setbacks

The Myth of the “Perfect Recovery”

Want to know a secret?

I run a recovery blog. I bring conversations about sexism and gender equity to places they aren’t wanted, from my fiction writing workshops (“Are you really sure ‘attractive’ is the only adjective you need?”) to the movie theater (“Seriously, why is Kiera Knightley’s role always to stand around in a corset and look confused?”). The constant fat-shaming in Game of Thrones is about to give me a tiny heart attack.

Basically, what I’m driving at is that body positivity isn’t a throwaway for me. It’s a big deal.

And this evening, I’m sitting on my couch, looking at the wall of my apartment and wondering Why the hell can’t I just lose XXX pounds? I’d be happy then. And tonight isn’t the only night recently this has happened.

Some days I’m desperate to change my body. My wonderful, badass body. The one I put through so much in college when recovery was a project for after finals, or after I passed physics, or after I got just thismuch skinnier. The body that got me through a half marathon in September, and a full marathon of all four seasons of Blackadder two weeks ago.

That body. Sometimes I still hate that body.

Part of me thinks this makes me a fraud. A failure. The voice in the back of my mind, the one that sounds eerily like Lord Tywin Lannister (in the film version of my life, my eating disorder will be played by Charles Dance), that voice always has something to say.

Aren’t you the one supporting others?

Aren’t you supposed to know better?

Fraud.

Stop pretending you know what you’re talking about.

If you read that to yourself in Charles Dance’s voice and aren’t at least a bit intimidated, you’re braver than I am.

Am I allowed to call myself within spitting distance of recovered and still occasionally wonder if I shouldn’t go on a three-day cleanse to make my old pants fit like new pants?

Of course. Of course. It’s okay.

The whole point of body positivity is taking outside standards about how you should present yourself for a nice long walk off a short pier. That includes any bullshit notions of perfectionism or infallibility. That means being okay with yourself, just as you are, right this minute. Triggers and doubts and days almost-seriously-considering diets and emotional experiences with your jeans and all.

Recovery and life after would fail any “walk this straight line” DUI test. It’s a nonlinear cycle that doubles back on yourself when you least expect it. There’s no such thing as a “perfect recovery,” and mine is no exception. Progress isn’t when bad days stop happening  — as far as I’m concerned, they might not ever stop completely. But when the good days start outweighing the bad, and when life begins to revolve around something other than what / when / how to eat …

That’s still something to celebrate.

But coming to terms with a perfectly imperfect body-positive life — without the guilt of “failure” — is easier said than done. Here are three things I’m trying to make it through the rough patches, and back into the light.

1. Check Out Those Dark Shadowy Places

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(You knew this was coming. If a day ever comes for an obvious opportunity to quote The Lion King and I don’t take it, send help. I’ve probably fallen and I can’t get up.)

There are certain situations I know will still spark my inner negative monologue. Pants shopping, for instance. Or eating a meal at a different time than usual. Although I know, logically, that there’s nothing at all wrong with eating a bigger lunch one day, that doesn’t always make the residual discomfort go away. But leaning on logic gives a reliable handhold to turn back to.

Figuring out the root cause of an ED-related reaction — and eight times out of ten, that cause has nothing to do with food — is a crucial step for regaining a sense of understanding and power.

There’s a world of difference between “I hate my body because it’s ugly / gross / terrible” and “I’m feeling uncomfortable about how I look because the people in the cubicle next to me are talking about their 30-day cleanse / I have a big presentation tomorrow I’m nervous about / final exams are coming up and I don’t feel adequate / I didn’t sleep enough last night.” One places the blame on your body; the other shifts focus back to where it belongs. One feels dispiriting and impossible; the other makes sense. And recovery is making sense out of the chaos, and putting anxiety and discomfort in their place.

That place, by the way, is way the hell off on the sidelines.

So get up there on Pride Rock the next time the voices start. Everything the light touches is your recovery journey. Once you figure out what’s really going on in those dark shadowy places, it might not be as overwhelming and confusing as it seemed.

2. Catastrophize for a Reason

You’ve probably heard the phrase “Fat is not a feeling” as a rallying cry before. And while it can be tough to take that statement at face value when you’re absolutely sure you’re feeling fat right then and there, grammatically it’s just fact. “Fat” is a noun, describing the necessary collection of cells and tissue that protect our organs and let our bodies move through the world.

Would you argue that on a bad day you feel “muscle” or “cartilage”? Because that’s what I’m hearing when you say you feel fat.

But “fat” is also an adjective describing a certain body type. The fat acceptance movement is rightfully returning this word to its original meaning, removing the moral and value judgments society put on it and calling it for what it is. For the record, even though fat is a body type, that still doesn’t make it a viable feeling. You can’t feel “blonde” or “high cheekbones” emotionally. That’s not how emotions work.

I keep this as a kind of mantra for when weight panic sets in. It cuts the anxiety out of ruminating on weight, little by little, step by step.

I feel fat I’m so fat I’m gaining so much weight I’m so fat —

Okay. So. Maybe. What’s the worst that could happen if I was fat?

Am I going to hate or love my job any more? Are my friends going to care about me any less, and will I care about them differently? Is the sunrise on my commute down 55 going to look any less beautiful? Are nachos going to be any less delicious? Is the sexism on Netflix’s Marco Polo going to make me want to punch a hole through my wall any less?

Nope. Literally the only thing that changes is that I would be fat.

Any other negative consequences that might arise are a direct result of society’s fatphobic underpinnings, which my panic about weight gain is (albeit unwillingly and painfully) perpetuating.

Will this knock off the thoughts once and for all? Almost certainly not. But it helps stop you in your tracks for at least a moment to see the larger picture.

And the big picture is almost never as scary as the close-up, particularly when the close-up is that distorted.

3. Lower Your Expectations

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Ah, Amy Poehler. Speaking the truth my soul needs.

I’m not saying “don’t expect recovery.” I’m not saying “don’t expect you’ll ever feel completely happy and in control of your life ever again.” Of course I’m not saying that. I believe it’s possible. I’ve seen people do it. It’s what’s keeping me going. Recovery is possible, and we can do it.

But no one expects you to have it all together all at once. And telling yourself any differently reveals a whole different problem that has nothing at all to do with your weight.

If you haven’t read this article by the amazing s.e. smith about impostor syndrome yet, go read it. It’s cool. I’ll wait.

For the click-averse, impostor syndrome is the feeling that, despite all evidence to the contrary, you are inherently less-than. You’re not living up to others’ expectations of you. You don’t deserve to be where you are. You aren’t qualified. You’re just faking it, and everyone around you already knows it. Even when you know, objectively. 0% of this is true, that doesn’t help.

This summed up so much about my life, both personally and professionally, when I read it that I needed to take a step back and reframe. No one expects me to have it all together. No one is scandalized and horrified when I make a mistake at work, or when I have a lousy body image day and call my support system to vent and yell a little. No one, that is, but me. I’m holding myself to standards that I’d never impose on anyone else.

It’s not fair. It’s doing me way more harm than good. And it’s not easy to stop.

But I’m working on it. I’m cutting myself some slack. Lowering my expectations, so to speak. I’m trying not to feel totally deflated when something goes badly, because things go badly for everyone all the time, every day. Even the most active body image activists need support, help, self-care, and a little slack now and then.

That Amy. So wise. One more piece of wisdom for the road:

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And so we keep on. I’ll keep trying. And on the bad days, I’ll take a shower at a weird time, curl up in bed with a book, and wake up in the morning to try again.

And again.

And again.

Until, maybe next week, maybe in fifteen years, one day I wake up and never need to think about trying again.

But today is not that day.

Today, I’ll keep working.

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