Being gentle with myself as a recovering anorexic

December 21, 2016

Trigger warning: Eating Disorders


"You look good, Dena," my grandmother said on her way out the door, pulling back from our hug. It was the first time we'd seen each other in close to six years, a few hours that she and my grandfather had come by my sister's house on my last day home over Thanksgiving. 


I smiled and said, "Thanks," but inwardly winced. In my family, "good" is code for "skinny." When they're happy with you, when you're doing what they want, you're skinny - which is the ultimate goal.


Case in point? The summer just before my sophomore year of college I heard a lot of warnings about the 'freshman fifteen,' and watching what I ate, not taking the second cookie or another helping of mashed potatoes. Why? Because I'd been openly debating dropping out of college and taking a semester off. I wasn't happy, I'd already gone through two majors at that point, and I couldn't figure out what I wanted to do with my life. They, specifically my father's side of the family, didn't approve (my Mom told me I could live with her until I figured things out). I risked losing my scholarship, I'd never go back to school, I'd ruin my life. They weren't happy with me so I was criticized daily until I fell back in line and got on the plane back to Boston. 


At that point in my life I was easy to manipulate. Pushing my bright red and flashing buttons didn't take much and my eating disorder had been full blown for years.  



At a friend's wedding just after college graduation. I am not healthy here.



The most common misconception about eating disorders is that they're about weight. They're not. They're about control, and, in the case of anorexia, perfection. My father controlled every aspect of my life. He had to approve my outfits before I left for school in the morning. He tape-recorded our phone conversations, then asked questions like, "Is there anything you want to tell me?" to try to get us to confess to something he already knew* He played my sister and I off each other, "Rosanne told me what happened, Dena, you might as well be honest," (or vice versa) in order to trick us to telling him secrets he wasn't able to find out otherwise. He'd walk into my bedroom without knocking, break down the door if I tried to lock it, and had no concept of boundaries or personal space. 


 "As a woman living in the same house as a man who used words, violence, and religious intimidation to control the women around him, with a predisposition towards eating disorders and in a family where skinny was constantly held up as the ideal, is it any wonder I developed an eating disorder?"


As a woman living in the same house as a man who used words, violence, and religious intimidation to control the women around him, with a predisposition towards eating disorders and in a family where skinny was constantly held up as the ideal, is it any wonder I developed an eating disorder? Food, what I ate, what I didn't eat, the numbers on the scale, the size in the dress, it was the only thing I could control. Plus, my dad approved of me spending an hour and a half at the gym every day to stay skinny, and that got me away from him (though he'd call the front desk to check up on me and make sure I was still there).  At my lowest point I, at five feet three inches tall, weighed ninety-five pounds. 


My father's constant comments about my mother's weight also contributed to my body dysmorphia. After my mom left him he'd often comment about how "fat" she'd gotten and how grateful he was that he now got to sleep with my skinny Step-Mom. Derogatory comments about her clothing, her cleavage, her weight, I sometimes wonder why my Step-Mom didn't grow tired of hearing her husband's ex-wife discussed on a daily basis. Instead, she seemed to revel in his tearing down of my Mom as if it built up her position as the better wife. 


Going away to college, a decision I made out of instinct rather than a conscious acknowledgement that it was my one chance to escape him, started the long process of clearing my head enough to heal and become my own person. And to start critically looking at everything he'd told me about my mother and poking holes in it. I remember one phone conversation during my freshman year during which he'd gone on his usual rant about her, "You're lucky you got the Landon brains, Dena. Your mom was always so stupid, it's a relief to have an intelligent wife-" 


"Dad, stop it," I interrupted him. "I'm tired of listening to you badmouth mom. She's one-half of my DNA, so you're kind of badmouthing me, too."

He sputtered and denied it but, for once, shut up. 


The woman he called stupid had a Master's degree in education. He didn't have a Master's degree. She taught in the Bellevue School District for twenty-five years. He'd been fired from his first teaching job. Everything he'd told me about her - note that while he badmouthed her constantly I can't remember a single time she said anything negative about him - didn't add up. 


But one thing I'd never been able to shake were his assertions that my mother was overweight. Until, years ago, unpacking boxes of the life she'd left behind, I found a full-length picture she'd taken shortly after the divorce. Three kids. One hundred twenty-five pounds. Cheekbones highlighted with 80's stripes of harsh blush. My mom wasn't fat, in fact, she looked almost too skinny. 



Oh, Mom, the BLUSH! The eye make-up! (she's a little older than my current age here). 


My journey to a healthy weight and having my eating disorder under control spanned over ten years of my life. And it's ongoing. I consider myself a recovering anorexic because, like alcoholism, I think it's a disease you're always fighting. I know that when I feel least in control of my life (like during my divorce) it rears its ugly head - in the form of skipping meals, cutting back on calorie intake, or more trips to the gym. I've built a support network, friends I can message on FB or email and say, "Tell me to eat," or "Tell me if I start looking too skinny again." Women who will express concern in the right way, not the concern trolling way, and who understand how the disease works and how to speak to it.  


The secrets that I've spilled to friends in coffee shops...Sweater by Boden. Photo by Jeff Pryor.


My last stage of healing was acceptance. But in order to accept myself I had to accept my mother. I'm not an exact copy of her, though we share personality traits and mannerisms, but physically I have her body type and facial features so similar that iPhoto recently asked "Is this Sigrid Helen?" when I was tagging photos of myself. Seeing that photograph and realizing that, nope, she'd never been fat, was a pivotal moment for me. I realized that his comments about her body all those years had been about controlling her, lashing out, punishing her for leaving him, and had nothing to do with her actual body. The damage or good our families can do is incalculable. Even the best families can do damage because families are made up of people and people are flawed. For some of us recovery is a lifelong process. 


In the past year I've learned a lot working with professional photographers. It's been a little weird to be in front of the camera so much - I don't actually like the way I photograph, and at first it's hard for me to relax when there was a lens pointed at me. Before we started shooting in Seattle I went down a list with my photographer - "try to make me look skinny," "don't let me do that weird thing where I make a double chin," "I don't really like to be shot directly, my face is too round." He listened, and was gentle when giving instructions on how to turn my body to the side, or tilt my head, and carefully made no comments about my figure**. 


At Gasworks, rolling my eyes at myself. Dress by Modcloth, jacket from Nanette Lepore. Rings were my grandma's. Photo by Jeff Pryor.


 "I'd literally laid out all my insecurities on the rain-slicked sidewalk in front of Gasworks Park..."


It wasn't until later that day, lying in bed, that I realized I'd literally laid out all my insecurities on the rain-slicked sidewalk in front of Gasworks Park. Here, side-step over this one! Be careful, don't trip on my distorted body image! Better make a wide berth around how much I used to hate my round face!  As a feminist I embrace and support all body types and the beauty of all women. As a woman and a recovering anorexic - I struggle.


Part of feminism is unpacking patriarchy and its views of women and women's bodies and sometimes, in order to do that, we need to turn the lens on ourselves. Our own thought processes, the criticisms we lob at other women, when we're most negative and hurtful towards others and what that says about us. When I see a picture of another woman that a man I once slept with has 'liked' on FB and my immediate thought is, "I'm skinnier than her," it says a LOT about my insecurities and self-doubt. I now know that I need to check myself. 


Like my photographer that day at Gasworks, I think women need to be more gentle with ourselves and one another. I liberally give out compliments to other women - I like your dress, great hair, fabulous shoes - that are both genuine but also avoid commenting on body type/figure/physical shape that might feed into society's idea of what a woman *should* look like. The fashion blogging community, Instagram, and selfies get a lot of flack. Are women becoming self-centered? Too image obsessed? Using filters to present a 'fake' image? To which I say - fuck off.


We're turning the lens on ourselves and celebrating beauty in all it forms. Likes, comments, 'love that eyeshadow!' I think it's wonderful how we're all going around online building each other up. Yes, we're commenting about our bodies, our make-up, our outfits, pursuits that men often call shallow while at the same time judging our ability to meet those standards. Those shallow pursuits are wrapped around complicated childhoods and pasts, the sting of microaggressions that women of color have endured for years, the worry about passing and how it impacts their safety that trans women deal with, the grief we feel for mothers or children lost, there's so much behind a carefully posed photograph that the world at large may never know. We truly contain multitudes. 


If a woman trusts you enough to lay out her insecurities, one by one, whether it's on a rain-slicked sidewalk or a coffee table, you have a choice in how to respond. You can either step around them and carefully skirt the edges of what she's shown you, uncomfortable with her honesty and vulnerability. Or you can kneel down, gather them up, and hold them with her in loving acceptance. Which is what I offer to each and every one of you reading this post, a hug, an ear to listen, and loving acceptance.



 * I found out he'd been recording our conversations when I came home from school unexpectedly in the middle of the day and heard my sister's voice coming from his office when I knew she wasn't home. Went into his office and discovered he'd been using the answering machine to record us. 

** smart of him, given our past. 

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