Why I don’t love my body and I don’t really care

Loving your body is seen as the Holy Grail of eating disorder recovery. It’s taught and preached from every street corner in the ED world. Loving your body and your appearance is seen as both the key to preventing EDs and recovering from them.

I’m going to let you in on a secret: I’m in recovery and I don’t love my body.

There. I said it. I don’t love my body and my recovery is JUST FINE, thank you very much.

I’ve had body dysmorphia for as long as I can remember. I was at my 6th birthday party and horrified to learn that my new clothes were size 6X. When I turned 4, I wore size 4T. When I turned 5, I wore size 5. But now at age 6, I had somehow skipped over the 6’s and straight into 6X. I was completely mortified. I don’t think it had anything to do with culture–it was myself and my own idiosyncrasies. But there you have it.

I always overestimated by own size. I (mostly) didn’t care because, for a long time, I had no idea that I even was overestimating my size. I never questioned it because I never had a reason to question it.

While the ongoing body dysmorphia probably helped to spur along the idea that eating better, exercising more, and losing a few pounds would help with my crushing depression, I didn’t get seriously delusional about my size until after the onset of anorexia. Even then, I didn’t so much perceive myself as obese as much as it just never really registered in my brain that I had lost weight. I saw and felt the same person I always did, no matter how much I shrunk. I couldn’t see why people were worried.

I only really felt “huge” if one of my anorexic rituals was broken or interrupted. Then, the feelings of “fat” were very much like my OCD contamination fears. Only instead of germs, I felt contaminated with fat. Instead of washing my hands or scrubbing my house, I exercised, starved, or purged.

When I began to regain weight, however, I seriously lost my mind. It was awful. You had the interruption of the AN rituals plus the inability to alleviate those feelings with ED behaviors. I repeatedly self-harmed because I just couldn’t stand it. I wore either ginormous, baggy clothing to hide my figure or really tight, “sick” clothes in outright denial that anything had changed. As I adjusted to the “new normal” of regular eating, healthy activity, and no purging, the intense, paranoid, delusional body dysmorphia began its slow retreat.

But it never disappeared. Not really.

Here I am today, mostly behavior free (I have my very occasional moments, let’s face it), and I still can’t estimate my true size for crap, and I still don’t like my body. So what gives?

For one, I have learned to be much more calm and rational about what my feelings of body dysmorphia mean. I know I overestimate my size. I know feelings of anxiety and depression often mean the body dysmorphia ramps up (as do the ED urges, though they seem to be parallel rather than the body dysmorphia driving the ED or vice versa). I also know that these feelings don’t reflect reality. My body dysmorphia can be a complete roller coaster, but my weight has been exactly the same (within a 1-2 pound range) for at least the last 6 months, with small exceptions for illness. Clearly, my feelings about the size and shape of my body aren’t reflected in reality.

For another, I have learned to separate my feelings about my body with my own self-worth. Outside of the ED, my body dysmorphia wasn’t a strong driver of my low self-esteem and self-worth. It was a factor, sure, but not a very large one. I always preferred to be valued for my work, academic achievements, and other things that how I looked. The ED changed that somewhat, in part because I used my weight and appearance as a marker of how well I was doing at the AN behaviors. If my weight was low or at least on the way down, then it meant I wasn’t eating too much or being “lazy.”

Lastly, I worked on accepting my size and shape. I don’t like it, and I don’t have to. But unless I want to stay immersed in the ED, there’s not a whole lot I can do about it. My family is from Eastern Europe, which generally doesn’t produce large numbers of tall, thin people. At least it doesn’t in my family.

I talked with my therapist about this issue for quite some time, and I flat-out laughed at the idea of looking at myself in the mirror and repeating affirmations telling myself I was a sexy beast and that I loved my body. I couldn’t do it. So instead, we began working on not letting my body dysmorphia interfere with the life I wanted to live. I met friends at the beach last summer. I didn’t particularly like the idea, but I valued the friendship and I went. Once I got there, it really wasn’t a big deal. Going to the beach in a bathing suit might not be the easiest thing (also, I’m a ginger and I burn really easily, so there are other factors besides putting on a swimsuit that make the idea less than appealing), but I know I can do it. My friends mean more than any possible bad feelings I might have about wearing Spandex in public.

And that has really made the difference. The body dysmorphia is still there, but doing what I need to do (eating no matter how shitty I feel, wearing the bathing suit to the beach to be with friends) has made it less of an issue for me. Instead of a blaring TV program that you can’t help but pay attention to, the body dysmorphia has now turned the volume way down. Only rarely do I really pay attention, and I can usually refocus on what I need or want to do rather than become utterly transfixed.

Is this ideal? I don’t know. But it works for me. I don’t need to love my body, I don’t need to value my appearance. It’s such a small part of who I am. If I’m going to get upset about a part of myself that isn’t ideal, I’d rather worry about my skills as a writer and my ability to be a good friend and family member.

So I don’t love my body. So what?

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23 Responses to “Why I don’t love my body and I don’t really care”

  1. Thank you for your insightful, candid post. I love your honesty, for honesty is a powerful tool in keeping ED at bay. I did not love my body for more than four decades:-)
    But amazing things happen when we keep doing what we know is right for us. Only recently, I have discovered that I DO love my body. I will blog a response, and keep you posted. June xx

    • I think that is fantastic, June. And I do kind of hope that my own body dysmorphia will retreat further. But if it doesn’t…if this is as good as it gets…then I know how to live a really good life in spite of the body dysmorphia.

  2. Wonderfully said,I don’t know any woman who loves her body or even likes her body.We all have insecurities about our bodies and we all dread swimsuits.I guess that is why bathing suit season and dieting is all over the TV.I always thought I had/have gigantic thighs even though everyone told me I didn’t,in my eyes they were HUGE,not in proportion to my legs,I don’t know if they are big or if it is just what I see,do we all have a bit of dysmorphia?Probably,we are women.

  3. Carrie,
    Good for you for speaking up. As you stated, the mantra from so many corners of the ED world is “Love your body.” Not many have stood up to disagree. But I stand by you today. I AM recovered from my ED of 15 years and I don’t love my body. I respect it. I admire it. I’m grateful for it but I don’t find it to be beautiful. I too am alright with that. But I’m just realizing as I write this that there is a difference between love and beauty. So yes, maybe I do love my body. Go figure. LOL

    • That’s exactly how I feel, Lori. I respect my body. As a cyclist, I know how much it can do for me, and I believe in treating my body and myself well.

      • GMTA (great minds think alike)
        btw, I’ll have to ask you later about your boyfriend’s photography. I’ve branched out using my photography with inspirational messages and sayings

  4. Thanks so much for this, Carrie. I love the science you post, but I think for me, the voice of personal experience, how you’re feeling / have felt, how you’re doing, your own story… is most valuable. Again, that’s not to say that I don’t like the science! :”) But I’d love to see more like this.

  5. Carrie, you are a genius. I’ve never really understood the rhetoric: how I look isn’t important, yet I’m supposed to love my body. Isn’t there more to me than just,my body?? And if my body’s so important and I keep being told to love it, then surely the ED is right and I need to work harder at getting it right…
    My body is important for what it allows me to do. That’s it. My brain is more important.

  6. Carrie, great post! I think the important thing to realize is that there is a difference between loving your body’s appearance and loving your body. You can be frustrated with your body’s appearance and you’re right, most woman take some issue with their appearance. We call it normative discontent.

    However, that’s different than loving your body. Loving your body means feeling gratitude for the amazing things your body does instead of just focusing on how it looks. It means experiencing the wonder that comes with with the realization that you have a trillion cells in your body that all come from the same DNA but a specialized to become skin cells, nerve cells even fat cells etc. The power that comes with realizing that women have bodies that are capable of creating a whole new ORGAN(!) to support developing life. The gratitude that comes with realizing that your bones, muscles and nerves carry you, let you walk, type and stroke your soft kitty’s fur. The amazement that comes when you realize that you carry the genetic signature of your parents, your grandparents, your great-great grandparents and can pass this on to a new generation. Your body is so so much more than the clothes you fit it into, your shape or your body composition.

    Loving your body doesn’t mean thinking that you have to change it in order to love it in the future. It means feeling gratitude for all of the amazing gifts your body gives you right now. It means feeling gratitude for being able to breath in and out and sense all of the incredible sounds, tastes, textures and smells that the world gives you every day. It’s all too easy to take those for granted.

    • Right. I do appreciate all my body does for me. Although I’m not sure about the whole having kids thing, I do think it’s pretty cool that I could grow a human if I really wanted (though maybe I should start with a cactus).

      Getting into cycling (not hard-core racing, but regular activity) has helped in accepting and respecting my body. It helped me value my body less as something to look at and/or compare to others and more as something useful in its own right. I mean, for years, the couch I refused to get rid of wasn’t all that pretty to look at, but it was a couch, and it was comfy and it did its job.

      I can respect and honor my body and its needs even though I don’t actually like my appearance. And I can live a good life even though I don’t love or even like my appearance.

  7. Do you see yourself accurately in photographs? I always thought I saw my body as it was; I’ve never thought that I was overweight or obese or anything. However, I recently had a startling experience where I looked at a photograph that had been taken of me after trying on some clothes, and there was a significant difference between the body I saw in the photograph and the one I saw in the mirror. It was SPOOKY.

    • I don’t see myself accurately in either. My boyfriend is an avid photographer, and I really struggled with his desire to take photos of me (no, not *those* kind of photos!). But he likes photos of me, and so I let him snap away. There are some that are cute and clever of me that I really like. And I have several photos of us that I love. But I don’t really enjoy having my photo taken because I generally don’t like the final product.

      The angle of the photo makes a huge difference in your final appearance, unlike a mirror.

  8. Your oh-so-honest insights are so refreshing, and truly valuable for patients to read, to realize that each needs to find the strategy that works best for them when dealing with obstacles to recovery. Recognizing that weight does not equate with happiness is so critical, as you learned. And as the reader above stated, appreciating what your body does vs how it looks is so important.
    I wish people can read this post before choosing to embark on diets, weight loss surgery and cosmetic surgery. The promise of happiness with physical change is so overrated!

  9. Thank you, Carrie. I know that the Love Your Body narrative helps lots of folks but it has always worried me. I get the goal, and the sentiment, but don’t Worry be Happy” and “Black is Beautiful” are great sentiments, too, but not really expected to triumph over depression and racism.

    When we hold ourselves to yet Another standard or consider ourselves flawed in yet Another way we can miss the mark. It is okay not to “love” our appearance, for pity’s sake!

  10. “… possible bad feelings I might have about wearing Spandex in public …”

    Too bad, C, you were born in the wrong decade; the ’80s were GREAT ExRP for THAT! Also issues with frilly ankle socks, neon, and shoulder pads. But I digress.

    I love you a bit more for pushing back at your T on this. I’ve seen that get reframed as “you’re not trying” or as evidence of more self hate, and I can’t help but think that that’s not at all helpful. The conversations around “body love” are always interesting to me. I’ve come to appreciate that they are often inherently abelist (Do you “have to” love your body if you have a degenerative disorder? What about people with chronic pain?) And often these conversations get stuck @ the same superficial levels to which they purport to be the antidote (as Laura notes).

    I’ve found that Loving Yourself(TM) relies less on “fixing” my real or perceived flaws. That is, after all a Sisphyean task. It’s also kinda boring and frustrating. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found it much more interesting just to let the boulder slide to the bottom of the hill, and live as *me*, warts and all. Of course, old people tire easy 😉

  11. Carrie wow this really hit home. My girl (will be 12 this week) now 2 yrs into solid recovery just got her period. She like you had body dysmorphia for as long as I can remember. When she was in the hospital it was acute.

    Now in recovery she told me that those thoughts still come in..
    What we work on is noticing and letting go.

    Learning that those are just thoughts. Neither good not bad.

    There aren’t good thighs or bad thighs.
    There aren’t “OMG I lurve my thighs”.
    They are
    Just thighs.

    Having to love yourself implies a sense of recrimination if your not. How helpful is that? Not really. Ever.

    I think mindfulness helps a long way and believe me it is a struggle with a girl in the throes of puberty, but we’re workin’ on it…

  12. I’ve never liked my body that well either, but I like what it does for me. I like parts of it (my shoulders). I appreciate that my husband likes it. I like feelings it gives me. I don’t like the creaks that have come with middle age.

    I have never had an eating disorder.

    I don’t think one has to be enamored with one’s body to be normal. Like you, I’ve also always valued myself more for my ideas and interests and friendships. My mom and grandma were beauty queens, but that never interested me. I want to be appreciated for who I am, not the body I am housed in.

    I think it is great to accept yourself and understand your body dysmorphia and just let that be what it is. Good for you!!

  13. Great thanks for answering those unanswered questions in my head. I always felt the funny affirmations were good but didn’t work for me. Now I can see I can be in recovery or recovered and just accept me don’t have to love the way my body looks just have to accept it and not let it inter fer with my life. THANK YOU for speaking the truth!

  14. I agree you can be recovered w/o like your body’s looks, but I also think people can learn to love their body – I have and I know others who have to. Is it necessary to maintain recovery? I don’t know. But is it nice? Heck yes! So I think it’s worth it to tell people (including ED sufferers) that, if they want, they can learn to love their body if they choose to pursue that. May or may not be necessary for recovery, but it’s nice “frosting on the recovery cake.”

  15. Tons of grammar errors up there! Forgive me!

  16. oh – but one more thing – I think it’s far nicer and more importnat to learn to separate your Self and your body! That’s an amazing feeling. In fact, now that I reflect on my last comment, maybe I “think” I’ve “learned to love my body” because I’ve actually come to separate body from self and I don’t pay much attention to my body, I pay much more attention to other things – but I do know I don’t have bad body image or shame about my body and don’t dislike my body.

  17. As somebody who likes irreverent ways of looking at things- this speaks to me.

    It is also right along the lines of: I am not going to pretend to be fucking happy if I’m not. There is nothing worse than faking it.

    But there is a difference between being stuck in misery- and accepting the truth of the moment and moving onward and upward.

    Good stuff. 🙂

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