In 2013, I was in therapy for an eating disorder. I came together with a therapy group once a week for the duration of nine months. For years I have been wanting to share about this on my blog. I never dared to. It was my secret, not to be spoken about. Until now. Because I have come to realise that what I labelled as my weakest episode is actually a source of strength. A source that propels me forward.
I have recently started talking more openly about my (past and current) battles with self-image, body and food. This hasn’t made me feel pitiful, as I was afraid it would, but has lifted me up and given me new perspective. It still feels extremely vulnerable to share it here online. But I have learned that good things can come from vulnerability. And from sharing my experiences. Because it is the story of so many others too.
I did not have an extreme disorder that put me in danger of harming my body. In fact, I had difficulty coming to terms with being labelled with the –in my view- extreme diagnosis of an ‘eat-ing dis-order’. It took me a while to see that although not harming my body, I was harming my life and myself. For years, food was my fear, my enemy, my obsession. To tame it, I created a prison of rules. Rules about which foods I could eat, when I could eat them and how much I should exercise to minimise their effect. I came to view my body, and its supposed fatness, as the embodiment of all that (I thought) was wrong with me. When I sat down I felt fat, when I cycled I felt fat, when I talked I felt fat. In the end, I could only think about being fat and this being on display for the world to see. Here, the word ‘fat’ could as easily be replaced by the words ‘weak’, ‘undisciplined’, or ‘not good enough’. And that which is not good enough, I reasoned, must be subjected until it is. That’s how insecurity slowly spiralled into a negative food and body obsession, one that doctors called an eating disorder.
Therapy helped me along on my path of self-acceptance. One day, as an assignment, I had to write two letters that would prove of incredible importance to me. One letter was addressed to my body and, as I read it out to my therapy group, it showed me how broken and distorted my relationship to my body was. The other letter was a reply written from my body to my unhappy self. In this reply a voice came out, from deep inside me, that sounded surprisingly hopeful. It said: “No matter what you think of me, I will always have your back. One day you will accept me as I am, and you will love me.” At the time, I couldn’t believe that would ever become a reality. Now, three years later, that voice that was hidden inside of me is finally taking centre stage. But it didn’t happen without a struggle.
The wakeup call
After therapy, I took huge jumps in confidence and self-love. It wasn’t just the therapy that helped, it was the fifteen months of travel that followed afterwards, it was my family and friends, it was a lot of work. I reached the point where I could (and still can) honestly say I am comfortable with who I am. In fact, I’m having a blast at being me. Nevertheless, recently -three years after having finished my therapy- I broke down over a simple body exercise during a workshop at Knowmads. Caring hands touched my arms, my shoulders and my back but instead of relaxing into it, it went all systems down. It was my wakeup call: I deprived my body from being touched because, ultimately, I still didn’t accept it for what it was.
In the weeks after this experience, I started reflecting upon what had happened and came to see there were many things I still denied my body. Trivial things, like not going to the sauna even though I wanted to, and avoiding swimming so I wouldn’t have to be in bikini. Also less trivial things, like evading physical or sexual contact. These were symptoms of a problem which I thought I had tackled: the belief that I have to hide my body because it is imperfect.
The start of a process
I delved in. I wanted to get to the bottom of this. I ‘started’ by reading everything I had written down in my journal during my nine months of therapy. I read my teenage diaries. As I dug, I found I was holding on to negative opinions about my body I had picked up and created so long ago. In order to truly reach a state of loving self-acceptance, I would have to eliminate them one by one. To do this, I first wrote down all the negative opinions related to my body. One per A4 page: they flowed onto the paper easily, large and clear. “You are not thin enough.” “You are not disciplined enough.” “To deserve approval you need to work out more.” “We both know what you hide underneath your clothes.” They had been like mantra’s in my mind.
I decided to rewrite my opinions about my body. I knew I was ready to choose better words for these mantra’s, suited with the milder and kinder attitude I already showed myself in other aspects of life. I wanted to make this re-write tangible and physical, mark it in time. A wild idea came to mind: why not literally paint the words onto my body? I asked for support and was guided by the gifted Sif Yraola, who also documented this process (the photos accompany this article).
So one summer evening I stripped my body of clothes and wrote onto my skin all the words and beliefs that I wanted to be there. I wrote curve on my hip, replacing the hateful phrase ‘muffin top’. I wrote soft on my arm, overruling ‘too hairy’. On my belly home erased the belief that it was ‘too fat’. I chose the words power and sexy and elegant because I know that I am when I want to be. I inscribed into my skin I am beautiful and decided these words were true. Because when it comes to me and my body I decide upon the truth.
To come full circle I shared my story with my tribe: the people I was enrolled with at Knowmads, the place that had triggered my process. During my mid-term presentation the stage was mine. It was cathartic to share my ‘shameful secret’ of having had an eating disorder because I felt it being transformed into power. I ended up tearing to pieces the papers that held my negative opinions. I showed the photos that were taken while I painted my body. It was scary but necessary to expose myself in this way, because it meant I could never go back to thinking my body was a secret I needed to keep. After all, I had now shown it in all its truth.
Let’s talk about
This whole experience helped me to share the story of my ongoing battle with body acceptance with more people, and more openly. As I did, I was surprised to find how much this topic is alive in other women too. I noticed how sharing my own story created an opening for them to share and face theirs. So many of us are in a constant struggle with our body – controlling it, loving it, ignoring it. If we could only shift our energy from self-doubt and deprecation to self-love and appreciation, we could relax into ourselves. I believe that to acknowledge this struggle, to talk about it, can help create the shift. This is why I bring women together to talk about it. These get-togethers (appropriately called Let’s talk about) offer a safe space in which I guide the group to explore the relationship we have with our body and self. The next Let’s talk about will be on Sunday the 19th of November: check it out on Facebook or send me a message!
This is not the end
In the end, relationships take work. Including the one between (my) self and body. Every now and then the demons shout loud, making it hard to hear anything else. Sometimes I consciously have to put in the work to lovingly embrace my body as it is. Luckily every bit of work strengthens the relationship, making the love flow more easily.
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