TW: body image, eating disorders, fatphobia
The first time I thought I was fat, I was in the third grade. I remember that my stomach stuck out, in the way that all little kids’ do – adorable and not concerned about a six-pack. I remember thinking that either there was something wrong with me or that this was what all my peers looked like and I just didn’t know it. While the truth was probably closer to the second option, I logged somewhere in my eight-year-old brain that I needed to do something about my stomach. “Am I fat?” I asked myself, as though that were the worst thing I could be.
Growing up, my parents taught me persistently about exercise and diet. I don’t fault them for this. As an adult, I’ve realized that not everyone learns about food as a child, so I’m grateful that my parents had me try a little bit of everything. I’m also grateful that they instilled in me a love of running, dance, and weight lifting. However, these teachings were not balanced with lessons about moderation. While I was afforded the privilege of a healthy lifestyle, I inherited a guilt about food and exercise. Certain foods were good while others were bad. Working out was a success and rest days were failures.
The first time I started intentionally restricting my eating was my sophomore year of high school. After spending hours looking at a fashion magazine, I sat on the floor of my bathroom one night crying and pulling at the skin of my stomach, disgusted by my own body. For months after that, I lied to my parents and my friends about my eating habits. I pretended to pack lunches for school but brought only an empty lunch box. I told my parents I was eating dinner after play rehearsal and told my friends I was eating dinner at home. I was proud of my self-control. I was proud of my jutting ribs.
I can’t put a finger on when I snapped out of this, although I arguably never did. At one point, I met with one of my youth group leaders who told me that I should be happy with my life and my body because of the joy God was supposed to bring to my life. Despite this unhelpful advice, I did eventually start eating again. However, my feelings about my body didn’t change. As a runner and a former dancer, I coveted skinny thighs and a flat stomach. Emerging from puberty, I began to realize that was not how I was shaped. My thighs became thick and my butt became round. I hated it. Every summer when I worked at a camp, wearing shorts and a bathing suit daily, I resorted to eating only salads and blueberries. Even in times when I felt healthy, I always found something to hate when I looked in the mirror.
My eating disorder returned with a vengance over the past few months. As I recovered from self harm, I found solace in this different but familiar addiction. It was then that I realized I had done the same thing in my high school years. The months after I overcame a period of self harm in high school coincided with that tearful evening in the bathroom. I was trading one trauma response for another. Anorexia was easier to hide and much more socially acceptable, so I turned to it for the sense of control I gave up when I left self-harm behind.
As trite as it sounds, I am still trying to learn to love my body. I am often frustrated by the fact that my dietary and exercise habits don’t result in my “dream body”. Weekly, I am seduced by diets and exercise plans and before/after photos posted by friends. I’m still not sure how to love my body, but I want to try. She has carried me through so much. She has survived assault from others and my own attempts to harm her. I am not angry at my eating disorder or my self-harm because they helped me survive. They were coping mechanisms in times of trauma.
As I try to move forward, I don’t know what this healing will look like, but I know it starts inside with with a small, scared, third grader who has the option to love her little tummy instead of despising it.