Trigger Warning: The following email delves into issues regarding body image, body dysmorphia, and disordered eating patterns.
Everyone wants to feel good. Then why do we feel bad so often? It’s because of the thoughts we choose. Whether a CEO, a worker, a parent, or simply a human being trying to navigate life’s inevitable challenges, at times each of us can feel at battle with unhelpful thoughts.
Changing thoughts has become an integral part of my work, as I have experienced the debilitation of toxic thoughts and the liberation of understanding and reframing them. Today, I’m sharing how one of my deepest personal challenges taught me the power of facing thoughts that don’t serve us…and the possibility that can emerge from that difficult work.
I was fifteen years old when my mother mentioned that I had put on weight. She explained that she was looking out for me by pointing it out, that she meant to help. She wanted the best for me. This was before she asked my older sister to weigh in (pun intended). She nodded, agreeing that I was getting chunky.
And just like that, I crossed over from being connected to my body to being at war with it.
Humiliated and ashamed, I vowed to change myself, to do whatever it took to be smaller, less, invisible, skinny. I began recording every morsel of food consumed along with its calorie count on a small notepad that traveled with me everywhere.
The first entry: “a pork chop.”
From that point on, a bite of apple, a single cracker, a piece of gum — everything went in the notebook. I allowed myself no more than 1,000 calories a day and only felt victorious if I managed to come in well below. My thinking became binary and rigid, with every food being labeled as either “good” or “bad,” “allowed” or “forbidden,” “healthy” or “evil.”
In the time it takes to say the word “chunky,” the necessary, unavoidable human act of eating became a threat. Hunger became the goal. I dreamed about food, equal parts startled and relieved upon waking and realizing I was still safe… and empty. My first action every morning was to run my hands over my stomach to feel its flat emptiness. I took up running, which felt good at first but then only spiked my hunger. Naturally, I responded by running more, and restricting more — a losing proposition.
Convinced she was helping, my mother cheered me on.
But no matter what I did, I couldn’t get skinny enough. Not because my body wasn’t shrinking, but because my self-image had become so distorted that no amount of weight loss could alter the humiliation and shame that fueled it.
With so much focus on over-exercising and avoiding food, there was little bandwidth for anything else. Curiosity, enjoyment, learning all took a back seat to shrinking myself, to withholding food, to living each moment in fear of breaching that arbitrary calorie threshold.
Once in college, faced with the stress of self-imposed, lofty academic standards coupled with the inherent challenges of new social situations, I strove to eat nearly nothing. Coffee for breakfast and a salad for lunch, maybe a small dollop of protein for dinner.
And when, inevitably, it became too difficult, I surrendered to eating a meal. A meal. Something everyone else was doing at least three times a day. Something my body desperately needed. But the feelings of guilt and failure were overwhelming and splintered my win/lose, black/white thought patterns to the point where I began eating everything in sight. It was as if a seal had been broken and an avalanche of hunger took hold. I didn’t know it was called binging, or that other people struggled with it. For me, it took the form of raiding vending machines in the academic buildings after hours or rising at 5 a.m. for a walk to the grocery store so I could return to the dorm with a stash before my roommates awoke.
During these binges, the first moments delivered enormous relief, my starving body finally getting a fix of fat, sugar, salt, But within minutes, I entered a kind of hypnotic, self-medicating state in which I no longer tasted anything or was able to register satiety. So I would eat until I felt pain, over-full, dizzy. Afterwards, I would feel light-headed, sick, and alone, like a freak, like a loser.
And when I felt my tiny clothes become tighter on my body, the fear and panic triggered more binging. Because there is no logic in disordered eating patterns. It is misery, and it is constant.
Convincing myself that boredom was fueling my dysregulated life, I convinced my parents to enroll me in a semester abroad, then starved myself to prepare. I missed menstrual periods and constantly felt tired and weak, but my mom was happy to buy me a smaller wardrobe for my trip to Italy.
Upon arriving in Tuscany, the change in routine and lack of gym access was a double whammy that led to even more restriction and rigidity. I could have been in Kansas. My only focus was on not eating. I refused all of the local delicacies, sustaining myself on apples and espresso while running four to five miles every day. I avoided the student cafeteria for fear of giving in to the bread and pasta that my classmates raved about, the constant rumbling of my belly distracting me from coursework and the culturally rich experiences at my fingertips.
Not surprisingly, hunger eventually won again and I began to eat in secret, my expanding waistline triggering intense fear, panic, and dread. Only several months into the semester, I calmed myself with the knowledge that I had time to get a grip, to lose weight, to fix this before having to travel back home. The fear of my mother’s reaction was palpable. But the more I resolved to stop eating, the more I ate. The more I focused on being smaller, the bigger I became.
I felt like I was on a planet by myself.
When I think back to that time, the only clear memories are relentless feelings of shame and humiliation. I thought a short haircut might distract from my grotesque weight gain, but my mother’s strained smile at the airport confirmed my fears that it did not. On the way home, an obligatory stop at my grandmother’s house cemented the humiliation. “You went to Italy alone, and I see you came back with a cousin,” she said, triggering awkward chuckles from my family. When I broke down in tears, my mother reprimanded me. “She’s your grandmother. Whatever she says is because she loves you. You did this to yourself.”
I agreed, and therefore resolved to fix it myself. So began another cycle of restricting, binging, restricting, binging again. Rinse and repeat, in varying degrees accompanied by periods of compulsive exercise. It was a way of life — evidenced by the three sizes of clothes in my closet. But I accepted it as my identity, how I was meant to live. I told myself that eventually, it would work itself out.
I began a career in finance, got married, and became a mother of two precious children, always hiding the internal chaos and greeting each new phase with the hope that my secret struggle would evaporate as my brain engaged in other, more important things.
But my eating disorder reminded me that it, too, was important. It reminded me when:
- I dreaded leaving the house for fear that someone would judge my body.
- I hated the summer because of revealing clothes and bathing suits.
- Physical intimacy became a struggle as I strove to dissociate from the body that had caused so much suffering.
- My daughter’s classmate described me as anorexic.
- I surrendered to hunger only to feel the shame and guilt of fullness.
I reached a breaking point in my forties, when the death of my father triggered such intense restriction that family, friends, even my dentist asked if I was “okay.” It was then that I (finally) began working with a therapist who specializes in eating disorders. It was a slog, but there was a sense of relief in speaking openly and in detail about how I had been living for decades.
Very slowly and gradually, I began to unpack my life experience and the reasons I felt the way I did about myself. Slowly, I began to feel less like a freak and more… human.
I started the hard work of accepting myself — grueling work, indeed, and a tall order given my history of toxic inner dialogue. There were workbooks, outpatient group meetings, explaining it to my young children in terms they could understand. And there were many setbacks.
But by staying consistent in the work, I was able to shift my inner dialogue, to cultivate new inner connections that transcended the physical. I began to understand how the seeds of my disordered habits grew, and how little they had to do with food or weight. I learned to release blame for hurtful comments of the past, to take responsibility for my feelings, reactions, and behaviors. Instead of blaming others for clumsily delivered, hurtful comments, I worked toward understanding how they were seeds landing in soil already fertile with insecurity and self-doubt.
Forty years later, I am on the other side of what I can only describe as unparalleled misery. I have removed the veil of shame and stepped back into my body. Food is fun again and has assumed its rightful role as fuel for this physical machine that takes up its own unique space. A space in which I am worthy and accepting of myself, just exactly as I am in this moment.
Most importantly, I feel reconnected to my mind, heart, soul, and spirit, all parts far more interesting than the size of my clothes.
While there are moments when I lament the years spent suffering, I have come to accept them as a part of my story. A story that I continue to write with gratitude, good health… and a full stomach. It is the same story that has inspired me to help others feel better in their skin, because I know what it feels like when you don’t.
Once you can figure out what makes you tick, you can change the story. You can change your experience. You can change everything.
You just have to start.
If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, help is available. Visit nationaleatingdisorders.com for information and resources.