My story of resilience, power, and freedom.
This post talks about eating disorders, dieting, suicidal ideation, and childhood trauma. If you are suffering from an eating disorder and need to talk to someone, contact the NEDA Helpline here, and if you are struggling with suicidal thoughts and need someone to talk to, dial 988 to reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
About six months ago, I was on the keto diet (again). I have always been very good at keeping to diets. Sometimes, I would reserve my minuscule carbohydrate allowance for a treat-- one Hershey's kiss, a cracker, even a fruit (how I missed apples!). Other times, I would be measuring out sour cream, choking down dry keto "bread", and eating spoonfuls of sugar-free peanut butter because I craved sugar and carbs so much.
At the same time, I was looking into fillers for my ever-present under eye hollows. I could finally afford it-- I had saved my tax return, more hefty than usual from being enrolled in grad school (thank you, Lifetime Learning Credit). This was something I'd only dreamed of as a teenager, the daughter of a single mother, always adorned as I was in secondhand clothing and cheap makeup. Breathlessly, I made the appointment. On the day of, I wore huge, dark sunglasses. I strolled into the glitzy waiting room, and waited. When I finally got into the chair, my heart was hammering. Then came the needles in my face... it wasn't a fun experience, to say the least. And afterwards, when I finally looked into the mirror-- I saw no difference. I still looked just as tired, just as "ugly". As I left, I heard someone at the front desk ask what I was in for, like we were in a women's prison. And my injector (the traitor, I thought): "Oh, an eye thing." I walked through the pretentious front lobby and pushed through the double doors, tears stinging my eyes and blood rising in my cheeks. I felt ashamed, disappointed, and hopeless. If I couldn't be cured by fillers, what hope was there for me? When would I be beautiful? I remember sobbing into my mother's shoulder: "it wasn't enough. Nothing changed. Nothing changed." I didn't know it yet, but this was an extremely significant moment. Because, as I realized later on, nothing would ever have changed; the problem wasn't me. There was never anything wrong with me.
I felt as thought nothing could touch me, as if it were only a force of will that kept my feet from lifting from the ground. But somewhere along the line, that feeling disappeared. At some point, my body and everything about it became the enemy.
I felt as though I had caused the trauma, simply by having a body; therefore, my body was wrong, and I was ashamed of it. At the same time, I began to form the rather conflicting idea that my body was only worthy if it was desirable to others. Altogether, it was a recipe for disaster.
I started skipping meals, relishing the weakness and the strung-out feeling-- evidence that I was, in fact, wasting away. And, as starving yourself sometimes does, it worked. I lost almost forty pounds in a few months.
I battled every day to appear perfect. I spent every hour hating myself, and every break between classes fixing my makeup in the mirror and pinching what little fat was left on my body. I tried to look the way that society told me would make me happy, and it didn't work.
I tried to process my trauma, to heal, but there was always something that held me back, something that kept me from fully absorbing the lessons I learned from school or from my therapists. That something was my complete refusal to accept my body, the one thing I relied on completely to survive.
In the morning, the psychiatrist subtly blamed me for being honest about how badly I wanted to die, diagnosed me with adjustment disorder, and sent me home. I moved towns to be closer to my family, and my eating disorder got under control, but only just. I went to a few different therapists, but nothing really fit. I talked about my trauma, worked out a million ways to interpret it, and tried not to blame myself for what had happened to me. I got better, but I was still just existing; I wasn't really living.
This continued until I got an assignment from my job at Healing Mountain Mental Health to create a group therapy curriculum for childhood trauma and weight management. I tasked myself with the question: why do people with childhood trauma gain weight? Well, weight gain extremely common amongst survivors of childhood trauma. Survivors of trauma are much more likely to become "obese", as well as suffer from many other related mental and physical illnesses. Survivors of childhood sexual trauma often gain the weight as a survival instinct, to protect themselves from further abuse by becoming what they consider "undesirable". Food is also a source of comfort and distraction from unwelcome thoughts and emotions, and can fill gaps caused by loneliness, identity confusion, and depression. But how do we guide individuals in losing weight in a healthy way and building healthy habits? Well, I had absolutely no idea. I'd never lost weight in a healthy way. So, I started doing some research.
The results were earth-shattering: there is no true "healthy" diet, because, around 97% of the time, diets don't work. They might work in the short term, but in the long run-- the thing that actually matters-- the weight doesn't usually stay off. More often than not, more weight gain is the likeliest scenario. The cause for this is rooted in our basic biological functions: the ones that have kept humans alive for thousands of years. When we try and cut calories to lose weight, it signals to our body that we are in a period of famine. Our metabolism slows, along with our bodily functions, in order to preserve energy. If the calorie deficit is enough, fat and water weight loss (and sometimes muscle loss) may ensue. However, the more we restrict, the more our body craves high carbohydrate and fatty foods. As a result, most people stop dieting, and, of course, gain the weight back, sometimes plus some as their bodies get ready for the next bout of "famine". Our bodies don't know that there's an abundance of food, or that McDonald's is just a couple blocks away; it just knows that it needs to send signals for us to store as much energy as it can before the food goes away again. (For reference, watch this TED Talk from neuroscientist Sandra Aamodt).
The more I read, the more baffled I became. I read about how the diet industry is fueled by the constant rebounding and desperation of the general population. I read about the distribution of deliberate misinformation on diets like the keto diet and other fad diets. I watched news clips about a study on the Biggest Loser and how the show's claim to fame-- extreme weight loss-- was a lie. The show itself was stigmatizing, emotionally abusive, and physically damaging, causing people to pass out, vomit, and become severely dehydrated. Once they left, contestants struggled to keep the weight off, to the point that they had to exercise 2 hours a day and eat less than 1200 calories just to slow the weight gain down.
I read about weight discrimination, and how individuals in larger bodies are paid less, more likely to be convicted in a court of law, and suffer a host of other horrible injustices. I started hearing microaggressions and microinsults being thrown out towards people in larger bodies as casually as saying "bless you" when someone sneezes.
A 2012 study also showed that obesity and weight gain aren't necessarily predictors of mortality. In the study, by adding only four healthy habits-- drinking in moderation, not smoking, eating healthy, and exercising-- the risk of death of an "obese" person became almost exactly the same as someone who is considered to have a "normal" BMI.
All of this made me, for lack of a better word, angry. I was angry at myself. I was angry because I realized that I was never going to look like a model. I would never be as petite as Zoe Kravitz. I was never going to meet my own standards for how I thought I should look. And I was angry because I was so blinded by society's standards that I thought that that was the only acceptable way to look. That I had to be at a weight that is only achievable if I'm weak, tired, and starving. And that so many people, especially women but also people of all genders, are expected to starve themselves to be acceptable, lovable, and worthy. Angry isn't really the right word. I was livid.
That brings us to that elusive ~3% of people who actually lose weight and keep it off. It turns out, those people are the ones who do just that-- they find joy in healthy eating and movement. They also score high on measures of "intuitive eating"-- essentially, eating when they are hungry and stopping when they are full, and eating a wide variety of foods and nutrients. I had lost touch with my body in the pursuit of weight loss, in the pursuit of what I thought would make me happy and worthy; in the process, I was actively working against what I wanted. And I was so sorry.
I was sorry to the five-year old girl whose bodily rights had been violated, and to the twelve year old who was starving herself, and the high school girl who felt pressured and the 18-year old college student who should have found her voice living in the big city but couldn't. I felt the need to apologize to all the versions of myself I'd been before that still wept and cowered in my heart. But the only way I could do that would be to break free of the the vice grip of diet culture, to relinquish the image of a body that I would never and could never have, and to learn to love the body I did have.
Intuitive Eating by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch
Big Girl: How I Gave Up Dieting and Got a Life by Kelsey Miller
Health At Every Size: The Surprising Truth About Your Weight by Lindo Bacon
The Anti-Diet Project by Kelsey Miller (Refinery29)
Why Dieting Doesn't Usually Work - Sandra Aamodt (TEDx)
Behind the Before and After: Non Diet, Intuitive Eating and Body Image Documentary - The Body Love Society (YouTube)
Why Biggest Loser Winners Often Regain Weight - ABC News (YouTube)
The Exercise Happiness Project - Chris Wharton (TEDx)
How To Get Healthy Without Dieting - Darya Rose (TEDx)
Our Bodies are Not an Image | Mary Jelkovsky | TEDxCherryCreekWomen
Living without shame: How we can empower ourselves | Whitney Thore | TEDxGreensboro
Sam is a graduate from Boston University in psychology and visual arts. She is currently studying to get her Master's of Science in counseling with a concentration in social justice and expressive arts therapy at Prescott College.