Getting Old And Loving It

I turn 36 in a few weeks, and I’m excited.

Aging is cool. It’s the ultimate affirmation of having “made it.”

I have written about loving my first gray hair as a political act, because the whole you’re-old-you’re-done message sucks. It is a privilege to age. I’ve long thought women get prettier as we age; there is something sculptural about the way lines cut a face.

36 feels significant to me because this is literally twice the age at which I thought I might never have another birthday. Today, half my life ago, would have been about the first morning I would ever wake up in the middle of the night to flashlights making sure I wasn’t killing myself, going to the bathroom in front of someone so I couldn’t vomit, and taking a shower observed after my razor was retrieved from the locked cabinet in the back.

You see, both my 18th and 19th birthdays were spent in the hospital because I had been starving myself to death. I think about all the destructive things I did, and all the ways I tormented myself with what I thought was my fatness and unacceptability.

I’m not ashamed that this happened. I’m appalled that society does this to people every day, that gender roles suck as much as they do, that it’s hip to brag about how “good” or “bad” you were with your food or your exercise, that size 00 is a now a thing — like literally, now the size for women to strive for is less than nothing.

I’m significantly larger now than I was before that eating disorder started. And you know what? I am fucking alive and fighting.

As I get ready to go into my later thirties, I’m proud to be alive. I think about loving all of my “imperfections” — including my wrinkles, crows feet, gray hair, C-section scar, cellulite, varicose veins, shoulder scars, and especially the laugh lines.

I remember what it felt like to laugh and cry this hard, to get these lines on my face. The condition of my forehead is intimately related to the number of occasions I’ve had to raise an eyebrow at total bullshit. My stomach and thighs! After so many battles, I am soft, triumphant, and strong enough to run a steep hill.

Loving yourself and your body as it is is truly revolutionary. I’ve spent half of my life on the other side of rock bottom; long enough to learn that the kind of lady I want to be SCREAMS HER AGE, has a belly roll and acknowledges it, and encourages others to do the same.

Goodbye, Yoga: On Parenting And Perpetual Loss

My daughter’s yoga studio is closing, and I am sad. Before I became a mother I would have sneered at that — it is particularly easy to sneer at women doing trivial things (basically just about anything) and having feelings about them.

But as I’ve written about here, starting baby yoga classes when she was 10 months old was a self-esteem boost I desperately needed at a time when I was working half-time, and feeling a diminished sense of accomplishment. I needed to get out of the house. I needed to have something on my calendar, somewhere to be. I needed to say I did something. Yoga gave me that.

But it also taught me how to play with my kid. I was not entirely comfortable singing goofy to her in front of other people before this class. We would do imaginative things alone together, but I still felt like I needed to be “cool” in front of adults. It was these classes that started opening my eyes to the joy of giving no fucks about looking mature while parenting.

I watched my daughter shift from being the youngest, most afraid, infant in the class to the girl who ran over to pull the parachute out before it was time. She sings and dances her yoga songs around the house. She does a terrific down dog for a kid who is two years old. Watching her learn — and to wait her turn to walk on the train and get a stamp, or have her name sung and chanted, or ring the chime and pass it to another child — filled my heart with pride. These were things I couldn’t have taught her at home.

As time went on, our life circumstances changed. My daughter enrolled in school (day care) full-time, and I went on to start a new organization. When you love what you do, it’s easy to work all the time, as I do and basically always have save my one brief stint as a half-time, stay-at-home mom. Suddenly our late Wednesday afternoons took on a new import. Whereas we had first started because I needed something to do, now I was continuing because I needed to carve out 45 minutes every week (or even third week) to not do, to invest in moving and being silly with my daughter.

More time passed and the late Wednesday family class was cancelled; not enough interest. It was replaced with an adult playtime yoga class, with kids encouraged to play with toys during the session. I was skeptical. How could I justify leaving work early not to enrich her, but me? This, too, was a learning experience. I told myself to be open — I had a few paid up classes, after all. Perhaps there was something of value in the new regime.

I considered the discomfort I felt in investing in myself versus doing something explicitly for my daughter. I still consider it, and find myself learning every time.

But also I challenged myself to take to heart what I’ve been saying for years: That sometimes we need to let one thing end in order to create space for something new and wonderful to enter our lives. Actively creating space has worked well for me in the past. The glamorous notion of leaping from one fully formed thing to another can often mean that the next thing is not nearly as interesting as giving yourself the mental space to dream up a new paradigm, then create it. This is why I have left multiple jobs without the next one lined up. Applying this to my personal life and my parenting life was challenging.

But it bore fruit. The new class was also quite nice. We had just hit a stride. I was getting that great yoga high and she was loving the chance to play with new toys in the studio. She would bring me plastic fruits as I breathed and did warrior poses. Sometimes she would ask to sit on my knee during a pose. Other times she’d be off in the playroom chatting with the other kids while I did a headstand, my shirt over my ribs and my round belly flopping exposed in the air — and me feeling a mega-triumph over the eating disorder that no longer controls my life.

When I learned the studio was closing, I wanted to cry. We went to our last class Saturday, and this time my daughter was the biggest kid there. The teacher announced it was the last class she was teaching there, and she might have to cry.

One of the most difficult parts of parenting is realizing that just when you think you’ve got it figured out, just when you’ve found your sense of anchor and permanence in a challenge that doesn’t play by rules written anywhere, it’s all gone. Your kid has grown out of the stage and the world no longer offers the same antidotes for younger kids now living that stage. Brand new becomes memory with alarming speed. Not just the pride and the giggles, but also the fear and the difficulty.

I am telling myself to enjoy the space that is being created by the end of something I love. I am digging deeper and telling myself it’s okay to grieve and create space at the same time. We can hold many things.

Share Your Truth Without Shame

I became a feminist activist because I developed anorexia and nearly died. When I got better, I swore to do whatever I could to make it less likely others would have to go through the hell I did. I believe that eating disorders are just one awful and predictable outcome of a gender-mean society that tells women they must take up less space — and not just in physical shape and size.

I don’t think about this stuff every day, but it grounds the work I do. This is the moral center I bring to my work. When I get frustrated, or demotivated, or sick of being trolled, I remember why I’m doing what I’m doing, and my love pours back in. Oppression hurts.

Today I work primarily on increasing access to abortion and advancing reproductive justice — the right to not be pregnant, the right to be pregnant with dignity and access to quality health care, and the right to raise families in safe and healthy communities.

To me this work is a continuation of what propelled me into feminist activism in the first place: reproductive oppression, like shitty beauty standards, is predicated on the same core issues that stem from treating women like objects instead of human beings who deserve dignity, equality and respect. It’s about impossible demands on the body (food and sex are primal, yo), using internalized shame as a mechanism of control and subjugation, and a sense that women’s bodies are open for public comment and need to be controlled and tamed. And yes, men are both directly and indirectly oppressed on these lines, too, so fixing these problems benefits everyone.

So I’ve shared some version of that in more conversations and speeches I can count. It is, after all, my story and why I’m here. Today I shared this at William and Mary Law School in a talk on attacks on Planned Parenthood and how we can protect reproductive freedom.

After it was over, multiple students came up and thanked me for sharing my story. One, in particular, told me it was the first time she’d heard anyone — student or professor — share in a classroom that they’d experienced an eating disorder. Mind you this was only like a hot second of my presentation in the context of an hour, but it made a difference to her. How sad that so much of life is people pretending they’ve got it all figured out and always have. That is like the literal antithesis of power. It is overcoming that makes us strong.

We all have a reason why we work toward the causes we do, and it’s effective organizing to share it. But more important, when we share our authentic stories and make ourselves vulnerable, we are shouting the shame that’s supposed to hold us back and flipping it the bird. I believe it is radical act each time a woman tells the truth about her life. To other people. To herself.

Change really does start with you.

 

When Someone Asks If You’re Pregnant … And You’re Not

Yesterday, I was checking out at the vet when the receptionist smiled. “I shouldn’t ask this,” she said, looking at what I thought was my wallet. “Is that a baby bump?”

“No,” I said.

Where is my dog? Bring back my dog. It’s time to get out of here. 

The dog came back. I played it cool, smiled at the receptionist even. The dog wagged her tail as we walked to the car.

And then I cried for thirty minutes in stop-and-go traffic, on my way to pick up my daughter.

Apparently I’m fat, I thought. And then my thoughts got very, very ugly. I used to have an eating disorder — anorexia nearly killed me. Since yesterday afternoon I have encountered the ugliest body-image thoughts I’ve had in more than a decade.

On this blog I have written extensively about my experience with pregnancy after an eating disorder and related concerns. Less than a month ago I served as a keynote speaker and did a workshop on pregnancy and postpartum concerns at an eating disorder recovery event hosted by the Center for Eating Disorders at Sheppard Pratt. I spoke honestly, as a person in recovery who has been doing damn well for a long time.

It is because of this, in part, that I want to be honest. Recovery is not always easy, and things can come up and bite you in the ass out of nowhere. Living in recovery means confronting those inconveniences at inconvenient times.

What happened yesterday hurts me so much.

I cried another round telling my husband later last night. I was ashamed to tell him, for fear he would see me differently.

Shame is the dominant emotion I feel, which raises a flag. Shame is what is causing me to write about this incident openly and honestly now. I have long felt that unmasking shame is at the heart of the feminist project, that when we talk about shame it loses its power to keep us down.

It is shame telling me my body is not acceptable, when I know perfectly well that my body is healthy and a gift and powers this amazing life that is mine. It is shame telling me to feel bad personally, when in reality we should all feel bad about a culture that deems it acceptable to comment on women’s bodies and make pregnancy (actual or presumed) a spectator sport. It is shame telling me that you will look at me differently after reading this post, staring at my stomach and judging me, when in reality if that is true I should grab my dog and get away from you as quickly as I can.

A good piece of what has made me cry so hard is being forced to have the ghosts of my eating disorder engage in open combat with my political beliefs of today. I know better, and I also want better; being forced to contend with a reality I very much don’t like — being the weight my body wants to be, getting assessed and confronted by others on the basis of how I look, considering the civil rights implications of presumed pregnancies — is unpleasant.

Another piece revolves around my daughter. She watches everything I do, even when I think she’s not, and mimics my behaviors to hilarious precision. If I hate my body, I am teaching her to hate her own. If I let an idiot comment stop me from moving forward, I am teaching her to do the same thing.

I refuse to do that. Not just for her. For me. And frankly, for all of us.

My Pregnancy, My Eating Disorder

Among other things, recovering from my eating disorder meant I could get pregnant. Me. Pregnant. It’s a stretch for many of us to imagine getting excited about growing a big belly, but add a history of eating disorders into the mix and it’s downright weird.

Eating disorder culture is an unhealthy, relentless focus on unrealistic standards of beauty and physical fitness, along with the presentation of hunger and food as pathologies, or demons, to be conquered. This culture of body hatred is inescapable, whether you have struggled with an eating disorder or not.

We are supposed to feel bad about our bodies, no matter what they look like.

We are supposed to judge our food and exercise choices as “good” or “bad.” It is considered totally normal to say “I was good today” in reference to starving, or to say “I’ve been so bad” to refer to the act of not exercising. This happens so much it is considered commonplace; but it’s shocking when you think about the fact that food and exercise are used as shorthand to convey our entire worth as persons.

Body hatred, negative self-image, and eating disorder culture are so relatable because they are everywhere. They are not the exclusive provinces of women, but it’s true that women are disproportionately impacted. The pressure to be less is profound; it is not just about bodies. It is about the devaluing of an entire gender. It is a pressure, placed strongly upon women, to take up less space in the world. To be seen and not heard. To be airbrushed into something that is non-human. These unattainable standards are labeled “perfect.”

And yet, how to explain the endless fetishization of pregnant women? The pressure to turn pregnancy into a spectator sport, complete with photographs that everyone you’ve ever met can comment upon online? The relentless messages about “getting your body back” after pregnancy is complete? The magazines, the stars, and the stories about how they lost (or didn’t lose) the baby weight?

Through the process of my pregnancy, and through my lens as an eating disorder survivor, I came to see pregnancy voyeur culture as an important component of eating disorder culture. The specifics may be different, but many of the pressures and root behaviors are the same.

Whether a woman is pregnant or not, her body and physical appearance is seen as appropriate for comment by strangers.

Whether a woman is pregnant or not, it is considered appropriate to discuss how much weight she has gained or lost, and these numbers are taken to signify something more than simply what she weighs. They are taken as a way for others to assess not just whether she is acceptable, but whether other women are acceptable.

Whether a woman is pregnant or not, the shape of her body is taken as an immediate assessment and announcement of her sexuality.

Whether a woman is pregnant or not, strangers feel they can touch her, from rubbing a belly to rubbing an arm.

Whether a woman is pregnant or not, her body is treated as a piece of public property. That body may be commented upon, or have laws placed upon it.

Pregnancy can be a profoundly alienating and centering experience. My pregnancy was both. It was shocking to me that my body could create my baby, and also that during the process of pregnancy I could feel totally new things. That foods I had loved no longer tasted good. That foods I hadn’t desired in years were sudden, urgent cravings. That aches could develop in areas of my body I had never considered.

It was also centering, in that I had to surrender to what my body would do. When it came time to give birth, I had no choice. I was operating on my body’s timetable. Not my mind’s.

When I realized I was going to have a girl, I thought hard about the body image struggles I had gone through in the past. I thought about the hospitalizations of my youth, and the days when, at rock bottom, I accepted that anorexia meant I was probably going to die. I thought about not wanting to pass that along to my daughter, and more specifically taking active steps to not model any body destructive behavior in front of her.

And so, as with my recovery, I ate. I ate and ate and ate. I grew. And this time, so did she.

This original essay first appeared in DISORDERED a zine on eating disorders feminism and anti-oppression…

What Do I Say To Someone With An Eating Disorder?

What do I say to my friend or family member with an eating disorder? How can I help? Is it possible for me to fix it?

As a survivor of anorexia and an advocate for body acceptance, I get asked these questions all the time. This makes me sick, since it reminds me that if I had a magic wand to make eating disorders go away forever I would wave until my arm fell off, but it also reminds me that my arm is still here and I keep getting asked for more people.

First things first: I am neither a medical professional nor a licensed therapist. I am merely someone who nearly died because of anorexia, spent even more time suffering a whole bunch, and fought her way through to the other side.

Please engage with professionals who can truly help your loved one. The National Eating Disorders Association has a helpline and a host of resources I urge you to check out.

What I have said to many others is based on my experience as a survivor who lost some friends along the way. I have less to suggest in terms of what to do or say, and more in terms of things to not do or say.

Do offer your unconditional love and support. What I most needed were people to love me, not fix me. Leave the treatment to the professionals and don’t try to be “the enforcer” of healthier habits. The “I’ll save you” path isn’t likely to go far, and it can also make it harder for the person to come to you later if they need help. They may not want to let you down when they are slipping. At least, this is the way I was.

Knowing that you will always be there and love them — no matter what — is a powerful weapon that may ultimately support a recovery process led by the person with the eating disorder and the professional team supporting them.

Don’t engage in “fat talk” — about them, or yourself. Your loved one doesn’t need to hear you tell them that you feel fat, or that you ate something “good” or “bad.” And while you don’t want to be dismissive if they bring up their body or eating or exercise with you (after all, it’s probably dominating their thoughts), you certainly don’t need to play the eating disorder-affirming game of good foods and bad foods, fat clothes and skinny clothes, hot bodies and ugly bodies.

Don’t comment on their appearance. “You look good,” or “you look healthy” were horrible swords thrown at me by well-meaning people. Sometimes I used these comments as reasons to be proud of horrible things I had done to myself. Other times I would use them as proof that I needed to punish myself further. You simply don’t need to comment on their appearance. Stay out of it. Comment on and compliment them for who they are, not what they look like or what they are eating.

Don’t participate in trigger activities. Your loved one may most want to suggest activities that serve their eating disorder, such as exercising, going for a long walk, trying on clothes at the mall, baking a batch of cookies (maybe only for others to eat, a common eating disorder behavior), or going to a buffet to eat. Not lecturing them about these activities would be good, but that doesn’t mean that you need to participate. Find other healthy things to do together.

Do support them getting professional help. If your loved one has an eating disorder, support them in getting professional help. No, you don’t have to be the enforcer, but you can support them by scheduling fun group activities at times when they are not going to therapy, not disparaging therapists or anti-depressants and similar drugs, and the like. Further, if they haven’t taken that first step yet, you can share with them names and telephone numbers of places where they can get help and assure them it’s strong, not weak, to reach out for support.

Good luck and I am so sorry for the experiences that have led you to read this.

A Body (Image) Changed: On Pregnancy, Breastfeeding And Eating Disorders

From a self-image standpoint, taking my maternity clothes out of my chest of drawers and putting my old clothes back in has been the hardest part of my pregnancy, childbirth and new mothering journey. This might have been the same if I hadn’t had anorexia, but I don’t know.

My body has changed. My old clothes don’t fit the way they used to. I am larger, rounder and my softer spots gather in different places. Do I have a pouf above a flat spot because I had a cesarean section, or is that the way my body processes any manner of birth? I don’t know.

To put away the maternity clothes ends the imprimatur of “a wild time” when my body was doing something rather than simply being something (me). I was mostly okay before. In response to overwhelming pressures pregnant women and mothers get to engage in body image negativity, I could clutch an ancillary detail and say: Fuck you, I’m pregnant. Or: Fuck you, I’m having a girl. Or: Fuck you, I had a baby. Or: Fuck you, I’m feeding a baby. But now it’s simply time to survive as a mother, a woman, a human being. In this paradigm my best choice is to look at that belly fat, those lines around my eyes, this body I’ve never had, not in this way, and say: Fuck yeah.

It’s fun.

Putting away the maternity clothes forced me to face the facts. My body doesn’t look different today because I’m pregnant, or because I just had a baby. My body looks different today because it is different. Accepting this, the difference of a new day with a body, versus a comparison to an ideal of what a person thinks her body once was or someday should be, is both difficult and joyous. For me, having this baby forced this issue.

What I wouldn’t have predicted is this: Breastfeeding is the second-best thing that has happened to my body image, just behind recovering from my eating disorders years ago. Yes, breastfeeding. Not getting through pregnancy. Not getting through childbirth. Breastfeeding.

To watch my daughter cry when she’s hungry and eat only until she is full. To think about how I treat my body directly impacting how well she will be able to feed. To, unlike pregnancy, see the results every day.

She is growing. She is healthy. She is happy. She is thriving. She is strong.

And, fuck yeah, so am I.

Swapping Oppressions Is Bad Organizing: Why “Fitch The Homeless” Is No Good

Let’s say the CEO of Abercrombie & Fitch explains that his stores don’t sell clothing for larger women, while they do for men, because they only want to market to “the cool kids.” This is outrageous and worthy of action, something many of us have done (myself included — here’s my open letter about eating disorder culture to the CEO of Abercrombie & Fitch).

Action is applying pressure to a decision-maker to bring about a change. There are many ways to take action. In the case of Abercrombie & Fitch, a corporation dependent upon success in the consumer market, some of the most obvious routes to change include letter writing, petitions, demonstrations and meetings — basically direct “look at me here” actions targeting the company itself. Public pressure of this kind makes sense not just because Abercrombie & Fitch makes its own decisions about what clothing lines it will carry, and what kind of CEO behavior they are willing to tolerate, but also because it is motivated to have a brand that sells.

Successful organizing often entails not angering your natural allies. You want the focus to remain on your cause, not on a newly created controversy of your own making. This is why a recent viral effort called “Fitch the Homeless,” a campaign where some disgusted with the CEO of Abercrombie & Fitch started giving away his clothes to homeless people and videotaping it in order to allegedly tarnish his “cool kid” brand was so off-base. Using homeless people as props is simply offensive. It does nothing to dispel eating disorder culture. Further, it does not help homeless people with issues they are facing (in fact, one of the larger issues in helping the chronically homeless is establishing trust — and how does forcing them to become part of a viral video campaign in which they are expected to play part of a joke do anything but erode trust toward those who say they want to help?). Finally, it alienates potential allies who are justifiably angry with the dangerous and as-yet unrecanted words and policy of an eating-disorder culture promoting CEO.

Takeaway for organizers: Don’t take advantage of vulnerable people to make a point. Trust that your message is strong enough to stand on its own two feet — introducing one oppression to end another doesn’t work.

Update: Response To Open Letter About Eating Disorder Culture To CEO Of Abercrombie & Fitch

Late last night, I received the following response to my open letter to the CEO of Abercrombie & Fitch about his comments that larger women aren’t part of the “cool kids”, and that’s why his stores sell larger sizes for men and not for women:

(bolding mine)
Erin,
Thanks for emailing into Abercrombie & Fitch.
While I am unable to escalate this letter straight to our CEO, we understand that what our CEO said has offended many of our customers and we are taking all feedback for review. I will make sure your feedback is reviewed by the appropriate business department.
Akira
Customer Service
Abercrombie & Fitch
Check us out!
This means comments are being heard, and change could be in the offing soon. The more pressure, the more likely we are to see a change. Please take a few minutes right away to write your own letter to Abercrombie & Fitch. It matters. The link to write your comment is here. Thank you!

Please Don’t Promote Eating Disorder Culture: An Open Letter To The CEO Of Abercrombie & Fitch

Abercrombie & Fitch
Mike Jeffries, CEO
6200 Fitch Path
New Albany, OH 43054

May 8, 2013

Dear Mike,

As an anorexia survivor and a soon-to-be mother of a little girl, I am writing to request you recant your statements explaining why Abercrombie & Fitch offers sizes XL and XXL for men, but won’t carry larger size clothing for women:

“In every school there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids. Candidly, we go after the cool kids. We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends. A lot of people don’t belong [in our clothes], and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely.”

As you know, your market is primarily “kids,” or young adults who are at an age most specially prone to eating disorders. As many as 10 million women and girls in the United States alone suffer from anorexia or bulimia — and 95 percent of those with eating disorders are between the ages of 12 and 26, the core of your target market. These facts make your statements particularly heartbreaking.

I’m writing because I believe your statements hold dangerous power, more than you may realize. For many but not all young people the Abercrombie & Fitch brand is an arbiter of cool. I’ve been a babysitter before, and seen how important it is to many tweens to have your labels showing. How devastating for a young woman who hates her body, as too many do, to realize that your store doesn’t sell larger size clothing because you say she’s not cool, she can’t belong, she’s a loser.

In high school and early college I fought tooth and nail for my life. During one hospitalization, a fellow patient went out on a day pass and won a modeling contest while she was still wearing her hospital bracelet. That’s not “cool,” that’s cruel. To send her a message to keep up the good work killing yourself! To send others a message that the most beautiful woman in the world is a corpse. While it’s impossible to expect the entire fashion and modeling industries will change tomorrow, it is quite possible for you to make some positive clarifying statements about the humanity and inherent worth possessed by people of all shapes, sizes and bodies.

It would mean a lot. Thinking about your comments nearly brought tears to my eyes. During one of my rougher periods with anorexia, I was not eligible to participate in my physical education class but still had to show up in order to graduate. There was a gymnastics routine that everyone else needed to complete in front of the entire class. A larger girl was forced to do somersaults across a room in front of 30 classmates, several of whom audibly laughed and called her a “fatty” and “loser” and “whale.” I remember going home that night and sobbing to my mother, my decrepit body shaking with fury. “How could they do that to her? Don’t they know what they are doing? And why didn’t I speak up?”

I wasn’t ready to speak up then. I am now, and I welcome you to join me. Not creating larger size clothing for women, while creating it for men, is discriminatory. Making negative statements about larger people, especially larger women, and most especially larger women who fit in your target market of teens and young adults, is part of an eating disorder culture that kills.

I know you can do better than this, and look forward to your response.

Sincerely,

Erin Matson

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