I appeared on PBS’ To The Contrary, and discussed gender roles in government, LGBTQ athletes in the Olympics, and the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition. Watch here:
I did not set out to develop an eating disorder. I wanted to get in shape. I started running. I started eating ‘healthy’ snacks. I started dieting. I lost control. I almost died.
I would never be able to run marathons today if I was still playing around with that bullshit.
Through multiple humiliating rounds in the hospital, I have learned in the hardest way possible that dieting is an addictive scam. Attempting to placate negative self-image through restrictive eating or unhealthy exercise patterns is an onramp to self-destruction without brakes.
Thank God I figured out how to keep running, because it’s so great.
My primary trick is this:
I don’t diet.
I don’t listen to negative body thoughts.
I eat with joy.
I run for me.
I get asked if I’m pregnant on the regular. At first this shit made me cry. But it’s happened so much that I’ve had to get used to it.
Sometimes I still cry.
My stomach sticks out. It has stuck out for years. I am not pregnant. I gave birth to a creative, healthy, playful girl five years ago. Today I have a tight stitch where a C-section once happened, and there’s a pouf above it that reflects my love of wine, cheese, and life.
Your reassurances that I am not fat do not help.
I have noticed that friends feel compelled to insist I’m not fat. Just because you say that I don’t look pregnant does not mean I don’t get asked this question, on average, a few times a month. Just because you say I’m so skinny doesn’t mean I won’t get asked about the baby I’m not expecting sometime real soon.
I have created a new rule:
Every time I’m asked about my pregnancy, I post a selfie to Instagram.
I love it.
It puts me back in the driver’s seat of my life.
No matter what I’m wearing, how I’m made up, or what I’m doing, I take a picture of myself and share it with people who know me, mostly in real life. I admit forthrightly what just happened. And then I move on.
When I do this, I no longer remain the person whose body is being reviewed and assessed by others. I become the person who has this body right now, and is living her life anyway.
If you get asked if you’re pregnant a lot, my recommendation is to find something to do immediately that feels good to you. Then keep doing it. Having something to draw upon that does not require thought can be helpful when hurt slaps you in the face, as it did in the comfort of my own home (indeed, no place is sacred) twelve days ago.
I’m not pregnant. My stomach sticks out. This is my body. I have survived anorexia and now, your question.
A few years ago I was asked if I was pregnant when I wasn’t, and I cried. I am open about my recovery from eating disorders, and while most of the time I can smile and tell anorexia and negative self-image to go shoe-shopping in hell, I think it’s important to acknowledge that recovery can come with bad days.
I don’t think I looked pregnant two years ago. This time, it is more likely I do. In recent weeks I’ve been asked several times if I’m pregnant by a variety of people who mean well (all of whom apologized profusely).
The reality is that my stomach protrudes. Compared to some pregnant people, I probably do look pregnant.
It’s not practical to walk around sucking in all the time. I’m not particularly interested in giving up my cute, form-fitting clothes. Most important, I don’t want to go on a diet. I know that, for me, the words diet and death are too close for comfort. And so, I’ve had to learn how to deal with people thinking I’m pregnant without turning knives into myself.
I’m not pregnant. My stomach sticks out. This is my body. It takes up space. My body takes up space in ways that some people do not readily understand.
Loving yourself is a radical act. You can hate oppressive systems and the self-doubt and presumed right to question that comes with them. You can forgive the people who push the buttons that are supposed to hurt you (though refusing to forgive can be righteous, too). You can find transcendence. I am choosing to forgive others and myself, while working to change the culture. I am finding transcendence.
The best gift I can give to myself, my activism, and the people who love me is to move on. The radical gift I have for all of us is to share this information without shame.
Putting a pastry in the toaster used to be my definition of cooking. When I was active in the National Organization for Women, for a time the juiciest gossip making its way back to me was: She doesn’t know how to cut a tomato. I remember the older feminists I revered watching me clueless in the kitchen — and I was 31. What hath feminism wrought? was all over their faces.
I did not grow up in a family of cooks. Dad and I went to Burger King every Thursday on the way home from my cello lessons, and by my ’20s I would come home on Friday nights for ‘girls night’ with Mom — frozen pizza, Franzia, the best conversation, and me doing free laundry before heading out on the town.
My cooking ignorance could be thrown into a larger life theme of not appreciating food. I sure as hell didn’t. I nearly killed myself with anorexia a few times. Body image is something I continue to navigate, even if many days I don’t think about it.
As an eating disorder survivor with all the attendant dieting and more extreme behaviors going with that, significant portions of my life have gone by with food as an object of disdain, lust, or both. I feared food because I feared my body, and I feared my body because I feared myself.
But y’all, I’m in total ‘fuck it’ mode now. I love to eat and also, I love to cook, including from recipes with ingredients I need to Google image search before heading to the grocery store. In the last few days I have prepared several things for family and friends from recipes — goat cheese toasts with pistachio and mint, pumpkin bread with olive oil, and green lentils with spinach and chipotle. Off-recipe and just having fun, I have made roasted brussels sprouts with a hint of olive oil, pumpkin, almond milk, anise, and cardamom seeds, and a salad with baby beets and homemade oil and vinegar dressing.
Cooking is an art. It is creative. It is relaxing. It is becoming as much fun for me as writing poetry, fiction, and essays. As I have taken to following recipes, I have learned how to improvise on my own. We do not need to choose one approach or the other; we can keep trying, scrubbing our pans, and starting over each and every meal.
Cooking is also love. It is how I spice things up for my husband on a Friday night and give him ‘date night at home’ now that we stay home with a little one. It is seeing my daughter’s joy in having leftovers earmarked for her the next day. It means everything that we remember her.
The other day, I was startled with an additional realization brought to me by the joy of preparing food. Food is no longer my enemy. It is not just taste and adventure. It is literally life. When I cook, I am giving joy and life to others and myself. The act of eating a hard-cooked meal is an act of consuming and becoming one with love, creativity, and unexpected beauty in the form of presentation on a plate.
Also, by the way, feminists can cook.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…