Becoming Women

NOTE: I wrote this entry over two years ago. I think there are some valid parts to it, so I decided to copy and paste it into my blog, but it feels tinged with anger, self-pity, and the voice of a girl still very much struggling with food issues and loving her body. Still, I thought it was necessary to include it – I don’t identify as much with this voice today, which is great news. Recovery is real.

I was a pretty happy child until around age nine or ten. I don’t remember very much, but I do remember the absence of crippling fear and self-consciousness. I remember feeling relatively comfortable in my body.

But then something happened as I entered upper fourth grade: I began to feel less than. It makes sense that girls would begin to feel a shift around that time and the span between ten and twelve years old. We are entering the early stages of puberty, which means that our bodies are beginning to change and grow, we are becoming less family and more peer focused, we are noticing our sexuality. I remember feeling a shift within me physically, a wave of depression come over me, and an awareness of my body in a way I never had before. But the biggest change of all was the sudden awareness that my body was not okay. My body was not good enough and needed fixing. Suddenly the words “fat” and “skinny” and “diet” were in my vocabulary. Suddenly I was comparing myself to other girls. Suddenly we became aware that boys talked to the prettiest girl in the class, even if she wasn’t all that nice or interesting or intelligent. It didn’t help that I had a critical and controlling father who revered beautiful women and kept copies of Playboy and Victoria Secret in his home, and a mother who didn’t know how to protect me from his abusive behavior. Yet even had my father been a man who loved and accepted my body and my looks completely and wholeheartedly, or better yet could care less and revered me for my heart and character, I would not have escaped the “Conversation,” as Ashley Judd calls it, about girls and women and the hyper-focus on our bodies, weight, and sexuality. Regardless of how far women have come as equal citizens and how wonderful our lives can be, we are still faced with endless objectification when it comes to our bodies and sexuality and are taught to accept it, to get over it, to deal with it, because look how far we’ve come. What more could we want, right? 

I think it is no coincidence, and I am paraphrasing what many other pioneering feminists have said before me, that the more power women have gained as citizens, the more there has been a societal emphasis for us to focus on maintaining our figures and overall appearance. Women are still often commended for their physical attributes, before any emphasis is given to their actions and character. A woman is still expected to look exceptionally attractive whatever her role may be, and to not make an effort to do so brings criticism, judgement, and shame, as if she doesn’t have enough self-esteem to “put herself together.” God forbid we don’t look good while doing good.

Focus on body and image functions as a tremendously effective distraction and keeps us from putting our energy into what truly matters: our creativity, passions, relationships, service to others, spiritual growth, participation in politics, art, media, and so forth. I’m not saying women don’t have a choice to defend against this, because we do, but it is what society teaches us and continues to teach the younger generations of women.

Despite these flaws in our society, I strongly believe that at the end of the day, only you can truly help yourself. You cannot wait around for someone else to tell you that you’re alright. Waiting around for society to change is a huge waste of time and a rather futile exercise. Instead, I like to think of it all like a hefty challenge that I’m game to rise to: damn right I will defy all expectations of being a woman in America, America. Damn right I will not kill myself trying to conform to what you expect me to be.

I have been in recovery from addiction for many years now, and it has been, for lack of a better term, a process. One of those diagrams with the jagged line. Recovery can be messy and seemingly “worse” than the alternative. But that is the process. The eating disorder behaviors and body image issues have certainly been the most challenging in that you cannot simply stop eating or stop hating yourself overnight. They are so much more deeply wrapped up in self-worth and self-esteem and relationships with others, the capacity for intimacy. I no longer feel shame for being an alcoholic and an addict. I accept it, I’ve made peace with it, I’ve made amends, and I no longer even think about drinking or doing drugs.

But I do sometimes feel shame over my body. I do sometimes think a diet and losing weight will solve all my problems. I do sometimes think I’m still single because I’m not physically attractive enough. And why is that? Why would I feel such shame over my body? Shame is the inherent feeling that you, as a whole, are flawed and bad. Why do so many of us feel that we are bad because our bodies aren’t perfect? Because we’re not super thin? That we will not be loved until we look beautiful and perfect? It can only come from the constant exposure to unrealistic and impossible expectations fed to us since we were very young. Since we were those lost little fourth grade girls. Our bodies are our homes, our temples where our spirits live, and if we are ashamed of where we live, life can be truly miserable. And yet, that jagged line on the diagram moves up and down and up and down, and we do, if we put in the time to recover, get better. We learn to be kinder and gentler with ourselves.

As I am approaching the end of my twenties, established in a career as an educator, continually growing and thriving spiritually and creatively, I have given up the diet charade. I am starting to love and accept my body as it is, and to let go of the constant need for validation and approval from society. I choose instead to approve of and validate myself. The outside approval will not come anyway, and it is never based in authenticity, nor does it ever really stick or feel all that good. The Buddhists would call seeking approval a form of attachment, and attachment to anything outside of yourself always leads to inevitable disappointment and letdown. That has been my work, and it is the responsibility of each individual, if they want peace and serenity, to cultivate a similar sort of mindset, perspective, or practice. If they want it. It’s a free country, and you certain don’t have to. But, if you want it, you have to do it. No one can do it for you.

Even when I was my thinnest, starving and freezing and miserable in my size 26 pants, I did not feel good enough. A size 0 became the goal. 105 pounds became the goal. I had no period and no libido and a boyfriend who hitting the road. I weighed myself constantly and measured my hips and waistline. I was terrified of food and obsessed with food. In a nutshell, I was insane. Never underestimate the severity of an eating disorder, even if the person doesn’t look like she needs to be hospitalized immediately. I can’t tell you how many compliments I got when I was underweight, especially from girls my own age. It wasn’t until my dad said I needed to eat more protein, and my good friend pointed out that my skin turned orange from only eating vegetables, and when I didn’t eat the Valentine’s Day dinner that my boyfriend made, and when I had absolutely no energy to even walk around the block, that I started to see how sick I was. That was over six years ago, and my body has certainly restored. I have made tremendous progress mentally and emotionally and with my eating habits. But as I said, it’s a disorder that sticks, and it isn’t as simple as stopping drinking. We have to eat, and our eating won’t change overnight. When you have to play with the tiger everyday, rest assured you will sometimes brush up against its gnashing teeth.

It is still so easy to think, because it is what we are taught, that a diet will fix it all. A diet will solve my feelings of low self-worth. A diet will make him love me. But it’s a lie. A diet is not a lifestyle or a means to self-improvement – it’s a prison. Whatever form it comes in. Even the ever-touted and revered “health diets” of today are prisons. (And there’s a term now for obsession and restriction in the name of “health:” orthorexia.) There is nothing inherently wrong with wanting to eliminate processed foods and freaky chemicals from our diet – but when it turns into full blown obsession and control and fear of eating anything that is “bad;” essentially, if it takes over your life, it is not healthy. When I transitioned from anorexia to a paleo diet to raw vegan, I was still doing the same thing – starving myself and restricting most foods and then losing all control and bingeing and sometimes purging.

Today I am continually making peace with food and eating what I want, when I want it, and stopping when I’m full. It’s so simple and yet pretty miraculous because, as anyone who has ever suffered from an eating disorder knows, it is NOT easy. I do wish it’s what I had done all along. It would have been gentler for my body. wish I could go back to myself at twenty-two before anorexia took hold, and love and celebrate that body. Because it was good enough. Because, even today, my metabolism and skin and energy levels are still recovering from years of abuse. And yet I do trust my jagged line. It is joyous and liberating that I can eat today without a thought and get on with my life. What comes next is practicing loving my body exactly as it is, at every moment. Not comparing it to photo-shopped images and starving celebrities and fourteen year old girls. None of this can be done perfectly. Some days I feel wonderful and beautiful and sexy and confident in my skin and others I get those old eating disorder thoughts – that if only I were thinner (smaller!) I would be better, more lovable, happier. But I have enough tools to know what to do today when those thoughts come. And those tools are all about self-love and self-acceptance, not trying to fix myself or improve my body. The greatest gift is that I know in my heart I will NEVER diet or restrict again. I know it doesn’t work, and frankly, even if it did (temporarily) I don’t fucking want to. As Caroline Dooner, creator of the incredible and pioneering blog The Fuck It Diet says, Fuck. It. 

I have never felt more inspired to be a woman in my life. We have tremendous power, and we best use it. I used to be afraid to be a woman and I used to be afraid of other women, threatened by girls who I assumed were my enemy, my competition, but today I have compassion and empathy, for we all endure this struggle together. We all know what it is like to feel like we come second to men. To firstly be praised or ridiculed for our looks. To be treated as if we are incapable of tasks that “only men can do.” We are taught to accept it as normal and appropriate that there has never been a female president, that the great thinkers and writers and historical figures that we study in school are mostly male. We are taught that if we are sexually harassed or assaulted it is somehow our own fault. We are called “sluts” and “whores” and “bitches,” told we are too emotional and irrational, objectified constantly by our own friends and peers, and this doesn’t even begin to cover how women are treated in third world countries and under totalitarian governments.

Eckart Tolle often writes and speaks about the “pain-body,” the suffering within us that can take over and ruin our lives if we don’t watch our thinking. Not only do we carry the pain of our individual lives, but we carry the pain of the current culture and the cultures that came before us. No man (woman) is an island, and none of us are exempt from feeling the pain and suffering of others, especially those of our same group. He speaks of African-Americans and Jews as having a tremendously tender and excruciating pain-body, due to the persecution and oppression both groups suffered throughout history. He speaks of women, too, and how, although in many regions of the world we have progressed in our freedoms and basic human rights, we still all carry the pain of how women have been persecuted and abused throughout history and how they still are today. We’ve come a long way, but not long enough.

The diet/beauty/weight world is highly connected to a patriarchal mechanism that strips away the humanity of women and therefore normalizes the objectification of women. It is everywhere, completely normalized. Open a women’s fashion magazine (and then never do it again) and look at the ads. Listen to how women are interviewed and compare it to the question’s men are asked. Look at how twelve year old girls are dressing today. Listen to how teenage boys talk about girls. Objectification is so normalized that women now defend it and agree to it. Women learn their place. (I’m not saying that Nicky Minaj and Miley Cyrus don’t have the power to be role models – I support them for (if they are) doing exactly what they want to do and love being half-naked in every video and picture that is taken of them. More power to ’em. But it is worth noting that, in the media to see a girl fully clothed and not shaking her ass and tits has become a rarefied thing.)

I used to be one of those women. I used to be wildly attracted to “alpha males” who treated me like garbage and loved me for my looks and sexuality rather than my mind, my sense of humor, my character. I used to want a man to love me for being beautiful, because if he didn’t, it meant I wasn’t. I used to think it was okay the way the boys I hung out with in high school talked to me and talked about girls. I used to think it was my fault when I was sexually assaulted because I’d had too much to drink. But it wasn’t. I love sex and freedom of expression as much as anyone. I don’t at all believe in censorship or telling people want to do. I’m even cool with pornography. It’s not so much the form it comes in as it is the thoughts and feelings of the women behind these forms. Are they exercising their human rights? Great. Do they feel pressured into such behavior because they think it is the only way they will get attention? Not so great. Do they love themselves? Do they feel good enough and equal in their rights and dignity to men? Do they have choices? Confidence? A shot at learning and growing and creating? Self-respect and self-esteem?

I lost my way around age ten. I stayed lost for a long time. I never questioned anything until my mid-twenties. I’m so glad I started to ask questions. That I stopped taking it all at face-value. I’m so grateful I was willing to face my eating disorder and develop self-love and self-respect from the inside out. If I can do it, so can you. Recovery is possible and awakenings are possible and change is always possible. Don’t underestimate the power of good faith and determination. And I can’t wait to turn thirty.

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