What is a time of joy for many women was my darkest hour.
I started critiquing my body around age seven, when I realized that my best friend Amber didn’t have a belly that stuck out like mine did. My mom told me that every body is different and Amber and I were both beautiful. But that message only stuck for a few years. By junior high, it was clear that by the world’s standards, only a few bodies really are beautiful.
My unhealthy relationship with food started in eighth grade, and would last more than two decades, kicked off by an article in a teen magazine featuring the standard anorexia story: A promising young woman traumatizes her seemingly perfect family by refusing to eat, featuring a headline like “I Almost Died To Be Thin!”
The article focused on all the ways the girl succeed at having an eating disorder. It detailed the methods the girl used to trick her parents into thinking she was eating, how she used certain foods to reduce hunger, and her own internal mental manipulation to justify starving herself. I assume the author of the article used these details to show just how scary the girl’s disease was, but for me it served as a list of tips and tricks for being skinny. It was the beginning of a lifetime of on-again-off-again food control, body dysmorphia and exercise compulsion.
I’ve never been so thin or so ill that I’ve been hospitalized, and I’ve never had loved ones stage any sort of formal intervention. I’ve been lucky that every time I’ve sunk into one of these acute phases of self-deprivation I’ve been able to pull myself out, most often with the help of a therapist. But the lack of obvious severity doesn’t mean it’s been easy.
My most recent battle began when my youngest started preschool. I tried to lose a few pounds and tone up in my free time. It started out pretty balanced, but quickly devolved into an obsession with eating as few calories as I could manage while still being able to work out really, really hard.
Once again, as had happened before, I slipped into all the patterns I learned from that teen magazine in eighth grade, with the exception of smoking cigarettes –- that habit I gave up the day I found out I was pregnant with my oldest child.
But the same mantras went through my head as I pushed harder and harder into the pain while working out. The ability to calculate calories in my mind and adjust, manipulate and control my food resumed. It was like pulling on a pair of your favorite sweatpants -- it was easy, and it felt right. I didn’t even need to think about it.
When I started getting sick every other week with little colds and viruses, I knew something was wrong. I was always tired, always achy, grumpy and not thinking clearly. My trusted friends started expressing concern over my behavior and my choices. At first I felt validated, but slowly their concern crept in.
Then, out of nowhere, I couldn’t work out. Not because I didn’t want to, but because I had to have reconstructive surgery on my foot after a cancerous freckle was removed. I hadn’t planned on having surgery; I hadn’t planned on not being able to work out. I was terrified I’d get fat. I was off my feet for a week, and for more than a month I wasn’t allowed to run, do yoga, or pretty much anything other than walk the dog.
That’s when a switch flipped in my mind. There had been no joy in my workouts, only the effort to go further, push harder, get thinner, be stronger and feel powerful. And so I quit.
When I say I quit, I mean I totally and completely quit working out. I also quit dieting. I started eating cookies and ice cream and pretty much whatever I wanted. I wasn’t overeating by any diagnostic standard, but I wasn’t thinking about nutrition or sugar consumption. I was thinking about the fact that I was entitled to eat whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted. I was thinking that restricting myself from eating whatever I wanted would be dangerous.
I was also proud of my body being softer. I felt feminine, my boobs grew and my butt became round and fuller. Despite the fact that I still heard the internal voices telling me I was disgusting and repulsive and needed to lose weight, I was as committed to accepting my body as I had been to torturing my body for thinness.
For a while it was great. I rarely got sick, my face filled out and I felt really pretty. Honestly, I was really happy. I gained weight, but was still slender enough for people to think I was healthy and somewhat fit. But I wasn’t fit. I was sedentary and eating crap all day long.
Eventually this feeling of being entitled to do whatever I wanted and eat whatever I wanted led me to eat so much sugar that I became irritable and depressed. I also somehow forgot that moderate exercise was an important part of maintaining my mental health.
I talked to my therapist about it a lot. My relationship with food and exercise was a metaphor for my life: indulgence and deprivation. It reminded me of a time, many years ago, when my best guy friend described a tumultuous relationship with a guy who dumped me as me “being in love with my heartbreak.” The relationship had been pure indulgence and hedonistic passion, and the break-up was an opportunity to fall in love again -– with the agony of being without him. The pattern had established itself in my relationships, my spending, and my work.
So here I am, today, trying to learn how to be healthy, both physically and emotionally. The truth is I don’t know how to do it. I am exercising again, and it’s fun again, but at first the idea of going for a challenging hike or a spinning class sounded like torture. Why would I exert myself like that if I’m not doing it to lose weight? And how would I do it without slipping back into bad patterns?
My therapist and I talked about the fact that being able to discuss the patterns is a step forward. If I can recognize that they’re there, see them and feel them, I can choose differently. So I have.
But it’s really hard, you guys. I don’t know how to go for a short run, I don’t know how not to ignore or feel validated by pain. I don’t know how to make a decision about what is a healthy amount of exercise and what isn’t good for me. I don’t know how to feel good about eating a cupcake without pursing two or three more.
So I’m doing the exercise that feels good and makes me smile. If I feel pain, I dial it back. If it’s too hot, I don’t go for an hour-long run up a mountain until I get sick (which, sadly, I used to do quite regularly). I want to train for the Lakeshore Miracle Run, a race my family does every year that raises money for the local children’s hospital. It’s fun, it bonds me with my family, and there’s a sense of pride to it. But I don’t need to beat my last time, and I don’t need to train so hard I suffer.
I’ve always loved the term Marianne uses when describing exercise in her life: fitnessing. When I started back on this journey, I was saying that I needed to “get in shape,” but I realized that implied that my body’s shape isn’t okay, that there’s only one acceptable shape for my body to be. Instead, my focus today is on increasing my health and happiness. Not control, obsession, or validation.