Each Wednesday, my daughter and I put on our swimsuits and walk into the community pool until the water gets so deep I bend down and carry her. It is a long ramp into the deep end. Packed benches and risers span the perimeter and they are crowded with parents and siblings. It is quite a catwalk for those initiated into the lethal art of body comparison and body hatred.
My history with an eating disorder is one of the coolest and shittiest things about me. Cool because you recover from anorexia like I did, and no one can fuck with you. Overcoming my demons has given me a fearlessness and strength that stuns even me. Shitty because there is no intrinsic value in a bullying voice that tells you to stop eating and lose all the weight.
As it pertains to parenting a girl, it’s terrifying to know personally the reality of eating disorder culture taken to its logical extent — the acts of fainting, obsessing, and starving turning into a body that elicits jealousy, praise, and near-death experiences that blur into a loop of hospitals, treatment, and crying your damn eyes out because it hurts so much. It starts with pink onesies that ask if this diaper makes you look fat, and turns into magazine covers asking for twenty fucking years if Jennifer Aniston is pregnant because she is a woman and has a stomach. It is friends and family saying they are good or bad depending on what they ate or how they exercised. Eating disorder culture is everywhere, and it is unavoidable.
So as this swim class taught my daughter to swim, it taught me to wear a swimsuit in public without holding in my gut. It taught me to throw my towel over my shoulders instead of wrapping it cautiously around my waist or under my arms. It taught me to sit on the floor because the benches are too packed and let the rolls bunch over my bikini bottom. I want her to breathe, and walk, and sit like this. Being her role model helps keep me clean. The best way to teach her to love herself is to show her that I love her, and myself.
I consider myself fully recovered from my eating disorder. But the reality is, my actions don’t always match my thoughts. I eat regular meals, don’t restrict my food, and exercise only when I have time, which for someone who fits my work/life profile means not so much. I have a gut, two thighs, and a body that reflects this. My actions are good. My thoughts can be brutal.
Recently I have had a series of conversations with someone who is struggling with an eating disorder. She will often ask me how I moved past nasty eating disorder thoughts. This would be a different answer for anyone, since everyone’s thoughts and motivations are different, but I do think the one commonality is that we all need professional treatment to break free (this is my regularly scheduled reminder that I do not believe it’s possible to self-help your way out of an eating disorder, and if you are struggling I urge you to seek professional treatment).
But more important, it has helped me to realize that these thoughts may diminish in frequency and severity, but they actually do not go away. I’m not going to tell you what I think because I am not here to provide instructions for how to be an anorexic (you should live because it’s cool!), but let me tell you that I’ve been recovered like solid for close to 15 years and still have ridiculous thoughts every day about a new diet plan I should follow. What has changed is that they float in and out in seconds. I don’t listen to them. I don’t follow their instructions. Most of the time, I don’t even register what’s happening.
Until I did a few weeks ago. There I was in Pilates class, being physically strong when I started beating up on myself for the bulge above my elastic waist. It was in this moment of strength and sweat when it all registered. “Oh my gosh,” I thought in a high, indignant voice rising to my own defense. “That’s so mean. Why would you say that to yourself?” I did this the way a friend would chase away the worst bully. The release nearly made me cry, realizing that I had been holding this self-hatred in my muscles and I could be a good steward to myself and sweep the toxicity out with a non-self-blaming admonishment and a huge exhale.
Having been to hell and back, I can verify the basic building blocks of self-hatred have never gone away. The best I can do is acknowledge them, ignore them, and rise above them. It feels good when I demonstrate loving my body for my daughter, and it feels good when I insist upon it for myself. I’ll see you at the pool and I’ll be walking in real slow.