Recently, a physical therapist told me that the back problems I’ve been experiencing for the last year are the result of eleven years of running, and that giving up running is probably the only way to heal my back. Within minutes I wondered: “What will happen to my body? Will I get fat? Out of shape? Lose all control and self discipline?” I wasn’t sure which was scarier to me – the loss of running or the feelings that surfaced about my body and food.
It is tempting to think of “eating disorders” as those psychological problems that other people experience or as a clinical set of definitions that include daily bingeing, purging, starving, weighing, and swallowing laxatives to the point of organ damage. But as with many things in life, the extremes tend to grab our attention, and we miss what is right in front of us. For instance, the uncomfortable relationship between body image, weight, and self esteem that plagues so many women in this country that it almost becomes the norm.
I was always a tall, skinny kid. I watched television, read magazines, and saw movies that gave me a consistent message about being a girl: be pretty, do everything you can to please other people, and above all… be thin. I knew I was supposed to be worried about my weight long before I ever was. But as I tried to deal with typical adolescent and teenage feelings of being overwhelmed and out of control, I learned to control the one thing that I could – what I ate or didn’t eat. The more I restricted the food I ate and the less I weighed, the more powerful and in control I felt. After several months of eating only a section of orange, a hard boiled egg, and a few bites of dinner each day, I passed out during a volleyball game. Scared, I started eating more and thought that this strange eating behavior was behind me.
But over the following years I often used eating, or not eating, to drown out overwhelming feelings. At age 24 I started seriously exercising and I realized that working out was a great way to control my body as well. It also seemed much healthier than starving or eating everything in sight and then throwing up. The worst “clinical” symptom I ever faced was the loss of my period for several months while I was bingeing and purging daily. I would awaken each morning terrified of what I would eat and then have to exercise off later that day. The emotional toll was astounding. I believed that only my “outsides” mattered. As a feminist, I knew that the images of female bodies I saw all around me were unrealistic and sexist, and yet my behavior was playing right into that image. I was deeply ashamed to be engaging in behavior that I so clearly understood was destructive and dangerous. It took so much energy to hide what I was doing that I had none left over for anything else.
When the pain of all this obsession with eating and not eating got to be too great, I had to admit that I needed help. Admitting to other people what I was doing was the hardest but most important thing I’d ever done. I learned that being smart doesn’t make you immune from powerful societal messages. I learned that eating too much or not enough was a great way to avoid dealing with feelings that I didn’t think I could manage, but that when I was done, the feelings were still there. I learned that I was addicted to food and exercise and used them as a way to make myself both disappear and be noticed. As I started to understand all of these things, the obsession slowly went away, but it never disappeared altogether.
Fast forward to the physical therapist’s office. As discouraging as it was to me that one of my first reactions to this news was fear, I also know now that this is an old, learned reaction. This is a part of me that I try to accept rather than make disappear. I have learned to eat and exercise in a way that nourishes and strengthens my body but feeds my soul as well. And I’m still learning.