“Having positive body image isn’t believing your body looks good; it is believing your body is good, regardless of how it looks. It isn’t thinking you are beautiful; it is knowing you are more than beautiful. It is understanding that your body is an instrument for your use, not an ornament to be admired.” Lindsay Kite, PhD
When I was eleven years old, I started down a path that led to years of disordered eating. For years the way I ate and exercised was quiet, like a well-concealed secret that was just mine. I got so good at pretending everything was perfect, because I didn’t want to face my fears, weaknesses, or insecurities. We moved a lot when I was growing up, and I hated not being able to control my anxiety and emotions about starting school somewhere new and trying to make friends. I craved control over anything that was controllable. I realized that all I could really change was the way I looked, and nobody needed to know how I did it.
We live in a world that calls salads “good” and brownies “evil,” where deceitful food and diet marketing dominates TV commercials, and body-shaming magazines line every checkout aisle in our grocery stores. As I was just easing into my teenage years and constantly encountering a new group of peers to impress, I grasped for every clue about how to be well-liked. I listened to the adult women in my life who congratulated each other for losing weight and talked negatively about their own bodies. I looked to classmates who skipped meals and compared jean-sizes with each other.
One of my heroes, Brene Brown said, “Perfectionism is a self-destructive and addictive belief system that fuels this primary thought: “If I look perfect, live perfectly, and do everything perfectly, I can avoid or minimize the painful feelings of shame, judgment, and blame.”
I truly believed I could create some perfect version of myself if I just focused and worked hard enough. I started by counting the calories of every single piece of food I put in my mouth. I was eating less than half of the daily recommended calories for my age and exercising intensely for multiple hours every day. The numbers on the scale dropped quickly, and though I was faint and unable to focus a lot of the time, that number was all that mattered to me. People, even mentors and role models, often told me how “amazing” I looked and asked me what my secret was. Looking back on this entire experience, that right there is what motivates me to be part of the solution to this problem. I was in the poorest health of my life, and was being applauded for it. I was just a kid who should have been out playing soccer with friends and focusing on the spelling bee, but instead I was living for this kind of feedback; it fueled me.
I became more extreme with my eating habits, and started to fear eating anything at all. Over the next seven years I became fixated on my weight, and I continued to feel anxious and guilty about eating. I exercised as much as I could and started learning to restrict certain foods from my diet. This way of living and eating was not sustainable, and when I “gave in” and ate a “bad food,” I felt extreme guilt. This guilt and shame continued to lead me down the destructive road of disordered eating. When I was about sixteen, I developed bulimia. The only way I knew how to deal with my anxiety and negative emotions was to shove them deep down inside myself and pretend like everything was fine… Which never works; those feelings always find an outlet. I remember feeling so worthless throughout those years, always thinking that I deserved every bit of the pain I was feeling. But that couldn’t have been farther from the truth!
“Perfectionism is addictive because when we invariably do experience shame, judgment, and blame, we often believe it’s because we weren’t perfect enough so rather than questioning the faulty logic of perfectionism, we become even more entrenched in our quest to live, look, and do everything just right.” Brene Brown
There came a point when I just knew I had hit rock bottom. I didn’t care about school, my friends, or my future, and that terrified me more than any food ever could. I got online late one night and googled stories about people who had recovered from eating disorders, searching for a shred of hope. I found a story about a woman who had kept her disorder a secret for over ten years before recovering. I cried as I read her words, amazed by how happy she seemed to be now. I really couldn’t remember what it felt like to be that happy. And I wanted it. I wanted it so bad that I finally decided to swallow my pride and face the shameful reality of what my life had become. With shaking hands I went to my mom and told her what was going on. It was easily the most difficult and vulnerable thing I’ve ever done, but a huge weight fell off my shoulders as I realized I didn’t have to carry my secret all alone anymore.
Recovery is not simple or easy or fast. It is not a single event, but a long journey. I was terrified to face my senior year of high school, but it ended up being one of the best experiences of my life. I finally allowed myself to have a support system of people who loved me, and though it didn’t happen all at once, my life turned completely around. It’s been five years since then and I don’t think I ever could’ve imagined the way my life is now. With the love and support of my friends, family, and several amazing mentors, I was able to serve a full-time LDS mission, graduate from college, marry an incredibly supportive and patient man, and start a family with him. I have learned so much from this journey, and truly don’t recognize that sad teenage girl anymore. I really feel like I have made peace with food. I have learned not to deprive myself and have come to appreciate the amazing energy source that food is. I am grateful for my body every day, and try to focus on my capabilities and potential. I am living proof that deep wounds can heal and make room for beautiful relationships and experiences.
“When we become more loving and compassionate with ourselves and we begin to practice shame resilience, we can embrace our imperfections. It is in the process of embracing our imperfections that we find our truest gifts and strengthen our most meaningful connections.” Brene Brown
There are so many things I wish I could tell my younger self. I wish I would’ve understood my potential, and my capacity to love, create, and learn. I wish I would’ve known that my body is so much more than something to be displayed for the approval of others. I wish I could’ve played sports without worrying what everyone was thinking of me all the time. I wish I would’ve realized how good it feels to run, play, and laugh, forging lifelong relationships and learning from mistakes along the way. If I had known these things, I might not have been a slave to the scale, spending my days exercising until I fainted and living in constant fear of food. But I’ve learned how to effectively work on strengthening my weaknesses without blaming myself, and I hope I can use my experiences to help others who are struggling with similar things.
Now I get to raise a daughter, and I can’t wait to teach her how special and capable she is. I hope she can see that true beauty comes from kindness, gratitude, and confidence, and that everyone has something unique to offer. I have a lot to learn still, but I’m so glad that I know who I am. I am a daughter of God, a wife, a mother, a laugh-until-you-cry friend, and finally, a food lover. I can’t leave this post without pointing out the amazing patience, love, and grace of my savior Jesus Christ, because I know He has been with me every step of the way through this journey.
Nobody is exempt from perfectionism, shame, and unhealthy relationships with food. Eating disorders can impact anyone, regardless of weight, age, race, gender, or socioeconomic background. If you find yourself obsessing about eating, exercising, or stepping on the scale, don’t be afraid to ask for help and support. Don’t give up; it is so possible to make peace with food and learn to accept, love, and take care of yourself.
Visit NEDA for resources and information about eating disorders.
Check out Beauty Redefined for empowering, research-backed articles about building a more positive body image.
Read more about perfectionism, shame, and vulnerability from Brene Brown.