Imagine A World Without Mirrors: A reflection of complicated relationships with our bodies
**Trigger warning: In this article I criticize my stomach and face shape. I also refer to diets of the nineties by name only**
At age 16, I was diagnosed with Anorexia. I’m currently 40. Although my weight is restored and has been for many years, not a single day has gone by that I haven’t felt fear around food — albeit some days more intense than others. That is approximately 26,280 meals (8,760 days) I’ve missed out on being fully present for my life. This doesn’t just apply to Anorexia; there are a spectrum of eating disorders that highjack our lives.
During my adolescence (the ordinary course of the awkward puberty stage), I gained weight and felt humiliated watching the only body I’ve ever known change. I’ll never forget standing next to my mother in the bathroom — age 14 — brushing my teeth when she casually remarked, “You have to watch your weight — you have a round face like your dad, and fat will go to your face.”
That statement changed the trajectory of my life.
I internalized the message that a round face was a bad thing. From that moment forward, I hated my face. I couldn’t look at myself in the mirror, or at photos of myself, without disgust. That statement was made in the background of perpetually being on the classic ninetys’ diets with my mom (Weight Watchers, Atkins, The Zone, fat-free craze — ah, the nineties). I also internalized the message that having a flat stomach was the only way to be OK. As time went on, I took weight loss to the extreme, just like I would grow to take everything, for better or worse. Don’t get me wrong; she was well-intentioned. She wanted me to fit in, and her perception of fitting in was to be thin and sport Prada bags while wearing Gucci sunglasses and Uggs— we can only teach what we know. But, I was never meant to fit in.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that parents are just people — flawed humans just like the rest of us — doing the best they can. They make offhand comments, never knowing the impact of how they will land. She was just as much a victim to diet culture as I was.
I’ve been through countless episodes of eating disorder treatment and have irreversible medical consequences as a result of the havoc wreaked on my body. I take a “Health at Every Size (HAES)” approach to eating (if you aren’t familiar with this philosophy, Google it, it’s seriously life-changing). I’m an advocate for eating disorder recovery. I listen to Christy Harrison’s podcast, Food Psych (also life-changing). I paint art on Dominos pizza boxes that say, “F DIET CULTURE.” I even have a heart tattooed on my stomach. So, I should know better, but our minds don’t work like that. My brain is wired for the classic “fight or flight” response. Basically, I have the same physiological response to the thought of eating an entire cupcake as I would to a cheetah chasing me. (Maybe not the exact response, but you know what I’m getting at.)
“Eat What You Want,” photo and painting by author
In the world of trauma, there are BIG “T’s” and little “t’s.” The BIG ‘T’s” are the classic events we associate with trauma: Sexual assault, threats to your life, witnessing a horrific accident, or someone dying — things that cause extreme distress, fear, flashbacks, and often lead to PTSD.
The little “t’s” are more chronic circumstances: Ongoing emotional abuse, discrimination, being bullied, and although I've never heard them formally classified as such, eating disorders. The subtle thoughts that exist in the backdrop of my daily existence causing intense distress, fear, and obsessive thinking, mirror symptoms of trauma. Trauma is woven so tightly into the fabric of our being, it would make sense as to why eating disorders so complex to heal.
Don’t get me wrong; I eat meals. I even eat my fear foods — though often robotically and with ritualistic behaviors — but I don’t enjoy food. I may savor it at the time, but the fear before and after overrides any pleasure derived from it. And I feel myself losing presence after a meal.
I get lost in ruminations over whether I ate too much, didn’t eat enough, or regret eating something. While eating, I have this long-standing ritual of lifting my shirt to make sure my stomach looks OK. I allow its size to dictate if it’s time to stop eating — giving it the power to override my hunger signals — completely delusional for an otherwise rational person.
I lost touch a long time ago with my natural hunger signals.
I watch my dogs in awe. They eat when they’re hungry, stop when full, and never pass up an opportunity for a tasty treat. They don’t overthink or question their appetite; they trust their instincts.
I inspect my stomach, and my face, in the mirror — too many times a day than I’d like to admit. And it’s kept my life small because to have a big life requires the ability to quiet our mind (and take in enough calories) and give the limited space in our heads to the things that really matter. I know I’m not alone in this. Imagine what the world would be like without mirrors? How free would we be if we didn’t have the opportunity to scrutinize our appearance? If we lived like dogs (yes, they’re totally my role models), not knowing or caring what we look like?
Photo by Julius-K9
The reasons behind my fear of my stomach getting bigger today are vastly different from when they began. I wanted to fit in then…High-school, college, and even during my first (and second) marriage, I saw myself as a reflection of my husband. At parties, I wanted to come off as that perfect “trophy wife” because that was what I thought you did, no matter how much my spirit was dying inside. I was a chameleon well into my early thirties and didn’t develop my own opinions — and more importantly, the ability to speak them aloud — until years later. My inner development had a delayed onset.
Today I feel free in mind. I don't hide who I am. My stomach anxiety is now about how I feel in my body, not how I appear to others (though there is some residue of that, I'm sure). I’m perfectly comfortable not wearing make-up, designer clothes, or handbags. I can afford these things, but they don’t matter much to me anymore. I dropped out of that unattainable rat race a long time ago — trying to measure up was exhausting, and a battle we don’t ever win, and what would you really win anyway? Misery masked by compliments? It’s taken me a long time to arrive, but I’m comfortable with who I am — my quirky, slightly eccentric self. Even so, I remain hyper-aware of my stomach — the discomfort of feeling my clothing against it, and the way food feels in my body… and I’m so over it.
I no longer meet diagnostic criteria for an eating disorder, yet the body image obsessions persist. I think it’s the last piece to be restored, and after X many years of trying to repair it, I sometimes wonder if it’s possible for me. Trauma is hard to unravel — while it can be untangled piece by piece, I think there are threads of it that will always remain. We live in a culture that reinforces people’s value based on body size and places moral virtue on appearance. How could we not remain, prisoners of our bodies, when we’re enclosed in this bubble? It’s not to say it can’t be done — I’ve seen recovery in countless people. Recovery has many levels: It's not a concrete destination, and setbacks are part of the journey. So maybe I’ve come a lot further than I give myself credit for. We never start in the same place.
Last week, I reached out to a therapist who specializes in eating disorders — just another in the series I’ve seen, hoping she might have the magical words to make my body fixation go away. At the intake session — the first sessions where the actual therapy doesn’t begin, just that dreadful list of questions regarding your past — I told her about my obsession with staring at my stomach. She literally said to me, “you should stop that, now,” with a punitive tone and a judgy expression that was obvious even over Zoom—Yup, from an eating disorder specialist.
What she said didn’t sit well with me. It made me angry and feeling dismissed. As if it were that simple. We weren’t even in an actual session where we start peeling back layers of its origin, breaking down barriers, and learning not to shame ourselves for not arriving there overnight. She barely knew me; we had no rapport. Shocked at what she said, with an automatic submission and quiet voice, I replied, “OK.” I emailed her after the session, thanking her for her time and letting her know I changed my mind about therapy (a lie, just not therapy with her).
I’m not sure how much more therapy can help, though. I have insight into its origins (so, so, so much insight), psychoeducation, and a toolbox full of dusty coping skills. Maybe she triggered such a strong response in me because she was right; what if I just stopped checking my stomach? Of course, that is a gross exaggeration, but the only way to change is to push past the discomfort is to bypass the impulse to act. We can’t “just stop,” but we can start questioning and leaning into the discomfort. The eating disorder that’s lived inside me for 24 years has become a part of my identity, and if I’m honest, sometimes I wonder who I’d be without it. But I keep chiseling away, hoping to evict it and make space my more meaningful pursuits.
I feel vain and privilege even talking about this. I know it’s all relative, but still. I have gratitude — SO much gratitude — for being able-bodied, having my basic needs met, a supportive spouse, and two amazing dogs. I know with absolute certainty, one day I will look back at this time in my life and trade anything for this to be my biggest struggle. And I will mourn how much precious time I wasted.
For the record, round faces are beautiful; as are tummies of all sizes… don’t ever let anyone tell you otherwise.
This essay has also been published in Medium