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How I'm Surviving Summer With My Eating Disorder

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Summer means warm weather. It means high humidity  turns ordinary people into poodles. It means thunderstorms full of lightning and pouring rain — my personal favorite.

It means foods like ice cream and watermelon. It means longer, brighter days. It means a blazing sun and high heat. It also means clothes like shorts, dresses and t-shirts.

And this is where the difficulty comes in.

Whenever I turn on the radio, I’m inundated by commercials about “weight loss surgery” or “body contouring” or “hitting the gym.” The other day a postcard arrived in the mail for a service promising to “get you in shape” in time for the summer season, featuring beaming women next to statements about how much weight they’d lost and how much happier they were. I promptly tore it up and threw it in the trash — there was something kind of liberating about that.

It’s not that I have anything against healthy weight loss or exercise. In fact, I love exercising. It makes me feel happy and alive. What I am against is the media frenzy that promotes a desire to change the way we look in order to be accepted. I’m against the societal pressure to have a certain physical appearance.

I have always been on the short side, and taking karate and doing other sports like dance and soccer at a young age meant that I maintained a higher muscle mass than the average girl my size. This has always been something I’ve been self conscious about — I idolized the idea of having thin arms and legs, a flat stomach and a lean, curvy body.

Being smack in the middle of the process of recovery means this self-consciousness is elevated to extreme levels. I’m now hyper-aware of my body and every little place in which I’ve gained weight as I progressed from weight restoration to weight maintenance. Certain clothing items now fit differently than they did before — suddenly, I’m the proper size for many things I own again. I haven’t had the unfortunate experience of not being able to fit into something yet.

I dread that moment.

And I dread this season, which encourages revealing more skin to beat the heat.

Yesterday I was sitting by a pool, firmly refusing to put on a bathing suit and enjoy the cool water on a very warm day. The idea of shedding the loose shirt and comfortable jean shorts I was wearing was terrifying. It was already challenging enough to put on something that revealed my legs — I’ve always been very distressed by the appearance of my thighs. To put on less seemed frightening as hell.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for warmer weather that doesn’t mean bundling up in multiple layers and shoveling heaping piles of freezing, heavy snow. At least, I’m a fan of it in theory. In practice, I’ve discovered it’s scary. I would much rather be dressed in an oversized sweater and leggings than shorts and a t-shirt.

Last summer there were a couple of times where I donned a bathing suit and headed to the beach. I was actually able to smile  and take a couple of pictures, like this one.

Two girls posing at the beach.
Emma and her friend

But I’ll tell you a secret that’s not really a secret: I’m terrified of pictures. And the idea of taking a picture dressed in a bikini scares the living daylights out of me.

Do I like the way that girl in the photo looks? Yes — to an extent. She is healthy and she is happy. But my eating disorder likes to whisper in my ear and encourage me to find all the things wrong with the photo. My thighs are too wide. My stomach isn’t flat. My arms are too muscular. My cheeks are too big.

These are common complaints for me. They’ve been thoughts that I’ve dealt with my entire life, they just get more intense during the summer.

So I’d like to propose something radical, which I think would be helpful to everyone, not just those afflicted with an eating disorder — a DBT skill called radical self acceptance. This doesn’t involve something as difficult as banishing all negative thoughts from your brain. Rather, it’s the process of accepting and realizing you have negative thoughts, and then working up with something positive to think as a counter.

Let’s try it a little bit.

My thighs are too wide.

No, my thighs are strong enough to support me and allow me to walk and run.

My stomach isn’t flat.

Very few people actually have flat stomachs, and a little cellulite never killed anyone.

My arms are too muscular.

I’m proud of my muscles, because they show how dedicated I am to karate.

My cheeks are too big.

No, they’re the perfect size to accommodate my wide, happy smile.

I invite you to try this. It’s definitely not easy — I’ll admit that I spent several minutes trying to come up with the positive countering thoughts compared to the few seconds it took to come up with the original negative thoughts. But this is sort of inherent in being human. Society has wired us to be self-deprecating and more sensitive to what we perceive as our flaws and imperfections than we would be of the exact same things on someone else.

As the summer season quickly approaches, and this gorgeous weather starts to necessitate different clothes and activities that involve being outside, try using radical acceptance. Whether or not you’re suffering with an eating disorder, we can all always use a little bit more self-love.

Follow this journey on Seremdipitous

Originally published: June 28, 2016
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