On Tuesday I made the grave mistake of looking in a mirror. In the dressing room to ballet class I washed my hands and glanced up without thinking. I’ve been diligently avoiding mirrors for years now.
When I was in the worst phase of my anorexia, I was obsessed with my muffin top. I had severe body dysmorphia because that damned roll of skin was all I saw. And as long as I could still see it, I needed to lose more weight.
For years in dance class, I’ve avoided looking directly at myself in the mirror by blurring my vision every time I need to. Because mirrors are just too big of a trigger. Even still, almost 20 years later.
There aren’t any pictures of me pregnant either. I see people doing really elaborate photoshoots for their pregnancies, but it wasn’t a time I wanted to look back at fondly. I felt miserable most of the time. I had a shit job that required me to wake up in the middle of the night and go haul boxes in the warehouse. I had a shit boss and didn’t click with my immediate coworkers. When it was time to go to bed super early in the evening, I’d just cry and cry thinking of having to go back there again the next day.
Organising a whole hoopla around that time just felt so out of place. I ballooned in the last trimester and haven’t deflated back to what my body was like before pregnancy. I’ve been avoiding mirrors because I’m very aware of my dysmorphia triggers and I’ve been happier for it.
But last Tuesday, I made that mistake. And my confidence crashed. I didn’t recognise the person looking back at me, maybe partly because in my head I’m (for some reason) still comparing myself to the girl I was at 18 years old, in professional dance training ten hours a day. It’s not a fair comparison by any reason because none of us remain unchanged over several decades.
I spent the whole 90-minute class with my mind in complete disarray. That obsession that grabs on to one detail like a dog with a bone was rearing its head and instead of focusing on what I was doing at the moment – taking care of my well-being – all I could think about was that muffin top.
I felt that familiar shame burning hot inside of me again. How must other people see me, I thought in horror. A fat blob, useless at everything. Can’t jump, can’t lift her legs high at all, easily gets out of breath (caused by my anaemia). And it spiralled from there.
Later I realised that for some reason I’ve associated being fat with being stupid. But where did I get that from? Comments received in the past that assume I’m not aware of being fat, would be one source. I don’t need to be told I’m fat, or short, or chubby, or have very pale skin – I know all of these things. It’s my body, I’m aware of what’s going on with it.
People offering opinions on my body has never been anything but harmful. When I was praised for being thin it may even have been more harmful because everyone disregarded the disease that underpinned that thinness. My illness became invisible when I fit into the societal ideals of what a young girl should look like.
And isn’t that just the patriarchy at its finest? As long as she’s pretty, her mental health is irrelevant.
It wasn’t even like I looked healthy when I was skinny – I had dark circles under my eyes, I was physically weak and a whole host of other signs pointing towards that I wasn’t okay. But all other people saw was how my ass looked in jeans or how prominent my collar- and cheekbones were.
I’ve consciously avoided scales and mirrors for years now. Being pregnant meant I ended up having to deal with both for a while, but cutting the measurements out of my life that contribute detrimentally to my mental health (while not really adding anything of value to other kind of health) is something that I absolutely do not regret.
If I start spending my days focusing on the things that are wrong with me, I’ll never crawl out of that rabbit hole. Using those things means giving in to and actually feeding my mental illness. People often tend to think that once you’ve beaten an eating disorder, you’re done with it. It won’t ever bother you again.
But even when you’ve spent years working on the underlying triggers that caused the eating disorder and body dysmorphia in the first place, you’re still susceptible to falling prey to them again.
And because the only lasting cure is life-long management, I’m trying to hold things lightly. I’m holding it lightly that I’m not on a regimented diet, obsessing about getting my weight down. Instead, I’m focusing on eating well and taking care of myself – whether that has any tangible effect on my physical body is irrelevant. What’s important is how I feel.
And I’m trying to hold how I talk to myself lightly. Beating myself up about not achieving some arbitrary goals won’t make me feel better or motivate me to take better care of myself.
I work on being grateful for having a fully functioning body, that allows me to eat and sleep and easily move about. That is pliable to exercise and has the kind of coordination that makes even complicated barre practice easy.
I’m trying to hold lightly the fact that I get out of breath easily when I’m in the winter phase of my cycle and my anaemia gets worse (because there isn’t enough oxygen in my body). I walk uphill slowly to give my body time and I don’t push to jump higher.
I try to hold the off-hand comments my mother makes lightly. Both the ones she’s made in the past, and the one’s I expect her to make but that never come.
I’m trying to hold my own well-being lightly so that I don’t end up crushing it with my high expectations. And I work on forgiving myself for not being perfect.