It’s summer! As we all know, summer means less clothing coverage, beach vacations, diets to the max and body image issues. Our hidden and hibernating winter bodies are now out for show and the stress of making them look good, or hiding what doesn’t look good, is in full effect! I would venture to say it is a recovering anorexics worst nightmare. This nightmare, while terrifying, also brought about my first taste of freedom from my eating disorder!
For the past few years my immediate family has headed down to South Carolina for a beach vacation. Typically I would start preparing for this months in advance. I mean, I had to wear a bikini so it was crucial that my wobbly bits firm up and I look as fit and thin as possible. My eating disorder was in full control. I would do cleanses, cut out food groups, count the calories of every morsel that entered my mouth and exercise for hours on end. I became an expert on the newest diet, and nothing would get in my way. My mind was completely consumed with this. I was starving, hurting myself and it was all for a body that looked good at the beach for seven days.
Last summer’s beach trip, (July 2016), was my worst nightmare. I had entered treatment for my eating disorder seven months earlier. During those seven months I began the re-feeding process. My weight had slowly gone up for a couple of months, but then, in month five, it shot up VERY quickly to a weight that was more then I had ever been before and I had literally no control over it. I was suddenly disproportioned, had a belly that made me look pregnant and it felt like I had suddenly put on a fat suit. My body was swelling and reacting poorly to any food I gave it. It was terrible and the beach was only three months away…
For at least three weeks I had convinced myself that I was just going to sit this vacation out. I didn’t have the clothes. I certainly was NOT going to be putting on a bathing suit. I was having some health complications with re-feeding and my anxiety/stress level was HIGH. I mean, who wants to go to the most scantily clad place when you have suddenly put on a substantial amount of weight!?
At this time I was unable to do anything about this. I was ordered to be sedentary because of my heart and healing. Dieting was definitely not an option for obvious reasons. My body was doing its own thing and it was terrifying.
Sidetone - We all think we have all this control over our bodies. We do not. I know…this is the OPPOSITE of everything our diet industry has hypnotized us into believing. Our bodies were created very intelligently. They have a weight they work optimally at, our set point, and it will fight to stay there. (I'll write a whole blog about this concept soon!) It will do WHATEVER it needs to do to protect itself. In my case, putting on a lot of fat to keep it safe while it heals was what it decided to do. I certainly did not tell it to do this! It does what it wants to keep me alive. If I exercise, it puts on more fat storage because it’s scared. If I restrict, it will hold onto it to use for the next famine. I was stuck with this body and there is nothing I could do about it.
When I shared my plan to not attend vacation with my family, it was received how any moronic thing one would say to five brothers and sisters would be received. It was shot down, it was ridiculous and they were not having it. I didn’t know what to do. I was TERRIFIED of going to the beach, but my family was not accepting my plan to skip out.
Thankfully, I have a handy dandy therapist who unfortunately for me was going to also push me to go to the beach. This was, “A perfect opportunity to challenge my eating disorder and push forward towards recovery!” (sounded like B.S. to me…). The truth is, it was my eating disorder that was telling me I should not go. It was my eating disorder that was telling me I was too fat to be seen. It was my eating disorder that made this decision black and white and refused to consider the gray.
With the help of my therapist I made a list of Pro’s and Con’s as to why I should or should not go to the beach. We also discussed my values and how they played into this decision. My E.D.’s values were that I needed to be in the BEST shape, the thinnest, and Bikini perfect. If I was not, I should stay at home and hide my hideous body from all public eye balls. My healthy values, on the other hand, were spending time with family. Watching my nieces and nephews play in the sand. Being a good example to my younger sisters and overcoming my eating disorder. Even with a body that wasn’t what I loved, it was ok because life is more then that. It was clear that although my anxiety was through the roof and this basically made me want to crawl into a corner and die, I needed to go to the beach.
Once I made the scary decision to go on the family vacation, and decided to practice radical acceptance (ugh again), it was clear I needed to prepare. Problem numero uno, I didn’t have a bathing suit. After a few weeks of freaking out about this, I was finally able to muster up enough courage to go try on some bathing suits. Bathing suit shopping is typically horrible even if you don’t have an eating disorder, so doing this while my body was recovering was particularly terrible. After a couple of hours and a thousand tears later, I accepted the fact that this summer I was simply not going to wear a bathing suit. Instead, I bought a couple of bandeaus, some jockey spandex, a comfortable and light cover up and called it a day.
When vacation finally arrived I was definitely full of anxiety, but I had a plan. I had my “beach wear.” I was equipped with a toolbox of coping skills to keep me sane and a small library of books to read and keep me occupied. I was as ready as I was ever going to be.
The first time we headed to the beach that week a few things happened.
Because I had prepared in advance, when my eating disorder got loud, I was able to quiet it quickly. I was like a coping skills ninja. I refused to buy into the chatterbox. This allowed me to be more present!
When I arrived and looked around I was SO grateful to realize that all shapes and sizes go to the beach. In my eating disordered brain I had been so concentrated on how perfect I needed to look that I failed to realize that there are millions of imperfect bodies going to the beach to enjoy the waves and sand. Real bodies were there. All shapes and sizes. All wobbly bits. All bodies are beach bodies because they are there…at the beach!
It was OK! I didn’t have a bathing suit. I felt uncomfortable AND I don’t think anyone on that beach cared. No one was staring at me in horror. No one yelled "FATSO." My eating disorder had lied. I was sitting here, on the beach, heavier then I have ever been, and it was OK. I would live to see another day!
Was I perfectly happy? No! This was still very difficult. Body image is probably the last thing you overcome in treatment so I still had some major insecurities. I felt uncomfortable in my skin and I shed some tears but overall it was going OK, and before I knew it, my first taste of FREEDOM happened!
Five days into vacation, I was sitting on the beach, reading my book, and then someone said to me, “I have been people watching today and there were really only like seven people that have walked by with perfect bodies. So basically like 1% of the people on the beach have an “amazing” body….not even.” My first reaction was that I didn't want to hear about perfect bodies. Mine is FAR from perfect, so ugh….and then it hit me….I had so far, not once, thought about the perfect bodies on the beach the entire time I was there! This was HUGE, and here is why. In years passed I would have been critically hawk watching every body around me. I would have been comparing my body to theirs. If I saw someone smaller or more fit than me I would feel bad and come up with a plan of how over the next three days I would exercise more and cut out an extra hundred calories. I would feel shame over the skin I could pinch on my sides and make myself go on a long run even if my heart hurt. I would be envious and jealous and upset as to why my body wasn’t as good as theirs and how could I get mine to be better. It was all consuming and terrible.
I could NOT believe it, but these thoughts had not happened ONCE on my trip. I didn't even realize it until that person had said that comment to me. Did I really just go to the beach for FIVE whole days and not compare my body to anyones? Did I really see those bodies and not obsess over how mine was worse? Did I really sit here and enjoy my feet in the sand and not scrutinize every body that walked by me? Was it possible that people who were super fit walked by and I literally didn’t even care? YES! I couldn’t believe it! I had tears of joy that I FINALLY, after seven month of working hard, could tell that therapy and re-feeding were working! Sure, I wasn’t comfortable yet in my own skin, but I had not spent the entire time at the beach comparing, scrutinizing, feeling shame and planning my next run. I had accepted my body for what it was during this trip. My mind was being renewed and for the first time I felt like freedom from my eating disorder was actually possible.
When I returned from vacation I shared my breakthrough with my therapist. What I learned was, when we have an eating disorder, and we are starving and denying ourselves necessary nutrients we become hyper focused on food, bodies and exercise. Our brains make us only think about food and bodies because it is trying to tell us it is time to freaking eat. For example, have you ever noticed that when you cut out bread you are hyper aware of all the bread in the room that you cannot eat. You feel like you want to eat bread so much more then before and its SO hard to not eat bread. This is because you brain actually needs carbs to survive, and it’s letting you know it needs some. This is also how my brain worked when it came to my obsession about bodies. When I was actively participating in restriction and purging through exercise, I was obsessed with my body. Therefore, I was also obsessed with everyone else’s bodies. Now that I was feeding my body properly, not participating in excessive exercise and had given up control of my body, my brain was no longer hyper focused on every body that I saw. FREEDOM!
I still have a LONG way to go when it comes to accepting my body. I still find myself comparing every once in a while or being envious, but over all, that voice that was screaming and persistent before, is kind of small and background noise now. I had to go through one of my most terrifying experiences in order to see the blessing that came from it. If I had avoided the beach I never would have had that taste of freedom. That little bit of freedom is what kept me moving forward during a time that was scary. It was the first mental sign that treatment was working. That I was being inwardly renewed.
Here are a few things that I noticed once my brain was free to be present at the beach.
I don’t have to wear a bathing suit to the beach. It is not a rule. It is not a big deal. I can wear what ever the HE$$ I want and it’s fine.
When I wasn’t starving and purging through exercise, I stopped being obsessed with every body on the beach that I saw. I was free to enjoy vacation.
I wasn’t the “hottest” girl on the beach, but who cares! I have a great husband, a loving family and being sexy and in shape only makes a bathing suit fit different.
When I stopped concentrating on the seven perfect bodies at the beach, I was able to see the 800 beautiful and different bodies. I realized I had been comparing myself to an incredibly small group of people, not all of the people at the beach. It was ridiculous!
I better NEVER judge or compare or assume anything about a body that walks by me again. No one there knows I was recovering from and eating disorder, just like I have no idea why their bodies are the way they are.
My family still wanted me there. My body changing did not change my nieces desire to build a castle with me, or my siblings desires to go to the conc for a rum slushy or my mom’s desire to walk to the boardwalk with me.
I am stronger then I give myself credit for. I faced one of my biggest fears and I came out on top!
No matter my weight, I still enjoy the sand in between my toes, the breeze from the ocean and the tan that my doctor hates!
Even when my body was “perfect” I still felt insecure and terrible. Changing my body and abusing it to look a certain way does not bring peace at the beach. Accepting my body, enjoying my family and leaning into my healthy values does.
I am able to be unhappy about where my body is at, AND still go to the beach and have an amazing time.
Fast forward to today and I still don’t like my body. I have all the same insecurities. My body is HEAVIER this summer then it was last summer when all of this happened. My body is STILL healing. (man, this is a long process…) Eventually my body will go back to it’s set point and I will be able to wear a bathing suit again, but you know what? It won’t matter! Whether I am over weight or back to my normal weight, I will still be at that beach with my family, wearing my spandex, drinking my rum slushy and enjoying the sun, and if someone wants to judge my body while I am there, I will buy them a rum slushy and go on my peaceful way.
- Sara -