by Spring Chenoa Cooper
I have struggled with eating disorders for most of my life, though I have only just realized how long. Through writing this piece it became clear to me that I started the practice of ignoring my body when I was 11. After practicing that for so long, it’s no wonder that it can seem normal to me.
I’ve written before about how long it took me to start listening to my body and its signals. Oddly enough being obsessed with my body was directly related to ignoring it.
When I think through the increased severity of the stages of the disordered eating choices I’ve made throughout my life, I can track the inverse relationship to being present in my body. It may sound evident, but the effects of engaging with an eating disorder affect every part of sense of self.
Age 11: Not allowing any fat in my diet
When I was young, my best friend’s mother started counting fat grams. It was all the rage in the early 90s, and my best friend and I started counting as well; it seemed like a fun game. I got pretty competitive with myself and tried to keep my fat grams just under the minimum suggested per day. I stopped eating things I liked. Not because I wanted to lose weight. Not because I wasn’t happy with my body. I loved the game aspect of it: so much so that I didn’t care that I couldn’t eat cake at my friends’ birthday parties. I learned very quickly to ignore wants and cravings…for the sake of the game. I invented reasons: “Oh, I just don’t like cake; I never have!”
As a result of the extreme fat deprivation in my diet, I had severely dry skin. My mom tried to get me to eat a spoonful of olive oil each day. I refused to, but pretended I was by pouring a tiny bit out of the bottle each day. The low percentage of body fat then prevented me from getting my first period until I was a couple months shy of 15.
Age 21: Becoming obsessed with exercise
I continued the fat gram counting, and later recording of fat intake and exercise output for years. I didn’t become obsessed with exercise until I became a fitness instructor in undergrad. The culture of teaching fitness is that “more is better” and I bought right into it. I was teaching 8-10 fitness classes a week, and I went to at least another 5 a week for fun/experience/whatever I told myself was a good excuse.
Ignoring body signals is pretty necessary when you are doing way too much exercise. Muscles hurt. Injuries happen. And ignoring them is the only way to continue that level of exercise.
The length of my cycle extended during this time: I was having periods with less frequency and I wasn’t sure if it was normal for me or if something was wrong.
Age 23: Restricting calories
I went on a hormonal birth control method at 22 that caused me to gain a lot of weight, despite me not changing my eating or exercise patterns. I panicked. For the first time in my life I was upset with how my body looked. But, I felt like I knew what I needed to do: eat less calories. My eating got very competitive. I tried to eat the fewest number of calories I could per day: this got down to about 600-800 a day. And I was still working out 1-3 times a day. The weight did begin to come off.
However, I was starving all of the time. I learned to ignore the hunger pains, and to hide them from others. I would bring snacks to my grad school classes as a cover. It would be one of the only things I would eat that night, but I wanted it to seem “normal” to other people. I would eat the snack part way through class, trying to keep my stomach from making noises. but it must have looked suspect as I broke a granola bar up into 6 pieces and slowly ate them over the course of an hour, watching the clock to keep it evenly spaced over the hour. The reason I realized this was obvious was that one of my professors pulled me aside after class one day and asked me if i was experiencing any eating issues. I laughed, and told her I had just gone off the birth control I had been on, and that the cause of any weight loss was probably a result of that.
During this time in my life, my periods were pretty irregular. I often took pregnancy tests, certain it wasn’t a result of my diet. But I was never so concerned that I thought of changing any of my exercise or dietary behaviors.
Age 25: Binging and purging
I went through a break up, most likely the result of me being obsessed with calories and food instead of my life. After the break up I finally decided to allow myself to eat food. But I didn’t know how. I would end up binging and eating so much food because i felt so hungry. the next day I would then add a few hours of exercise on to my regimen to make up for it. I was spending all day exercising, doing a little work on my PhD, and then binging. After a few weeks of this, it became unmanageable. And one day I ate so much food that my stomach hurt so badly that I couldn’t do anything—not even sit there. So I made myself throw up. I didn’t even know how to do it, but the food came up.
I immediately felt addicted to throwing up. I had just saved three hours of excessive exercise for the next day and I was elated.
My choice to binge and purge involved extreme levels of ignoring my needs. I had to mentally leave my body during the binge session: eating that quickly and that volume of food is not comfortable. After a binge session, I never even remembered what TV shows I had watched during it: that’s how far I was from my body during binging. After binging came the purging. Even though i dreaded doing it, I would throw up and throw up until it was all out. My throat would be raw, my eyes would bulge and look bloodshot, my hand became cracked and dry and would get cuts from my teeth. I would fall asleep exhausted and wake up dehydrated with a headache.
I began to go to therapy the same week that I started throwing up. In my head, I had just developed an eating disorder. But in reality, I had been engaging with disordered eating for 14 years.
It took me another 8 years to figure out that ignoring my body’s wants and needs was the real problem. I stopped binging and purging but was still recording things. I stopped recording things but still insisted on exercise through injuries and exhaustion. It was a regular yoga practice and, later, the addition of a meditation practice that helped me finally begin to really tune in.
And once I was tuning in, there was a difference: I could notice things about my behavior and reactions and how they were related to things in my body. I could notice things about my cycle and how they affected my mood and cravings.
Now it’s hard for me to binge and purge: being present during that process is not something I enjoy. I’m still practicing being present. I’m still practicing noticing all the signs. And now I can acknowledge that I’ve struggled with being fully alive in my body for a majority of my life.
But seeing what my body can do, and noticing little changes and signals, is a gift. One that I don’t take lightly. I’m excited for the possibility of one day experiencing a pregnancy. For eventually going through menopause. And for being present to all the little changes that happen along the way.