When I look at my own lifelong garbage fire of body dysmorphia, anorexia, and bulimia, I see only four major signposts in the journey: a book, a pregnancy, another book, and learning to move. I was 18, and already practiced at starving when I read Marya Hornbacher’s Wasted, the canonical text of the late-century eating disorder. Wasted has often been criticized for its (perhaps accidental) capacity as a how-to guide for the aspiring anorexic, and the fact that Hornbacher and I shared a hometown lent its tone an especially prophetic quality. Its obsessive numbers were terrible for me: I shed whole shades of myself in Wasted, losing weight, losing brightness, and losing perspective. Most of it stayed lost for too long. Throughout my 20s, I exerted a ridiculous amount of effort, trying to prove either that I didn’t have a body, or failing that, that my body didn’t deserve my affirmation. I smoked. I drank. I ate like shit. I rarely exercised. I’ve never been naturally athletic, and I coped with this nihilistically: I wasn’t the girl who did yoga or ran five miles a day. There was something about the effort entailed with those actions that felt embarrassing to me. Of course the fact that I found exercise and fresh produce more humiliating than cigarettes, purging, or skipping meals only revealed the lingering grip of the disease. Its dysfunction continued to stroke a sick teenager’s toxic ego, making me empty promises that I was different, that I could solve the equation — a route to thinness that always detoured into self-loathing — another way. I lived inside the unrelenting desire to exist somehow apart from my body, to annihilate its incessant needs, or at least to ignore it, to estrange my consciousness from it, however I could. It makes me sad to write that part of my story. I don’t recommend it as a game plan. All my body anxiety has always located itself in my midsection. It’s always been there for me: I call it belly fear. The fear of the soft middle. Our cultural fixation on flat stomachs, hard abs, and slim waists. The existence of the term “muffin top." I’ve answered my own belly fear so many times: in the tug of a shirt, in a despairing glance in the mirror, in a breath held in for a picture. And then I got pregnant.
I’ve answered my own belly fear so many times: in the tug of a shirt, in a despairing glance in the mirror, in a breath held in for a picture.
Pregnancy actually provided a unique relief: For the first time, my belly represented something other than failure to me. At least in my first two trimesters, when wearing anything I already owned was remotely possible, I wore shirts long ignored for their middle-clinginess, contentedly convex. Even though I was uncomfortable — swollen ankles, epic heartburn, relentless nausea, general unwieldiness — I felt newly powerful. I burgeoned with life. The task of hosting life also demanded that I treat my body well. I delighted in plenty of desserts, and also learned that I had to eat fruits and vegetables, or I couldn’t poop. I learned that I had to take walks and do yoga, if I didn’t want to risk the wrath of my aching muscles and raging hormones. I ate breakfast every day for the first time since junior high. The need to nap was frequent, urgent, and undeniable. I was sober as a nun. Gwyneth Paltrow I was decidedly not, but pregnancy forced me to admit, for the first time in my adult life, that there was something to be said for healthy living. What’s more, this was a kind of healthy living that had nothing to do with weight loss — in fact, it was all in service of gaining weight. In retrospective terms of body image, pregnancy was the easier part of those two years of waxing and waning: The real confrontation with myself came after birth. For the first few months, I felt like a Halloween pumpkin left out too long: soft, misshapen, and deflated. I waited dumbly, impatiently for the weight to come off, completely unschooled in the practice of losing weight without extremity: no starving, no purging. As panicky as it sometimes made me to gain weight, week by week, for the 10 months of pregnancy, it was actually the process of trying to lose baby weight in a non-self-abusing way that felt most like sleeping next to a loaded syringe. Without those old, bad strategies, I had no idea where to begin. Seeking solace from this postpartum emotional dumpster, I read Kelsey Osgood’s How To Disappear Completely. In this brilliant, iconoclastic anorexia memoir-meets-critique of anorexia memoirs, Osgood writes explicitly against Wasted’s obsessive cataloging of calorie counts, exercise regimens, and lowest weights. In fact, she eschews any quantitative recounting of eating disorder war stories: Even when someone eating disordered has recovered, he or she still retains an attachment to the anorexic value system. The lowest weight one reached remains a point of pride, not of shame, and it’s rarely a selfless act to lay out the nitty-gritty of one’s diet. How To Disappear Completely fell into my hands at a crossroads moment: I was trapped in self-shaming for being anything other than dangerously thin, even though my body had just pulled off the most amazing feat of my life. Unlike Wasted, it was the right book at the right time. It was the book that finally convinced me, after years of struggling against them, that neither scales nor seductive narratives of thinness as redemption — the ones I read, or the ones I told myself — were of any service to me. “As an anorexic, I could never really possess my lowest weight,” Osgood writes, exposing the ephemeral void at the heart of the disorder. Obsessing over the numbers of an always losing game was dangerous, contagious, and far from the point. Not long after I read Osgood's book, it became eminently clear to me that my plan of lying in humiliating wait for things to change, with no effort on my part, was a bad one. I wanted to be able to wear prepartum clothes again, but I also just wanted relief from my own whirling, anxious mind, from the ways it had always lied to me about my body. One day I was so frustrated that some other impulse took over: the impulse to move. I threw my son in a stroller, dug out a sports bra, pumped the prophet Beyoncé in my headphones, and took off on a vehement walk to nowhere. This was where the real work began: the fourth fork in the road. To my vast, inept surprise, I found that moving and sweating made me feel better. Isn’t that the most inane revelation you’ve ever heard? All the years I’d spent avoiding exercise suddenly made me feel like an idiot: Exercise not only helps you manage weight in a healthy way, it also just makes you feel good. Staring in the mirror, comparing yourself to other people, or despairing at the scale does not make you feel good. I had to choose something else. So I walked and walked, ever grateful to my precious son for his calm, wide-eyed attention to the sights and sounds of our neighborhood, as I panted and heaved around them. I screwed up my courage, walked into my first hot yoga class, and discovered I liked it. I finally faced the incontrovertible truth I should have accepted years ago: that you don’t have to be good at exercise to benefit from it, that in fact, moving, breathing, and sweating are in themselves good, so one’s skill or grace or natural talent matters not at all in activating them. They are, like all hard work, their own reward.
The problem with shame is it makes us small. It makes us hide. It makes us languish in inaction. It makes us stingy. Love, instead, makes us enormous. Love gives us magnitude, or helps us own that which we had all along. In order to move, one has to take up space, to exist in space. For so many years I tried, ineffectually, and at great cost to my spiritual health, to be smaller. I hate the disease of wanting to be smaller for how she made me petty, vain, mean, stingy, and self-absorbed. I hate how dysmorphia kept me captive in a hall of broken mirrors for so long that, when my body performed its most miraculous feat, I almost couldn’t see what beauty it made of me. Because motherhood showed me what was on the opposite side of smaller. In my son’s eyes, I existed in such great magnitude. How could I hate my body now, looking at its most beautiful incarnation? How could I afford to treat it with loathing, when he needed its goodness, its heft, its power so much? “There is nothing more boring and fruitless than a woman lamenting the fact that her stomach is round,” writes the prophet Cheryl Strayed. I couldn’t afford to lose myself to that toxic boredom anymore — not when I had, in my son, this new opportunity to be transfixed. Movement and motherhood are both unapologetic in what they will reveal to you about yourself. They each taught me that the value of a body is not in the despair of self-objectification, but in the power of self-activation. We are not made of how we look, but what we do. I look differently than I used to, at least to myself. It’s no wonder: For 10 months, my body waxed, burgeoning with life. Then, for about a year, it waned, shedding the shape of the body that had exited me, yet never entirely eliminating the evidence of having hosted that life. The waning period did not return me to the moon I was before. I have had to learn to live as a new moon. So, I have learned to say, let there be evidence of it. Let the evidence of living in and on my body be my beauty, not its antagonist. Let me be lunar as all living things are lunar: waxing here, waning there, always interconnected. Sometimes, in moments of uncontainable joy, I press my cheek to my son’s tiny belly, and I think with such satisfaction: how plush it is, how deliciously convex, how perfectly round. How I made it that way, just as it should be.