The unofficial start of summer is here again. And, like many people, I'm doing a little happy dance at the thought of beach strolling, BBQs, and sunny days in sundresses. But this time of year, as someone who has struggled with body image issues, also gets me a little squirmy. It's all those triggery buzz words - you know the ones I mean - "swimsuit ready," "beach abs," "bikini body." Those loathsome phrases which imply that in order to justify our entry into the attire and activities of the upcoming season, we need to chip and chisel away, tone and tighten up. That our bodies somehow aren't good enough for summer, exactly as they are.
I remember: last week, walking through the doors of my local gym. A large table display of their current pre-summer offering, the "Lose Big 2 Win Big" challenge, was set up right near the entrance. I shouldn't have been intimidated by the young buff trainer dude manning the table, saddled with the unfortunate task of intercepting people on the way in and signing them up for the challenge. I shouldn't have hesitated for a moment and felt my insides clench up. I shouldn't have dropped my gaze and rounded my shoulders in the hopes of becoming invisible to him. I shouldn't have, but I did. I wasn't in the mood to engage or explain. I walked in totally confident and feeling amazing in my body that morning, but in an instant, I wished that I could somehow disappear.
It wasn't about the skinny girls in the magazines. It wasn't about wanting to look another way or fit into a different size, to have others gasp and gape and ooh and aah at my incredible, perfect physique. It really started with the desire, honestly, to not be seen at all. It started in college because I felt lost, drowning in a social sea of boys and girls and partying and promiscuity, none of which was familiar or in the least bit appealing to me. It started because I was overwhelmed with a flood of uncomfortable, intense emotions about my own sexuality, my own sense of self, and I was terrified to look any of them straight in the eye. I didn't understand any of this at the time, all I knew was that the world felt like it was spinning around me, and I needed a handle to hold. I needed something to still feel like it was under my control.
I remember: 20 years ago, about 6 months knee-deep into my anorexia. I had just finished one of my daily 2 hour workouts at the college campus fitness center. I was approached, on my way out, by one of the athletic directors, asking me if I was interested in a health assessment they were offering free to students. Though I knew what I was doing wasn't normal, though I knew my eating and exercise behaviors had become extreme, I didn't know if anybody else could see. And I was curious. So I agreed to have my height and weight recorded and answer a handful of generic questions about my daily exercise, diet and hygiene habits. I agreed to have my first experience with a BMI recorder, a primitive looking device which literally pinches the body's skin in a few specific places to determine overall body fat percentage. After calculating my number, which I can't remember specifically, she picked up a chart and, this I will never forget, says to the girl standing in front of her, the girl who had been starving herself and literally running herself raw for months, she says to me, "According to the chart, your BMI indicates you are in the Elite Athlete category. Nice work, keep it up!" I remember it took everything I had to not double over and burst out into hysterical laughter. She couldn't see it after all. Keep it up, she said. "Thanks," I replied. And I did.
We wear invisibility cloaks. We are hard-wired to meet other people's needs so deeply and remarkably in place of our own, that we ourselves often vanish. I remember thinking, though the details of our lives are so different, this quality was something we seemed to share. The sensitive, brilliant girls and women who, like me, feel and think so big but choose to take up such little space. I wasn't a college kid anymore, I was a grown woman with a husband and a child and in this real life with real responsibilities and yet somehow I had found my way back to my eating disorder so many years later, so seduced and immeshed that I didn't know how I would begin to come out the other side. I didn't know if I even wanted to yet. I didn't know much, but I did know that when I talked with these women, when we were tired and scared and giddy and angry and creative and uncomfortable together, I felt like I vanished a little less.
I remember: 5 years ago, 2 months into intensive outpatient treatment. We were asked in one of our processing groups to write a letter to the body part with which we've struggled the most. I chose my belly. I expected, as I started to write, to produce a scathing, vengeful commentary to this piece of me that I could never seem to get under control, this part of me that, no matter how much I starved or deprived myself, always sat, round and soft, as a reminder of my hungers and needs. But what came out instead, surprisingly, was a love letter. A note of admiration and gratitude for this part of me that grew and housed my baby, that was wise enough to know how to keep him safe and take care of exactly what he needed in any given moment. It was the weirdest feeling, I remember, like I had for the first time bypassed my inner critic, the bullying shame-monger I was so used to hearing in my head, and accessed a part of my insides I had never felt before. I sobbed buckets as I wrote, and something was washed away. The letter was a revelation, the pause that prompted the redirection, the radical shift I needed to, literally, bring me back to life.
Recovery requires vigilance. It requires constantly adapting to the waves, the inner and outer fluctuations that have the potential of pushing little trigger buttons. I remember, it was hard, really hard, at the beginning, but it's gotten much easier as I've gotten better at clarifying my boundaries and trusting my intuition. So, for me, recovery means moving everyday because it helps burn away anxiety and frustration, not calories and fat. It means moving in a way that feels good and stopping when it doesn't. Recovery means using cream in my coffee and eating chocolate covered macaroons on occasion because they both taste f*cking amazing. It means steering clear of anything resembling a diet, detox, or juice cleanse, because I can't do depletion and depravation. I know if I swing the pendulum too far one way, it's that much harder to bring back in the other direction. It means using the privilege and responsibility that I have of teaching mindful movement to bodies of all shapes and sizes, to speak about inner worthiness and resilience, to remember all of the awesome ways the body functions, versus focusing on shape and form. Recovery means immediately challenging the thoughts that come into my head and the barrage of messages I see around me, the ones that poke and pick at our bodies, compare them to each other and make judgements about our value based on those comparisons. And it means surrounding myself with people, especially women, who are loving and grounded and ballsy enough to challenge those things for me, on the days when I don't have it in me. Recovery is about best supporting my body, not as a temple to be purified, idolized and adorned, but as the fluid, thorny, bio-intelligent organism that it is, one that reacts and regenerates, that can take one hell of a licking and keep on ticking.
In this moment, I re-member: all of the parts of me that have been wounded, violated, malnourished, and stripped away. I plant my roots firmly enough to hold both insecurities and worthiness at the same time. I grow out with courage and curiosity, satisfying my appetites when I am hungry, pausing to be still when I am full. I listen to my gut. I trust my cravings. And sometimes, I take a step forward, open my arms wide, and even ask for more.