Coming out of the anorexia closet, 25 years later.
Today I’m thinking about 13-year old anorexic Mia. That’s right, I haven’t thought much about her, maybe because I associate so much with being a strong and healthy momma now, I’m embarrassed of the fact that I was once so immersed in a battle with myself and my body.
It’s been 25 years, I think it’s time to heal a bit more.
Anorexia was a huge turning point in my developing years. At the cusp of puberty, I looked in the mirror, looked at my pre-teen body and learned to hate what I saw.
It wasn’t instant — it had developed with years of soaking in the messages from magazines, my friends at school, my mom’s own struggles. All that attention on how we look and how important it is to attract love, radiant happy smiles, attention and success. At that point in my life, happiness equated to looking like a model, attracting some cute boys and having it all. Feeling healthy, looking in the mirror and loving what I saw was not in the equation.
I was 12, I was traveling with my family. I remember the moment specifically, sitting on a bed in a dark, Peruvian hotel and feeling chubby. My sisters goofing around and laughing, and all I could think about was my tummy.
Puberty is also this delicate time in our life when we start to grow up. We’re seeking desperately to find our power. What we can actually control in our life beyond what is dictated by our parents.
I saw a light in that moment. I did have the power to control my own body. I made a secret contract with myself. Secret being the key. I was going to see how much I could control my own body. How little I could get away with eating, and not get noticed, not get called out.
It started slow, it was so satisfying to have that power — to have a secret of my own. I was one of 6 kids, travelling around the world with my close-knit family for 13-months. Having a secret was a precious commodity.
I got away with a little, and then a little more. Slowly I started to gain the thrill of feeling in control of my body. I was slimming down, winning with my diet. And I knew how to diet — I’d watched my mom try dozens of different diets all the years while I was growing up. There wasn’t internet, or #thinspiration to click on, but there were magazine headlines and that gnawing raw feeling in my gut — hunger started feeling like power. Feeling hunger meant I was in control.
I got addicted to feeling hungry.
In any eating disorder, there’s an obsession with food and also, the morphed image that shows up in the mirror. In other messy parts, there’s the dealing with constipation, the silent plotting of how to pretend you’re eating more than you are, the puffy clothes, the sucking in and looking down to see if you’re at the desired point of hip bones jutting out, stomach concaving in.
That pretty much describes the next 8 months, while we travelled and saw sights all around the world that blew my mind and opened my prospective. Even as we toured through Bangladesh, I marvelled at the treatment of women and was emblazoned in my feminist heart, the veil in front of my own eyes was my one deep desire to control my body. It stopped being about the image, it started being more and more about winning the battle each day.
I often wonder how far along I was until my family really noticed my internal competition. Or why we never talked about it. Or why now, both my older sister and I were in this incredible internal world with an eating disorder brain, and the external competition of how to be the one to eat less, do more exercise and weigh less. There was a couple mentions of “have a little more to eat”, but it was a silent, background elephant in our travelling crew. Me, excited about my newfound secret power over my body, and my family’s practice of not diving into uncomfortable conversations, but rather keeping things at a happy “everything fine and nobody’s sick” attitude.
Heaven forbid we talk about it, that might make it real.
I’ll never forget one of the first comments I got when I returned home after being away for 13 months. I left a healthy, bubbly 12-year-old, and came back a quiet, taller and extremely thin 13 year old teen. “Looks like you spent too much time in Ethiopia” — said the boy I had had a crush on before we left. The boy I was seeking validation from. The boy that I had thought would like me if I was thinner, and prettier.
Whew, that hit, that hurt. Know how I know? I still remember it. It was like a rock dropped. That drive to get pretty all of a sudden got a dose of reality.
Looking back, I know that moment was the start of my recovery. It wasn’t quick though. The next months were full of tears and struggles. My sister and I had to face the fact that we were legitimately sick and needed help. My family accepted that this was a serious health crisis and immediately got to work on taking us to specialist, therapists, nutritionists and psychologists.
I vividly remember that first meal after our meeting with the dietitian. She set out the guidelines on what we needed to eat. What healthy portions looked like. When my mom turned over that cup measurement of rice on my plate I cried. It looked so massive. I didn’t know how I was going to fit that all in.
It was a tearful transition, it was a phase of tears in my pillow and a deep internal conflict in my heart, I was grieving my loss of power. The counselling helped, I finally had a place to talk to someone outside of my family — someone who I didn’t have to pretend everything was alright. I’m not going to say I was an immediate convert into healthy eating and healthy thinking. I still had the competitive, attention seeking Mia there, willing to find ways to feel empowered in my body, how I looked, what I ate and what I could do.
To add to the strain, I started high school. A new high school after having been away from peers and regular life for over a year. All new faces, all new life. It was actually the perfect grounds for a fresh start.
I found sports, my saving grace.
First I’m sure I was drawn for the fact that I could exercise off “all” the food I was eating…but then it became about the state I could get into on the field or on the court. I started to love the power I felt in my body when I could run, kick, throw, jump, score. There’s something so freeing about finding joy in a body you’ve been battling with. In my young teenage mind I leapt at the chance to feel good in my body.
That year of starving, even though I felt powerful in a capitalistic, menacing control-freak kind of way, could not compare to the ecstatic feeling of an endorphin rush, the high of a team win, or the taste of sweat on my lips.
Yes, I traded my anorexia for sports. For a while I felt that maybe it was a different addiction but after 25 years, I see the wisdom in my young teen years. I love the fact that it taught me to crave feeling good. I saw the extremes early, from the depths of feeling draining hunger and internal bullying to the ecstasy of living in a vehicle of adventure and endorphins.
I understand now why I love living through sensation now. Feeling good matters. We have a huge capacity for joy, for endorphins, for new experiences that we need our bodies for and I’m continually seeking new territory in that.
Anorexia was a messenger for me. She looked me in the eye, took me for a spin down a windy, dark path of control and self-loathing and then shot me out the other side with a huge appetite for sensing the world through the one vessel I have been given.
Body love is a life-long mission. It’s that morning look in the mirror, the way we chose our outfits, the food we buy and then the food we put in our mouths. It’s the comments we remember, and the comments we chose to forget. Its the difference between how we would speak to our best friend, and the words we speak to ourselves that nobody can hear. Are we bullying or building up?
Body conversations can take a much larger percentage of our brain capacity than they deserve. What better things could we be thinking of, or inventing, or doing?
Btw, I still have those conversations. There’s still those days, those thoughts that hold me back. The not-so-nice things I say to myself and the compliments I ignore. But they’re less, they’re less powerful and limiting. Maybe it has to do with age too — I’m not sure. I’m conscious of the language in my head though, I’m committed to a softer, more loving approach, even on those hormone-induced, low energy, “puffy” days.
I’m a witness now, 25 years after 13-year old Mia had to take a long, hard look at her naked, waif-like, sinewy body in the mirror. My teenage daughters are growing up. I’ve been hyper aware of the tendencies to eating disorders in modern day society. There’s even more pressure with social media and personally being able to control your daily impressions and receive instant gratifications and likes for model-type pictures online.
When I look at my girls, I tear up at how healthy they are — they eat when they’re hungry, they snack when they need to. They do sports, they have a voice. I haven’t seen one inkling of a silent internal eating disorder war, and yes — I’ve been watching.
Body love works, it can break the cycle. I can’t say it works for everyone, I can’t take all the credit for my daughters’ healthy bodies and perspective, I know their relationship with their father has been extremely important, our open family conversations and healthy eating habits help and I don’t want to jinx the future or be blind to what’s around the corner.
Another thing I’ve learned about Body Love, is that it’s a launching pad for confidence and growth. The mirror conversations we have are often the way we start our days. I often wonder how many women it’s holding back from bigger successes in their work, in their relationships, in their creativity?
Do you have a bully or a best friend cheering you on?
That voice, that’s either commanding, demeaning or cheering for you is a key factor in your daily life. She can stop you from speaking up, from going places that look awesome, from living your truth from doing the things you were meant to do on this earth. Isn’t it crazy that a simple “fluffy” topic like how much we love our body, can effect so much of our life? There’s a ton of research on this too, even to the extremes of disease and healing.
It all comes down to how we nurture the vessel we were given to walk this earth in.
Today, I know I’ve been blessed with an abundance of health and vitality and have no idea what’s in store for me, other than my commitment to keep feeding my body the thoughts and food she craves and a willingness to accept the paths I’ll cross.
But for now I breathe in my thanks, for this sweet healthy body, and all the places she’s taken me, and all the places she’s going to take me. For her ability to change history and family trends, change perspective and give me more and more of what really matters in life. And today, I’m raising a long awaited thanks for that deep, life changing lesson she taught me thru a very serious and life altering disease.
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I’m on a mission to help empower more body love, to open the conversations with teens and women about the voices in our heads and what’s holding us back from living life fully. Reach out, send me a message, let’s talk.