Why I Refuse to be Ashamed of My "Fat Girl" Body

Maybe it's that I am very quickly approaching 30 years old, maybe it's personal growth, maybe it's that in light of all the other things going on in the world I am completely out of fricks to give...I'm not sure, but I what I am sure about is that I am really really really over hating my body. You may not know this about me, but like so many other women, I am a recovering disordered eater. In my late teen years, I developed anorexia that later turned into binge eating disorder. It has been a long hard slog of owning my truth, being really frustrated with myself, and learning new healthy ways to navigate the world but I am learning that despite the shame I have felt my body over the years, there are also a lot of things about my body that I should be really proud of and grateful for. 

The first time I can consciously remember hating my body was just after a sexual assault that happened in my teen years. I was angry that my body could invite something so awful, devastated by the idea that my body was somehow not my own. I had always been a chubby girl and this experience made me want nothing to do with the thick hips and curves that made me seem so much older than I was. In the midst of feeling so emotionally out of control, I took control of the one thing I thought I could- food. It started as an effort to get a stronger body- a body that could fight, a body that could run, a body that was better equipped to defend itself. I started counting calories and running. The weight dripped off of me, slowly at first and then like an avalanche, but it was never enough. No matter how far I got or how much weight I lost the emotions I was running from kept catching me. I started exercising more and cutting back more, distracting myself from the demons I wasn't ready to face, and before I knew it I had developed full blown anorexia. I was chewing up food and spitting it out to avoid weight gain, I was exercising for hours at a time every single day of the week, I was hiding in bathroom stalls waiting for privacy so that I could purge, and I was limiting myself to an absurdly low number of calories each day. When we would go out to eat I would order a side of steamed veggies as my entree. What started as a way for me to gain a sense of control had suddenly become the thing that was controlling me. 

I got down into the 120s just before I got married. Even though I was at the lower end of a healthy weight range, perhaps for the first time in my life, I had gotten there in a terribly unhealthy way and far too quickly. When I moved in with my husband I found that hiding my lifestyle and unhealthy habits was hard. I wasn't alone enough to continue purging as often as I wanted and I didn't have the same time in my schedule to continue over-exercising. The weight crept back up and since I couldn't keep running from the bad feelings with my anorexia, I started stuffing them down with binge eating. I ate what I wanted when I wanted and as much of it as I wanted. I ate until I felt okay, and it took a lot of food for me to feel even a little bit okay. I snuck through fast food places for extra meals and disposed of the evidence. I sat at my desk and stuffed my face with as many carbs as I could get my hands on, binging on food that the store I was working at was discarding (yikes). I ate entire family-size boxes of snack foods in one sitting. A few months of this and unsurprisingly I was bigger and weighed more than I ever had in my entire life. I was officially obese. 

When we moved away from our hometown and I was no longer living in the same city where the trauma happened, the walls started coming down. I went to therapy. I started running and eating healthy. I got back down to my average weight...the weight I was at before anorexia and later binge eating took over my life. And yet again- it wasn't sustainable. We became parents. The foster care system wrecked me emotionally. Every one of our son's diagnoses wrecked me emotionally. And like most addicts, I turned to the thing that I knew would make me feel good even if it was just for a moment. A few months into this cycle, I ended up going to months of therapy specifically for binge eating because I just couldn't get a handle on it by myself. I was no long too proud to say I was out of control. I remember sitting in my therapist's office blankly staring at her because she asked me to identify my feelings and I couldn't. Literally not a single feeling came to mind. I was just.....empty....numb...disengaged. She handed me a list that had hundreds of feeling words on it and I started weeping because the last ten years had just been sort of grey. Feeling anything meant also feeling the bad things I had been trying to escape for so long and it had never been worth it to me. I had learned to stay numb as a way to stay safe but I also knew that in the numbness I was using to protect myself that I was missing out on some really great feelings too. I also knew that I had a little guy who needed a good example of dealing with big feelings in a healthy way, a way I couldn't show him at that point in my life. So I fought. It was hard and a lot of the time it was awful. There were setbacks and breakdowns and days I wanted to give up. There were days I retreated into the nothingness I had created for myself. I learned my triggers. I learned self-care. I faced big hard scary parts of my story. It has been a long hard journey and it's not over yet. It may never really be over for me and that's okay. I know now that the good beautiful moments are so good and the hard scary moments will pass. I know that no amount of food will make the feelings I'm trying to avoid go away. I know that I can't run forever and that when reality catches up it hits hard. I've learned that in the midst of running and stuffing down that other parts of my life suffer. I've learned that there are people who love me who will stand alongside me for the hard scary parts if I'll let them. I've learned that I am resilient. I've learned that I am enough. I've learned that I am lovable. 

I haven't lost the weight that I put on during my last cycle of binging that happened a few years ago and I have had a lot of shame tied up in that. Every fat roll, every piece of clothing tucked in my closet that no longer fits because of the weight I gained, every photo of myself that I hate is a reminder of how easily things can get out of control. It happens so fast and you are in so deep before you even realize it. But in the midst of this season I am also learning to love myself and to love my body. No, I am not where I want to be in terms of my health and physical fitness, but every day is a chance for me to take one step closer to those goals. And you know what else? Despite all of this, there are a lot of things my body is really great at. In just the past 24 hours, I.... ran a couple of miles, carried several days of groceries for a family of three up a flight of stairs, hugged my son, prepared food for the boys who have my heart, made art, moved boxes, swam laps. I loved big and I loved well. I refuse to be ashamed of the vessel that has carried me this far and has brought so much joy and strength to my life. This body has seen some shhh and it keeps getting back up. One day, this body will quit, but today was not that day so I refuse be ashamed of it for one more second. 

 

The Big Picture: When Failure Works Itself Out

I am a control freak. I rarely try anything that I don't feel confident I will excel at. I have a 5-year, 10-year, and 800-year plan. Any risks I take have been precisely calculated and there is always a fallback plan. I think I learned these lessons the hard way back in my senior year of high school. When it came time to apply for college, I was overly and absurdly confident. I had a great GPA. I did really well on my standardized tests. I had participated and led some impressive extracurricular activities. I was graduating high school a year early and already had nine hours in college credits for courses I had taken at a local college during the summer after my junior year of high school. I had consistently been working part-time, even when in school, often in supervisory roles. I felt confident that my college essay was compelling. On paper, I believed I was an all star. So, when I mailed those four college applications to four Ivy League schools, I sort of expected at least two or three enthusiastic acceptance letters to come back to me. My parents and high school counselor strongly encouraged me to apply to a safety school, citing the acceptance rates at the schools I had applied to. But, being the stubborn jackass that I am, I refused. I kept telling them that applying to a safety school would be settling, not believing in myself. I was sixteen and naive and still believed that if you just work hard enough, that you'll get exactly what you want and deserve. Luckily, my parents were smart enough to let me fall flat on my face and learn some valuable lessons.

Much to my surprise, when spring rolled around I received four rejection letters. While my friends were excitedly sharing where they were headed in the fall and buying stuff for their dorm rooms, I was making up bullshit answers about taking a semester off, traveling, etc.- saying anything not to look like a complete idiot. Occasionally, I just owned my failure, explaining that I had stubbornly applied to only Ivy League schools and been rejected by all of them. Those words were hard for somebody who had (and still has) an unhealthy attachment to achievement to say. At the time the whole experience was super painful, but like many painful experiences, I can now look back and appreciate the way things fell apart and led me here. 

I did travel that fall to England and Ireland, something I may never have been able to do had my plans worked out. I continued working and got some additional management experience. I learned how to pick myself back up and make a new plan. I learned that failure and the feelings associated with it were temporary. I knew that I wanted to be in Boston, so I found a university that did rolling admissions. I was accepted and started making a plan for moving that January. I was only in Boston for a year, but that was such a formative time in my life- in both good and bad ways. When I came home for that first summer, I started dating the man that ended up becoming my husband. I wholly believe that had I not had this precise string of experiences, that I might not have ended up with him, which means I never would have ended up adopting my son. There are so many things that never would have been if even one of those schools had accepted me or even if a safety school had accepted me. 

I've failed so many times since that experience, in small ways and in big ways, but now I try to remind myself that what feels like a failure today may lead me exactly where I need to be in the long run. I know it's easy to say that in hindsight. In the midst of the shame and disappointment that comes with rejection and failure, those words feel like empty fluff, but they are often true. I've seen it play out so many times in the lives of people around me- jobs that didn't work out that led to opportunities they were made for, projects that flopped but gave the person inspiration for the thing that sets them on fire. Wherever you are today, whatever failure you are walking in or clinging to, know that these feelings are temporary. Humans are crazy resilient. We pick ourselves back up and keep pushing forward all the time. And the beautiful thing is that we've all failed at some point or another- nobody is immune to failure. Surround yourself with people who know what it's like to fall flat on their faces and can speak truth to power about resilience and recovery. Keep putting one foot in front of the other on the days when you feel like you can't face the world. Give yourself some grace. Doing hard things and taking risks means that sometimes you will crash and burn. It's just part of the gig. But sometimes, those failures lead us exactly where we need to be. 

This piece was also published on A Plus and can be found here:

 http://aplus.com/a/when-failure-works-itself-out

The Okay Method

I can't tell you how many endeavors throughout the years I've started and failed at. I guess fail isn't really the right word, because you can't fail at something you quit. Whether it's weight loss, exercise, learning a new hobby, or accomplishing anything else good that takes time, I have become the master of never reaching the finish line. It's not that I am flaky, it's that I am inflexible about what success looks like or how I am going to achieve it. We often imagine success as a linear event- do the work, be successful. In reality, everything is a lot messier than that. 

For example, I recently started running again. A few years ago I was running half marathons when I decided to start training for a full marathon. About six weeks into the training plan, I got a stress fracture in my shin that sidelined me. I never really got back into running after that. I tried a few times, but starting over was hard I just wasn't up for the challenge. When I finally decided to get serious, I bought a training app and some new running shoes, and got super excited that I would be back at a 5k distance in just seven short weeks. But then life happened. I had a minor medical procedure that kept me from running for about a week. I got a sinus infection that drained me. My schedule seemed to get fuller and fuller so the evenings I had free I didn't want to spend them running. It seemed to be one small setback after another. My typical response as I approached and passed week seven without achieving my goal would be to quit. I would usually tell myself things like- eh, I tried and it just didn't work out. I am too busy right now to really make time for running. Maybe I'll try again in a couple of months. But those are all excuses that I make up so I can quit the program before the self-imposed deadline passes and I feel like a failure. I've seen it play out a million times. I mean, how many of us have started a diet only to have a bad few days, gain a few pounds, and think "I just can't do this". So we go buy a cheeseburger and embrace the idea that they will be chubby forever. There is an appropriate time to quit things (that's a blog for another day) but all too often we bail on something great because of a few minor setbacks, unrealistic expectations, or because we've embraced the voice inside our head that tells us we will never get there. In reality, before I even started the training plan I knew that I couldn't keep up with it, but instead of adjusting my expectations, and creating a plan that actually worked for me, I set myself up for failure. 

Here's what I meditate on when I am ready to quit something worthwhile- the okay method I follow is better than the perfect method I will quit.  Other than me, who cares if it takes me fourteen weeks instead of seven to finish the training plan? Nobody. Literally nobody. I can't imagine anyone in my life being like- "You know what Mandy, I am so disappointed in you for taking so long to finish this training plan. I can't even be around you right now". That's absurd. We are so hard on ourselves when things don't go the way we expect that more often than not, instead of pushing through or adjusting our expectations we bail on the plan altogether. In the grand scheme of life, these minor setbacks, these detours, these adjustments, are meaningless in pursuit of something bigger. 

It's okay if your initial plan doesn't work out. It's okay if you fall behind, slip up, bend the rules a bit. It's okay if your plan doesn't look like everyone else's. Your journey doesn't have to look like anything other than something that works for you. Let go of the comparison, the unrealistic expectations, and the shame and embrace your plan. When you allow yourself to do what works for you, instead of trying to do what you thought it should look like or what everyone else does, you are far more likely to succeed. The okay method you will follow is sooooo much better than the perfect method you will quit.