafe. I know that a body can be “overweight” but also still healthy (mine is mostly, as far as physical health). I know that women’s clothing sizes are arbitrary and that clothes are just clothes, and it doesn’t matter what number is on the tag inside. But how do you reconcile this knowledge with a society that still has all these size-based oppressive systems in place?

How does someone live happily in a body that has been under constant scrutiny since they can remember? How do you put an eating disorder to rest and also try to have the best body for you, even if that means that it doesn’t fit the mold of “acceptable” or “attractive”?

How – after nothing but criticism, dysmorphia, disorder, chaos, and hatred – do you reclaim a body?

If you are struggling with an eating disorder, or disordered behaviors, body dysmorphia, or just an unhealthy relationship with food or your body, please check out the National Eating Disorders Association for resources.

If you want to learn more about accepting your body, I encourage you to check out some of these links to amazing babes doing the work:

Jes Baker – The Militant Baker (also author of “Landwhale” and “Things No One Will Tell Fat Girls”)

Sonya Renee Taylor – The Body Is Not An Apology: The Power of Radical Self-Love

Megan Jayne Crabbe – aka @bodyposipanda (author of “Body Positive Power”)

AND SO MANY MORE!!

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