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I’ve had a number of blogs over the years and written about a wide variety of things, some of them pretty personal. This, however, is something I have never written about—and am still uncomfortable writing about—but I was extremely triggered earlier this week, and can’t hold back.
My house is in a fairly well-trafficked downtown area. Because of this, there are often random conversations going on outside my window. Usually, they’re white noise. But, for whatever reason, as I was in my office working a few days ago, this one caught my attention.
It was two guys talking to a girl. I tuned in at the point where she nervously laughed and said, “What? Are you calling my legs thick?”
These two guys continued on to confirm, “Oh, yeah. You’re totally thick.”
More nervous laughter. “No one has ever told me that.”
"Really?" Asshole #1 responded incredulously. "No one's ever told you that?"
Asshole #2 chimed in again to assure this woman that she was, in fact, “thick.” Together, they explained this fact in such detail that the conversation was still going on, fading further into the distance, until they were out of earshot.
For a minute, I was tempted to look out the window and see what these people looked like. Then I realized how irrelevant that actually was. (Although I must admit I have a very clear picture of these two d-bags in my head—and it’s not flattering. Perhaps I should tell them that.) Even if this girl just so happened to be overweight—or even morbidly obese, for that matter—these two chuckleheads had no business analyzing her. No one does.
Despite this woman's nervous laughter and whatever face she presented at the moment, who knows how she will process it? Who knows what her reality is? These two random dudes certainly don’t.
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I was no older than fifth grade the first time it occurred to me that I was “fat.” Once the thought entered my brain, it became a constant--and increasingly noisy--companion of the worst order. By the time I was in eighth grade, I was using my babysitting money to buy diet pills. By sophomore year, I had developed a full-blown eating disorder.
The summer after my senior year of high school, I was walking down the steps of the office where I worked. Lionel, a 40-something security guard that I had been friendly with for the past couple of years, beckoned me over.
“Nikki,” he said, staring at me intently. “You’re looking—“ [here he made a gesture to indicate a protruding stomach] "--rounder."
I remember feeling frozen. Panicked. Exposed. Simultaneously so big and so small. I plastered a smile on my face and laughed nervously, not knowing how to respond or wanting to be impolite. And than ... I thanked him. I fucking thanked this guy for giving me a “heads up,” because I didn’t know how else to respond. I was utterly humiliated. Horrified. Insert any number of other awful adjectives here as well. They all apply, and they weren’t fleeting, either. It was one of those moments I got “stuck” in for a long time. To be honest, I feel a little bit stuck even writing about it now, twenty-three years later.
From there, it got worse. For a long time. I swung between bulimia and anorexia and compulsive exercising and calorie counting to make sure that my intake versus outtake balanced out to zero. It was all-consuming. When I saw food, I wanted to cry. A couple of times, I actually did cry. Food was such a conundrum in my life. So exhausting. This went on for a long time.
One of the big problems with eating disorders is that they are accompanied with a lot of shame. On some level, you know that the behaviors are wrong--that you're wrong. And thus begins a very ugly, very taxing, very self-perpetuating cycle.
I now realize that I substituted the feeling of “fat” for so many other things. Awkward, uncomfortable in my own skin, out of place, not good enough, unworthy, unlovable, out of control. Any and all of these things and so much more. Rather than healing things on the inside, I projected them to the outside. Like somehow I could fix them that way. But, of course, I couldn't because sizes and numbers on the scale and appearance really had nothing--or, at least, very little--to do with it. I was never going to feel like the problem was "fixed." I was never going to suddenly wake up one day and feel good enough.
Eating is an essential function of life. For some reason—or, perhaps more accurately, for many reasons—I didn’t believe I was worthy of that privilege.
Around age thirty, I shook it. I honestly don’t even know how. It just sort of faded out. Looking back, there’s probably a correlation between my level of comfort and what I perceived as meaningful “achievement” in my life, and my willingness to let myself eat without punishment and—dare I say—even enjoy it. Having said that, I'm also not entirely convinced that I didn't, to some degree, just transfer this behavior to other areas of my life. Kind of like an alcoholic cuts the alcohol, but instead turns to drugs or pills.
Nonetheless, to this day, I don’t know that I can say I feel totally “safe” from lingering food and body image issues. I was very concerned when I got pregnant and “lost control of my body” that, after all these years, it would come raging back. And, it’s true that I hated getting bigger, expanding beyond my control, feeling constantly full. To a point. As Izzy grew inside of me, I became increasingly aware that there was an actual person in there—a person that I was growing and nourishing. A person that I loved and felt a responsibility for to degrees that were previously incomprehensible. Once I realized this, while I still didn’t love pregnancy, it did feel like there was deep purpose in letting my body do what it would.
+ + +
I’m not sure that my path would have been any different had Lionel not crossed it. The truth is that I was already walking that road on my own. But it’s also true that Lionel didn’t help. He put voice to all of my worst fears. And at seventeen, I certainly didn’t have the bandwidth to acknowledge—or perhaps even truly understand—how out of line he was. I didn’t know that I had the right to give him the response he deserved: Lionel, go fuck yourself.
I hope that Izzy never feels this, and I will do everything in my power to ensure that she doesn’t. I will feed her fruits and vegetables and tasty meals with lots of flavors and sometimes pizza and ice cream. I will tell her to enjoy them all. I will let her know she’s beautiful just how she is. But that, most importantly, she is strong and smart and kind.
And, beyond that, I will hope with every fiber of my being that some douchebag never comes along and tells Izzy what she is or is not. And that if anyone does, she’ll pay them the exact amount of attention they deserve—none—as she proceeds to walk away with her head held high and her self-worth fully intact.