Trigger Warning: This post discusses eating disorders.
When most of us hear the word "2020," a series of freeze-framed moments click and pass in our minds. When I make my way through my images—the protests, the funeral of my grandmother-in-law, the banana bread—I remember this one frame that I wish I could forget.
Before getting into the shower one morning, I noticed red marks on my stomach. They looked like fresh bear claw tears. I thought I’d had an allergic reaction. A quick Google search relieved my hypochondria, but sent my mind into a frenzy. It turns out I had developed fresh stretch marks. I had to face the music and the mirror.
In 2020, I gained about 20 pounds, give or take (I stopped checking the scale after a certain point). My shape shifted from standard sizing into plus-size and, in the words of Regina George, my sweatpants were all that fit me for most of the year.
In the last year, I have felt seemingly every emotion or word one can have regarding their body: ashamed, embarrassed, apathetic, proud, strong, sensual, confident, defeated, bloated, positive, and finally, at peace. I didn't feel all the words at once, and my progression from shame to acceptance hasn't been linear, but beginning with that moment in the shower, I started coming to terms with my quarantine weight gain, deconstructing my relationship with diet culture, and discovering a healthier relationship with myself.
I spent much of my childhood in an affluent suburb, idolizing other women's bodies. I remember I had a collage of "thinspiration" with cut-outs of the Olsen twins, Lindsay Lohan, Britney Spears, and all the other popstars who collected J-14 magazine covers. There was so much I didn't have in common with these women. I wasn't famous. I wasn't wildly wealthy. And I wasn't white. I had love handles where they had V-cuts. I was pear-shaped, a forbidden fruit as far as diet culture was concerned. And this was the early 2000s, before social media, the body positivity movement, and women wanting to be "thicc." A word that is so sought after and praised today was pelted and ridiculed when I was going through puberty. At that age, I would have done anything to be thin. And I did.
I first learned how to starve myself watching a Lifetime movie. It starred Tracey Gold, an actress who had her own battle with anorexia off-screen. I must have been ten or 11 and, though I can't recall most of the movie, particular frames are isolated, poignant memories of my childhood. I don't think the details of the scene, which offered literal directions on exercise bulimia and starvation, need to be mentioned in detail, but its lasting effects still dance around my head and strum my insecurities nearly two decades later. Unbeknownst to the film's directors and writers, the moral of the story that I internalized? Beauty equated to thinness.
I began throwing away my lunch. I stole diet pills and laxatives from my mother's bathroom. I followed Xanga pages that glamorized disordered eating. I rewatched “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” on VH1 and refreshed Perez Hilton's homepage if I needed a hit of motivation.
Fast forward a bit, and I found myself in college exhausted by my disordered eating. I started walking more and attending Zumba classes, forms of exercise I genuinely enjoy. I stopped starving myself. I stopped purging. I thought I was "over it." I thought my disordered eating was a symptom of going to school with beauty pageant queens, and now I was free to have a healthy relationship with food. And for some time, I truly believed that's what I had.
It's not much of a mystery as to why my body took a new shape over the last 12 months. My walking commute to work, gone. My boutique gym routine, gone. My alcohol consumption, up. My comfort food intake, way up. I think I may have tried every snack and $10-and-under wine at Trader Joe's in 2020.
And on the surface, it all sounds pretty relatable. But beneath the low-hanging, self-deprecating jokes was a secret: I was binge-eating as I had between bouts of starvation in middle school. Like, “hiding pizza boxes in the neighbors' trash” kind of bingeing again. It seemed the longer quarantine lasted, the longer my battle with food had to be endured.
Where my body once curved in, it began to curve out. New stretch marks were introduced, and I began to chaff in areas I didn't know I could chaff. At first, I tried to remedy the situation with old controlling behavior. I downloaded apps, tracked macros, and guzzled gallons of water to trick my body into feeling full. When the results didn't come fast enough, I returned to a battleground I hadn't seen in a very long time, this time purchasing my own laxatives to abuse.
When I gained the first five pounds, I felt frustrated. But when I hit the ten-pound mark, I became anxious. For every additional pound, a feeling of failure and defeat mounted. I felt like I was taking up more space than I was allowed to.
I remember a distinct moment, another frame: I needed to walk the dog, but my "comfy" clothes were all in the wash. My options were all pre-pandemic, and I knew they wouldn't grant me the anonymity that I wanted in my new body. Though I am ashamed to admit it now, my thought was, "Will this tight-fitting shirt offend my neighbors?" Now, let's pause—I considered at that moment how my body would affect people whose last names I do not know. As pathetic and pitiful as it is in hindsight, it was crippling and crushing in real-time.
Because I had internalized the message "thinness equals beauty," I felt my level of worthiness and appeal take a deeper dive. I pulled away from my sex life with my husband. And when we were intimate, I was adamant about keeping the lights off and my top on. My husband was dedicated and devoted to worshiping my body; he never mentioned the weight gain, and his frequency of compliments didn't waver. But it was the internalized message that made me feel like I had "let myself go."
I made many failed attempts in the beginning to show my new body grace. I followed social media accounts dedicated to body positivity and body acceptance, hoping to absorb their confidence and self-assurance through Instagram osmosis. Sometimes, the women would inspire a lift in attitude, but nothing that lasted.
And one day, I did a different kind of doom-scrolling: I started looking at old photos. I saw the girl who once participated in fitness challenges and had transformation pictures saved on her camera roll. I tried to put myself back in my old shoes and my old mindset. And I remembered that even when I was that size, I was unwell. I may have been slimmer, but I was just as obsessed with my weight and acting out of an internalized diet culture. I remember being anxious if I had to skip a workout class because I was afraid that I would lose all the confidence I had earned and gain all the weight I had lost. I had come to the heavy realization that I'd never truly accepted myself; my self-love came with conditions and could be measured by a number I saw on a scale or a BMI chart. I wondered if I would ever live a life where I could say I loved myself unconditionally. At that moment I knew I had to reclaim my power and self-worth in a way that didn't involve numbers, comparison, and external validation. I didn't want my life to be in vain.
For me, the first step was to donate part of my wardrobe. After reading a beautiful piece by Rachel Varina on getting rid of "someday clothes," I knew it was my turn to clean out my closet. After a couple of hours, I had two heaping garbage bags filled with clothing to donate to a local women's shelter. A fraction of the donation was pre-pandemic clothing that no longer fit me. The other half was frumpy loungewear I had bought to hide my body. Both had to go, along with the messages they carried. With the pre-pandemic clothing, I sent the message to myself that, "Life will continue once you fit into these clothes again." With the frumpy clothes I wouldn't have bought in 2019, I sent the message, "Your body is in the Witness Protection Program until further notice." I updated my closet with new leggings, matching outfits, dresses, streetwear, and lingerie that fit my body as it was—not as I wanted it to be. Slowly, my mind was beginning to recondition itself.
Next, I hired a sex and pleasure coach, Michaela Cowden. For three months, I dove into her intensive online courses designed to heal inner child wounds, radicalize self-acceptance and self-accountability, and teach women how to stop self-sabotaging. Though I didn't initially see her for my disordered eating, it kept coming up in my sessions with her. To oversimplify a season of deep intensives, I came to realize two lessons when it came to eating and my relationship with my body:
- First, worthiness is not a sliding scale. I am no more worthy or no more lovable because of my body or the accomplishments I achieve. I am worthy. Period. No explanation, no justification needed. I am worthy of self-assurance and self-love at every size. I am worthy of living a life of confidence and security because I am already worthy. I have always been worthy.
- Second, I learned I rushed my pleasure in every area of life. I rushed to get a second helping. I rushed to finish my food. I rushed to down a glass of wine so I could pour the next glass. I rushed celebrations and milestones and approached every area of life, including meals, with an insatiable appetite, leaving me as empty as I was in the first place. Through my work with Michaela, I learned that every part of life, including food and looking at myself in the mirror, gets to be pleasurable. A form of self-love for me now is taking my time. I allow for slow, guilt-free mornings. I celebrate the space I make for drawn-out weekends and evenings where I indulge in my favorite foods. The message I give myself is: My life is precious, and I am worthy of living it with security, safety, and the belief that I deserve every moment of pleasure and joy I experience.
To get to a place of healing, I had to peel back the layers of the wound. In addition to working with my sex and pleasure coach, I began to journal. I didn't use any specific journal prompts; I would just roll over to my nightstand each morning and write about the feelings I had toward my body that day. Through this exercise, I uncovered the fears I have around physical security and social acceptance:
In the past, food and alcohol has served as a security blanket for me. Don't know what to say? I'll throw a chip in my mouth. Nervous about attending a (pre-covid) gathering? I'll drink enough champagne until my shakes turn into smiles. Bad day at work? I'll finish this personal pizza to feel accomplished. Food fed into my inferiority complex. I can't control how others see me, but I can control food. Or so I thought. Quarantine became this place where I had no external feedback loops, and I had no one to impress, I had no one to keep me accountable. And when left to my devices, I turned to my coping vices. And as 2020 continued to unravel the world, I gained a false sense of control back through eating.
In October I decided to literally rewrite my narrative. I no longer wanted to carry the weight of struggle and self-sacrifice with me and into my 30s. I journaled what a healthy relationship with my body would look like, would feel like. I journaled about control and how I wished to possess it. I scribbled my hopes for self-assurance and worthiness and where I wanted to derive my value from. I filled about a half-dozen pages of the notebook with affirmations and vows inspired by my soul.
Once I knew what I truly wanted and needed for myself, I became well-acquainted with the mute and delete button. My mind can be a steel trap for rumination and comparison, and I needed to distance myself from the "fitspo," the #goals, and the temptation to tell myself that I wasn't worthy until I mirrored the girls on my screen.
Next, I began to add mindfulness to the table when I ate. I often eat my meals at the dining room table (instead of on the couch while watching Netflix) and spend more time cooking. It's not at all, for once, about macros or restricting myself to certain foods. This time around, it's about knowing what I am putting in my mouth and seeing food as an experience that shouldn't be shamed nor punished.
To couple mindful eating, I began listening to my body and joints when it came to activity. I ditched my Apple watch for a few months and exed out of the leaderboards on my Peloton. Previously, the day's success was based on how many calories I’d burned. By removing the instruments that worked against my mental health, I was inspired by workouts and movement that felt good, not the workouts that would burn the most calories or induce the most physical pain. I still cycle; I just let myself enjoy the classes and can be caught twerking on my Peloton from time to time.
Finally, I stopped sucking in my gut. I used to hold my breath and clench my stomach muscles when walking the dog or to come into contact with people to appear smaller. Now, I politely smile. I know my body isn't for everyone, and I finally understand, that was never the point! Our bodies have a job, and it's not to impress strangers. Even today, I feel the most change internally when I choose an outfit because I love it and prioritize my opinion over others'.
In 2021, I've continued to ditch the leaderboards, scales, and macro counting. Now, I track how workouts and different foods affect my mental health, energy levels, and skin, not by metrics. My end goal is to determine if a lifestyle change is for me based on how it affects my mental space. In turn, I've naturally begun to eliminate items from my lifestyle like sugar before lunch and alcohol because they make me foggy and emotionally deflated. What enters my mouth is based on how it makes my body feel, not how it makes my body look.
I also show love to my body with full-body scrubs. These, coupled with long, luxurious showers give me the opportunity to acknowledge my shape in its entirety and in a way that is nurturing and loving. I am still guilty of pinching my love handles, but I also show them affection and no longer wait to "treat myself" until my body shrinks to its 2019 shape.
I don't think my journey to body acceptance means I'll never have fitness goals again. On the contrary, I am actively working to build back my body's endurance—but it’s coming from an entirely different place and intention this time around. Coming to terms with my quarantine weight gain meant coming to terms with lingering insecurities, a harmful obsession with diet culture, and the crippling belief that my worth shrank and swelled with my body's shape. I don't have confidence all day, every day, but I can finally say, I know now that my life has value, and I am worthy of love and respect because I exist. And learning that lesson alone makes me so grateful for this body.
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