The story that I am about to relate has been casting about in my head for months. It wanted to be told. Or rather, I wanted to tell it. But something stopped me. I wasn’t ready. It is a deeply personal and revealing account of a traumatic experience, and some people would probably consider this oversharing. But really what else is the internet is for?
I wasn’t ready to tell this story until now. Hopefully by the end of this post you will understand why.
For the last 2 years I have been suffering from a debilitating eating disorder. I have never seen a professional therapist and I have never been diagnosed but I don’t need a doctor to tell me what I know to be true.
Let’s start from the beginning.
I guess it starts from my desire to be perfect.
Pretty much since I realized I was a female human being, right around the age of 11 or 12, I have had issues with my body. Body dysmorphia, as it is called. What young woman, or man, doesn’t? I always thought I was fat.
This feeling of inadequacy manifested itself as internal self-hatred. I now know that this results from, among other things, my tendency to compare myself to others. “I wish I had her legs. I wish I had her waist.” Or it stems from the less obvious and more insidious comparisons like reading a book that describes a desirable woman as slim and thinking that I should also be slim, while fearing that I am not. Seeing pictures of women everywhere photoshopped into impossible bodies, and not being able to tell myself it is ok not to look like them.
For whatever reason, I am extremely susceptible to these influences and spent more than a decade internalizing this idea of what a beautiful woman should be. I wanted to be beautiful, I wanted to be perfect, but I always felt that my body was out of my control.
Then I moved to Korea.
Talk about out of control. When you move from the English speaking western world to Asia, everything is out of your control. Tiny things such as buying laundry detergent without asking for help become major victories. It is easy to be overwhelmed. And when overwhelmed and feeling too much emotion, I tend to turn to food for comfort.
So that is what I did in Korea. I ate. And as a result I gained weight. Looking back at photographs now, I can see that I didn’t really gain so much weight, just a little. I was not the horrible fat slob that I saw in the mirror every day. But at the time, I was disgusted.
In November 2012 I decided it was time to get myself under control. I had read some quote somewhere attributed to Buddhism that said, and I paraphrase, mastery of the self is the greatest victory. This became my mantra.
I joined a Bikram Yoga studio and made a promise to myself that I was going to be healthy. I was going to stop eating junk like dry packets of ramen noodles, and eat more veggies. Whenever I felt a craving for some junk food, I exerted total self-control and never let myself indulge. I took a 90 minute Bikram class every day. And at first these were positive changes.
But I wasn’t losing weight.
Then I started counting calories.
It started out reasonable, I was eating 1800 a day I think. But soon I dropped to 1200. And even if I worked out, I kept it at 1200. Strict. It became a daily obsession. I spent so much time and energy focused on calories. I bought a scale and weighed every single piece of food that went onto my plate. Including lettuce. Seriously. I knew precisely how many calories I ate every day. I felt that I was healthy and in control.
I stopped listening to my body and only listened to my calorie counter. If I felt hunger, I ignored it because it was not a scheduled meal time. I made food that fit with my mathematic calculation of how I should be, instead of catering to how I actually felt.
I would have anxiety attacks at the thought of unplanned food. I never went out with friends on weekdays because I was too afraid to eat calorically dense restaurant meals.
Even within my own kitchen I developed fear foods. I feared cheese, and oils, and avocados, because they were calorically dense. I feared bread. I feared rice. I feared fruit. I even feared onions and garlic because they had slightly higher caloric value.
On the weekends I would go out with friends and seriously let go. I would eat mountains. Drink horrific amounts. It’s amazing I still have a liver, really. And I would wake up on Sunday or Monday hating myself for my lack of discipline, and staring in the mirror for hours analyzing every inch of my body, desperately trying to ensure my 1 or 2 days of eating hadn’t made me fat. The rest of the week was a punishment for this indulgence.
But at the time, I simply thought I was being conscientious and healthy.
Oh yeah, please combine the above description of my eating habits with an absolute obsession with exercise. I never missed a day. I never took a day off. Or, if I had a rest day, it usually included a 6 mile walk or intense hike.
This lasted from November 2012 – August, 2013. By this time I estimate that I weighed in at or below 100 lbs or 48kgs. I had stopped weighing myself at 52kgs. I was shocked that my size 0 pants were falling off. I still looked in the mirror and hated what I saw. Even when I was bone thin, I looked in the mirror and hated it.
I had convinced myself that if I lost the fat, I would be beautiful. Well I lost the fat, but the insecurities remained, only this time I hated that I looked more like a praying mantis than a human being.
I probably would have kept going down this self-hating, self-flagellating path, but 3 very important and disconnected things happened that August.
First, while running to catch the last bus home, I stumbled and broke my pinky toe, thus rendering me incapable of heading to my twice daily gym sessions.
Second, one night after more than a few beers, a very good friend started calling me “Auschwitz” and told me that in fact I was terrifyingly thin.
Third, I went to visit a friend from California in Tokyo. We went out for a luxurious Japanese meal and for the first time in almost a year I remembered what life was like before I was obsessed with every piece of food that passed my lips. I remembered what it felt like to enjoy the flavors and the textures, and to eat rich foods just because they are delicious, and not feel guilt and self-hatred after the fact.
When I got home from Tokyo I looked in the mirror and tried to objectively look at my body. I was killing myself, slowly but surely. My hips were a mess, constantly in pain from overuse. In fact, my whole body was physically painful.
I would love to say that after that moment of realization, I decided to let go of all these habits and began healing, but the road to recovery is not so simple. In includes binge eating, and then restricting, and then binging again, and then restricting. So many tears, and days full of self-hatred and regret for the binge the night before, followed by another binge.
I gained weight steadily, but I hated every pound. I constantly berated myself for getting fat again. I still worked out constantly and most days still restricted my calories and counted every single morsel that passed my lips.
Then I left Korea and began traveling.
I was terrified. I had no gym. I had to eat street food. Greasy, calorically dense, delicious street food. I could barely enjoy it. I started skipping breakfast as a way to control my caloric intake.
Still I did not listen to my body. I only listened to my mind which said, no, don’t eat. If I felt hunger, I felt guilty for wanting to eat. If I ate till I was full, I felt guilty for that too.
Last February was my last true attack of restrictive eating. I went to a Yoga Teacher Training where they encouraged a vegan diet, and they prepared a beautiful buffet for us of the most healthy and delicious meals. I made sure to always only take one helping, I stayed away from rice, and I always left the table hungry. By the end of that month I was weak, thin, and angry with myself.
So I made up my mind. It was time to change. I had to get over this or it was going to take over my life. So I started eating. And eating. And eating.
You think the guy from Man vs Food is bad? Try watching a person recovering from an eating disorder. I never felt full. My body, after having been deprived for so long, wanted to make sure it could stock up in case it was struck by another famine.
I began eating my fear foods. I ate ice cream. I ate packaged food. Candy. Snacks. Street food. Bread. Sandwiches. It was glorious. I allowed myself to taste the sweet, decadent, oh so greasy fried foods that they sell from stalls in Indonesia. I indulged in multiple helpings of Dal Bhat in Nepal. I ate ice cream cones. And chocolate. I ate noodles and rice and fruit and I ate whatever I wanted.
And it was painful. I still hated my body. I was still healing.
This continued during my summer in America. Living at home with my parents, trying to find a job that I wanted, trying not to succumb to the listless depression that comes with unemployment. But even though it was tough and my relationship with food and my body suffered, I didn’t give up, and I did end up in Peru.
In Peru, for the first time in two years, I feel happy with my body. Not every day, not constantly, but I feel it, and it is amazing. I’m sure there are a lot of factors that influence this, including the fact that I have a new job, in a new country, and my energy is focused externally. I am meditating more and as I mentioned in a previous post, the very energy of the land here seems to have positive, healing qualities.
But there is one factor that has helped heal my body image immensely that I want to share: In Peru, I have no mirrors.
In Korea and the States, I was, we all are, surrounded by full length mirrors. It seems like every surface is reflective. And every time I passed one, it gave me a chance to look myself over and analyze what was wrong with my body at that moment. It kept my focus on my physical appearance and distracted from what is really important.
Here in Peru, I do not have a mirror in my bedroom or my bathroom. There is a small mirror in the teacher’s room at school where I check my face and hair before I go teach, but otherwise I am without my reflection. I cannot tell you how wonderfully liberating this has been. The change is drastic and incredible. I know that I am the right size for me. I feel that my body is powerful and beautiful, and more importantly, I am aware that it is a vessel for the mind and soul that actually make me who I am.
I feel liberated. Am I completely healed? No. I still have bad days. Nights where I catch myself eating extra food after dinner and feeling guilty. Days where I grab at the fat around my belly and feel gross. But really? I probably look beautiful. I would look beautiful if I gained ten pounds or if I lost ten pounds. The fact is that it doesn’t matter.
I’ve realized that we have a plague of vanity fed by images and mirrors. Here look at this model, now look in the mirror and see all the ways that your body is wrong. If you’ve walked down the street today, chances are someone thought you were beautiful. If you’ve had conversations today, chances are someone thought you were funny or charming or intelligent. This is what really matters.
And if you haven’t gone outside today, it’s probably time to step away from the mirror and focus your incredible mental energy on something more important than the size of your biceps or the best posture to ensure have a thigh gap.
Sometimes I see my reflection and I realize I am just a normal sized person who doesn’t need to lose weight. I glance quickly, feel content, and move on. When I think about how I used to think this body was ugly and fat, I start to smile. I was so foolishly vain. It doesn’t matter. I look fine. The more important things are within me.
Because in the end it is not important what you look like, it really isn’t. What is important is how you feel. How do you spend your day? How do you use the beautiful, amazingly creative and incredibly talented mind that all humans have? Focus internally, heal the soul, and the body will follow.
Perhaps this post reads as slightly dramatic. I will be the first to say that I am a dramatic person, but I actually toned down and heavily edited the above story. My hope is that you find it relatable. I know I am not the only person who struggles with this.
If you struggle with your body, in an intense way, like the story I just recounted, or in a small way, please know that you are not alone, and that you are beautiful. If you want to talk, please send me a message. I’m pretty sure only my friends read this blog, but even if we have never met before and you somehow stumbled onto this post, please don’t be afraid to shoot me a comment or a message. I am not a therapist, but I am a human and a listener. Society teaches you that your most important asset is your looks. You must be beautiful, and beauty only has one form. This is wrong. It is incredibly difficult to break free but we can do it.
Embrace your inner divine.