I spent the entire decade of my twenties hating my body. No, not just hating it – actively trying to destroy it. I starved it and abused it. I punished it for crimes for which it wasn’t guilty. In my mind, all my young life’s problems stemmed not from my mind or spirit or environment, but from the failings of my body.
I consumed little, while my eating disorder consumed me.
At its worst, I was unable to think rationally, to work, or to do anything but obsess about my caloric intake. Dreams and goals and relationships were destroyed, along with my mental and physical health. It was the most painful ten years of my life.
Eating disorders are the most lethal mental illness. 10% of people diagnosed with anorexia will be dead within ten years. At times, when I could feel my heartbeat fluttering, or I became faint from the workouts I forced myself to do despite having not eaten, a sane voice in my head warned that I was in real danger. But the eating disorder voice was always stronger.
“Just a bit longer,” it whispered to me. “Once your body is perfect, you can stop.”
But your body is never ‘perfect’ to the eating disorder. And you can’t stop so easily.
Recovery from an eating disorder isn’t straightforward. It’s hard, and it’s long, and relapses are common. Recovery isn’t a final destination, either. Once you come through to the other side, you realize how much the eating disorder took from you. Once you’ve started to restore your body and mind, you understand how much work you need to do to repair your relationships, your bank account, your education, your career. It’s exhausting.
I’ve sustained recovery for many years now. My body is healthy, and I nourish it. But recovery requires an almost daily choice to accept myself as ‘enough’ in a society that is so damn eager to tell me I’m not.
I now work as the executive director for an organization that supports people experiencing eating disorders, as well as their family and friends. We try to get the message out that eating disorders aren’t a choice. They are serious, brain-based illnesses with a strong genetic component. They aren’t caused by looking at photoshopped images of models, or by a diet gone wrong. They are complex. But society’s expectations of how people should look, and our willingness to shame and judge others, certainly do play a role in fanning the flames of the eating disorder that may be sparking up inside a young person.
Even when my eating disorder was at its worst, people who knew me commented and praised me for my weight loss. By society’s standards, I looked good. I was dangerously ill and killing myself, but people saw only that I conformed to a social ideal of how women should look. That was my value to them, and it was worthy of their comment and praise. One of the strangest parts of recovery was that people stopped praising my body. I was healthy and thriving in so many ways, but it sometimes felt that it had only been my thinness that was noteworthy to society.
Moving through my 40s as someone in eating disorder recovery has been a relief, in many ways. There is an invisibility that comes with getting older in our society. Quite suddenly, you are not seen as attractive or desirable; indeed, you are not seen. That’s a hard transition for many of us to navigate. For me, though, that invisibility has been a reprieve. I don’t feel the pressure to look a certain way. I don’t feel eyes watching me. I don’t see strangers appraising and judging me, so I feel less compelled to appraise and judge myself. I can be comfortable in my own body, and focus on caring for myself.
This morning, however, I was reminded that invisibility is a privilege no woman has in our society. I took my dog for a long walk through our lazy, suburban neighbourhood. It was a quiet, humid, summer morning, and the only people around were a group of men working for a lawn care service. As I walked past, the morning silence was broken by one of them calling after me, “You’ve got fat legs”. The rest laughed.
I wish I could tell you that I turned around and confronted them. But I didn’t. I kept on walking, my heart pounding. I’ve learned the hard way that it’s not safe to one woman to challenge a group of men (that’s a whole other story). My goal this morning was to keep walking — to keep moving toward physical and emotional safety, and to distance myself from their judgement as quickly as possible. Once home, I did email the lawn service and let them know that they have hired a bunch of idiots.
I should point out that when this happened, I was wearing this awesome shirt:
Did the lawn care guy read it, and find it so deeply offensive that he needed to ‘put me in my place’ by reminding me that my worth (in his eyes) is only in my body?
Every woman reading this has a story — or many stories — of having men pass judgement on their bodies. Too often, we take those messages to heart as real appraisals of our bodies. And because women’s bodies are often equal to their worth in our society, we take these comments as definitions of our overall worth as beings.
And they aren’t.
They are comments about the people passing the judgment. They are comments about how certain men feel women should fit into their concept of society. They are shows of insecure masculinity, and a fear and contempt for women who dare to confidently move about the world looking whatever the hell way they please.
Twenty years ago, I would have been devastated by some random stranger laughing at my body and calling my thighs fat. Now, although I still struggle at times with body image, I am in a place where I appreciate my body and love it. It has a value that those men on the street can never know. That value is not measured in thigh gap or lack of cellulite. It is not measured in lack of jiggle. It is the value that comes through surviving, and persisting, and creating, and trying to make the path a little brighter for those who are still finding their footing in the darkness.
Lately, I’ve seen my 13 year-old daughter begin to navigate the world with eyes on her. She’s only just becoming aware of the judgement of strangers, and society’s eagerness to define her worth as a catalogue of body parts. We have thoughtful conversations about self-worth, body image, and body positivity. But I worry. The genetic predisposition to disordered eating is there. She is a dancer – a profession renowned for body criticism. And she is a young woman in a world where it is increasingly okay for men to grab, or leer, or ridicule, or threaten.
I know now that I can’t stay invisible. No woman can afford to. We have too much work to do.