There is a photo of me from about seven years ago, taken by a friend, while I stood, arms outstretched, in her hometown of Fort Worth, Texas. I’ve looked at this photo dozens of times, obsessing over the line of my collarbones, the shape of my legs, the curve of my hips.
I don’t even have to pull it up on my phone to see it clearly anymore. The picture is burned into my mind. I’ve stared at it, and later just imagined it, as I compared my collarbones and legs and hips to the collarbones and legs and hips in the photo. For years, it was, I thought, the image that captured my perfect body.
The hilarious thing about my obsession with the photo is that when it was taken, in my mind, my body could not have been less perfect. I had graduated from high school just a year earlier, moved across the country, and dove headfirst into a restrictive, obsessive diet I constructed for myself.
I counted calories compulsively, logging sticks of gum and single-digit amounts of pretzels into MyFitnessPal. I weighed myself constantly and cried when I gained a very minor amount of weight after traveling home for Thanksgiving. I drank only awful green juice for an entire day and felt a rush of pride as I went to bed on the verge of passing out.
There is an old adage in eating disorder recovery: Eating disorders aren’t really about food; they’re about control. I see now that, alone in an unfamiliar place, away from my family for the first time, adjusting to my new life, controlling my food — and using it to control my body — made me feel safe.
But the problem is that the control doesn’t last. Sooner or later, food starts to control you.
Four years ago, I was running a half marathon when my right hip gave out from underneath me. After hours of denying anything was wrong, the friend who took that photo of me in Texas helped me to the emergency room, where an X-ray found that I had a femoral neck fracture (the part of your hip that connects to the top of your leg). If the bone wasn’t dealt with quickly, it ran the chance of cutting off blood circulation to my hip. Surgery was scheduled for that night.
But I had other concerns. The first thing I asked the doctor after they told me the news: When can I exercise again?
It took me years to get real help. For a while, my time and energy were dedicated to simply being able to walk without assistance. The doctors said that wherever I was in my rehabilitation a year after surgery was about where I’d be from then on, so I threw myself into getting into “perfect” shape quickly. I never stopped to consider that that quest was what ended with me in the ER, wrapped in a tinfoil blanket, in the first place.
What if I “killed” the body in my mind and grieved it like a death?
I first started running because I was arms-obsessed — like, completely missed the plot of Alien because I was hyperfixating-on-Sigourney Weaver’s-arms-obsessed. I decided distance running would help me lose enough weight to really define my arms. I was so disconnected from my own body that I didn’t even notice any warning signs as a stress fracture in my hip progressed to the point of snapping.
As I neared that one-year deadline post surgery, I realized I truly needed help. At the time, I had moved to DC, promising my friends in New York I’d come to visit every month, but hardly ever did, because I was worried about where and when I could exercise. I didn’t go to after-work events — that was my time to work out — and though I’d stopped filling out calorie counts in MyFitnessPal, I never stopped counting them in my mind.
I had also stopped weighing myself, but at a doctor’s appointment for an ear infection, the nurse weighed me, and told me the number. I don’t remember anything else about the visit because I was in a haze, shell-shocked by hearing my own weight. The first thing I thought of was that picture — and how much I weighed in it.
Eventually, thankfully, I landed in an eating disorder–focused therapy group, which I credit with changing my life. A few months in, I brought up the picture and its hold on me, and one of my fellow group members offered a helpful reality check: I was just 18 years old in the photo, and it was natural and healthy that my body had grown and changed in the years since.
Then, the therapist who led the group offered another idea: What if I “killed” the body in my mind and grieved it like a death?
If you have not lived with an eating disorder, letting go of the idealized body in your mind may not seem comparable to a death. But trust me when I say: The only pain I can compare losing that body to is losing a loved one, and the process of mourning it has been as disorienting as losing a family member. (The difference, of course, is I got to make this choice.)
I recently started watching The Sopranos, and there’s a scene with Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) and his sister, Janice (Aida Turturro), sitting on the couch drinking wine and talking about death. “Another toothpick,” Janice says, claiming it was something their mother would say about people dying of cancer.
“These old-timers,” Tony says. “I guess the more hardass their attitude, the more they could suppress their feelings.”
“I think it’s the illusion of control,” Janice responds. “You say, like, the most horrible shit you can think of in the face of tragedy, it’s like you’re saying to God, ‘See, you don’t fool me, asshole. I know what your plan is.’”
That’s how I felt when my therapist asked me to consider letting my illusion of a perfect body — that photo, really — die. I have no memory of how I responded, but internally, I remember a white-hot anger and a thought something along the lines of, You don’t fool me, asshole. I know what your plan is.
Letting go of my idealized, dream body felt to me like giving up. It was proof of a lack of willpower, evidence of moral and physical failure. I was already well on my way into denial and anger, the first two of five traditional stages of grief (followed by bargaining, depression, and acceptance).
Though rationally I know there is no wrong way to grieve, in my experience, every grieving choice feels incorrect. My uncle died suddenly this past March, and though it hasn’t even been a year, I have no memory of what I did after hanging up the phone. I just remember I worked the next day.
Just a few months later, in November, my grandmother died too. I got to say goodbye on FaceTime the night before, and I was in an art class when I got the news. I just kept drawing, and then made edits on a story. And then I sat very still and looked out the window.
Killing the body in my mind forced me to tear down those walls.
“Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it,” Joan Didion wrote in The Year of Magical Thinking, a beautiful and crushing book about her husband’s death and her daughter’s ultimately fatal illness. “We anticipate (we know) that someone close to us could die, but we do not look beyond the few days or weeks that immediately follow such an imagined death. We misconstrue the nature of even those few days or weeks. We might expect if the death is sudden to feel shock. … In the version of grief we imagine, the model will be ‘healing.’”
Eating disorders are their own kind of magical thinking. I constructed a dangerous world for myself and believed it was health, deprived myself and thought it was nutrition, made choices every day that wreaked havoc on my body and my brain and called it discipline. Killing the body in my mind forced me to tear down those walls.
But as I have mourned my ideal body, I’ve often felt like I’m doing it wrong. The very fact of talking about it like a death feels imprecise in some ways, and there was no clear, specific moment marking its fatal end. Long and painful, its death was a series of choices that slowly sucked the life out of the idealized body in my mind. (In hindsight, I see this as giving my eating disorder — which had spent years slowly sucking the life out of my actual body — a taste of its own medicine.)
I started by just trying to note when I was making a choice in the name of that body — like choosing to ignore the headaches and dizziness that I learned were my body begging me to eat — and then reminding myself that body was never going to exist again. It was the body of a sick teenager, not a healthy, achievable goal, I reminded myself daily, usually dozens of times.
Though we learn about the stages of grief in a specific order, my therapist has taught me that in reality, there’s no clear order in which we ultimately experience them. For me, as I mourned my body, bargaining and depression came together, and I swung between the two for months.
I often found myself playing games in my head: What if I eat enough — but exercise more? Could I keep some parts of the body alive — my thighs, or the jutting lines of my collarbones — and leave others behind? Could I do everything I was supposed to except eat bread again?
So much of eating disorder treatment is learning to stop thinking in extreme, all-or-nothing ways. But for once, in this instance, I needed to put my decade-plus of black-or-white thinking to work.
In their 1995 book Intuitive Eating, an anti-diet program dedicated to reclaiming your internal, innate hunger and fullness that’s become a sort of bible of eating disorder recovery, Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch wrote: “Throw out the diet books and magazine articles that offer you the false hope of losing weight quickly, easily, and permanently. Get angry at the lies that have led you to feel as if you were a failure every time a new diet stopped working and you gained back all of the weight. If you allow even one small hope to linger that a new and better diet might be lurking around the corner, it will prevent you from being free to rediscover intuitive eating.”
When I read those words back now, I know they were a light at the end of the tunnel for me. But the first time I read them, I became incredibly, deeply depressed.
Killing the body in my mind meant for the first time that I had to look for joy in new forms.
For a decade, I had hoped that controlling my food — following strict rules, cutting out carbs and sugars, believing that, as a camp counselor once told me at age 12, “if it tastes good, spit it out” — would lead me to happiness. But it was never enough: No goal weight was low enough, no change to my body extreme enough, no sense of control complete enough.
But to give up hope that somewhere, with enough rules, I could find exaltation in restriction was to give up on everything I believed about happiness. Killing the body in my mind meant for the first time that I had to look for joy in new forms.
My therapy group was vital in that quest. We met weekly, for three hours, for a meal together before more traditional group therapy work. We’d discuss the flavors of our food, and I began to appreciate the tastes of the things we’d eat. I learned to celebrate the tangy, sinus-clearing warmth of spicy food, and the comfort of sitting down with people who understood my anxieties and frustrations because they lived them too.
We had a group chat where we’d encourage one another and vent during the week. I sought refuge there often, and support when I wanted to carefully exercise to burn off whatever I’d just eaten. They helped me continue to choose the present over the body in my mind.
I put together a relapse plan, outlining the signs I could look for to know I was slipping — like refusing to travel or calorie counting — and a list of coping strategies and people I could turn to for support. Sometimes I would just open the Google doc to read it, comforted by seeing the plan laid out.
My frustrations were often, admittedly, aesthetic. Even as I learned to rage against the diet-industrial complex, there was a part of my mind that wanted perfect abs, toned arms, the legs from the photo of me in Texas. There’s a part of me that still does.
But several months into the process of killing and mourning my body, my therapist encouraged me to start thinking about function over form, and one day on a run, something shifted: As I ran through the park by my house on a warm day, I thought of the many months when I was hardly able to walk. I was so overcome by gratitude in that moment for the simple ability to move, for the way my bone grew back around the screws that hold my hip together now, for legs that could take me flying over sidewalks and grass and tree roots, for a functioning spinal cord that holds me up, for feet to run, for hands to touch, for eyes to see and a nose to smell and lips to talk and smile and kiss. I felt joy in my body. I was, perhaps for the first time, truly thankful that I get to make my home inside of it. The body in my mind was dead.
Last March, I wrote about how brutal the pandemic has been for people living with and recovering from eating disorders, and how the coronavirus had tested my own recovery. In the months that followed, I experienced my first relapse. I felt isolated and anxious and fell back into old habits of compulsive, excessive exercise without nourishing myself properly. I started trying to revive a zombie version of the body in my brain, and I’m still working through this process. Pure, real acceptance frankly has not come for me yet.
Recovery, like grief, is a nonlinear path, one with a lot more switchbacks than I expected. I can’t claim to have finished the hike. But the stages of grief recently got a new addition: “finding meaning” — learning from the experience of grief.
For the last year or so, as I’ve mourned the body in my mind, I haven’t let myself see the picture I used to obsess over, but I went to look at it again while writing this piece. What I had never noticed before, just below it in the photo app on my iPhone, are a series of photos from later the same night.
I’m sitting on a swing in my friend’s barn: In the first photo I am still; in the second, I am fixing my hair. Then the series of pictures capture the moment I started to swing, timidly at first, and blurring more and more as I began to move, distorting the shape of my body.
In the last photo from the night, I’m in flight, body parallel with the floor, legs outstretched, head thrown back as I soar through the air.
The memory of that swing came rushing back to me as I looked at the series of pictures. For so long, I’ve only thought about that trip as the time my body looked perfect. But I had completely forgotten that it was a moment when my body actually was perfect — a flawless vessel for joy. ●
If you’re dealing with an eating disorder and need someone to talk to, the National Eating Disorders Association helpline is 1-800-931-2237; for 24/7 crisis support, text “NEDA” to 741741.