“I am sixteen and they tell me I’m obsessed. All I want is to be dust-small, paper thin. I’m not, and yet my edges still seem to cut people. My mother cries sometimes.
I am sixteen, I envy the mushrooms in the yard; they thrive on the leftovers of life. I try to eat the leftovers in the fridge, but bite by bite I spit them out into the toilet. I do not thrive.
I am sixteen and I feel the cold gnawing at the bottom of my stomach. I hate it and I love it; I love it because I hate it, and it’s ME who gets to decide. I’m sixteen and the power of self-denial is intoxicating. I deny the gnawing for so long I stop feeling it. I have conquered.
I am sixteen and I run. I run six miles every day. I get shin splints. I run. I get a stress fracture. I run. I wheeze and cough and cry. I run. I love how with each step, I am burning myself down and down, each day occupying slightly less space than the day before. I am in control. I run.
I am sixteen and I am so tired.
‘Do something nice for the part of your body you hate the most,’ my counselor says. ‘Make it feel pretty.’ So I get my navel pierced and wait to like my stomach better. I suppose it helps… a little.
I am sixteen and I have gone 60 days without anything sweet. On day 61, I eat the hard, creamy chocolate. Guilt. I feel sick. I eat more. On day 62, I hate myself. All I eat is some lettuce with red wine vinegar, and then only because my mother is watching.
I am sixteen and my brother makes me half of a sandwich when he sees I did not eat lunch. Usually content not to confront me, even he is moved to action by the way my bones poke up under my skin. ‘Please eat it,’ he begs. ‘You need to eat.’ It is so sweet of him so I eat a few bites. But when he leaves, I give the rest to the dogs. They follow me around a lot now; I am always giving them food. They leave no evidence. Nothing in the trash for my dad to find when he empties it, nothing to clog the toilet. I am sixteen and I have learned these things; I have become clever in the ways of secret self-destruction.
I am sixteen at a potluck at church, holding a bowl of soup in my shaky hands. ‘Look, she’s eating something!’ I hear the whisper a few seats down the table. I ignore the comment. I’m severely underweight and still I pretend no one can tell I have a problem.
I’m seventeen and I stop running. I’m too tired. I gain weight. Isn’t that recovery? It feels like failure. But I am so tired. It happens. I cannot stop it any longer. I close my mind’s eyes shut tight, grit my teeth, and let myself grow.
I am seventeen and I begin liking little stories; stories about how people woke up and made it through the day. What they thought about, besides what they craved and what they denied themselves, besides unattainable goals and forbidden things. I like stories where things are ok. Not all the time, maybe, and not exceedingly happy, but mostly ok.
I am eighteen and I am ok. Not all the time, and not exceedingly happy, but mostly ok. I throw away the jeans I’ve grown out of. I know I will never fit into them again, so why let them take up the space? My counselor calls it acceptance. It feels more like surrender. I gain more weight than I would like, but I am ok.
I am nineteen and it is a rock in the back of my brain—a constant, subtle weight—it is white noise in the background of my whole life. But I am able to ignore it now, and that is more freedom than I’ve had in a few years. I live.
I am nineteen and I feel I am coming up out of the ground, breaking the surface after years of tunneling. The light is bright and disorienting. I am confused by the freedom, the wide open spaces, the choices are mine—which have always been mine but I thought they weren’t. Taking them back makes me nervous. What do I do with them now? My reference points are dismantled after years of crashing back and forth between gluttony and starvation; I must re-learn them. I must re-learn how to eat. It is clumsy. Usually it takes conscious thought, but sometimes it takes no thought at all. Sometimes it is smooth sailing, sometimes it is an equation to solve.
I am nineteen and the equations grow easier, in time. Not because they have become any more simple, but because I’ve improved my psychological algebra. I miss when one plus one was two and I never had to solve for X, but at least I’ve learned how. Maybe algebra is what it takes to thrive.
I am twenty and I solve for X and I move on and I live.
I am twenty-one and it is a thorn buried deep in the sole of my shoe. Most of the time I can barely feel it, only sometimes when I step just right.
I am twenty-one and I step carefully.
I am twenty-two, twenty-three, twenty-four. I live. I solve for X. I will always solve for X, I think. But I live.
It’s the end of 2019, and I’m twenty-nine.
I solve for X still, but not as often, and the calculation isn’t as hard anymore.
I’m twenty-nine and I am at the heaviest end of my personal weight spectrum. I’m fat. I’m overweight. A random BMI calculator would say I’m ‘obese.’
But I am proud of my body now, most of the time. Everything it’s brought me through, every mark and roll and scar that makes it mine.
It took twelve years of therapy, of hard work, of patience (not only from myself but from my family and close friends).
And, like an alcoholic, I will always be in recovery, in one way or another. But I’m in a place now, where I can say I’ve experienced significant, long-term healing.
I wish I could cite several breakthrough conversations or quotes, put together a clear word-picture of how I got from there to here. But the change was so gradual, it was like the growth of a tree: imperceptible until years had gone by and suddenly, after years of the grind of sun, rain, dormant winters, and blossoming springs, you notice. Wow, it’s come a long way.
2018 was a breakthrough year for me, though, for a few reasons. Mostly I think it was a culmination of all the time and work suddenly manifesting. Sometimes you know something for years in your head, but you don’t know it in your heart until, for some reason, you’re just ready. You just need the right push.
At the beginning of 2018, at the heaviest I’d ever been, I was on yet another diet. And as the number on the scale dropped, I saw myself falling into old patterns from my more intense eating disorder days: obsessive calorie counting, daily weighing and measuring, over-exercising, using multiple apps and websites to track my food intake and calorie burning, frequent food guilt and anxiety.
In discussing this with my therapist, who counseled me through anorexia in my teens, I realized something: since I was sixteen years old, there had never been a time in my life where I was not trying to lose weight. Whether I was underweight or overweight, or anywhere in between, and whether or not I was succeeding, I was always trying to lose weight. For 12 years. Always either dieting or planning to start a diet the next Monday, or the first of the month. No matter what my weight was, I was never really happy with my body.
So, my therapist proposed an experiment:
‘What would it be like if you stopped trying for a bit?’ She asked me.
‘Stop trying to lose weight?’
‘Yes. And focus your attention on accepting your body, as it is right now. At least for a while. What would that be like?’
What would that be like? To, for once, stop trying. Stop dieting, stop making plans to diet. Stop thinking of my current body as just a ‘temporary’ one I have to endure on the way to a ‘better’ one. Accept and care for the body I had now, as it was.
I was surprised by how much that idea scared me. You mean decide to keep this fat on purpose? You mean give up? I felt fear, I felt anger, I felt sad, and I felt… relief? She told me to think about it. That it didn’t have to be a permanent decision; I could just try it for a little while.
Right around this time, I also found out one of the medications I had been on in the past, which contributed to my weight gain to begin with, commonly has the side effect of permanently changing a body’s ‘set point.’ In other words, it’s likely my metabolism has been permanently changed. So no matter how hard I try—short of starving myself—I may never be able to look the way I used to, or reach my ‘goal weight.’
That discovery, as anyone else who has suffered with intense body image issues might imagine, also brought about lots of depression and anxiety. So, for my sanity’s sake, I delved more deeply than ever into the body positivity movement. There, thanks to some wonderful blogs, Facebook groups, and Instagram accounts, not only was I able to make huge strides of progress in the work of internalizing a more diverse definition of beauty, but I also found credible information on the truth about health, being fat, and diets.
My body image issues are by no means gone. I still live in America, after all—surrounded almost constantly by messages saying ‘thinner is better.’ A lifetime of being socialized to idealize a certain body type isn’t corrected easily.
But I’ve stopped dieting (for good), and I am more consistently experiencing peace, around the issues of food and body image, then I have in years. My food and exercise goals are focused on properly fueling and strengthening my body (with patience and compassion for its limitations due to chronic illness), rather than changing its size.
This picture says so much.
This is the throes of ED (eating disorder) vs my peak of recovery. This is me treating my body terribly vs treating it more healthfully than I had in over a decade. This is insecurity, self-loathing, and body dysmorphia vs finally disowning the toxic lies of diet culture, ‘thin = healthy’, ‘fat = unhealthy’, ‘thinner = more attractive’, and ‘I must be attractive to be a valid human being.’ It’s often still an emotional battle, when most people’s before and after pics are celebrating leaving a larger version of themselves behind. Like their larger body was a failure in comparison with their smaller one; less-than.
In a culture where weight gain (especially to the point of being in the plus sizes) is considered ‘letting yourself go,’ or the fate people wish on their high school rivals, it can be challenging to exist as a formerly-thin, fat person. I have to regularly remind myself of the things I’ve learned in ED therapy, about truly healthy relationships with food, exercise, society, and body image. I have to occasionally cut back the regrowth of the toxic cultural messages I’ve worked so hard to unlearn.
I’m proud of the work I’ve done to get here; the work I do to stay here. Here in this place, where I’m at peace with a body which is soft and textured, plus sized, has rolls, and will understandably change and fluctuate through different stages of my life. Where I no longer feel like a puppet, animated by low self-esteem and food anxiety. Where I have space in my heart and mind for so much more than I did when I was trying to maintain a lower weight, or lose even more.
There’s so much more I could say about the things I’ve learned and the work I’ve done, but I’ll end with just saying – I’m proud of my transformation.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Elise Huther. You can follow their journey on Instagram. Learn more about Elise’s art on their website and Facebook. Do you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story here. Be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.
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