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The following article is an excerpt from Anna Palmer’s book, Coming Home: Healing From an Eating Disorder by Finding Beauty in Imperfection. May the words here grant you deeper permission to come home to the fullness of yourself, humanness, divinity, and all. Welcome home.
Chapter 21. Mirror, Mirror, On the Wall…Do I Have Permission to Be Me Yet? The Mother and Father Wounds, Body Image, and Self-Love
I remember looking in the mirror with my shirt raised just below my rib cage, belly exposed. The feeling of disgust and shame came over me. I was eight years old. I would use this same tactic of mirror-checking on my belly to confirm my level of worth—or unworthiness—for the day.
In the grips of anorexia at the age of 12, my belly became the breeding ground of war. I loved seeing my ribcage showing through my skin more and more with each passing day, as if this was my only reason for living, to see my body shrink into pieces. It mirrored the internal pain and anguish I felt.
I didn’t begin my Eating Disorder (ED) then with body image “issues” per se. Body hatred stemmed more from inner self-hatred at that point. Later on, it would morph into more body-focused hatred, driven by the inner self-hatred. Either way, the hatred was always driven from within.
I did not “choose” anorexia then. Rather, it chose me. It came on suddenly without much warning, other than nervous system overwhelm from my new school setting and intense anxiety and deepening depression.
I just didn’t want to eat anymore. My life and emotions felt utterly unbearable. I couldn’t manage anything else, other than this one thing. I needed this one piece of control over my more chaotic-feeling emotions.
But, my belly (no matter what shape the ED took over the years) would always be a source of judgment, shame, and hatred. I am sure I am not the only woman who has had “Belly Shame.” Our bellies become an easier, safer target for our unbearable emotions than to express them outwardly.
From an energetic perspective, the belly (comprised of the sacral and solar plexus chakra) encompasses our emotional body. This is where we digest and process (or don’t) our emotions and life experiences. This includes our experiences of life that we either process in full, or perhaps have stuffed and starved down.
The belly holds our emotional wisdom. It’s very curious that women, especially, have been taught to feel ashamed about having softer bellies. Perhaps the belly is just a symbol for our conditioned shame about having emotions. The belly is an “easier” tangible manifestation of our emotions, something we can actively try to change or “fix.”
We cannot fix the way we feel, truly, even if we try. Emotions pass, of course, but our intense emotions often feel as if they will never change or pass. So, the body becomes the landscape for how we try to manipulate our emotions through controlling the shape and size of our bodies.
We are told to “suck it in.” We hold our bellies in rigid and restricted ways. A healthy belly, though, is one that is relaxed and full of breath and vitality. Holding our stomachs in, as opposed to allowing them to be soft and relaxed, perpetuates a shallow breathing pattern of the fight-or-flight nervous system response. A soft belly allows for more ease and calm to flow in through a relaxed breath that cycles throughout the chest, diaphragm, and belly. Just look at the Buddha and his relaxed, full of breath, and at ease belly!
In my ED, I used my belly as a check-in point every day, for how valuable, attractive, or good I was allowed to feel. I would gaze at it and feel rage come over me if it did not appear the way my ED-brain wanted it to. I did not understand the mind/body connection yet. I now have the wisdom to understand that my belly checking was perhaps showing me pockets of anger unprocessed within me (as our bodies hold these emotions for us).
My belly was a tangible way to size up my value and worth for the day. The flatter, leaner, and more toned it was, the better I felt, at least momentarily. I used my mom’s body for this comparison point. Her body was lean muscle, with hardly any visible body fat. Even to this day, this is what her body more naturally (as opposed ED-driven in her own ED) looks like. As our mothers exemplify to us the feminine form, we look to mirror our bodies to the bodies our mothers have or to their ideals and images of the desirable and acceptable female body.
We look to our parents for examples of what to follow. We look to our fathers for examples of the masculine and to our mothers for the feminine. Our parents are not perfect, as some of us have learned in our adult years. As children, we do not consciously know this, that they too have been wounded and may still carry these unhealed wounds. We believe they are the image of what we need to be to be loved. We believe the things they say (or maybe don’t say) about our roles in our bodies and in the world. In so many ways, we mirror them.
We all are left with our own wounds around mothering and fathering relations. Some have experienced more extreme levels of wounding than others if their parents were absent, violent, abusive, neglectful, or critical. We all have various levels and wounds to work through. How our parents loved—or couldn’t love—us becomes how we love—or don’t love—ourselves.
Until these wounds are made conscious and we see they were never about us in the first place, but about our parent’s own wounding, we can never truly heal or forgive.
We all have mother and father wounds. Our own parents do as well, from their own mothers and fathers. The healing process becomes a lot more about self-responsibility when we take ownership of our own healing and emotions, and see our anger, resentment, and criticism toward them as pathways to healing rather than something that needs to be addressed and resolved in and through them.
No one can ever heal us, but ourselves. Not even our own parents. This frees us of the need to receive anything from anyone else, not even an apology. We can become capable of giving that love and reflection of love to ourselves and the wounded, abandoned or neglected Inner Child.
Healing takes on a lens of total reexamination of these relationships and what they taught us, whether they were positive or negative lessons.
Our parents and the wounds we carry can in fact be a mirror for us to learn deeper still how to love the self who never was loved in the ways it needed.
“Mirror work” is encouraged in body image and ED recovery work. It is not easy to stand in front of the mirror with your reflection or naked body and hear and witness all the negative chatter that surfaces. I have done some of this and most intensely while in Peru, of all places, when I was in the jungle attending an Ayahuasca retreat.
We had partaken in a San Pedro ceremony that day. San Pedro is a hallucinogenic cactus, with the active ingredient Mescaline in it. It causes increased awareness, enhanced and altered perceptual and sensory experiences, as well as physiological changes with alterations in thinking.
San Pedro is an approximately 8-10-hour journey during which you feel very connected to nature and in tune with the subtleties of life itself. It was the “lighter” of the two medicines, Ayahuasca being the darker, more subconscious experience, San Pedro the more consciously-connected-to-the-present-reality one. San Pedro invited me to explore the textures of my own body.
Deep in the jungles of Peru, I felt pulled to go to the bathroom (where the only mirror was) and stand naked with myself in front of the mirror.
I stayed in there for over two hours. I looked and gazed upon my naked body, feeling and seeing what my body was like. I realized that I had spent so much time either avoiding mirrors altogether, or standing in front of them picking myself apart, that I had never even gotten a chance to know and see with my full vision what my body was like.
It hit me like a warm blanket: I had a body. This was my body. Disembodiment has this effect though. We spend so much time dissociated from our bodies that we lose our connection to them as our own.
Your body is, and will always be, your home. We can switch from what the body “looks” like because body image truly does live in the mind, not the body. Our minds can one day love our bodies in the mirror and the next day, hate and reject them. What changed? Not our bodies. They don’t change all that much day-to-day. But our mind is fickle and changes all the time.
Body image exists in the mind and is based on beliefs and practiced thoughts. So, too we can observe them and choose different self-kind thoughts. All in due time, of course.
It is a relationship after all that we have with our face and our body. We relate to the body every day. It is perhaps our first and our last relationship. We can begin to wonder and care more about how our body feels, rather than what it looks like.
Our body is our home and we are its steward. Holding wonder and care for our bodies means finding and creating a safe, nurturing, and loving home in ourselves. Maybe this home was not the one we grew up in. Maybe our default is to create a home inside ourselves of hostility, conflict, and war, perhaps one we lived in, in the literal sense, as a child. Maybe we didn’t have much to any choice as a child how safe and nurturing our home and familial environments were, and we did what we had to do to simply survive.
But, we do have a choice now. What home do we want to make in ourselves? Will our home be full of love, warmth, care, and comfort? We can always choose and choose again.
There is truly nowhere to get to, but the self to return home to. We return home each time we choose ourselves over a mass-produced one. We return home each time we speak kindly to our bodies. We return home each time we find safety and acceptance in the bodies we are in now. We will never be home if we are not willing to inhabit our bodies just as they are. It will never feel safe to be home when we are not honoring them and choosing to exist in them, as opposed to another’s that we covet, or an image of the “perfect body” that exists solely in our head.
We can repeat this mantra inwardly or out loud whenever we feel activated by life or the ED voices of fear, ridicule, and body shame:
“I am home.”
“This body is my home.”
“I am safe in this body.”
Read part one of this series: Coming Home: On Healing from an Eating Disorder.
Read part two of this series: How Eating Disorders are a way of Coping with Emotions & the Effects of Traumatic Events.
Read part three of this series: Hello Bulimia, My Secret Friend: When Food Becomes Survival & the Body the Enemy.
Read part four of this series: The Real Toxin: The Harm of our Fat-Phobic Culture.
Read part five of this series: How Eating Disorders Feed on the Insecure Self.
Read part six of this series: What Sparked my Healing Journey from an Eating Disorder.
Read part seven of this series: The Dark Side of Religion: On Religious Trauma & Body Shame.
Read part eight of this series: When Lines Blur: Journey into the Heart of an Empath.
Read part nine of this series: Spiritual Bypassing Won’t Heal You—but This Will.
Read part ten of this series: Shadow Work, the Unintegrated Ego & How to Reclaim our Wholeness.
Read part eleven of this series: The Seat of Addiction: Trauma, Emotions & the “I am not Enough” Club.
Read part twelve of this series: The Body Holds the Key: We Heal as we Feel.
Read part thirteen of this series: Reconnecting to the Divine Feminine Essence of Life.
Read part fourteen of this series: Myths of Perfectionism & Why we Need to Back the F*ck Off.
Read part fifteen of this series: Astrology & Plant Medicine: a Healing Journey “Off the Beaten Path.”
Read part sixteen of this series: Reparenting Ourselves with Loving Boundaries.
Read part seventeen of this series: The Beautiful Feeling of Coming Home to our Authentic Selves.
Read part eighteen of this series: Reintroducing Pleasure into our Lives can be so Damn Healing.
Read part nineteen of this series: Voice of Truth: How our Words Guide us Home.