I felt awful. Inadequate. Less than human. So I ate. A lot. Then I’d feel worse. So I’d eat more. Then I starved myself. Attempted to throw up when I did eat. I punched and punished my body. I HATED it.
The quote above is from Allyssa Marie Milan’s piece, “One body’s journey: Removing the poison, growing through pain,” which I read Monday on Roots of She and have been thinking about ever since. In her post (which you should read), Allyssa tells about the cruelty she’s endured because of her size – insults yelled from cars; trash hurled at her on the bus, at the lunch table, in the classroom; sneers and snickers from the clerks in clothing stores.
She tells about an incident when she was fifteen, four older teenagers in a jeep, slowing down to tell her she’s way too fat to be wearing a skirt. I read that and for a minute I was so angry I had to stop. In the pause, I imagined Allyssa – or maybe it was half memory, myself at fifteen – humming inside, alive and reckless and wide open… and oh so easily crushed.
I keep thinking about how narrow our definition of physical beauty is, how in our obsession with a crazy sort of body math, we consider the ratio of hips to waist to chest, the proportionate length of arms and legs, cup size independent of everything else. We miss the more complicated geometry of necks and shoulders and elbows and chins, the astonishing mechanics of wrists and ankles, the disarming logic of certain smiles.
I don’t know how easily we can change what we’re attracted to, but I know our brains are malleable. I know an old brain can learn new tricks, and so we can begin by teaching our brains to tap into our hearts when we gaze out at the world.
I wasn’t fifteen. I was nineteen. That’s when I began starving myself.
In the morning, I would buy myself a bran muffin, bring it to my desk, and cut it into eight pie-shaped pieces. It was the only thing I allowed myself to eat all day, so I spread it out, a piece every few hours. The goal was to have pieces left over. The more pieces I threw away at the end of the day, the bigger my internal gold star. Sometimes, I threw all eight pieces away, and on those days, despite the raging fatigue and headaches and chronic stomach pain, I felt happy.
Sometimes, self-preservation would kick in and I’d cook myself a meal. Rice or soup, lettuce inside a tortilla. Occasionally, I’d keep the meal down, but not usually. Usually, overcome with guilt, I’d force myself to vomit it back up, most of it undigested. I cried through the whole process – making the meal, eating it, vomiting it out. I cried as I hurried back onto the scale to see what damage I’d done.
This went on for almost two years, until finally I got sick and went to a doctor and he told me I had an ulcer. He explained to me that our stomachs produce acids, especially when we’re under stress. If we eat, the food in our stomachs gives the acid something to break down. If we don’t, the acid goes to work on our stomach walls. (Or at least that’s how I remember him explaining it to me.)
“Do you eat?” he asked me, suspiciously.
“Of course, I eat,” I said, and then I went home and cried because I knew I was out of control. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d thought of food as anything other than the enemy. I already knew I was fat. Now I was sick, and part of the cure was to eat.
I was five foot six and 100 pounds.
As it turned out, that was the first step of my recovery, though it would take many years and many setbacks and many interventions for me to get to a healthy place. Even now I struggle with dangerous impulses. When I feel overwhelmed or scared, my first instinct is to stop eating. My second, and the one that always wins now, is to work through it on the mat or on the trail or with my friends or with my family. I ground myself in the physicality of my world.
I regret the years I spent trapped in that place, hating my body, my appetites, my life, trying to – quite literally – be smaller, be less than. Reading Allyssa’s story, I felt such love and admiration for her. Such recognition and gratitude. I know it was a scary post to write, just as I know there will be people who read her and feel less alone. Less afraid.
I think there is power in sharing our stories, in letting each other in, in being vulnerable and broken open the way that I was when I read Allyssa’s words. I think this is how our notions about beauty and love and strength and vulnerability get changed. By sharing. By giving each other permission to be confused and imperfect. By telling each other again and again that it’s our imperfections that make us interesting… and, yes, beautiful.
What do you think?