“It is true that there are skeletons hiding in our closet, but there is treasure
hiding there, too.” -Teal Swan
OK moms and recovering women, as we all know, bathing suit season is fast approaching. In my work as a therapist for moms and women recovering from eating disorders, sessions are starting to revolve around:
- How to hide body parts while wearing summer clothing
- How to avoid wearing a bathing suit
- Comparing and Despairing
I encourage moms, and anyone with body image issues (so basically everyone) to let that shit go. Of course I mean emotionally (I’m a therapist 🙂 ) But I also mean literally: Bring in the old bathing-suit/pair-of-short-shorts/sleeveless-little-red-dress and we will have a goodbye ritual.
Marie Kondo, in her famous (and clearly written BC: Before Child), The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up (2014) writes:
The best way to choose what to keep and what to throw away is to take each item in hand and ask Does this spark joy? If it does, keep it. If not, dispose of it.
Although easy-sounding, this can be tricky. When I ask my clients to bring in their clothes from their pre-pregnancy or pre eating disorder recovery days and ask,
“Does this [shirt/dress/pair-of-jeans] give you joy?” they almost always say unequivocally,
And then I ask “Is it REALLY the [shirt/dress/pair-of-jeans]?”
To which they say “YES.”
Then we sit there and look at each other in a staring contest. However, since therapy is expensive, this usually only lasts a few minutes at most. Then they might say something like:
“Well, maybe it’s the memory if wearing this pair of jeans and feeling confidant.”
“I wore this dress on my first date with my husband.”
“When I was [this size], I didn’t ever feel anxious.”
“I was happy when I wore this.”
Then I ask them where the happiness came from.
“The shirt/dress/pair of jeans” they say.
“No,” I say. “From you. The happiness came from inside of you.”
Them: “No, it was the dress.”
Me (Their Best-Self): “Go buy another.”
Them: “I’m not the right size.”
Me (Their Best-Self):
“You are the right size. You are the right size. Right now. Your stomach is the right size. Your thighs are the right size. Your arms are the right size. Your JEANS may be the wrong size, your DRESS or your BATHING SUIT or THE CLOTHING INDUSTRY may be the wrong size, but not you.”
“But what about the happiness I felt when I wore these jeans (dress/bathing-suit)?”
More staring, but with compassion and softening. And then we cut up the clothes. Sometimes we make them into journal covers. Or toddler clothes (because that is who size zero is made for).
Then we get to the tears and the grief. Because motherhood, and eating disorder recovery, is not only a whole new body. It is a whole new life. Do you really want the life you had when you were wearing that dress/bathing suit/jeans? You may have had more freedom (moms), or you may have had a thinner body, but were you really happy? Were you not just as- if not more- obsessed about food or worried about somebody finding out or seeing “the real you” (because under the dress you were feeling anxious, insecure, and lonely)? So your tummy was smaller. Did you wake up in the morning filled with joy about everything in your life, your relationships, your career, and your connection with meaningful purpose because your stomach was free of stretch marks or your arms were thin? I doubt it.
Happiness, in my opinion, is more about being in acceptance with what-is rather than what-you-would-like-to-be. If you have a little red dress that you used to wear in your pre-mommy or pre-recovery days that doesn’t fit (and never will because spanxs-are-for-women-who-willingly-subject-themselves-to-torture-and-isn’t motherhood-already-hard-enough), let that shit go. Is it really making you happy hanging there in your closet? Or is it looking at you every day saying:
“You used to wear me. Now you are a hippo-that-wears-sweat-pants.”
That doesn’t sound like it’s sparking joy. That sounds like a shaming, mean voice that should not be allowed in your house and definitely not in your closet.
Saying goodbye to the illusion of happiness being tied to an unattainable body shape/size can often bring up grief…which then can lead to freedom, which feels like, yes, you guessed it, happiness. Maybe not full-on joyful euphoria, more like self-accepting contentment. But isn’t that good-enough? Isn’t that what you wanted all along?
Oh, and more space in your closet for new clothes.
Every morning my little one pulls up my shirt, kisses you, and says, “I came from there!” You are fleshy now, stretched. I feel warmth and softness when I touch you. Mother. You hang over my jeans a bit. My sagging muffin top. I try not to mentally airbrush you out of pictures- the little traces of shame that still linger, the empire cut shirts, even though I haven’t been pregnant for five years.
Twenty years ago disgust for you filled my world. And crushed my spirit. All the self-loathing, anger, fear and shame were stuffed into you. I’m sorry. So many apology letters written to you in those first years of eating disorder recovery. But I did grow to accept you! And fed you. And then you created an amazing child! (Ok it was my womb, but you are the flesh that stretched to accommodate). You grew and stretched beyond what I thought was possible
Belly, I’m sorry that there are so many images in the world that don’t look like you. I know those images make you feel unloved, disgusting, flabby. I’m sorry those images make you feel wrong.
Those images tell you all kinds of crazy sh*t:
“Be smaller! Be flatter! Do this to be loved! Be big and full of yourself until age seven and then be flat and hungry. But don’t feel hungry! Just look thin! Don’t get angry! Hide your intuition. Don’t listen to it. Be attractive by not being yourself! Don’t get stretched. If you get stretched, get sucked and stitched back in.”
I just want you to know, Belly, they’re wrong, those messages. Contrary to what the images tell you, there is nothing wrong with you. Let me say it again as you have received those other brutal messages so many times.
Belly, there is nothing wrong with you.
I remember attending a class postpartum in which all the moms brought their babies in strollers and exercised together. I was in that early phase of exhaustion and urinary incontinence (Who tells you about this prior to having children?!) I was just trying to get out of the house with baby and get some fresh air and exercise. Any exercise. There was this one woman who mentioned taking (__________) the name of a supplement supposedly helpful for losing weight. She desperately wanted to lose the baby weight. (I am deliberately leaving it blank the name of the supplement not give anyone’s ED any ideas. More on “ED” later). I have to admit in that moment I had a dual response. My Healthy-Self thought:
“Uh Oh! Steer clear! Eating Disorder false promise of thin-ness= absence of all discomfort! You know that no supplement is going to take away feelings or give you the nonexistent ‘perfect body’! Lovingly challenge her now! Tell her to love herself the way she is now and ask what else is going on? You know you are talking to yourself when you are talking to her.”
And my very tired postpartum self, who was subject to “ED” (aka the voice of an “Eating Disorder”ed self-critic) thought:
“Ooh a way to lose weight quickly postpartum! Woo Hoo!”
Did I get that supplement? Of course not. I was 13 years recovered! from an eating disorder at that point and knew better. Did I have a vulnerability to an ED thought during that moment? Of course! I was exhausted and in the huge, life-changing rite of passage of mommy boot-camp! My body was different, my Psyche was different, and I was walking around in a sleep-deprived fog. My Healthy-Self left that group disappointed that my usually strong Eating-Disorder-Psychologist-Feminist-Crusader had not spoken up to what I knew to be true: No supplement will change the difficulty of being and becoming a mom! No supplement will teach you how to love yourself the way you are! Losing weight is never the answer to complex life difficulties.
This is what I know to be fundamentally true for eating disorder recovery (and cultivating a foundation of love from which to live): Losing weight or trying to change your body is never the answer. The solution is never about hating, punishing, or trying to escape from your body and always about loving and accepting yourself. My clients often ask me: Always? Yes. Always. And yet it is hard to talk about this with women, in groups, where “fat chat” is so common. Andrea Wachter and Marcea Marcus, Licensed Marriage and Family therapists who also specialize in eating disorder recovery, and authors of the book The Don’t Diet, Live-it workbook (www.innersolutions.net) coined this term:
Fat chat is complaining about eating or weight, gossip about who has gained or lost weight, conversations about the latest diets, discussions about cosmetic procedures [Mummy tucks], etc…when we engage in fat chat we are missing opportunities for more meaningful conversations about our lives.
What would a meaningful discussion have been in that moment? Maybe “I feel very alone in this new mom thing. Do you ever feel that way?” Or “I wish my baby weight would go away, too, but I’m also proud I had a baby and of the baby my body grew. My body needs to rest and recover from childbirth more than lose weight right now.” Or maybe if I was being fiercely challenging “I can’t afford the luxury of fat chat right now. I am trying to find my way into who I am as a person, as a Mom, and as a strong woman who has given birth.”
The good news? I can absolutely say that now. Any of those. All of those. My warrior-self is back. Look out ED voice! Look out fat chat! Boot camp is over! And Healthy mama is in the house! Thanks to “How to be a dad” for this beautiful image: