December 18, 2013

My Big Dirty Secret.

I have a beautiful body.

Curvy, but toned and muscular, size five jeans, small everything else, five seven and a half. I eat pretty much whatever I like, and am lucky that in general I like healthy food. I don’t know what I weigh because I don’t weigh myself. I can’t. I’m still afraid of that number. If I go for a medical check up and they insist on weighing me I actually close my eyes and ask them not to tell me the number.

The thing is, I used to weigh myself obsessively. The number on the scales became a symbol of my self-esteem, or lack thereof. You see, when you hate yourself, you can transfer all that hate onto your body. It actually makes it easier. The body becomes the vehicle for the hatred.

I used to stand in front of a mirror and scan myself until I found a flaw, something I could latch onto and anchor my negativity to. I thought it was normal. I don’t do that anymore. Now I look for the positive. Without a doubt yoga has gifted me this change of perspective, yoga and love. For me the two are synonymous.

But two people really deserve mention for causing me to slowly shift: Ana Forrest and my husband. Ana called me out on my body image a couple of days into my first teacher training with her in 2004; my husband refused to countenance my view of myself as anything less than beautiful and insisted I get professional photographs of myself taken in 2005, a huge turning point. But more on this later.

I was a skinnyish kid, not super-skinny, but lean and no fat. I had a fast metabolism and ate anything I wanted. I loved chocolate (still do) and sweets, but could be a finicky eater. I had frequent pains in my stomach from what I later understood to be anxiety. I’ve always been introspective and a deep thinker and highly sensitive, particularly to unspoken currents of emotion and stress.

Things started going really downhill in my family when I was around 13; by 15 my parents had separated and both were involved with other people. On the face of things I was fine, but deep inside there was an emptiness, not so much about my family, more an existential emptiness, uncertainty about my place in the world.

I remember feeling bored during school holidays and eating out of boredom and I remember that my mother used to buy me chocolate a lot. I think she often did it to her assuage her guilt about the fact that she spent a lot of her time at her partner’s home and I was home doing homework and studying for exams with my brother and sister holding the fort. At that point I didn’t have a complicated relationship to food (at least consciously) but looking back I understand that I was associating chocolate with comfort.

I would later use food as punishment in a total inversion of the comfort relationship.

When I was 19, I was in a very bad car accident. I spent almost three weeks in hospital, having sustained multiple fractures, concussion and a punctured lung. I was lucky to be alive and lucky not to be paralyzed since I was trapped underneath the car on the side of a highway and was cut out by the fire brigade. Unsurprisingly I lost a lot of weight, but I regained it over the following months. I was a total mess. The accident had left me with PTSD and my nerves were shot. I had to repeat a year of university since the accident happened a few weeks before my exams and sitting them was out of the question. I was going out with a lovely guy  was crazy about, but he drank a lot. I was working in a café and hated it.

I became obsessed by my body and by food. I started to put on weight and I think my metabolism changed. I definitely wasn’t bingeing, but something wasn’t right. In fact nothing felt right in my life. I decided to end the relationship thinking that might help fix things. I still remember the day as if it were yesterday. I told him I wanted to break up because I wasn’t happy. This prompted a real conversation about what was going on between us and created a beautiful shift in intimacy. He then asked me what I wanted to do and because I was too proud to change my mind, I said I still wanted to break up. After he left, I ran across the road to my friend’s house and fell apart. I cried every day for a long time. My heart was broken, but I was too proud, too messed up and too inexperienced to know what to do.

That was September. He was killed in a hit and run in January. My sister came to the café I worked at and told me there’d been an accident. I knew instantly by the look on her face. It was like one of those scenes in the movies, I screamed, everything started spinning and the café emptied.

When we got home that day, we went over to a friend’s house. I remember sitting around drinking tea and there was a packet of cupcakes on the table. Unthinkingly I ate one and the sweetness was comforting—in fact it was the only thing I could feel. I was numb with shock. I think I ate two or three of those cupcakes in succession, like a robot. I didn’t enjoy them. For the most part I didn’t enjoy anything I ate for the next couple of years. I used food to punish myself.

His death broke my heart. I believed I would never smile again. I was trapped inside my grief and what made it worse was that he had been dating someone else at the time. We grew up in a small village. The guy was very much beloved. He was killed a month after his 20th birthday. The whole village was in shock, unified by our grief. But I felt alienated, unsure of where I fit into the picture. Everything was all twisted up inside me, the accident, my PTSD, his drinking, the breakup, which I initiated but didn’t want, his untimely death. I was falling apart. I was using food to punish myself for all of it.  I hated myself and used to wonder how people could be friends with me when I was so disgusting and looked the way I did. (I should add that I was nowhere near obese, I was probably 10 pounds over my normal weight)

Things got so bad that I would be sitting in a lecture at university, or walking through the city centre tears streaming down my face. Someone how I was alone in my grief, I couldn’t talk about it. It reached a point where I thought I was going to have a complete nervous breakdown. I realized I had to get out of Dublin, to get away from the memories and try and rebuild my life. I arranged to spend a year studying at the University of Amsterdam as an exchange student, but first I went to Italy as an au pair for the summer.

I think I had gone on a diet prior to going to Italy and while there I was obsessed with food, and not eating too much. I lost a bunch of weight. When I got to Amsterdam I was much slimmer but not feeling good about myself; that took a long time. But Amsterdam proved to be just what I needed. It was my first time living in my own place (a room in an international student house) and I got to start over in some ways with a whole new group of people who didn’t know about the accident or my heartbreak.

While living in Amsterdam, my relationship with food deteriorated. I went from being obsessive about not eating too much, to once again using over-eating (though not bingeing) as punishment. I gained a lot of weight. I don’t really know why. In many ways I was much happier—I was discovering myself and had made some wonderful friends. I was also in counseling, which was really helping. But something was wrong inside. On some level I was damaged. My periods stopped for over a year. I would sometimes get really bad stomach pains and suffer from constipation.

I came back from Amsterdam feeling fat. I went back to university and got really into studying for my final year exams. In many ways I still hated myself and still used food as a way to punish myself. I would look in the mirror and think: you are disgusting.

But some tiny spark in me was still alive, the same spark that recognized I had to get out of Dublin to avert a nervous breakdown. I went to Weightwatchers. I weighed 155 llbs. Not obese for someone whose almost five eight, but definitely quite overweight. Weightwatchers helped me normalize my relationship to food. I learned to eat in a balanced way once again. I lost a lot of weight.

Within about 18 months I’d graduated with a B.A., started working at a job I liked and was feeling much better about myself. The weight fell off and me has never really come back. But the body image stayed. I was afraid to look at photos of myself in case I looked fat.

Fast forward eight years to August 2004, Moksha Yoga Center, Chicago, day two of teacher training with Ana Forrest.

She calls me out on my body image issues in front of the whole group. I was mortified. A couple of weeks later in a private conversation she pointed out to me that although I prided myself on my honesty, I was lying about my body; my body was beautiful and so was I, I needed to stop lying to myself. Ouch.

That training was the first time I even entered the notion that I was beautiful. Don’t get me wrong, I knew I wasn’t ugly and I’d never had any problem attracting guys, even when I was overweight and at my lowest, but beautiful? That was a foreign concept.

Over time sustained yoga practice started to work its magic. As my practice deepened, I started to unearth the layers of pain and hurt. I started to release stuck places I didn’t know were stuck. Intense asana practice became a way to move through residual trauma and anxiety in my soma. I started to have compassion for myself. I was learning to love myself, slowly, very slowly. Learning to forgive myself.

When I got together with the man who later became my husband, he  let me know how beautiful he thought I was. This was very confronting for me, I actually couldn’t hear it. He insisted I get my own website and get professional photographs taken—headshots and yoga poses. I agreed reluctantly. When the photographs were delivered to me, I was afraid to look, sure that I’d look fat. I couldn’t actually believe it when I saw them.

I was beautiful.

I saw myself in a whole new light.

But it wasn’t an overnight fix. The process has taken years. My relationship to my own beauty has changed, because my relationship to myself has changed. I now love myself. I’m no longer afraid to see pictures of myself in case I’ll look heavy. I know that I look fine, but more importantly that beauty is really a reflection of what’s inside.

I still don’t weigh myself because I’m afraid of becoming obsessive again and I’m still afraid of becoming heavy. I’m okay with gaining a few pounds over the holidays because it always falls off pretty quickly, but I know that deep down I’m still afraid of gaining weight because it reminds me of the blackest period of my life, a time characterized by self-hatred and questioning how people could like me when I looked the way I did. I can never go back to that place. Even now, almost two decades later, I will not go there and I will not get that heavy again. Ever.

Of course I now know that I was exteriorizing what I felt about myself and I accept myself now in a way I didn’t then. I know I’m loved and accepted for who I am. Yoga has given me this gift, the yoga of self-love. I don’t know if the anxiety around gaining weight will ever go away, I don’t think I want it to. For years now, I’ve had the tendency to lose weight when I’m anxious or under a lot of stress. Now I know that I need to take extra good care of myself at those times, eat plenty of protein, meditate and do a more gentle asana practice.

The other thing that happens is that sometimes when I’m under a lot of stress, or in an unfamiliar situation, I start obsessing about my body and whether I’m gaining weight. I don’t freak out because I’m so much more equanimous now, better able to witness my thoughts and feelings without reacting to them, and have better skills for reducing my anxiety. I just notice that the tendency is back and try not to get too crazy.

I’ve heard that body dysmorphia never really goes away, you just get better at dealing with it. And it’s true that I’m still surprised when I see photographs of myself. Yoga has given me a set of tools for learning to love and accept myself and to embrace even those parts of myself that are still afraid, the wound that has never healed.

Maybe someday my stomach won’t clench at the thoughts of gaining 10 pounds, maybe not.

But I know that’s okay, I get to be imperfect, to have my neurosis.

And I can finally say ‘I am beautiful.’


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Editor: Bryonie Wise

Photo: Roy Cheung/Pixoto

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