Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Body Dysmorphia: How do you see yourself?

I was well into my anorexia before I realized the way in which I saw and gauged the size of my own body differed from the way it was percieved by others. This revelation occurred when, after I'd lost 40 lbs, my mother, who had always been much smaller than me, handed me a pair of her pants to try on. It didn't make sense in my brain. How could I come even close to wearing the size that she wore? I had never been that size. Sure, I had lost weight and I knew that, but as far as I was concerned, I was still fat. I tried the pants on anyway, mostly to quieten her. Not only did I fit into the pants, they were so large on my body that they nearly fell to the ground even after I'd buttoned them. I couldn't believe it. I stood there in her bedroom, between the window and the ironing board, holding the waistband of my mother's tiny pants to keep them from falling off of me. I had never been so small in my entire life, according to the pants and every person who had ever known me. So why did I still see the same chubby, hopeless, miserable figure staring back at me from inside the mirror?

I had heard as a young girl that those individuals suffering from anorexia nervosa believed themselves to be fat when in reality they were frighteningly thin. My mother explained this to me when we saw the daughter of a local restaurant owner out at the department store. She was, at that point, the thinnest person I had ever seen, not to mention the skinniest person (apart from the cancer patients) in our very small, southern town. Her knee caps were the widest part of her body. Her cheekbones were sunken in as though she was sucking air. She seemed so fragile, probably 20 years old at best, though she walked across the parking lot with the gait of an 80 year old woman. All I remembered thinking was,
"How could she ever think she was fat?" 10 years later, people were asking the same question about me. I still don't have the answer.

Although I have made great progress in my recovery from anorexia and bulimia, I still have hang ups. Body dysmorphia is one of the biggest issues I still face. Here is the definition of Body dysmorphia as defined by the Mayo Clinic's website:

"Body dysmorphic disorder is a type of chronic mental illness in which you can't stop thinking about a flaw with your appearance — a flaw that is either minor or imagined. But to you, your appearance seems so shameful that you don't want to be seen by anyone. Body dysmorphic disorder has sometimes been called 'imagined ugliness.'"

I know that I've gained weight since I entered recovery, but it's very hard for me to understand that people on the street see me as, well, "normal." I assume that people think I'm chubby, or thick, or even downright fat. The reason is because that is how I see myself. When I look in the mirror, I see wide thighs, curvy hips, a stomach that isn't as flat as it could be. But it's more than what I see. It is so largely dependent upon how I feel. It is so very difficult to explain to people how it feels to be uncomfortable and restless inside your own body. I know many people argue "fat is not a feeling." I disagree. I have felt fat. I feel fat. I'm not saying it to gain attention or sympathy or even understanding. I'm saying it because that's the only way to explain how I feel.

I feel fat.
I feel like I'm too large to go out in public.
I feel like I'm too large to be seen.

I feel like people would say, "Damn, she's heavy."
I feel as though my pants are unusually tight.

I feel as though I don't belong.
I feel like I'm unworthy.
I feel as though I wish people would look the other way.

I feel like I should blend into the crowd and disappear.

So maybe fat is not a feeling, but the feeling that fat causes me to feel is uncomfortable. It's frustrating. And it's so very real.

The feeling, that is.

Sometimes I'll catch a glimpse of my body in a public place, where there are other bodies nearby to compare mine to, and I won't recognize myself. In the gym where I work out, my favorite elliptical machine is located across from a wall of floor-length windows. It is in a row with dozens of other machines which are always occupied. Sometimes, in the middle of my workout, I'll turn my head to the side to wipe my forehead with the back of my hand or brush my hair out of my face and accidentally see myself in the mirror, working out there beside all the others, and I'm taken aback by how I look. For that split second I don't look fat at all. I see my familiar brown hair, but then I'll see strangely sharp cheekbones, a bony nose, an unexpectedly slim waist. And the big kicker, normal thighs. It looks familiar, only not. It looks like me, only not. But it's only seconds before the confusion fades. I look down at my thighs, working and pumping in a circular pattern, and feel ashamed of how fat they look.

How fat they look.

I have realized that I am not very self-aware at all, even though I've always thought I was. I realize that I have no idea how I appear to others, what my body looks like charging around out there in the real world, how I'm viewed or judged or criticized-- or ignored. I only know how I see myself. I only know how irrational I am, how unfair I am, how unforgiving and appallingly self-scrutinizing I am.

I also know that I deserve better.

But how do we learn to take a step back and see ourselves as we really are? To see what I see sometimes in the mirror at the gym, or in a storefront window-- the self that somehow escapes me. Unfortunately, I don't have the answer to that either. But I do know this:

I am beautiful, whether I believe it or not.
I am worthy, whether I believe it or not.
I am important, whether I believe it or not.
I am good enough, whether I believe it or not.

The hard part is believing.
Isn't that what this is all about?
Learning to love myself unconditionally?

I guess I still have a lot of work to do.

Here's to believing.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Celebrating Summer, Celebrating Life

I've written before that the change in seasons affects and triggers my eating disordered behavior. My anorexia first began in the dead of winter, which could explain why during the cold weather winter months, restricting and self-starvation become increasingly tempting for me. Summer, however, seems to trigger different feelings. Of course, warmer months add a lot of anxiety and negativity toward the way I feel about my body.

I don't want to wear a skirt. Why would I wear shorts. My legs are hideous. A swimsuit? You must be kidding...

This is normally the sort of dialogue that occurs inside my head when summer begins to materialize. But instead of trying to starve myself, something about the warm weather makes me want to exercise, to "get healthy", to "eat more cleanly", to "lose weight the healthy way", all under the guise that I'm doing something "good for myself."

But where do these feelings come from? Aren't they just eating-disordered mania in disguise?

I'm afraid so. But those of us who have and are recovering from eating disorders are not the only individuals to have this inner dialogue. Quite frankly, it comes down to pressure. We are pressured to have toned, tanned legs, beach-ready bodies, swimsuit-worthy waists. During the summer, there are no extra layers of sweaters or coats or scarves to hide behind. Unless, of course, you want to sweat to death or stay indoors. I don't want to do either.

But I refuse to feel guilty about my body.

I refuse to feel inadequate, insubstantial, insecure, unimportant, unworthy, ugly.

I refuse to waste yet another summer by holding back and not enjoying myself.

(I've wasted far too many)

So, I wore a skirt today, even though my legs are the one part of my body I am and always have been most afraid of. I wore a skirt without leggings. Without tights. Without self-tanner. Without worry. Or regret. Or trepidation. I wore a skirt because it was 90 degrees, unrelentingly humid, and I refused to swelter away another summer in jeans.

Wait, I'm sorry, did I just do something... practical?

Maybe this doesn't seem like much of an accomplishment to most of you, but for me, that's progress. I can count the times on one hand (today included) that I wore a skirt (without tights/leggings) or shorts *in public* in the last 15 years. How unbelievably sad is that? How irrational? Even at my lowest weight, I was deranged enough to believe my legs were huge and disgusting. But that's what an eating disorder does: it lies, intimidates, and destroys. That's why I'm celebrating practicality. Celebrating summer.

Celebrating this short, sweet, single shot at life we are all given.

This is the only life I have.

I've already wasted too much of it.

That stops today.