Warning: See that word-cloud image above? It gives an indication of what this post focuses on. There’s a bit of swearing, too. Don’t read on if it’s going to be harmful to you.
I feel like this post might just turn into a continuation of yesterday’s rant on how (fucking terrible) I feel about myself and my body. I will try and answer all the elements of Rosie’s question though, which are: how has body image impacted your daily life and outlook? Challenges and triumphs in body image over time? What have you denied/ allowed yourself because of your perception of your appearance? How has your personality been affected? What have you gained or lost?
Geez, settle in comfortably folks, this could be a long one!
So, as I wrote in the previous post, my sense of self is almost entirely eclipsed by my sense of my body. And I absolutely loathe my body. We weren’t the greatest of pals before the entry of bulimia, and after 10+ years of a seemingly endless binge/purge/starve cycle we’re even less keen on each other now. The ways in which binging and purging physically screw with your body are widely documented- go do a google if you’re curious, please DO NOT engage in participatory action research!- but as a long-term bulimic I think the biggest fuck-up for me is that it has frozen my metabolism. So my head is constantly screaming, ‘You must lose weight, RIGHT NOW, you fat piece of shit!’ but my body is physically incapable of it, and is in fact prone to stacking on weight in case I betray it again and starve/purge (which, being bulimic, I do, frequently).
This is ironic, because like many eating-disordered folks I was initially sucked in by the massive, rapid weight loss that restriction and binge/purging produced. I had about 8 months in my early teens where I lived on Coke Zero, chewing gum, air and the occasional binge/purge episode. I was delirious with hunger and exhaustion (remember, early teenage years are when body is supposed to be growing, plus I was playing heaps of sport, hence was always wrecked with tiredness) but I loved feeling this way. It was like a high and it was all-consuming (pun intended). Home life was pretty awful and being able to escape into this world felt, at the time, like the best gift I’d ever received. And- for the first time ever- my body fitted into social standards of desirability. I had reached the holy grail: I was thin.
Not that I could ever see it, of course. Bulimia fucks with your body perception like nothing else I’ve ever experienced. I would grab at my skin and cry and scream with frustration at how fat I was, for hours. There are few photos of this time- I couldn’t stand being in photos- but those that there are show a normal/slim-ish girl, not the disgusting obese monster I saw in the mirror whenever I looked at myself. I got around in massive baggy jeans and jumpers, anything that I thought might hide the fat shame of my body. I would constantly grab at my bones- wrist bones, collarbones, hips- as if to seek reassurance that they were still there. I must have looked like a freak, certainly I felt like one.
Spolier: it didn’t last. I still struggle with this. What do you fucking mean, the body needs fuel and will go to extreme lengths to get it? What do you mean, I would gain back all the weight I lost, and more, even though I was now purging multiple times a day. I was (am?) SO ANGRY that this ‘magic’ that I had discovered stopped working, turned on me, and made me more hideous than I had ever been, with the added ‘bonus’ of a mental illness firmly lodged in my brain. RIPPED OFF.
And so it is from this place- of long term bulimia, yo-yo dieting, weight loss and weight gain, and of the elusive starvation-induced high that I can never seem to recreate nowadays no matter how much I purge- that my current body image comes from. I have such strong feels of betrayal and disgust toward my body that I want to hurt it. It’s a daily struggle not to. I don’t want to feel this way but I also feel like I have no control over it. I wrote a few posts back about the things I value and the way I want to live- well, I feel so far removed from that, so obsessed with all this body shit, and that makes me feel even worse about myself, and the cycle just rolls along, stronger than ever.
I am trying- really really really trying- to break the cycle. Bulimia is the challenge, and the triumphs are every small victory I have in dismantling the power it holds over my life. Victories like being able to eat in front of others, or in public- I can do that now, most days. Victories like donating clothes that are too small for me, instead of holding onto them for ‘when I get thin again’, like not watching ‘reality’ weight loss shows because I know they will trigger destructive thoughts and actions.
I had a pretty major victory last year when I allowed myself to be photographed for a feature article in The Age (daily broadsheet newspaper in Melbourne) about a project I was working on, developing inclusive sexuality education resources for secondary schools. I was able to get past the fact that people would see me, see my fat body and potentially judge it, because I was passionate about the work and believed in its power to make a difference in young people’s lives. That decision- to put my values and passions ahead of the internal eating-disorder voice- was one of the most rewarding and empowering things I’ve ever done. Fucking scary, of course. But- the article came out in print and online, and few people ever mentioned the photo, because the work was more important. One small step for Catherine…!
I’m still not at peace with my body. I still feel awful, ranging from disgust to despair to suicidal, when I look in mirrors or at photos. Because of how my body looks, I don’t consider myself worthy of loving or relationships and as a result I often feel very lonely. I endure people judging me by my weight, offering unsolicited advice, taunts and abuse. Every time I eat, I have to contend with a voice in my head that says I don’t deserve to, that I should starve, that I should vomit. Sometimes I manage to ignore that voice, sometimes I give in to it. I live in a body that I neglected for ten years and am now trying to reclaim, and it’s hard work.
But you know what? I am wired for hard work. I have survived to this point, and I have achieved a lot, almost in spite of myself. I have excelled academically, won awards and scholarships, done great work as an advocate and educator, moved out of home and lived independently. I have kept going when almost every part of me wanted to give up or give in. The whole time I have been battling my body, I have simultaneously nurtured my authentic self. Just imagine what I will be able to achieve when I can reclaim my body and unite both these aspects of myself. Bring it ON.
26/1 Note: This post was a long and difficult one to write, taking shape over many days. My decision to include the last paragraph came only after thinking hard about what it is I want achieve through these practices. I realised I already have substantial strength and determination and that rather than channelling them into destructive weight obsessions, I need to use these qualities to move me towards body & self acceptance.
In 2012, I am doing a daily practice in self acceptance, guided by Rosie Molinary’s book ‘Beautiful You: A Daily Guide To Radical Self Acceptance’ Click through to her website to learn more about the book and join in yourself.