I occasionally write about body image on this blog: an intensely personal topic, but one I think merits more discussion in our society. If you’ve read my past posts, you’ll know that I’ve struggled with an eating disorder for the last 13 years. Until a year ago, I struggled to punish, starve and exercise myself into submission, because I had convinced myself that the only worthy body was a size 4 or 6.
I ran 20 kilometres because I felt worthless. I would go for 100 km bike rides, not because I enjoyed it, but because I was a fat sack of shit (at the time I was 135 lbs of lean muscle, but still got catty comments about my ‘thunder thighs’ and big bottom). I would walk for four hours a day, because it meant I could eat without feeling guilty about fuelling my body.
Over the years I did every cleanse imaginable. I cut out whole food groups: meat, dairy, soy. When this wasn’t ‘working’, I began eating meat and cutting out wheat, corn, starchy vegetables, most fruit — at the behest of a naturopath.
And still I got sicker.
Food was a war and my body became the battleground.
Part of the the problem was that, by all societal standards, I was healthy. Ignore the fact that I would get periodic dizzy spells. Ignore the fact that my blood sugar would plummet unexpectedly (though, honestly, anyone should have guessed that it was because I was not giving my body the fuel it needed). Ignore the fact that I was always cold, that I couldn’t concentrate sometimes because of the hunger. I was ‘healthy’ because I was thin. That was all that mattered.
And then it all fell apart.
After twelve years of starving, running, obsessing, I began to eat. I began to eat because it solved my dizzy spells. When I ate, I didn’t have debilitating blood sugar drops. When I ate I had energy to fight back. When I ate I became the feisty, badass warrior that I am.
As I healed, my body changed. I became larger. Voluptuous, even. Few of my clothes fit anymore, and at first this was a crushing failure.
Well meaning people ‘concern-trolled*’ me (*a word I learned from this amazing blog). Inquiring about whether I was pregnant (ha!). Asking whether I had thought about losing some weight (eep). Helpfully suggesting eating plans or exercises that could deal with my pot-belly and fat arse. Looking on in alarm as I ate and ate and ate. And to their eyes, they could only see the eating and not the healing.
I did the math a few months ago — in my 13 years of disordered eating I deprived my body on the order of several million calories. Restriction like that does lasting damage. Cells can’t properly heal themselves. Hormones and biochemical pathways switch to survival mode. Your body, on a very intimate level, is just barely pulling through each day, hoping that eventually the fast will end. Your body is losing the plot.
When you finally allow yourself to eat after years of self-hatred and spite, your body takes time to readjust. And for awhile, it does not trust you. It assumes there will be another starvation. It dutifully holds on to every little bit it can to ensure that the next time your crazy ass decides to starve it, it will have a backup plan.
What everyone around me couldn’t see, and in fact what most of society can’t see when we look at a ‘larger’ body, is everything happening on the inside. People are often surprised when they find out a ‘large’ person is active. They are even more surprised to learn that person doesn’t survive on big macs and doritos. When you explain that no, you do not in fact have type II diabetes, their eyebrows raise in shock. We are so disconnected from our understanding of each body’s unique way of functioning that we have stopped making space for multiple realities. Yes: fat girls can be healthy. I know: it blows your mind.
I used to be one of those jerks. I had ‘skinny privilege’ that pervaded every part of my life. I judged larger bodies. I took pride in how ‘healthy’ I was for policing my body so strictly. I offered unsolicited advice about eating plans that could ‘help’ (I’m so ashamed of this now). In the last few months I’ve gotten a better handle on all of this hubris. I’ve confronted the horrible, toxic self-talk that fuelled such a destructive decade of denial. Denying myself food. Denying myself love. Denying myself the uninhibited joy that we all have the right to experience in these bodies, in this lifetime. And denying others the right to enjoy their bodies, too.
As my talented friend Karen, an amazing professional chef, says: “food is a celebration”.
I celebrated the first time I felt my stomach rumble and felt ‘real’ hunger. And rather than ignore it and tell my body it didn’t deserve food, I fed it. LIKE A NORMAL PERSON. I celebrated the first time I slept through the night and didn’t wake up at 3 AM in an abject panic, torn from the sleep world by an impending blood sugar crash that my body was convinced might kill me. I danced a little bit when I finally realized that I was letting myself eat. Fuelling my body. Not worrying about how many calories were in my dinner, not obsessively planning out my evening exercise to ‘burn off’ the ‘excess’. Accepting that for the next little while — or maybe forever — my body would not be society’s ideal. And that’s okay.
I no longer run 20 kilometres on Saturdays. And I have no plans to start doing that again. A catalogue of all the injuries I accrued over my eating disorder career (including a torn muscle that today still plagues me) makes me realize that from here on in I’m doing this the gentle way. I won’t apologize for walking and doing yoga instead of running up mountains. I owe the rest of the world nothing. They were there, encouraging me, praising me, enabling me as I fell deeper into the so-called ‘healthy’ frenzy. They encouraged me to cut out other food groups when my wheat-free, gluten-free, organic and free-range diet wasn’t ‘working’. They pushed fanatical diets and sketchy supplements when all I needed to do was EAT THE FOOD. They admired my commitment when I would walk four hours a day to and from work. And then, when I finally broke free of that and started loving my body, feeding it, allowing it to heal, being gentle with it, they were there to admonish and shame me.
So, just remember that you never have to apologize for who you are. Trust that your body knows what it needs. And love yourself enough — and be brave enough — to do what feels right to you. Nobody else really knows your journey, and nobody else will be with you the whole way.