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Kelly's Story: Breaking a Long Ancestral Line of Body Hatred

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I'd felt there must be something terribly wrong with me psychologically for years. I hated my body but couldn't stop binging. What was wrong with me? There were days where I'd eat so much all I could do was lay on the couch and be physically (as well as emotionally) miserable, but still I'd eat. I knew that if I could stop the eating and become thinner in the process, all my problems would be solved and life would be wonderful. What I'd forgotten was that I'd spent my teens and early 20's "thin" by society's standards but still viewed myself as fat and unacceptable. I ran across an old photo of me a couple of years ago. I was leaning back against my car with my hands stretched behind my head and one knee raised. I remember the pain I felt in that picture. I was wearing shorts and a tank top and before the picture was taken, I had wanted to go change, but my boyfriend (the photographer) said I was fine and to just stand there so we could get it over with. I remember sucking in my stomach and posing that way so no one would see how fat I was—all 5'7" 135 lbs. of me. That picture brings me such sadness. Was I really that lovely young woman in the picture? How could I have felt that way about my body?

I finally mustered up the courage to seek professional help. I was lucky—the therapist I found pointed me in the direction of OO. With the help of my therapist, an OO support group run by another therapist, and the online support group, my journey towards freeing myself from compulsive eating began. I started with the mechanics of OO: carrying a food bag, legalizing, mirror work (that was the toughest part, but more about that later), cleaning out my closet, etc. Since I'd never been a dieter, legalizing, stocking my house beyond belief, and carrying a food bag came fairly easy. Not that I didn't have my days of feeling uneasy caring for myself with food in public—I did. And I've always loved to shop for clothes so I had little in my closet that didn't fit. I'd been the same size for years.

Back to the food bag. Our society has placed so many rules on what women should and shouldn't eat, especially if you're fat. Work was especially hard. I had to find a way to openly allow my food bag to exist in my work world. What surprised me the most was people's positive reaction to my "open eating." I felt it reflected what I put out. I worked in a very male-dominated industry; thus, I'd perfected the art of "never let 'em see ya' sweat" and wore a very self-confident outer facade. I think if I had sheepishly and halfheartedly introduced my food bag at work, I would have gotten a very different response. I treated my food bag much like my briefcase. Just something that came with me to work—no big deal. Even though I felt anxious about this at first, I had to act as if it was no big deal even when I felt self-conscious about it. What I found was that a lot of people had food stashed in their desks! Slowly, their food also came into plain sight, to the point of people swapping food. I had regular visitors to my food bag ("got anymore of those nuts you had the other day?"); thus, I always carried extra food so I wouldn't feel ripped off.

Mirror work was another story. I know this sounds incredible, but until I started doing mirror work, I wasn't really aware of my body size or shape. I was kind of surprised that I'd gotten "so big." It was very difficult to take the judgment off of "so big" and to find parts of my body I liked. Again with the help of my therapist, I started a mirror work ritual. The vanity in my dressing room was originally my great aunt's. My great-grandmother had looked into that mirror, as had my grandmother, her sisters and daughters (including my mother)—and I was able to gather the courage from this long line of women (some large-sized) to sit naked in the mirror and talk to them. What had their lives been like? What had their size done to or for them? There was a sadness I felt for these women. Somewhere in my psyche I felt a responsibility to end the cycle of body hatred. My mom's youngest sister died when she was forty of a sudden heart attack (usually women on this side of my family lived to be very old and died of cancer). She was the only really "thin and beautiful" one in the bunch. I remember everyone telling her so. What no one knew until her death was that she had a cupboard full of over-the-counter and prescription diet pills. I remember at her funeral there was a lot of heated discussion about the pills contributing to her death. Almost everyone wanted it to be "God's will" versus her destroying her body with pills. But I digress.

I started very slowly. Each night before I went to bed I'd light candles and sit in front of the mirror and look at a particular part of my body and talk with my "relatives" about it. If I couldn't work with a particular part, I'd try and just notice it, apologize for not having better feelings towards it, and move on to a different part. I think what helped the most was feeling my body—touching my stomach, my hips, my breasts, my chins not only just looking at them—noticing the smoothness, the bumps, the color. I also felt a warm, nurturing approval for what I was doing from the "women in the mirror." It was almost a spiritual journey. After a while, it felt rather natural to have this body.

The area I struggled most with was my stomach. "Sticking out"—boy, was that a challenge. A BBT (bad body thought) is never about your body. It took me a while to decode why I had such trouble with my stomach. I've always been kind of loud. I tell jokes and have always been a bit of a "tomboy." I grew up being constantly shushed. I was funny and quick-witted and got a lot of positive responses from people but would suffer the consequences for my behavior later. My mother viewed a sense of humor in girls as a weakness and felt people would laugh at me and not with me. I was told a woman had to work twice as hard to get equal pay, and yet on the other hand, I was told to be a "lady"—very conflicting messages. I grew up in the 60's—a very confusing time for women—and my mother was no exception. I had to work very hard to give myself permission to speak up and speak out without beating myself up. I had to keep challenging internal messages like "how could you say such a stupid thing?" and "just keep your mouth shut" constantly. I never realized what shaming messages I gave myself. I had to develop a special internal caretaker just to give myself permission to speak and to combat those hurtful messages.

A BBT is never about your body. I liked this concept right off the bat. Because I still felt there must be some deep psychological reason for my compulsive eating (to this day I haven't found any great mysteries of the mind), I never realized until I started to notice my BBT's how often I had them. It was overwhelming, and I could only handle decoding a small percentage at a time in the beginning. The rest I ate over just to keep my sanity. I think this is also when I really realized MH (mouth hunger) was my friend, not my enemy. MH was allowing me to go at my own pace in learning to decode BBT's. Challenging a BBT kept me in constant conflict with myself. All the internal messages I had regarding how unacceptable I was were amazingly strong and difficult to combat. Developing an internal caretaker with a new set of messages to help me replace the old ones was crucial. My internal caretaker looks kind of like "Glenda, the good witch of the north" from "The Wizard of Oz." I visualize her wand waving away the negative message and replacing it with a positive one. I love visualizations—they've been very helpful in my process.

Moving towards self-acceptance was extremely difficult. Giving myself permission to eat, to have the body I have, to take care of my own needs, to believe I have value, and basically to take up space and exist in the world—each posed its own set of hurdles all intertwined with each other. I was taught from a very early age to not need anything or anyone so I would never be reliant on others. This was my parents' way of teaching me to be strong. Unfortunately, it backfired for what I feel are obvious reasons. I did have needs and, even worse, I had wants—what child doesn't? I wanted people to like me, I wanted/needed love and approval, and I wanted to be happy. Where did I find all these things that I needed and wanted? In food. Food made me feel okay about me. Or should I say, food didn't let me feel at all. I didn't have to feel bad and less than about all the needs and wants I shouldn't have. Food took care of it for me.

Even though I read the book Overcoming Overeating, I was rather unprepared for all the feelings that came flooding at me once the "glitter and magic" were gone from food. Since I was totally disconnected from my feelings, once they started to emerge I was completely overwhelmed. Anger seemed to be the course of the day, and anger frightened me. I think this was a process I had to go through—being angry with everyone in my world I felt had "done me wrong"—real or imagined. What I've come to understand is that behind my anger was a lot of hurt and a lot of fear (and a lack of boundaries). Both are very uncomfortable things to learn how to feel and be okay with. Only after I learned to accept and feel these things was I able to start to accept them as part of myself—not good, not bad—just a part of me. And the rest of the feelings just flowed. Sometimes I could sit with them and let them wash over me like the tide, and sometimes I couldn't—a lot like Bad Body Thoughts. I handled what I could, and over time I could handle more and more.

As I progressed, I slowly learned a rather new concept for me: boundaries—where I began and others ended. This was quite a surprise for the people around me. I'd always been so "agreeable"—such a "nice" girl. The messages I received from some of my family and friends was that this boundaries stuff wasn't okay with them. What a surprise (big grin). I was learning to speak up—to have my own opinions (which I'd always thought I had, but really didn't)—setting boundaries with people, learning to say "no" or "yes" or "who says?" or whatever was frightening for a lot of people, myself included. The fear of rejection was high, but the risk for personal freedom was worth it. I wasn't playing by the "family rules" anymore, and that was rather unnerving for everyone. But I feel it was a crucial step in learning self-acceptance—identifying who I was, what I felt; rewriting my internal rule book; challenging what I had learned about what a woman should be, about my body, my appetites, my needs, and wants. Accepting what I think and feel as being okay—as being the "norm" for my world—has been nothing short of miraculous. It hasn't been an easy road, but it sure beats self-hatred and using food to stuff my feelings.

– Kelly

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