One of my most favorite body memories was skinny dipping under the stars in my grandparent’s kidney-bean shaped pool.
At the time we lived on a lake in Virginia. As an adolescent, I confided in my mom that a couple of girlfriends had taken off their swimsuits while swimming from our community’s dock to the main beach. I had been too chicken to strip down and they teased me. I can’t have them see my body. What if they tell the boys at school?
My mom told me I could try skinny dipping the next time we visited her parents in Texas. On our annual summer trip to the south, I said good night to Mamaw and Papaw. Everyone in my family settled down in their rooms to read. I covertly sought out my mom and she took me outside for my late night dip in the pool.
I remember the feeling of enjoyment as the cool water touched every part of my body.
I felt secure in the comfort of my mom’s presence and in the privacy of my grandparent’s backyard. I swam slow laps, practiced forward and backward somersaults, and floated on my back. I was in heaven! So this is what the fuss is all about!
Moments of body love like this were far and few for me when I was growing up. I felt out of place being so much bigger and taller than all of my friends. Instead of verbalizing any of my insecurities, I bottled them up and drew a line in the sand of what was okay to talk about and what was too mortifying to mention. This suffocated feeling of being different was the catalyst to a lifetime of body shame and bulimia.
I always thought that my body hatred would magically disappear the moment the bulimia finally stopped. I’ve discovered that it doesn’t work that way. That’s just a fantasy of what ED recovery must feel like when I’ve been down and out in self-hatred hell.
I’ve refused to wear shorts since college. On hot summer days, I’d rather be sweaty and miserable than risk exposure. When I go to sleep at night, you might catch me in an old pair of boxers but for the most part I’m covered up. I have a thing about my legs. This is only the beginning. The truth is that I have a thing about most parts of my body and I’m learning to release all of them one by one.
I’m not the girl who is going to strip off my work clothes in the gym locker room or the girl who is going to shimmy out of a soaking swimsuit in a room full of strangers.
I prefer using a bathroom stall or the weird curtain-shielded cubbyholes. The idea of people I don’t know watching me change gives me anxiety. I’ve judged myself to long too trust that others won’t judge me right back.
I remember girls from my high school swim team peeling off their wet suits after practice and parading around the locker room without a care in the world. I was in awe of their confidence. We all have the same parts but mine looked too different to share so openly.
Stretch marks and veins are a natural part of life but I’ve obsessed about mine for years. I have milky, creamy, porcelain-like skin. When I look into a mirror and lift my arms up into the air, I can see blueish greenish veins cascading down my forearms, sliding through my armpits, making their way down the sides of my torso and following the same web-like pattern down my legs.
I’ve always hated the way my skin has been so translucent. I have soft, white stretch marks on my belly and a few protruding varicose veins on my legs. I’ve beaten myself up for not having a good excuse for these flaws.
In the past when I’ve been caught up with feeling the green, bumpy lines on my flesh or analyzing my veins in the mirror, I chastise myself for earning them the wrong way. It’s not like I’ve ever carried a baby and I’m not in the elderly category yet. I’ve assumed that my collection of markings is because I’ve lived a life being overweight.
Although I know my Mamaw and my mom have struggled with painful varicose veins, I’ve chosen to hate them instead of accept them. I’ve also known plenty of thin friends with stretch marks and veins who are and always have been thin but I’ve chosen to see my fat as the culprit for my damaged skin.
I’ve let myself feel disgusted for parts of me that are permanent instead of accepting them, loving them, and moving on with my day.
One time I brought up my disdain for my veins in therapy. It was a topic I never mentioned to friends. If I ever discussed the large varicose vein I’ve had in my right leg since 8th grade, I’ve never let on that I’ve considered this area of my body wrecked. I don’t go there with anyone. That part of me has always been too personal to share.
My therapist quietly listened to me vent about my repulsion towards my legs and she lovingly replied, “Whitney, we all have veins.” She said it over and over again as I tried to make my case as to why mine were different, mine were surely up there amongst the nastiest of veins that a person could have.
At the end of each argument I presented, she softly repeated her stance, “Whitney, we all have veins.” Her words finally sunk in and I felt a light go off inside of my mind. What am I doing to myself? Whitney, we all have veins.
Little lessons like these show up all the time for me. I recently went to a farm wedding out on the eastern plains of Colorado. I had a terrific time connecting with my dear friend, Jes. She’s a tall, beautiful artist with an old soul. She’s authentic and our conversations are real. Towards the end of the night we were directed by the wedding coordinator to play poker in the barn.
I had been on a high all night from the warm weather, the soft breeze of spring and the magical Colorado sunset. Jes and I made our way through the crowd and continued talking about all things Life.
Love was in the air until I sat down in the plastic poker chair that was made for a smaller body.
We continued chatting while I felt my upper thighs and hips overflow through the sharp plastic slats. I looked at Jes’s thin frame and couldn’t help but notice the differences in our bodies. The thought of how I looked hadn’t even crossed my mind and now I was scanning the crowd to see if anyone else was too large for their chairs. Who else is huge like me? I’m so embarrassed. I can’t believe I’m too big for these chairs. I need to get out of here.
Jes was comfortable and her mood remained light while I was quickly fading into self-disgust. I felt my body exploding against the plastic slats, rubbing my skin in all the wrong places. The beauty of recovery is that just as quickly as the nasty thoughts about myself appeared, they were just as quick to be distinguished. Whoa. Stop. What am I doing? This is silly. This is an old belief system. So what if I’m too big for these chairs! It’s just a fact. It’s ME who is making this into something so much more.
After a pause in our discussion I said, “I have to tell you this because I know you will understand. Not in a tall person sense but more like we-are-way-too-hard-on-ourselves sense. I’m miserable in these chairs. It’s not a weight thing, it’s a physical thing. I’m literally too big to get comfortable sitting in this chair.”
Jes laughed and we talked about the difficulties of being tall on airplane chairs. Nothing is more miserable than sitting in the middle seat when your knees are jammed against the seat in front of you, your long arms are crossed for the 2-hour flight and the person in front of you reclines their seat all the way without asking. We talked about how nice it is to travel with our tall husbands because at least one side of us can overlap into their space. I feel like an amazon on airplanes.
I explained that my reaction to the plastic chair was important for me to address because in the past I wouldn’t have told a single soul. I would have let it ruin my night by letting myself feel fat. I reflected on how many years I hated my body for literally just being its natural size. I saw myself as being “too much”, “too big” and “too fat”. All of these conclusion ns had been wrong. All along I had been “enough”, I had just been too blind to see it. Jes understood where I was coming from. Most women can relate to the rubbish we talk ourselves into believing about our own bodies.
Freedom is talking about the stuff that brings us pain, it’s sharing the secrets we keep hidden in our hearts.
I peeled myself out of the awkward, plastic chair and stood up. In an instant, I no longer felt like a sardine. Physically I was whole and emotionally I felt cleansed by sharing my shame with a friend who makes me feel safe.
I’ve learned to address those mean-spirited feelings head-on like an anthropologist. The thoughts still unexpectedly sneak up on me, but before my recovery, I kept all of those emotions private. I chose to be a woman suffering with a 24-year relationship with an eating disorder because I didn’t have the confidence to speak up and ask for help. I had confidence in all other areas of my life, but not in the area where it mattered most.
I wish I could say that my body shame was a thing of my past, but that’s not how it works. I have to address it in order to set it free. Maybe this summer I’ll buy a pair of shorts or even go skinny dipping. My options are endless now that I’m no longer holding myself back!