Shortly after my parents passed away, my siblings and I were left with the disparaging task of boxing up their belongings for donation. In the process of clearing out the house, I came across several worn photo albums that gave me an opportunity to poke into the past. The albums contained dozens of faded photographs of my family, and in several of the pictures, I noticed a pattern with my body language — my arms were always wrapped protectively across my stomach.
Looking at the photos, I remembered why I hated having my picture taken when I was a child. My habit of sneaking snacks from the pantry caused me to gain excess weight that couldn’t be hidden from the camera lens. For this reason, I became very anxious about family photos and did my best to conceal what I considered my worst physical flaw — my belly.
I was often the brunt of many body-shaming jokes that made me self-conscious and depressed when I was a young child. I was an easy target — shy and too intimidated to defend myself against the daily taunting. It wasn’t long before I fell into the trap of believing the insensitive remarks from my classmates and soon I became obsessive with my appearance.
It didn’t help that once I entered middle school, my parents also took a keen interest in my eating habits and my weight. Their passive/aggressive comments (“You have such a pretty face but you’d be even prettier if you lost a few pounds”) shredded what little self-esteem I had left. They meant well, but their remarks stung more than I ever let on. The shame I felt both in school and at home fueled bouts of emotional binge eating, starving and yo-yo dieting that became a vicious cycle of self-abuse. I was embarrassed about my appearance, but food was my drug of choice and the only thing that comforted me when I felt anxious or depressed.
My binge eating issues and body dysmorphic disorder dominated every aspect of my life. I avoided social gatherings that required a swimsuit (which was difficult to do while living in a coastal town) and often hid in the bathroom stalls of the high school gym to avoid taking a shower next to the other girls. I never stood in the cafeteria line for lunch out of fear that someone might comment on my weight or the amount of food on my tray. I let my weight define me, and the insecurities it created influenced every decision I made.
I spent decades at war with my mind and my body, engaged in a relentless battle to keep my weight down with fad diets, appetite suppressants and grueling sessions at the gym. When I lost weight, I was elated, but if I gained weight, I sank into a depressive state of self-loathing. The worse I felt about myself, the more I was inclined to eat in secret so that I could binge on unhealthy, fattening foods for comfort. Rather than deal with my emotions, I stuffed them down by eating to the point of feeling sick. I ate until I felt numb, then out of guilt, induced vomiting to rid myself of the excess calories.
It wasn’t until my oldest sister died of complications from obesity that I was forced to take a hard look at my past in terms of how I’d let the numbers on the bathroom scale determine my quality of life. I had a misguided perception of what was considered a healthy body size — an ideal that had been spoon-fed to me by a society that promoted the idea of thinness equating beauty. Sadly, my sister and I shared the same eating disorder, but she never received the help that she needed. Her sudden death was the wake-up call that spurred me into action, making me realize I had to change how I looked at food and its relationship to my body.
I learned to eat healthier by consulting with my physician and a nutritionist, then joined a gym for my cardiovascular health. I stopped looking at food as a reward or a punishment, and ate what I wanted in moderation. The difference was that I was making lifestyle changes to benefit my health and state of mind, not to change my outward appearance just to please others. I finally understood that the only opinion about my body that mattered was my own.
It has been a relief to jump off the hamster wheel of dieting, but there are still days when I struggle to silence the negative voices inside me. What helps most is to focus on the positive things I like about myself and to turn a deaf ear to my inner critic.
Looking back on the old photographs in my parent’s album, I realize now that I had no reason to feel ashamed of my appearance, or to even think that I was terribly overweight — because I wasn’t. Sadder still is the inordinate amount of time I spent obsessing about my body size, when I should have been more appreciative of what Mother Nature had given to me.
This body has been through a lot, and I have the scars to prove it. But it has also given birth to four beautiful children, and it continues to stay strong and healthy, well into my midlife years. I’m not the “perfect size” by society’s standards, but I’m the right size for me. And that’s enough.
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Thinkstock photo via kcslagle