I don't see myself when I look in the mirror.
Twenty years ago, I began middle school, and the flaws I had always seen in myself began to grow, change, manifest. As a child I had always perceived my thighs as too thick - I was at a healthy weight, and yet I felt like I was bigger than all the other girls. When I entered middle school, with all its awkwardness and emerging hormones, my thighs, in my mind, became enormous. I compared myself to my classmates - thin girls who were good at field hockey and lacrosse and climbing the social hierarchy - and felt ugly.
I stopped eating. It was so easy, and it felt wonderful.
Part of my intentional starvation was a reaction to a mental process I could not control - bipolar disorder often strikes during puberty - and part was due to food insecurity and my as yet undiagnosed gluten and dairy intolerances. Food made me sick, and the food my family could afford - pasta, pizza, the occasional treat of Chinese food - made me sicker. As a kid I ate dry cereal out of the box, not knowing that wheat was harming me, enjoying the sugar rush even as my stomach hurt.
It turns out that many people with undiagnosed food intolerances develop disordered eating. After all - who would want to eat when everything makes you sick?
So I stopped eating pizza. Couldn't eat pie crusts, or bagels, or lovely whole wheat toast, dripping with melted butter. I narrowed down what I allowed myself to consume, and then I found that eating very little rewarded a pleasure center in my brain. My stomach didn't hurt any more - and my thighs were getting smaller.
These self-imposed limitations went hand in hand with my insecurities. I knew that I would never be good at any kind of sport - I am probably the least coordinated person on the planet - but I thought I could mold my body into something acceptable, something the popular girls whom I resented and worshiped would envy. I received compliments, and the worried questioning from my parents was nothing compared to the feeling of a thin body, a regimented mind, a controlled psyche.
I was anorexic. It hurts to type that, as if the world will judge me, as if I shouldn't share the method by which I stayed tiny and beautiful and invisible.
An eating disorder is like cancer - you're never cured, but in remission. Since those first moments when I discovered the pleasure of self-denial, the twenty years which followed were full of recoveries and relapses. I gained weight, and I lost it, over and over.
I think that's a familiar story for a lot of women. Diets and meal plans and protein shakes are thrust upon us, and images of perfectly airbrushed actresses show us what we should look like and what we never will. Even if a woman never enters a full-blown eating disorder, she may still slip easily into disordered eating. Our emotional relationship with food is often unhealthy, and we tell ourselves we can control our little corner of the universe if we eat low fat yogurt, or sugar free desserts, or baked and bland chicken breasts. Women are never allowed to enjoy a nice cream sauce, a slice of chocolate cake, even a basket of French fries, without guilt. To be a woman with visible fat is to be rejected by society.
I've had visible fat. I've been what we call thick women - curvy. And it wasn't that long ago - last March I was a size sixteen. Today I am a size six - because of grief, because of dietary changes, because of a need for control.
Being "curvy" was an important part of my life. My medications caused weight gain, and my love for craft beer and bar food didn't help. I allowed myself all the foods I had rejected - I ate potato chips, ice cream, cookies, foods I had insisted I simply didn't like. And even though I was far from the beauty standard of television and magazines, I was forced, by my weight, to see my inherent beauty. I learned how to feel pretty - I had to. To see myself as overweight and therefore (in my mind) ugly would have shattered me.
And now, at size six, I look in the mirror and can't see a darned thing.
Often co-morbid with eating disorders, body dysmorphic disorder is a condition in which one perceives and is distressed by some flaw in appearance. For those with eating disorders, that can translate into an obsession with body fat and weight. And for me, it means that I cannot honestly see myself. When I was 118 pounds, I told my mother that I was Rubenesque. I really looked at my skinny frame and thought I was gigantic.
This has been the most lasting symptom of my former anorexia - I am not obsessed with body fat, but I am an unreliable narrator in my own story. No matter my weight, no matter my measurements, I cannot truly see myself. I am always twelve years old, learning how to restrict my food, and I am always 27, eating whatever I pleased. I don't know how to break through the cloud of falsehoods - when I see pictures of myself, I am shocked.
And yet the years of being overweight have helped me immensely, because even if I can't catch a glimpse of my body in the mirror, I see my face, and I feel beautiful.
I have a lifetime of work ahead of me. My diet will always be restricted - I am healthier now that I am gluten-free, dairy-free, and sober - but I can enjoy many foods and eat my fair share. But growing older, growing up, demands constant self-evaluation, critique, and love. In order to achieve contentment, I must dismantle old systems of perception and judgement.
I have to practice looking in the mirror. It's not vanity - I have to learn how to see myself. It may take my whole life - but now, at 31, I am happy, healthy, and strong.
I am up for the challenge.