How To Love Yourself, Even When No One Else Seems To
When I was 9 years old I understood that being fat was wrong. I wrote in my journal that year that my goal was to “lose weight so I could look better and be healthier.”
Being fat has never made philosophic sense to me because I know how to be thin: eat less. I spent my latchkey childhood surrounded by women’s magazines who taught me all the tips and tricks to do this exact thing. I once went five days without eating, and then I spent a decade and a half trying to do it again. But I was less successful and my ‘success’ as restricting was met with a bigger and bigger collapse into binge eating.
In my mid 20s I sought help from an eating disorder clinic and met with a dietician and therapist and then my bill came and I used the entire $2,000 I’d just been paid for a freelance project to pay it off. $2,000 was more money than I’d ever seen at one time and I was young and scared about money and I never went back.
A few years later I tried to get help again.
I got a need-based scholarship to attend a wellness retreat for people with food problems half priced. I worked in nonprofit marketing then and had basically $0 to my name. I didn’t know much about the program before I left other than they promised to treat me. It turned out to be associated with an offshoot of Alcoholics Anonymous called Overeaters Anonymous. They claimed sobriety from eating disorder symptoms through abstinence from unclean foods, namely sugar. I actually still love the language Alcoholics Anonymous to talk about the world around me and what I was experiencing. I took a fourth step class that fundamentally shifted the way I take responsibility for my actions and emotions. If you read Cat Marnell’s How To Murder Your Life she says that the two main voices looping through her head are women’s magazines and addiction recovery and it’s true for me as well. But at the end of the day, it was too much like going to church and believing in god. It worked if you could fill your entire day with it, but if you have to live in the real world, you start to see the cracks in the pavement. One day you fall in to one and you don’t believe anymore.
During this time between brief periods of “recovery” I was manic and miserable because all I wanted was to be thin and I had to live every day being a failure at what I wanted. I googled diet programs and took fitness classes. I actually had fun in cycling classes and took them regularly, but my diet was never healthy. Food was how I comforted myself from the extreme psychic pain I was in.
One day on the bus home from a cycling class I saw one of my coworkers had posted an article from a “fitness expert” named Jordan Parker who claimed that people who weighed as much as me couldn’t ride a bike. I had been riding one 45 minutes earlier but it didn’t stop me from feeling so ashamed and angry that a fitness expert would be so clueless about my body while still calling herself an expert on my body or that my coworker who prided herself on being an academic had chosen someone so clueless about fat bodies to talk specifically about fat bodies. I reached out to both women. I told them (humiliatingly) that yes, I could in fact ride a bike. Neither of them cared, they defended themselves and what they’d said even though it was objectively wrong. Even when I was doing what we ask fat people to do and exercising regularly I wasn’t believed by others and it affected how much I even believed myself.
My dating life was not chic. I was so deeply insecure about a guy not being attracted to my body that I went to great lengths to avoid talking about it, which means I was fundamentally unable to be in a healthy relationship. I dated someone for two years who I don’t think ever noticed or cared about me. I don’t think it was his fault, he had a lot of his own shit and I was desperate to avoid any kind of real conversation with him, so our connection was mostly about staying up all night listening to music and cuddling, which isn’t awful and was probably the best I could hope for under the circumstances.
In our relationships and interactions with ourselves and others, we see what we want to see.
I saw men who were embarrassed of me, unattracted to me, or disappointed by me. I saw myself as someone who wasn’t enough to fulfill the needs of the kind of man I wanted to love. As someone who is now happy with my body and who genuinely loves the person I am, I can look back and see how I set the rules and pushed men away. I recognize in my past other men who were interested in me, and how I explained their attractions away to fit with the narrative that was circling in my head. I was unlovable because I thought of myself as unlovable.
In 2016 I decided to give eating disorder recovery another shot. I’d just survived a completely miserable winter and my mental health was the worst it’s ever been. I was in pain every single day and I was finally making enough money for it not to be overwhelmingly scary to seek help so I reached out to a new clinical program and went in for an assessment. They told me I needed to be “partially hospitalized” but because I had a business trip schedule for 6 weeks in the future, I’d start with a therapist, dietician, and group therapy instead because insurance won’t pay for partial hospitalization if you miss any days after starting. By the time I got back from my trip my trio of therapists had helped me improve enough that everyone felt I could continue the path I was already on instead of doing something more drastic.
I spent literal hours on the phone with my health insurance provider trying to confirm my services would be covered. I didn’t learn anything useful but eventually it was worked out so that I only needed to pay a $50 copay with each visit until my deductible ran out. This was $150 I was paying out of pocket weekly, but luckily I could afford it and I spent $4,000 on therapy that year.
I took a Cognitive Behavioral therapy class and learned that my feelings aren’t facts. My therapist convinced me that my anxiety and panic attacks were also feelings, and that human beings are incapable of experiencing uncomfortable feelings for an extended periods of time. Emotions are waves and you just have to ride it out until it crests and the next one comes along. Group taught me how to shine the flashlight in the closet and realize the monster isn’t there. People said all the worst things I thought about myself out loud and I began to realize that this is a ubiquitous human feeling and that The Voice isn’t true for anyone. I read eating disorder memoirs and Eating in the Light of the Moon by Anita Johnson and Intuitive Eating by Evelyn Tribole and Elese Resch. With my dietician I had a safe place to express my worst fears about my health and eating habits and have someone hold my hand and help me zoom out and see things in context and with some perspective. She helped me throw my scale away, get rid of my food rules and start eating like a human again. With the help of a meal plan and a food journal I began to practice Intuitive Eating (which, yes, is something you practice and improve at rather than a maxim to eat whatever you want whenever you want, which is something you might think if like most people, all you know about intuitive eating is that it’s called “intuitive eating”). I let my therapist finally convince me to go on anti-anxiety medication.
Basically over the last few years I’ve thrown 100% of my disposable time and energy into healing as many of the toxic thoughts and patterns in my brain that have made me so unhappy, anxious, and trapped for most of my life as I could. I’ve embraced that life is about struggle and that no one feels happy all the time. The more work I do on myself, the more work I notice there is still left to do. There are no before and after stories in life because this isn’t the afterlife, while we are on earth we will always have more and more challenges to overcome. But the work is worth it because my base level existence went from ‘extreme anxiety’ to ‘life is challenging but I can handle whatever comes along’.
So now I can go to the beach in a two piece swimsuit.
I don’t feel like I need to wear bras or makeup unless it’s a special occasion. I can be intimate with a man without feeling overwhelmed with shame and guilt about my body. I can eat based on what my body wants instead of what is “healthiest” or what is going to help me numb out psychic pain for a short time. I’m happy with who I am as a person which isn’t much but it’s something I’ve never experienced before.
Still, I know my body isn’t ideal. There are a lot of challenges I still face. Going to the doctor (and I have an empathetic, skilled, incredible doctor) is something that is still really difficult, even though I always take 2 ativans before I go. I just feel guilty that she has to deal with me being non-compliant and thin like I should be. I feel vulnerable because I trust her but I know she has the power to say something that could deeply hurt me. I just show up and do the best I can.
The way I think about it now is that there’s a Venn Diagram and there’s a circle of how I feel about myself and that circle is full and happy. I like the way I look, I like the way I am. I know that I am a gift to the people I love in my life and I find so much satisfaction and happiness making art every day. I’m aware that another circle exists and that it’s meant to portray whatever cultural place in history I am occupying and whatever porn is trending for men lately. I can’t control this circle or how much it intersects with my circle at all. I just know that it exists and that it impacts me. But my energy and my sense of self-confidence comes from the circle I’m in charge of, the one that reflects my values and knowledge.
I feel great about myself lately because I’m judging myself based on things I think are important and that I am in control of and can improve upon. When I think of my many, many faults I can put them in context of being an imperfect human being who is doing my best. I approach these things with curiosity instead of judgement. I do the same with others because I believe that how you judge others is how you can’t help but judge yourself. When someone wrongs me I think about how they might just be a scared lil baby human who wants to be loved. It works every time.
I don’t follow people who present themselves as perfect or always happy or as having permanently overcome lifelong challenges like loving yourself or dealing with anxiety. My brain is desperate to believe that these things are possible and I have to be careful about feeding it this kind of bait. I don’t begrudge these people their place in their ~healing journey~ but I just can’t at this point participate in it. I do follow people who post photos where they aren’t posing and I follow threads showing historical or vintage bodies because it can honestly be shocking to see what normal women look like without photoshop and/or without molding themselves to look like current trends. This feels like a direct shot of medicine sometimes. I think about what it was like to sit on my auntie’s laps growing up and look at pictures from my childhood and think about my body in terms of how much fun I can have with my nephew (and how my words and body language impact how he feels about his body), or how I’ll think about a photo of me on vacation in 20 years vs how I might feel about it today. I learned that cellulite is a secondary sex characteristic for women and I try to remember that there might be other things I’ve spent decades feeling insane personal guilt over only to find that they are instead a biological fact about the way my body is constructed rather than a personal failing.
I am learning how to opt-out of the baseline belief that women need to hate their bodies and constantly be on a diet. I am learning how to believe that I exist for something other than pleasing men. I played two sports throughout high school and this is the first time in my life I’ve ever worked out and appreciated how my body feels stronger and better rather than how I might see a lower number on the scale tomorrow even though I am working out with much less vigor than any of my previous efforts. I am reading Brené Brown’s entire body of writing and learning how I can turn down the volume on the guilt and shame that have been such overwhelmingly powerful forces in my life. I am doing everything I can to learn how to be a healthy human being and I am talking about all of this out loud and hoping it makes other people feel safe enough to feel like they too can step off the ride.
I recognize the cost of what trying to be beautiful for men and for my loved ones and for my career and general standing in society has done to me and I feel healthier saying “this isn’t a priority to me. I am not alive for that purpose.” The world seems bigger and more exciting and like any future is possible for me when I decide I don’t want to focus on how other people react to me. I want to make myself feel proud and happy. I want to be alive for a bigger purpose. I don’t want to do something that’s making me sick anymore.
This article originally appeared on Thought Catalog.