I had one of those moments today. As I was pulling on my jeans, I could feel they were too tight. My midriff was mid-drifting. And that first automatic thought – “I’ve gained weight!”- was quickly followed by a shitload of culturally conditioned fat-shaming judgements. The good news is that then I took a deep breath. And remembered this voice comes in when I am suffering in some way that needs tending. That I have over twenty years of eating disorder recovery behind my back (and in my stomach). That this fearful voice doesn’t pop up very much any more and I have another way of being with myself now. Compassionate-Curious-Recovery-voice kicked back in.
Might these jeans be tight because they just came out of the drier?
If you did gain weight, so what?
Here’s how the rest of that conversation went down:
Anxious-part-of-self: What do you mean so what? SO WHAT? My body is supposed to stay the same. This is my recovery body and it’s not supposed to change.
Compassionate-Curious-Recovery-Self: Interesting. Where did you hear that? Actually, your body has changed many times over the past two decades. Most people’s bodies do. Who told you your body is supposed to stay the same? I think I remember your very first recovery mentor telling you twenty years ago (when I was a young adult and she was middle-aged) two things:
1) The size of your body is not your business.
2) The only constant is change.
When I work with women on body image suffering, often there is a correlation with the uncertainty that come with the life-passage transformations such as young adulthood, marriage, pregnancy, postpartum, middle age, and elderhood- and body image. Life transitions can be challenging, and the culture we live in doesn’t have a container for women traveling through these rites of passage. We do have a body-shaming culture that tells us there is something wrong (with our bodies) and it is our responsibility to fix/change them (our bodies). In the absence of community, and of rituals that assist us in crossing these thresholds, a fearful body-shaming voice can come in to keep us “safe.” Safe from what? Safe from the scary changes of the unknown by assuring us that If you can keep your body from changing, then this (life-change) will not be distressing. Safe from having to go through it alone. Safe from facing all the mixed messages in a culture that feels ambivalent at best, and actively disdainful at worst, about supporting women through the rites of passage into adulthood, motherhood, middle age, and becoming a crone. But in practicing hating our bodies, we miss out on appreciating how wise they are in leading and guiding us through these life transformations.
Midlife Mid-Drift (and other women’s body/life changes)
In perimenopause, the ovaries produce less estrogen, which can cause the body to store extra fat (because fat cells can produce estrogen, which offers the body a safety net). Interesting. Thus the thickening around the middle. Pretty smart, body!
In adolescence, a hormone called GnRH (gonadotropin-releasing hormone) is released, and then forms two new hormones that signal the body to gain weight and become fertile. Smart body!
In pregnancy, weight gain is distributed in all kinds of useful ways, including: increased
blood, breast tissue, fat stores for future breast feeding, amniotic fluid, the placenta, oh, and the actual baby! Wise body.
Just like postpartum, when the stomach carries shapes and marks that show it grew to hold a child. Successful body!
My body is changing again. It’s what happens for women throughout the life cycle. By the way, when I was researching reasons why a woman’s body changes in adolescence, the perinatal period, and midlife, guess what popped up on Google? You got it: 10 Ways to Diet That Away. (“That” being the inevitable changes in your body.)
A Recovery Reminder
If you are in recovery from an eating disorder, or any form of body image hatred (aka if you live in this culture), DO NOT visit Dr. Google for your answers to questions about life transitions. Dr. Google will always tell you that losing weight is the answer to complex life problems. Stop dieting, start rioting, and find your people. Find your support team of friends, professional help, and spiritual sustenance to help midwife you through your life transitions. Listen to the wise, fiercely compassionate and sometimes as* kicking part-of-you-that-knows and act on that voice. Now is not the time to let the weight on your stomach go. Now is the time to let the weight of holding up unrealistic expectations of who-you-are-supposed-to-be vs. who-you-actually-are go. Or, as Brené Brown so eloquently states about midlife:
I think midlife is when the universe gently places her hands upon your shoulders (or your midriff), pulls you close, and whispers in your ear:
I’m not screwing around. It’s time. All of this pretending and performing – these coping mechanisms that you’ve developed to protect yourself from feeling inadequate and getting hurt – has to go.Time is growing short. There are unexplored adventures ahead of you. You can’t live the rest of your life worried about what other people think. You were born worthy of love and belonging. Courage and daring are coursing through you. You were made to live and love with your whole heart. It’s time to show up and be seen.
“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.