About a year ago, I went into outpatient treatment for an eating disorder. I had been trapped in the cycle of restricting, bingeing, and compulsively exercising for years, and I wanted so badly to break out of the cycle, but I was terrified of gaining weight. At the time, I had no idea how much weight I would end up gaining.
Many doctors who frequently work with eating disorders believe that each person's body has a weight where it is most comfortable called the "set point." If a person eats when they're hungry and exercises regularly and sanely, their body will stay at the set point. The problem in the medical community is that the "set point" weight may not match the person's "ideal weight" based on their BMI. A person's weight at their set point may be considered overweight or even obese.
Luckily, when I entered treatment, I didn't know I was one of these people. I probably wouldn't have continued with treatment if I knew I was going to end up "obese."
People have a lot of misconceptions about what it looks like to have an eating disorder and what it looks like to be in recovery from an eating disorder. The general assumption is that people who have eating disorders are visibly, dangerously skinny, and when they recover they return to a "normal weight", whatever that means. This assumption is true for some people, but wildly untrue for others. There are thousands of women across the country suffering from eating disorders who don't "look like" they're suffering from an eating disorder. There are thousands of women across the country who have recovered from eating disorders that inhabit bodies of all shapes and sizes, including bodies classified as "fat" by our society. My story fits both these scenarios.
When I was at the worst point of my eating disorder I fell within the "normal weight range" for my height according to the BMI chart. I got a lot of compliments on my body. I never heard that I was "too thin" and people often commented on how healthy I looked. (Of course, this is because in our society, healthy equals skinny, but that's another discussion.)
I accepted that I would gain some weight in recovery, but I still clung to the idea that my set point was somewhere in a "normal" range. I wanted to feed my body adequately and exercise in a non-harmful manner, but I also didn't want to gain too much weight. I was convinced that I could keep some control over my weight and still recover from my eating disorder behaviors. I struggled for months, continually relapsing into restricting my food, compulsively exercising, and bingeing.
Eventually, I was so sick of the behaviors that I just stopped using them, which lead to more emotional pain than I could have imagined. I began to understand how I had been using my relationship to food and exercise to avoid feeling my feelings. I plunged in to a deep depression and was convinced my feelings were going to swallow me whole. But through this depression, I still refused to starve, binge, or compulsively exercise. I ate when I was hungry, even if I hated myself for eating. I started asking myself if I was eating to feed my body or my emotions. I started listening to my body to determine how hungry or full I was. I exercised three days a week for less than an hour at a time even though I desperately wanted to exercise more.
When I emerged from the depression, I found that I had a completely different body. I had been eating when I was hungry and exercising healthily for months, and my body had reached its "set point." To my dismay, this was many pounds more than what I had wanted and expected. In fact, according to the BMI scale, I was now obese.
I was devastated. I felt deeply betrayed. Going into treatment I had accepted that I was going to gain some weight, but not this much weight. I thought to myself, I did not agree to this! I was fat.
For a few days I considered a full-blown relapse. I toyed with the idea of not eating for days. I toyed with the idea of exercising for hours every day. I started to believe that recovery had failed me and that it wasn't worth it. I started to think that I would much rather be thin and sick than in recovery and fat.
Luckily, I showed up at all my therapy appointments and spoke up about how I felt. I reached out to my friends and told them how angry and sad I was. People told me over and over that I was loved regardless of my body and that my body size had nothing to do with my worth. I was reminded that my body was allowed to be any size it wanted to be and that I had no control over what size was right for me.
I didn't believe a word of this, but I believed that they believed and that was a start.
So, I started the journey to accepting my body as it is instead of how I want it to be. One of the first steps was realizing that the thin body I'd had was a very sick body. I could never eat a healthy amount and maintain that body size. I had to exercise multiple times a day, seven days a week to maintain that body size. I had forced my body to be that size against its own will and instinct for self-preservation. This realization meant acknowledging that when I'm in harmony with my body it is a larger size than I find to be acceptable and I began wondering why I found a larger body size to be so unacceptable.
I started to read feminist theory about body image and its relation to the patriarchy. I began to understand that I hadn't been given a choice about my body image. I had been forced to accept a system in which smaller bodies were acceptable and larger bodies were unacceptable. I had bought into that system because I believed it offered me love, value, and acceptance, when really it gave me pain, misery, and sickness. I began to understand that freedom lies, not in a thin body, but in rejecting the system.
I started looking for support within the eating disorder communities online. I found some amazing resources like the Recovery Warriors podcast and website, the NEDA online communities, the Health at Every Size movement, the Food Psych podcast, and many others. I began reading and listening to anything that I could find just to hear other people's experiences with weight gain in recovery. I heard a lot of people share their stories and this was definitely helpful, but there seemed to be a very particular story missing: mine.
When I Googled the women sharing their stories I saw a lot of thin and normal sized bodies. They looked very healthy, but they certainly didn't look like me. I was glad to have heard their stories of strong recovery, but I still didn't identify with their experience. In fact, I began to resent women in recovery who had maintained socially acceptable bodies. If they got to be thin in recovery why didn't I get to be thin in recovery? I began to scour the Internet for the experiences of women in recovery with larger bodies, but I found very few. I felt like my story had been left out of the eating disorder recovery community and I began to feel very alone. Then I discovered body positive communities online.
I found amazing examples of women with larger body sizes who aren't ashamed of their bodies. They wear crop tops and shorts. They wear bodycon dresses and flaunt their visible belly outlines. They take gym selfies in spandex pants and sports bras. They are unapologetic about their size because they truly believe that their bodies don't warrant an apology.
I was amazed. I wanted that freedom.
Do I have that freedom? Has this story reached its happy ending? Honestly, no.
I'm still not happy with the larger body that I have today. I'm still dissatisfied with what I see in the mirror. I still shudder when I think about wearing shorts or buying a bathing suit. I cried when I stepped on the scale, which I had no business doing in the first place, and saw that I weighed the same as I did in high school when my eating disorder started.
I'm not there yet, but I am fully committed to the idea that body positivity is the answer. I have also come to accept that body positivity is a journey and that the journey is just as important as the destination. I wish more than anything that I could just snap my fingers and be body-positive, but it doesn't work that way. It's all little steps, taken over and over again, day by day. It's tiny victories like shopping without crying, which I did for the first time a few weeks ago with my little sister. It's little wins like thinking that I look good in a certain outfit. It's also bumps along the road, like when I look in the mirror and hate what I see, or when I change my outfit six times because nothing fits quite right. It's learning to roll with the good and the bad. It's accepting that this body, not my thin body, is the healthy one. It's accepting that this body allows my soul to move through the world and connect with people and that I can do that at any size.
A lot of the progress I've been able to make on this journey has come from sharing my story. Writing has allowed me to process the anger, hurt, resentment, fear, and sadness that I have felt during this journey and examine the systems of oppression that keep women trapped in obsession with their bodies and begin to reject those systems. Because I write, I can Having a larger body is okay, even if I don't feel like it's okay, and it's fine to struggle with body positivity.
Sharing my story has allowed me to see that the journey of recovery and body positivity is worth it, even if I ended up with a body I didn't want. If I keep walking this path, someday I will want this body. Someday, I will even love it.