Body Stories: Learning & Letting Go
We are not our bodies. But the stories we tell ourselves about our bodies and the stories we tell ourselves about our lives are closely intertwined. Feeling like our bodies aren’t good enough turns into feeling like we aren’t good enough. And if we want to stop making our bodies the focal point of our lives, we need to recognize how these feelings have influenced our lives.
My first memory of having feelings about my body was in the fifth grade. I had skipped kindergarten, so I was a year younger than the rest of my class, and I noticed that my friends had started slimming out, more closely resembling the taller, leaner teenagers they’d become. But I still had the softness of a child, what you might call “baby fat.” I didn’t know this was normal for a year’s age difference. I just knew that my body was different from theirs, and it made me feel like I wasn’t as pretty or as cool as my friends. (For an excellent perspective on this, please click here.)
Of course, the reality is that, like so many of us, my body story actually starts with my mom’s body story. Our stories weave in and out of each other over the years - mine overlapping hers and hers overlapping mine, pushing and pulling on each other, for better and for worse. My mom suffered from severe anorexia in her late teens, and though she physically recovered before I was born, her struggles with food and her body were always evident. My mom was open with us about her eating disorder. But she was equally open about her ongoing weight loss efforts and her dissatisfaction with her (already quite slim) body.
It was two years after my body realization in elementary school that my body finally caught up to the teenagers around me. And after all that waiting, I needed it to be perfect. I needed it to be noticed. I spent a lot of time and energy over the following years trying to be thinner and cooler and prettier, often in ways that were not good for me.
The specifics of my behaviors aren’t important, and I don’t think it’s helpful to recount them. But I put a lot of focus on my body and a lot of effort into controlling its size and weight through restriction. And you know what? I got plenty of positive reinforcement. I got compliments, dates, friends, and admirers. My body became my identity, linking my sense of self to whether or not I was desirable. I developed behaviors that I called cute or quirky, but which were actually symptoms of my unhealthy restrictions, as well as my growing anxiety and insecurity.
In college, my insecurity became debilitating social anxiety. I couldn’t go to classes or the dining hall. I spent most of my time sleeping and binge eating in my dorm room, hiding from the world. I gained weight, which made me uncomfortable in my skin and unsure of my identity. After two largely unsuccessful years, I dropped out. Shortly after, I moved into an apartment by myself, where I quickly returned to my habits of restriction, trying again to shrink my body. The next few years are a blur of self-destructive habits. I said I was having fun, enjoying my youth, but I was just managing my worsening feelings of anxiety, which by then had progressed to full-blown panic attacks.
And then I was in the car with my mom, and she noticed me gasping and grabbing the door handle without reason. She suggested that I talk to a doctor about anxiety. Until this moment, I assumed that all my problems and bad feelings were a personal failing. But now it seemed that there might be another reason. My primary care doctor put me on anti-anxiety medication, and it worked…for a while.
At first, I felt amazing. Things didn’t feel scary. Fun was fun again. I got out of a bad relationship and felt good about life. But soon I started to feel control slip away - like a ball of string at my center was being pulled from all sides, loosening and unraveling. But I was thin. Energetic. I felt like I could do anything. Until one day, I couldn’t do anything at all. I couldn’t get out of bed. I didn’t call out of work. I didn’t answer my phone. When my mom came home, she said it was time to see a mental health professional. This new doctor told me the anti-anxiety meds had put me into an extended manic state, and I had finally crashed. They adjusted my medication, and I started seeing a therapist.
When I gave the therapist my history, she told me that the restrictive behaviors I described from high school were actually an eating disorder that would have warranted treatment if I had been seen at the time. And, as odd as it may sound, especially with my knowledge of my mom’s history, I was surprised. I knew that my eating behaviors weren’t healthy, of course. But people with eating disorders were emaciated and sick, right? I never fit that description, so it never occurred to me that I could have been suffering from an eating disorder.
I wish I could say that this was a turning point for my relationship with food. I wish I could say that I sat with this new information and learned from it. But that’s not what happened. By this time, my eating behaviors were already less severe. But the therapy and medication did help greatly with my other self-destructive behaviors.
Eventually, I felt good enough for a fresh start, so I moved to a new city. I found a good job and made friends. I gained weight, but instead of freaking out, I decided to “get healthy” and “get in shape”. I started doing cardio and counting calories. I called it a “lifestyle”, not a diet. I lost weight. I got really interested in fitness and nutrition. I was that person who brought “healthy” baked goods to parties. I thought that I was an example of someone who had overcome weight and body issues through diet and exercise. I became a Pilates instructor so that I could help others do the same. I was sure that I knew the path to wellness, and I was sure that it was based on calories in/calories out, clean eating, and “healthy” weight management.
Strength training broke me out of the exercise for weight loss mindset. I was looking for quick, effective workouts that I could squeeze into my lunch hour, and I came across Jen Sinkler’s Lift Weights Faster program. It was a totally different kind of workout than I had ever done before, but I tried it and loved it. I also started reading more of Jen’s material online, and that led me to other resources on strength training. I became more interested in getting strong and taking up space than I was in burning calories. I was excited to lift heavier weights. I started seeing my body for what it could do instead of how it looked.
This mindset shift from form to function also applied to food. I started to see food as fuel, rather than weight management. But it still wasn’t for pleasure. And I still believed that “clean eating” was the answer, not just for me, but for everyone. Eventually, I got certified as a personal trainer and a nutrition coach so that I could guide others down the same path.
While I had made progress, my old hang-ups were still echoing through my life and my coaching. I still thought there were right and wrong ways to eat and exercise. I still thought numbers mattered, though the numbers on the weight plates had replaced the ones on the scale. I’d stopped obsessing over my body, and stopped equating size and worth, but I still thought weight loss and health went hand-in-hand.
It took a lot of learning and unlearning, but now I know that exercise can just be movement, food isn’t just fuel, and health can be achieved at every size. I know that all bodies are good bodies, and also that our bodies are the least important things about us. And I also know that my body story was affecting the way I was seeing bodies in the world. I had to come to terms with my story, trace it to its start, and recognize how genetics, identity, privilege, and disadvantage all intersected to shape it, just as they do for all of us.
It’s important to know our stories. When we can tell our story from the beginning, we can start to rewrite it. We can change the next chapter. We can acknowledge where we came from and decide where we want to be. We can take control of the narrative and decide what kind of story we want it to be going forward.
Sharing our stories is equally important. It robs them of their power and shows us that we’re not alone. Most of us share more experiences and struggles than we think we do. When we believe we’re isolated, we miss out on the connections that can allow us to heal. When we keep our stories quiet, we allow them to make us feel ashamed. But none of this is shameful. Coming to terms with my story and sharing it with people who get it has been the driving factor in my healing. And it’s brought my relationship to my mom’s body story full circle. We both started from a place of constant concern about the appearance of our bodies. But now we both focus our energy on how we feel, both in our bodies and in our lives. By sharing our experiences, we’re able to support each other in our growth.
In an excellent example of serendipity, I took a yoga class this week where the instructor had us meditate on letting go of our stories to see the soul underneath. Letting go of our stories is the first step to getting to our truths. And learning our stories is the first step to letting go.