I share a recent experience I had with my legs. An experience fueled by our disordered culture and my history of body dysmorphia. Even the sweet little me in the cover photo struggled with this sad perception of herself.
So here’s the deal. I struggle with body dysmorphia. I have for most of my life. I still have a skewed perception of my body even though it’s getting much better the more I rebel from diet culture and heal from disordered eating/exercise.
My body dysmorphia was much more intense as a teenager and in my 20s. When I was in fifth grade, I had to buy jeans in the boy’s “husky” section at JCPenny because none of the built-for-a-stick jeans in the girl’s section fit my quickly-maturing, half-Latina lower body. Pause and think about what that would do to a young girl’s perception of her body. Your body does not fit in girls jeans. Your body is built like a boy. Your body is wrong. Talk about a mind fuck for a 10-year-old girl. So I coped the only way I knew how: I wore baggy boy's Levi’s and over-sized Union Bay striped t-shirts to cover my shameful body. (See a few pictures below of this sweet little Kristen who struggled with hating her body.)
This false perception of my body led me to low lows, like inducing vomiting in a Starbucks bathroom immediately after hiking a 14er (a 13.1 mile, 14,000+ foot mountain, people) because I ate too many snacks after the hike and I was scared of the calories. Or running 6 miles in the morning to compensate for the happy hours drinks I would be having that night. Or obsessively looking at my body in the mirror, assessing for new millimeters of fat on my hips after eating birthday cake at a friend’s party the night before. Or by eating spaghetti squash for years because I feared the carbs lurking in spaghetti noodles. Despite these and a long list of others low points, I still don’t think I would have ever been officially diagnosed with full blown body dysmoprhic disorder. Regardless, the picture of my body in my head has never matched reality. I feel fat. In my head, I look fat. I have always felt about 50 pounds heavier than I actually am, and it has caused me to obsess about my appearance, spending time and precious mental/physical anguish over changing my body.
The disorder’s power is based in our culture’s belief that skinny is good and fat is bad (not true). Skinny people are rewarded. Fat people are punished. Did you know there is such a thing as fat prejudice and fat discrimination? (Check out this article by Angela Meadows: Discrimination against fat people is so endemic, most of us don't even realise it's happening.) It makes sense why I would fear being fat. Fat people are treated differently than skinnier people; unfair and untrue assumptions are made about them and their lives.
A lifetime of body dysmophia. Now you have the context for a recent experience I had with my legs.
A couple nights ago, I was sitting on the couch watching TV. I was wearing shorts because it was hot and all my sweatpants were dirty.
Side note: I avoid shorts. Despite healing, I still have an issue with my legs. Seeing my bare legs triggers old disordered eating thoughts. No need to affirm me or tell me I have great legs. Rationally, I know my legs are great. Not just aesthetically, but also functionally. Working in a rehab hospital for spinal cord injury, I am constantly surrounded by people whose legs no longer work. To combat my disordered thoughts, I focus on how grateful I feel to have legs that allow me to walk, climb stairs, swim, and bend down to pick up a fallen sock. Even though I rationally know my legs are beautiful and useful, I still struggle with them. I’m not 100% healed yet. (PS: I’m not sure if 100% healed is even possible or realistic in our culture, but that’s another topic for another day.)
So there I was, sitting on the couch, wearing shorts. Since I don’t wear shorts often, I rarely look at my exposed legs. During a commercial break while watching Fixer Upper, I looked at my legs and (subconsciously) started to assess them. I noticed changes from before pregnancy to now. I saw the impact of __ number of pounds I’ve gained on their shape. More fat around my knees. Thicker thighs, which was especially noticeable if I bent them on the table and watched how far the fat would hang off the back of my thighs. Even my calves looked rounder.
And then my head was filled with subconscious, diet-culture-inspired judgments.
You’re getting fat (and fat is bad). You’re ugly. This pregnancy is going to change your body forever in a bad way. You know those four pairs of maternity shorts you just bought and felt so comfortable in? Well, you’re really not going not going to want to wear them, promise me. (None of this is true, but it felt so real.)
And at the core of all of this, the assumption was: You’re not loveable. No one will want you with these legs. Cory won’t want you anymore. (Also not true.)
After just a few seconds of this subconscious mean-girl assessment, I became aware of what was happening and quickly implemented some of my strategies. I focused on gratitude for what my legs can do. I sent love and appreciation to my body for growing a human! I simply looked away from my legs because, let’s face it, staring at your body is boring and I have more important things to focus on (like contemplating the concept of The Universal Christ by Richard Rohr, or hell, just enjoying Chip and Jo’s banter and that gorgeous waterfall counter top. Yes, please!). I reminded myself of how beautiful Megan Jayne Crabb’s and Jes Baker’s legs are. I imagined what I’d say to a friend who was struggling with body dysmorphia mid-pregnancy.
All of this anchored me back into the reality of my body and removed me from the fiction in my head. I took a deep breath and felt better.
I’m sharing with this with you because getting it off my chest helps me heal. Writing this post is me taking an active step towards my recovery. (High five, Kristen!)
I also want you to know that you’re not alone if you’ve ever experienced moments like this in your life. I struggle with this too. I feel yo pain, sister/brother/fellow human!
Now let’s get back to more important things in life…like the peace I feel as the sun rises…or the fact that it’s 7 AM and I need to go get ready for work!
Thank you for reading! If you feel comfortable, I’d love to hear what helps you get out of these body-dysmorphic-induced mental spirals. Comment below or in the Embrace Your Unicorn Facebook group (and join the group if you’re not a part of it already!).
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