Saturday, October 17, 2009

Sexual Health Sundays: Body Image

I wanted to write about body image this week, but please keep in mind that this is only my experience. Don’t take my words as the general truth about disordered eating, and don’t assume that everyone who has ever struggled with accepting their body will agree with me. These words are my truth; if they aren’t yours, then I encourage you to speak up, too. 

It’s hard to pinpoint the moment when my body-awareness started. There are glimpses, moments. Dance class, my body straining to fit into our bright spandex costumes. The summer my parents got divorced and my mother’s new boyfriend took us out for Baskin-Robbins every single day. The summer when I bought low-cut jeans, wondering if I’d be popular in high school, wondering if this would be the year when I’d finally blossom into someone else. The day I decided to cut out sugar from my diet. The day I decided to stop eating bread. The six months I spent in Australia, running every day on the treadmill, staying up late to gorge on “Good For You” cereal and ice cream and then letting it come back up, thick and pasty in the toilet bowl. Or was it earlier? Seven years old, comparing myself to my tall, thin best friend, wondering why I was smaller, darker, less graceful.

I guess you could say that I’m a recovered bulimic, even though I never called myself “bulimic” at the time when I was making myself throw up. I never thought that I deserved the label. Bulimics or anorexics were skinny and beautiful, even if they starved themselves or purged. In my mind, I was never skinny, and I was never beautiful. I didn’t deserve entry into any club, no matter how self-destructive.

 I started actively restricting my diet when I was twelve years old, and I started making myself throw up when I was fourteen. Now, one week after my 20th birthday, I can proudly say that it’s been several years since I binged or purged. But even though these events are in the past, it’s emotional for me to write about them. The desperation, the feelings of guilt and suppressed anger and fear, haven’t gone away completely. They have lessened a lot over the years, but they haven’t disappeared. Tonight,  for example, my girlfriend and I walked to Chinatown, and bought some pastries from a bakery. At home, I ate something called a “Chinese Rice Krispy Square”- a dense rectangular block of what seemed like condensed fortune cookies, held together with marshmallow- compulsively, chewing mouthful after mouthful, even though I felt desperate, even though I could barely taste it. I kept eating, feeling nervous, hoping that the comfort of the food would dull my sadness and my nerves. Afterwards, I felt guilty. I thought about throwing up- about how good it would feel afterwards, the accelerated heart rate, the emptiness, the satisfaction of being so close to disappearing. But instead of getting up and going to the bathroom, I just sat there. I felt my body- my stomach, my legs, my heart, shoulders. I got up and filled my water bottle. I drank greedily. I filled my stomach with water, so that I couldn’t throw up even if I wanted to. I made myself breathe.

I’ve developed coping strategies over the years, ways to distract myself and channel some of the feelings that binging and purging helped me address. When I’m feeling anxious, I write, I call a friend, I ask for a hug, I drink water, I read a book, or I paint. Sometimes, I lie on the floor and just cry. I listen to music that I love. I do yoga. I curl up in the foetal position and let myself lie dormant for a little while.

There is no such thing as the “perfect eating disorder.” There’s this image floating around about the “right way” to have an eating disorder, an image which I definitely bought into. Even though I was throwing up regularly, often several times a day, caught in a dizzying cycle of binging and purging, I couldn’t bring myself to see these patterns as disordered. I’m not skeletal. I’ve never been hospitalized. I don’t look delicate or have bones sticking out everywhere like the girls plastered all over those pro-anorexia websites. I eat a lot; doesn’t that automatically disqualify me from having an eating disorder?

Having an eating disorder can mean eating very little, or not at all. It can mean eating a regular supper, and then exercising compulsively. It can mean eating and then throwing up, every day or only once. It can mean counting calories down to the last bite of celery. It can mean eating compulsively and not throwing up. People of all and any genders, races, and classes have eating disorders. The bottom line is that there is no one “right way” to have an eating disorder.  Maybe if I had known that when I was fourteen, I could have sought help sooner, instead of beating myself up for not looking or acting the way I imagined a person with an eating disorder should.

Eating disorders have nothing to do with food. Sure, my eating disorder was superficially centered on my desire to be thin, and therefore “conventionally attractive.” (Side note: I never lost any weight, even at the height of my bulimia. I felt worse than ever. I retained water, and my skin looked dull. That isn’t even considering more long-term health benefits. It is not a glamorous diet routine, I promise).  But at its core, my eating disorder wasn’t about weight or food at all. It was about feeling powerless when I was a little kid, and scared. It was about being angry and having no way to express it. It was about family skeletons that needed to be dug up, and brought into the light. It was about understanding myself and my sexuality and coming to terms with all of the expectations I had absorbed from my cultural environment. It was about a million things that were much bigger and much more nuanced than just “wanting to be skinny.”

If you have an eating disorder, there is nothing wrong with you. It doesn’t mean that you are sick. It doesn’t mean that you are weak. It means that you have found a way of dealing with your life. There is nothing wrong with that. Restricting your food intake or eating more than feels comfortable and then throwing up might not be the healthiest way for you to channel your emotions, but if it is helping you cope with your life, then there is nothing bad about that. (Guilt isn’t helpful- feeling guilty for having an eating disorder will do nothing but exacerbate the eating disorder). Love yourself for where you are at. Then, you can start looking at how to replace those unhealthy behaviours with healthier ones. (For example, writing in a journal instead of eating, or doing something kind for yourself when you are feeling vulnerable).

Find a community. I’m lucky enough to have very amazing friends and a supportive family, but when I was caught in the negative spiral of bulimic thought patterns (getting focused on “improving” my body, as a way to avoid thinking or dealing with anything else happening in my life), I just didn’t feel like I could talk to them. I didn’t want them to assume anything about me. I didn’t want their pity. I didn’t want them to be mad at me or think that what I was doing was stupid. At the same time, I felt so isolated, and I craved having someone to talk to, someone who wouldn’t try to impose their own agenda on me, and would just give me space. I managed to find that online, of all places. There’s a forum called Something Fishy, which is specifically for people who are recovering from eating disorders. This website was an amazing resource for me. In moments when I had just binged, and was feeling horrible about myself, I would go to their live chat and the other users knew exactly how I was feeling. They told me to just breathe, to stay calm, to stay with them and not throw up. They told me that I needed to break the binge/purge cycle in order to move past my eating disorder; I needed to confront the fear of gaining weight; I needed to trust my body, trust that it would not explode, trust that I would not die if I left the food inside my stomach. I remember the first night I went to sleep without throwing up. It was terrifying. I was convinced that I would wake up and look like a completely different person. In the morning, though, I looked in the mirror and realized it was just me. I realized, too, that my body is capable of a lot more than I give it credit for.

Make a Body-Love Book.  We’re fed a lot of negative messages about our bodies, saying that we need to look and act a certain way. Even for the most savvy feminist media critic, it can wear you down. To provide a counterpoint, I suggest getting a journal or scrapbook and filling it with everything that makes you feel good about your body and about yourself as a human being. Some suggestions include: cards from loved ones telling you how awesome you are; pictures of people who are inspirational for what they have done in their lives, and not only how they look; letters you’ve written to the parts of your body that you usually criticize, thanking them for their hard work; quotes that make you happy; reminders of your (non-body/weight-related) achievements; anything else that reminds you of how amazing you are, right now, without needing to lose that extra five pounds.

Be patient with yourself. What you’re dealing with is hard. And I won’t lie to you—there is never a point where it’s just easy. But it does get easier, and the voices in your head telling you that you aren’t good enough become overpowered by a stronger voice, reminding you that you are worth loving, just the way you are. Loving yourself is a challenge and a revolution. But I believe in you.



  1. You're beautiful, dear, and I can't imagine a time when you might not have been. Thanks so much for posting this.

  2. This is totally kick ass. It's real and thats more than most eating disorder/disordered eating posts. Also thanks for attacking the myth that lesbians don't get eating disorders.

  3. This is beautiful, Vanessa! Thank you for sharing.

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