At 29, I'm Just Starting to Unlearn Body Dysmorphia

My experience growing up was one of dysfunction and chaos. Body shaming was routine and I'm still learning to love myself and move past it.
Publish date:
July 7, 2016
body dysmorphia, Eating Disorder Recovery

Shopping has always been my least favorite activity. From the time I was a little girl I hated being dragged to the mall, department stores, boutiques, wherever. I hated the endless time wasted indoors trying on countless items that rarely seemed to fit correctly and the cramped and germ infested dressing rooms that never have flattering lighting. The repetition of getting dressed, undressed and redressed over and over seems mindless to me. To me, the act of shopping itself has always been burdensome, but it wasn't until recently that I discovered the real, underlying reason of why I hated shopping so much.

Like Pavlov's dog, I had been conditioned to always hate my body by the two people who are supposed to be my biggest supporters, the two people who are supposed to tell me I am beautiful regardless of society and beauty standards — my parents.

I always remember my mom being overly intense about weight, exercising, and dieting. In the early '90's, I can remember my mother's full Olivia Newton John getups, with the tight shorts under a leotard and the bright pink braided headband. She would get up at 4 a.m. to work out either at the gym or in the living room to Cindy Crawford's work out tapes. She would be showered, dressed and off to work by 6 a.m. As a small child, I imitated her actions to her delight but didn't pay much attention to the 'why' of it all. It just seemed silly to a nine-year-old.

From the time I was born until I began 8th grade, my father worked ten-hour days, so he wasn't able to schedule proper "workout time," but he was always active. He was always on his feet, lifting things, and moving around in a way that was practical compared to my mother's approach. He had always feared being overweight because it ran in his family, and refused to ever become what he called "a fat, lazy bastard." When he was able to change his schedule, daily workouts became routine for him as well.

The result was that a home where there was always a new reason to diet and some fad that was being tested out. New Year's Resolutions, summer beach bodies, holiday parties, and countless event that required slimming down by about five points to fit in that suit or that dress. My father spent almost 20 years on the Atkins diet. I never saw him eat vegetables or fruit until the doctor recently ordered him to. My mom would go to extreme limits by overdoing workouts and picking at bits of food while rationalizing the unhealthy behaviors. For years, and to this day, I've watched my mother order a "salad" but no dressing and no toppings (so just lettuce), then decide to go on a 10-mile walk or run to burn it all off.

When my parents got divorced, these practices became amplified because there was no one watching what they were doing. My high school years were filled with my parents' midlife crises and self-image issues. And they were taken out on me.

From grammar school through college, I was always active; running, playing sports, kayaking, paddleboarding, surfing, and spending countless hours swimming in the ocean. From the time I was 15 to the time I was 25, I fluctuated dress sizes between two, four, and six. I was 5', 7" weighing an average of 130-135 lbs. through those years, but I was constantly reminded how my mom, at age 23 when my parents got married, was 115 lbs. and a size zero. In the eyes of my parents, this made me a morbidly obese person in comparison.

Passive aggression is my parents' weapon of choice. My mother's judgement has an unmistakable presence that can be felt from across a room. She has a habit of watching me while I eat. Everything I put on my plate is tallied and the caloric intake is being counted, each bite is being observed and judged. Every time I bring my utensil to my lips, it is met with tension because I can FEEL the disapproval. Her method of "helping" me involves picking all the food off my plate while telling me I don't need it. Growing up, I would get anxiety knowing I had to eat a meal with her because I knew I couldn't properly portion out my plate; I had to take into account that she would be taking at least half of it. When we sat down and began, I would shovel as much food in as I could before she could get to it. If I asked her to respect the boundaries of my space and plate, I was met with shock and offense taken that I would be so stingy with my food, especially to my mother. I would feel so guilty and ashamed and I would end up handing over my plate. I can remember days where I went to bed hungry because my mother would pick off most of the food on my plate and it wasn't worth the fight of trying to get seconds, being told "you don't need the calories."

My father would be more obvious with his jabs. If we went out to eat he would grab the waiter and change my order, for everyone to hear, saying that I would get fat if I ate what I had chosen before reordering a 'low-fat' or 'low-carb' option instead. This led to an embarrassing habit of not eating in front of other people, being weird about sharing food or finding a way to hide the act of eating if I was forced to be with others.

To my parents' credit, the food my sister and I ate growing up was always organic and there was always tons of healthy snacks in our pantry. My mother was always terrified of pesticides and what they could potentially do to our bodies. Although we did have the best treats in our house — Yodels, Chips Ahoy, Oreos, ice cream, cupcakes, you name it we had — it was for guests only. The comment "It's going to be lonely on your prom night" was said to me more times than I can remember starting when I was in the 6th grade, every time I reached for a pastry.

I resented my mother constantly commenting about how I need to exercise more and my father pinching my sides, telling me what I just ate was going right to my stomach or thighs. I despised working out at the gym and preferred a night out dancing to running in place for 30 minutes. I never stopped being active, but it was never good enough. On shopping trips with my mother, she would say things like, "You're a size six now? Well, why don't we buy this dress in a size four. Oh, you're a four now? Why don't we get this in a two? That way you will motivate yourself to lose more!" or "Maybe if you went to the gym and watched what you ate, the clothes would look better on you," and "I will buy you x, y and z if you promise to lose another 15 lbs. to fit into this size two dress."

A month before my 21st birthday, I experienced a personally tough time. I lost a significant amount of weight, relatively quickly, due to depression and my mother's only words of comfort were, "Well, you stopped eating and you look great! Keep it up!!"

When finally I started eating again my parents began to hover over me worse than ever, watching everything I ate, making me more self-conscious. The old "lonely on your prom night," was replaced with "you're going to become fat like that relative," or "you are never going to find a boyfriend and/or husband if you put on weight," with my personal favorite being "you're never going to be successful in life if you gain weight."

Terrified, I used some of my savings to work with a personal trainer to lose more weight and become more toned.

When I turned 23 and had been living in NYC for about a year, I met a boy. He was very into fitness and health and taught me new ways to maintain a "healthy" lifestyle. We went to the gym together, we cooked new recipes that were health conscious, I learned how to portion correctly, and it was around this time I was introduced to yoga and changed the game for me. I thought to myself, "This is great! I am on a good path and everything is going well!"

A few months later when I went home to visit my family, the same things were said but now intensified using boyfriend as a potential threat.

"He will leave you if you don't lose that extra 5 lbs. you put on,"

"He is really into fitness, you better keep up or he will get bored and dump you,"

"Why don't you try to lose more weight because you're not looking well and your clothes would fit you better."

My self-esteem grew so low that I began sleeping all the time. I didn't do as many activities as I used to, and I didn't have the energy to get out of bed, let alone go to the gym. I wouldn't eat for days then binge on everything I could. I ended up gaining a lot of weight, absolutely hated myself, and was disgusted by my body. I constantly thought to myself, "Why would he want to be with me? I am repulsive. He is so fit and I am just fat. He deserves to be with someone who is pretty and thin and better than me."

We had a lot of issues but I blamed them all on my weight gain. It seems stupid and silly now, but at the time, my body dysmorphia had reached an all-time high. When I approached my mother about it and my unhappiness with my relationship, her solution was to try crash dieting or more personal training.

A month before my 26th birthday, my boyfriend and I had amicably broken up. I was now in my apartment alone again, able to maintain my lifestyle in any way I saw fit. I was working an insanely stressful job that asked demanding hours and tasks of me, so there were lots of days I would 'forget' to eat. I was working out every day, overdoing it to where I had a slipped disc in my back but was ignoring the pain because I couldn't get "fat" again. I started taking laxatives twice a day, every day, to lose the extra water weight. My entire life was revolving around getting thinner. I let it consume me. I started to notice all my clothes were getting bigger. My stomach was flattening. I was looking better in pictures. My dad would tell me I was looking good when I saw him. My mom would say how excited she was to go shopping with me. Was I doing it? Was I finally at the point where I was thin enough to be worthy of love, respect and acceptance? I was almost high off of the excitement and attention I was getting.

But then there I was, back in a dressing room with my mother, listening to her say, "Maybe if you keep up this momentum you could be a zero again!"

For all the work I did, it wasn't enough to them and I still wasn't happy. How could I still be so empty, this is what everyone wants; to be 'skinny' and therefore worthy of being love. I had done everything my parents had done, they say they are happy but deep down I knew they were kidding themselves.

That's when I finally realized I was basing my happiness on my dress size and not in myself. My parents could kid themselves, but I couldn't anymore. At that moment, I decided it was time to break the cycle. I found a new type of therapy because I felt CBT wasn't cutting it anymore; Psychodynamic Yoga, which would forever change my life. I credit my therapist for saving my life in more ways than one. He was not the first person to tell me that I was fine the way I was but truly helped me go into the depths of what my issues are with weight, size, food and body image. Finding the WHY in my feelings and breaking them down so that I could begin to love myself, truly love my self and body.

It took me a long time to accept the idea that it is my parents' poor self-image that has been projected on me for years. It is actually their insecurity and when all's said and done, does not affect me. Their fear of being "fat" was ingrained in me because my parents base self-worth on weight, size, food and body image. Asking myself "Why would the two people who claim to love me the most, damage me in that way? How two people who care about me, could hurt me like that?" I would find the answer was that they didn't think they were hurting me. They don't even know that they are hurting themselves. This is an issue they have battled for longer than I have been alive and they refuse to confront or accept it. They are only human. They have flaws. But I do not have to take on their flaws to accept myself.

It took me another three years to build a truly healthy lifestyle for myself. I work out and I eat right — I am still finding my groove with it — but I do not let it consume me the way it once did, the way it still consumes my parents. Despite my parents' constant negative criticism, I have found peace with my body image and once I found happiness with myself, my life finally got on the right track. I met the love of my life in the summer of 2015. He is my greatest supporter and biggest cheerleader. He loves me no matter what size I am and I know I am worthy of that love if I am a size two or a size 12.

My parents continue to body shame me on a regular basis, but I do my best to resist getting upset. It hurts to be made to feel that your size defines you and you are not worthy, but I have to remember that it is based in their insecurity and unhappiness and they honestly think they are helping. It is still a struggle sometimes to not let them get to me but I know that what matters is what I think and how I feel. No matter how many boundaries I try to set, I will never be able to change them. I can only change the way I react to it.

I am now 29 years old, I weigh 155 lbs. and I am a dress size eight or ten. Maybe I will be a size four or six again, maybe not. Either way, it is my choice. I am happy in my skin. I am happy in my body. I love my body because it is mine and it is perfect for me. No one can tell me I am fat or skinny, ugly or pretty, unworthy or worthy. My weight and size may fluctuate, but my self-love will not.