The Ghost of Body Dysmorphia
[Listen to an audio version of this blog here.]
"You look so strong!" she said. "Do you mind me asking what you do?" I had just finished a yoga class, and normally after yoga, I'm not in the mood to chitchat. Normally, nobody tries to start a conversation either, so her question threw me for a loop. I said thank you. I said I run and lift weights. She asked me what I eat and I told her whatever helps my body feel good.
As I drove home I thought about her compliment and my relationship to my own body. For years, I suffered from body dysmorphia, a mental health disorder in which you can't stop thinking about one or more perceived defects or flaws in your appearance — a flaw that appears minor or can't be seen by others. When I was deep in the pit of my eating disorder, I was small. I wore clothes at 21 that fit me when I was in middle school. Hoodies and jackets swallowed me up. I punched new holes in my belts and bought smaller bras. As the number on the scale methodically shrank, I grew smaller, and colder, and quieter. What's really fucked up though, is that despite my smallness, I thought I looked large. I would stare in the mirror and find things to dislike; my stomach, my thighs, my upper arms. Looking back on photos of myself from that time is startling because I can see more clearly now how emaciated I was. How sick. How sad.
After years of recovery and therapy, I learned to have a more neutral attitude toward my body. I don't think about how it looks anymore. I don't weigh myself daily or critique my body in front of mirrors. But I realized that in the process of dissociating my worth from my body, I've sort of disassociated from my body. Not totally; I've learned to tap into my hunger cues, to follow my cravings, to rest when my body needs to rest. But I also haven't learned to look at my body objectively. I haven't even tried.
So when a stranger noticed my strength, I struggled to see what she saw. Her comment and question lifted the veil I'd placed over my eyes for the past few years. When I got home from yoga, I stood in front of my mirror. I noticed the definition in my arms and abs. I noticed the thickness of my thighs, the durability of my calves, even the muscles in my feet. I looked at my body almost as if I'd never seen it before, and just the simple act of looking brought back memories of staring at my body and hating it. Of obsessive body checking, days of fasting, gastrointestinal pain, throwing up, sleepless nights. But today was different. I felt the grief of my past, but I also felt empowered by my present. I was appreciating my strength in a whole new way. This is a body built by years of running and lifting, yes. But it's also a body built by years of pain, years of confusion, years of joy. My body isn't only strong because I work out; it's strong because of all it has endured.
Our culture engages in a near-constant conversation around bodies: how they should look, what they should do, how we should treat them, when we should feed them. I'm here to tell you that your body owes no one an explanation. Your body is the only one you'll ever have, so treat it with love. Notice your strength. Hold gratitude for all your body has given you and all your body can do. And if or when someone compliments your body, you can choose to accept it. You can choose to see yourself how they see you. You can also choose to leave that compliment alone entirely. The relationship we have with ourselves informs every other relationship we build, so treat yourself, and your body, with kindness and respect. You are strong, you just have to see it.
P.S. Listen to Sally McRae's podcast, Choose Strong, read ROAR: How to Match Your Food and Fitness to Your Unique Female Physiology for Optimum Performance, Great Health, and a Strong, Lean Body for Life, or check out Ben Beeler's strength training program for runners.