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Can I Give Thanks To A Body I Hate?

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Photographed by Alexandra Gavillet.
“Each bite is zero calories,” a friend told me once over dessert. I was at war with my body, and had been for about five years. There was a very real possibility that deciding to order dessert would set off a firestorm of self-loathing that would rage for days. “As long as you don’t eat the last bite, you’ll be fine. That’s where all the calories are concentrated.”

In my memory, she’s whispering, although I highly doubt that she did. It was an airy way for her to joke with me about my distress. She probably thought that, like many other women our age, I was simply dieting. Maybe she knew the truth. Either way, I grasped at what she had just given me that I couldn't give myself: permission to eat. She had just given me a powerful tool I would use in recovering from my eating disorder.

Entirely unaware of the impact she had just made, she stabbed the last piece with her fork, sopped up the last of the sauce, and ate it in one breezy gesture — a huge smile stretched across her face.

*

I think about this exchange a lot as I go through recovery. Though my eating disorder was fluid, morphing year to year from anorexia to exercise bulimia and back again, its defining characteristic was control. Rules I made for myself governed my every action, my every interaction with other people, and my every reaction to the world around me. It’s only natural that I thought that recovery simply meant being able to break the rules.

But eating disorders are never that simple.

Rebuilding the war-torn country of my body was easy enough. I broke the rules I previously made. I ate, not quite like the average person, but I did. I lifted weights to recover a semblance of a metabolism. If I ate too much (or thought that I did), I did nothing: the hardest change of them all. Brick by brick, I pieced together a physical façade of health.

No one prepared me for the fact that fixing my actions was only half of the equation.

*

Here’s the truth, if you’re ready to hear it: I still hate my body. I still hate it daily. Sometimes, I hate it hourly. In a country that’s seen 10 years of civil war, rebuilding the fallen structures is necessary and it’s absolutely an improvement, but it does little in terms of putting the pieces back together. It doesn’t address anything that actually started the fighting, old ways of thinking that are harder and more cemented than brick and mortar.

Breaking the rules was a great place to start, but it ignored something major about my eating disorder: These rules weren’t set by some outside person or force. I made them. I put myself in a box of my own creation. The mental pathways and habits of thought that gave birth to those abusive rules are still there, even if I don’t play along.

The first part of my recovery has been a lot like that conversation over dessert. I eat dessert now, just like I did with my friend so many years ago. But in a way, I’m tricking myself into doing it, creating a new rule to override the old ones. As long as you don’t eat the last bite. As long as you break the old rules.

That’s not to undermine the importance of what my friend did for me. It’s been a vital stepping stone for me to escape old rules by creating new ones. But as the holiday season — one so fraught with old fears about food — approaches, I can’t help but look forward at phase two: healing the mental aspect of this disorder. Can I finally give thanks for a body I hate?

*

A lot of my day-to-day life in recovery is governed by the As If Principle, which, in simple terms, can be summed up as “fake it ’til you make it.” Despite all the ways you could describe how I’ve treated myself over the years — unsympathetic, exacting, punitive — I am, through it all, hopeful. And I do genuinely believe that if I act like I love my body long enough, my brain will follow suit.

Despite all the ways you could describe how I’ve treated myself over the years — unsympathetic, exacting, punitive — I am, through it all, hopeful.

And this is what gives me hope: I know what I can accomplish when the shots aren’t constantly being fired. When I’m not using my mind to find flaws and punish them, I can turn my reflection inward. With work — and a lot of help from my therapist — I can spot these unhealthy, worn ways of thinking and consciously dismiss them. It’s a painstaking process and the work lasts all day long.

After all, it isn’t just rule-making that’s an old mental habit. Hating my body has become one, too. If this hatred of my body is such a long-standing prejudice that I would try for 10 years to beat myself into a more favourable form, then isn’t a ceasefire a good step on the path to a peace treaty?

*

I’ll share another ugly truth with you: The me who sat over that dessert so many years ago thought waking up the size I am now would solve everything. No more hurt, no more shame, no more eating disorder. Admitting that makes me feel devastated for who I was just a couple of years ago. It does not, unfortunately, help me love my body.

I type this out and I know that I’m lucky in a logical way that’s not at all emotional. I recognize that I’m lucky to have this insight into my eating disorder and, frankly, to still be here after 10 years of battling it. Some people might call this the same thing as feeling thankful, but for reasons I don’t even fully understand, it feels fake without big emotion behind it.

But maybe that’s because I’ve been looking in the wrong place. After all, everything on the outside — from the colour of my hair to whether or not my thighs happen to touch — is just a tiny fraction of all the things that make up my body.

I am more than able-bodied. It actually feels good to move.

I can do things in the gym I never thought were possible just months ago.

I might be in better shape now than when I was swimming competitively, logging hours a day in the pool and also — yikes — 10 years younger.

So maybe if I can’t embrace the curve of my thighs, it’s enough to love what they do; to love how my muscles can make running up stairs feel almost like flying; to feel like my knees are solid and strong and capable of tackling this concrete city; to feel like I know and own my body from the inside — how it moves, how hard I can push it, how it feels best — even if I don’t care to recognise it from the outside.

Maybe that’s okay. Maybe that’s enough. Maybe that is thanks. At least, for now.

If you are struggling with an eating disorder and are in need of support, please call the National Centre For Eating Disorders on 0845 838 2040.
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