A note from me: This post contains negative body talk, diet talk, and discussions of mental illness and disordered eating. If that will be triggering for you, I encourage you to skip this post!
I wrote in my last post about how I’ve spent 20 years feeling uncomfortable in my body and feeling like I need to change it through diet and exercise. I want to delve into some of the past that shaped that worldview. This is not to blame any one person or myself, but rather to consider and forgive my past experiences so I commit to my body in the present.
In that spirit, I present five memories:
1. When I was growing up, my mom was “very heavy” (as she would put it), and incredibly ashamed of it. My brother was a bit of a chubby kid, and I could tell that it worried her that he was. At doctor’s appointments she would look at our weight charts and make comments about how big my brother was getting. I was smaller when I was young, so I got fewer comments, but I feared facing Mom’s concern. I never wanted to upset her, and it was clear gaining too much weight would do that.
My most poignant memory of this time is of us sitting at the kitchen table together, her looking at me with intense pain in her eyes and saying “Don’t ever be like me. Don’t ever get fat like me.” This phrase cut through me. It still rings in my ears.
My mom went on to join Weight Watchers and lose a lot of weight, then gain it back, then lose it again. She’s kept it off for a while now, though she watches what she eats incredibly carefully. I hope she’s happier with herself now. I’m not sure what she feels about her body because we never talk about it.
2. As a kid through my early teen years, I was a gymnast. There is nothing like wearing only a leotard to make you suddenly self conscious, especially as a 12-year-old. I was constantly comparing my body to the other girls on my team. I was stockier. I was shorter. Where I got the idea to compare myself is pretty obvious, since one of my coaches particularly encouraged it. She told me that I was getting to be the biggest on the team and I should think about eating healthier. She told me I wouldn’t be able to tumble like I wanted to (my favorite part of gymnastics) and that getting heavier would only make the bars harder (my least favorite part of gymnastics). It was a targeted attack and it worked. I went home and cried and promised myself I would not get fatter.
The thing is, I wasn’t fat then. It’s not that this would have been okay to say to me even if I was fat at the time, it absolutely would never have been okay. But this experience just shows how even the perception of fat is feared, judged, and criticized. I was an incredibly muscular, incredibly fit CHILD. I was bigger because I was strong as hell and my muscles are short and bulky. But I still feared being “fatter” than my teammates more than anything. The fear consumed me and fueled constant comparison. I started wearing shorts and a t-shirt to practice over my leotard. I stopped eating breakfast and lunch. I devoted myself to losing weight.
3. When I was 14, I injured my back badly because of gymnastics. It was bad enough that I had to quit. My whole world was turned upside down. So much of my identity was tied up in being a gymnast and suddenly that was ripped away from me. I was pissed, just so unbelievably angry, and mostly I was angry at my body for betraying me, for taking away this thing I loved. In a bid to get control over my body again, I severely restricted my food intake. I weighed myself three or four times a day. I walked and ran for hours. Once, when my mom asked me if I was trying to lose weight, I shouted “I’m just trying to be healthy!” and ran out the door to go on a run. I was so afraid that she would try to stop me and take away my control. I lost more than 30 pounds. I still hated myself and my body.
4. In college, in a desperate attempt to regain some control during a particularly bad depressive episode, I began seeing how long I could go without eating. I ignored all emotions and pitted my mind against my body. I used deprevation as the ultimate distraction. I demanded full willpower. I thought about eating constantly and feared “slipping up.” I started going to the gym at night, working out until I felt faint. I never lost weight. I hated my body for holding on when I was telling it so clearly to let go.
5. I moved to a new city and gained weight. I weighed more than I ever had before. Now I was undeniably fat, there was no escaping it. I vascilated between dieting and bingeing; signing up for gym memberships and health plans and sitting on the couch watching TV and eating; reading self-help books on weight loss and telling myself “I’ll start on Monday.” Slowly, I realized that none of these things would make me happy. Slowly I realized I wasn’t paying attention to the world around me because I was obsessed with this one thing. Slowly, I realized this was not my fault. Slowly, I realized that I am worthy and wonderful just the way I am.
I’m still in experience 5, learning, always learning, about how I am valuable and how I can be better. I’ve written these experiences not because I want to be a downer or get pity, but because these experiences are so common. They are also so unnecessary.
As I said in the beginning of this post, this is not about blaming anyone. I love my mom deeply and we have a great relationship. My gymnastics coach helped me train for a sport I loved. I don’t resent them for what they said to me. They grew up in this messed up society too; they were just trying to protect me.
I don’t blame myself either. Societal pressures are tough to resist, especially when the people around you are reinforcing them. It’s hard to know how to handle problems when you have undiagnosed mental illness and think there is something about you that is irreparable. Society says “Have a problem? Try diet and exercise!” and if that doesn’t work you must be lazy or lying.
The thing is, though, that is bullshit. Some days it’s easier to remember that than others. But we have to try. These experiences are real and they are common and we owe it to ourselves and the people we love to fight them.