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It’s winter break, which means that plenty of families, at least around where I live, are making a mad dash for the warmer escapes of the world. My family is one of those; we’re staying on a Florida beach for my school system’s allotted break time. It’s manageable for me now, but when my eating disorder was at its peak, the necessitation of bathing suit wearing was and is an exercise in benefit-less, anxiety inducing, torturous exposure.
There’s no hiding the perceived imperfections of an eating disordered body when it is clad in a bathing suit. A swim shirt or abstinence summon more attention, and possibly unwelcome comments, into the equation, and thus are out of the question. I had decided, when I was at my worst, that I should try to find enjoyment and empowerment in exposing myself. Perhaps, if exposure made me feel good, it would be a good incentive to continue starving via positive reinforcement, and vice versa. I pushed myself, enabled by the warm weather, to be exposed as much as possible.
Unfortunately, plenty of comments were made about my body, toxic whether positive or negative, but that wasn’t the most stressful part about the experience. Sure, the words stuck with me, but the acuity of the anxiety that I felt in the moment was unparalleled. Sprawled out on a local beach or by my best friend’s pool, I dove headfirst and bone dry into a situation that prompted the following thought train.
Okay, time to disrobe. Removing my clothing will contort my body. Elongate, elongate! Shirt’s off, it’s all over. My arms are flabby, waving in the wind it seems. Why couldn’t the fat have stayed in my chest? Pants off, everyone’s definitely staring intently at my inadequate thigh gap. I never did leave the old thigh gap obsession phase… I can see every millimeter of spare skin and flesh on my body. Staring, staring. I’m spreading myself out as long as I can, staring at myself as I do it. Every move is pained, for moving draws attention to the body I don’t want to be seen at all. You’re being so strong, pushing yourself like this! No need to get in the water. This terror is enough of a recreational activity.
On top of this baseline exponentially-anxiety-inducing experience draped the comments that I got about my body. Both ends of the spectrum were equally as, though differently, toxic. “You look beautiful, so healthy!” I got from many of my friends and best friend. I didn’t want to look like anything at all, and I certainly didn’t want to look healthy! Looking like something implies being seen, and if I was to be seen, the goal was to look sickly and frail. I’d take those comments to mean that I wasn’t starving myself enough and I’d compensate in the coming days.
Comments like “you’re too skinny, let’s get you a burger!” that I fielded nearly as often were unfortunate in their promotion of a positive association between my body and starving. What I was doing was working, lo and behold! My efforts were being recognized by way of acknowledging my skinniness and its apparent extremity. Today, I imagine my reaction to those words, at the time, as an internal devilish, wry grin. I knew it was wrong to take to the comments like I did, but boy did it feel good to be too skinny for someone. The comments provided me with ammunition to persist in my restrictive ways.
I now understand my thought patterns and their unhealthiness today, much better than I ever did when I was experiencing them. Through treatment, I’ve come to understand that the devilish grin was the manifestation of my eating disorder, a distinct internal voice that spoke to me with corrupted intentions. My eating disorder voice, not my true voice, was the one who twisted bodily comments to suit its needs, in whatever form they came. My true voice wants liveliness, agility, and health. I do my best these days to channel Olivia’s true voice.
Body exposure is stressful for almost everyone. Particularly but not exclusively for women, baring (almost) all is akin to the act of comparing yourself to not only those around you but to a somehow tangible, set expectation of body composure that lingers about every nook of society, latching onto every billboard, Instagram post, furtive up-and-down look. It is, however, distinctly different for those with eating disorders. While it may be assumed that complimenting another’s body as if it were desirable, aesthetically pleasing, is the right thing to do in order to boost someone’s confidence, in reality doing so stimulates an unknowable blossoming of intense self scrutiny in the complimentee’s mind. When the complimentee has an eating disorder, this can be literally very harmful.
Today, I can let comments about my body roll off of me. They are reflections of the person commenting, not of the objective reality of my body and its health and beauty. But when I was deeply disordered, my ED voice feasted on every body based comment like it was starved for them, and it was. I found terror and solace in the seemingly benign assessments of others.
You never really know how a bodily comment is going to come across to someone. It’s generally best to steer clear of all comments pertaining to the aesthetic value of a body as if it were a spectrum from good looking to bad looking. A body cannot be good or bad, it is simply a vessel for our minds that should be nurtured to the best of our abilities. Good or bad bodies are constructed by corrupted actors: companies, industries, producers. Bodies exist to actualize what our minds want to accomplish, so it’s in our best interest to optimize our bodies in order to carry out tasks and stay comfortable. Exercise, eating healthily and fully, hygiene, and other self care are the tools with which we can be kindest to our bodies.
If you are tempted to comment on someone’s appearance, keep that definition of a body in mind. Here are some compliments you can try while on your winter vacation, in these weeks.
“You look so strong!”
“I love that suit, it fits you so well!”
“You have such good taste in clothing.”
“You’re so well put together, what shampoo do you use?”
“You have such a lively presence, I love being around you.”