CW: eating disorder
When I was seven years old, I went dress shopping at Mervyn's (RIP) with my grandmother. I. Was. So. Excited. I knew exactly which dress I wanted - a silky, semi-shiny, form-fitting cap-sleeved dress with a pattern of blue roses. I'd been eyeing it for months. Finally I was going to be able to try it on! I remember pulling the smooth material over my body, looking in the mirror, and feeling beautiful. I was beautiful! I rushed out of the dressing room to show my grandmother. As I showed myself off in all my glory, imitating model poses as seven year olds are bound to do, a saleslady came over.
"You might want to get that another size up, honey - you're a little tubby!" she said, smiling as she poked my stomach.
I'm sure she meant nothing by it. Surely she just thought I was a cute little girl and no harm could come by her poking my cute little tummy, but she was wrong. I was devastated. The bubble had popped. I wasn't beautiful. I was TUBBY.
While I'm sure there were other influences that came before this singular act by the unwitting saleslady (I grew up in the United States with a television and access to advertising), this was a defining moment for me. From that point on my stomach became the focus of my self-evaluations. I began to notice how flat the other girls' stomachs were compared to my slightly wobbly one. I realized that their bellybuttons all looked cute and perky whereas mine looked like a frown. The situation didn't improve once puberty hit, and somehow everyone in my class was tiny with boobs, whereas I was flat as a post - aside from my tummy.
Though I dabbled with an eating disorder my freshman year of high school, I wound up giving it my 110% my senior year. I was abroad in Brasil through Rotary International, staying with an incredible host family. I'd technically finished all my classes in the US so I didn't need to focus on schoolwork or getting credits transferred. Instead, I focused on learning Portuguese, immersing myself in the culture, compulsively exercising, and vigilantly managing my food intake. It started casually with wanting some exercise. But everything in Brasil was so different! I was experiencing intense culture shock. I was living in a homestay where no one spoke English, and I only knew how to say "O cavalo esta correndo" - or, "The horse is running" in Portuguese. The food was different, the clothes were different (my host mother burst out laughing when she saw my 'American' bikini for the first time), there were ants that crawled through the house all the time and no one seemed to care... Everything felt very out of control - except for how much food I ate. I could have control over how much I ate! It was a simple, primal, and toddler-esque response. Eventually, I learned that eating very little combined with copious amount of exercise could have very interesting results. I lost a lot of weight! I finally had a flat stomach! With my new tiny body, I could finally tell the boy who, at the beginning of my stay, had said "You're so different than any of the girls I know... You're bigger..." to shove it!
I liked my new body, and I liked the responses I was getting. There was something exciting about having my host mother tell me "You need to start eating more, your parents are going to think we were starving you!" There was a certain thrill when I returned home and had dear friends tell me they were worried about me, I looked too thin. There was a sensation akin to playing with matches when I stepped on the scale and realized that if my weight was a temperature, I'd only have a low fever.
This phase in my relationship to food and exercise lasted about two years, until I started my first battle with serious depression, started taking antidepressants, and gained 40+ lbs in about a month. But that's a different story for a different time.
Fast forward eight years. I've since worked really hard on my relationship with food and my body, and for the most part, I've gotten to a pretty healthy place - largely due to a lot of intense work with a really spectacular psychotherapist (and one failed group-therapy session, which gave me too many ideas for how I could take my eating disorder to even more extreme levels...). I have also surrounded myself with an awesome community of radical, magical, body positive folks, who have been both supportive and inspirational in my journey to love myself (thanks, friends - you're the best!). But if there's anything I've learned in life, it's that nothing is certain, and nothing ever stays the same. While for the most part my body and I do just fine, there are some days, weeks, or months where being my body's friend becomes a battle.
This past week was our last week in Spain. I ran into a friend who I'd first seen at the beginning of our trip. She told me that I had definitely gained a little weight since we'd arrived, and she was relieved. She was worried about me when she'd first seen me - I was too skinny, probably from the stress of packing up our lives and preparing for the journey - but now I looked healthier.
I know she meant this as a compliment and as encouragement. I know that she didn't know I was about to start my period and was more sensitive and self-conscious than usual. I know that none of those factors make any difference.
Friends, be careful with your words. Be careful when you want to comment on someone's body. It doesn't matter if what you want to say is positive or negative. Ask yourself: Is it 100% necessary for me to actually make this comment? Am I 100% positive this will in no way cause any harm or damage to this person?** There probably isn't any way for you to be 100% sure, so honestly, even if you mean well, you probably shouldn't say anything. There is so much more to talk about.
No matter what my friend's intentions were, for me, all I heard was "You have definitely gained weight. You look like you've gained weight."
That message is not one I want to be circling through my psyche right now. It arrived at a particularly delicate time - we've just arrived in France. This is the first time in a long time where I haven't spoken the language of a country I've been in, and I really, really hate not being able to communicate. Many people here speak English, but I don't feel comfortable making people speak my language to accommodate me. I've been particularly nervous about this, because unlike other times where I haven't spoken the language in a country, this time I am not in a homestay or a school program; I am not going to be surrounded by the language and forced to engage 24/7. I don't know how or if I'll learn.
So I'm in a foreign country where everything is different and I don't speak the language and things feel a little out of control - and now I have to make a choice: how do I want to navigate this, this time around?
Thankfully, some things are different than they were when I was 18, living in Brasil. I have a wonderful, supportive partner who I can turn to for support . Years of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy have given me tools to stop myself from spiraling into negative thinking patterns (thanks, Dr. Schwartz!). I'm also now at a point where, even though I still get a thrill if someone tells me I look thin, thinner, or too thin, I can recognize when I'm slipping into dangerous territory and can typically take steps to put myself back on a healthy track. All that said, it is still a battle. It is still really, really hard.
I don't really have a list of things I'm going to do that are helpful, because I haven't been here in a while and it feels disingenuous to do so. I encourage you to share your thoughts and suggestions in the comments. But I can say that I will keep working to build a stronger, more tender, more compassionate friendship with myself.
I have hope that someday, I won't have to wage a war against myself in order to love myself.
**affirming someone's weight loss or praising them for it can be harmful in its own right.