As a child, I was given free reign to eat whatever I wanted. This meant daily bowls of crushed oreos in milk, after-school snacks of burgers and fries as a “treat” for answering phones at the family business and, in the evening, half a pint of Haagen-Dazs for dessert. Every day I satisfied my “junk-food tooth” on top of my favorite past-times: reading, watching TV or playing with Barbies. Consequently I was that kid. The chubby one.
At the time, I didn’t have a lot of critical self-consciousness about it … I can’t remember inner voices telling me “you’re fat” or “if you eat that you’ll get fatter” (although I did always wear a T-shirt over my bathing suit). I say “inner voices” because there actually were some external voices saying these exact things to me, directly and out loud: my parents and grandparents. They saw my bulging belly, thick thighs and chipmunk cheeks and thought it went beyond cutesy “baby fat.”
How I became anorexic
I’m not sure exactly when the transition occurred, when the voices expressing fear and disappointment with my body turned inward and became my own self-critique. But I do remember this: At age 11, I stopped eating. I was 4′9″ and 100 pounds. I started doing my mom’s yoga video, the Jane Fonda Workout, and began to dance. Eventually I reached 65 pounds. I was anorexic. My family stopped making comments. I was thin and totally a mess emotionally … but that didn’t matter. I stopped incurring the snipes and jabs.
There is way more to this story — I am leaving out loads of detail in the interest of keeping this a blog and not a memoir. But the short story involves years of disordered eating, lots of attempts to heal, a tailspin into bulimia for four years, and then finally deep acceptance and healing. This involved completely changing my relationship with myself in every way possible, and learning how to re-parent myself and create new, supportive inner voices.
Next-generation baby fat
A few weeks ago, my dear friend Kirstin from college, who also happened to be in the “sisterhood of eating disorders” clique that I danced with, told me that her 7-year-old daughter, Lyra, recently exclaimed, “My legs are FAT!”
Now, when you have survived hospitalization from an eating disorder because of fear of food, gaining weight and the actual underlying emotional baggage, hearing your daughter utter negativity towards her body for the first time is gut-wrenching.
Kirstin saw the moment in slow-motion. A thousand responses flooded her mind, and, somehow, she landed on this one:
“Oh?” pause, “And how is that for you?”
Lyra grabbed her thigh with both hands, threw her head back and declared, “They feel soooo GOOD! They feel soooo SOFT!” She bear-hugged and caressed her legs in delight. And Kirstin exhaled.
Kirstin’s wisdom in that moment to not invest any of her own body bias was easily one of the most brilliant parenting moments on record. In that moment, she could have directed her daughter to believe any number of perspectives on fat, and its meaning. Instead, she backed off and allowed Lyra to define her own (self-loving) associations and assign her own (supportive) meaning. The inner voices inside Lyra’s head were not the ones that Kirstin or I had anticipated would be there. We both assumed that she was already hosting a negative concept about her body. Silly us.
Making “nice” with inner voices
Self-talk is only one of many factors that contribute to developing an eating disorder or negative body image. Each individual has a complicated story of how they came to cope with their stresses, body chemistry and emotional traumas. I do not wish to imply that self-talk is the only way into or out of an eating disorder, as it is a very serious condition that has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, and requires comprehensive treatment. Anorexia also carries the highest mortality rate for females age 15-24: 12 times higher than any other cause of death.
But I do want to offer that if you are parenting a child, or re-parenting yourself, please routinely look into the parts of you that you do not like, and begin to create a more diplomatic and compassionate relationship with the layers and parts of yourself that tie together to make you whole. When we compartmentalize our fat, or our skin color, or our bone shapes, we dishonor our complexity, and how important every cell is to the totality of our being.
It’s our parts that make us whole. If you feel there is a hole inside your spirit, and you are looking to fill it in ways that are doing damage, please seek out some of the resources below, and know that you are lovable and worthy and still have the wisdom of an unbiased child within you.
2) Kirstin Hara: Spiritual Counseling
3) Geneen Roth, soulful author of Women, Food and God
6) Anna Guest-Jelly, the role model and genius behind Curvy Yoga