I preached body positivity — and sunk deeper into my eating disorder at the same time.

I don’t usually write about my mental health when things are “fresh.”

Not in the last couple years, anyway. I prefer to let things marinate, and to make sure that the words I choose are empowering, uplifting, and most importantly, resolved.

I prefer to give advice when I’m on the other side of something — largely because I know I have a responsibility to my readers, to make sure I’m nudging them in the right direction. I know this blog can be a lifeline for folks who need something hopeful. I try to remember that.

But sometimes, when I perfectly package that hope for an audience, I can delude myself into thinking that I’ve cracked the code and, therefore, can tidily leave a struggle in the past. The perfect conclusion to the chapter, as it were.

“I know better now,” I think to myself. “I’ve learned my lesson.”

If you were to Google “transgender body positivity,” I’m fairly sure more than a few things I’ve written will come up. I’ve been interviewed for podcasts and articles, and hoisted up as an example of a trans person who — in a simple shift in perspective and following the right insta accounts — came to redefine his relationship to food and to his body.

Three articles that appeared in a Google search for "transgender body positivity," all written by Sam.
I wrote all three of theseDelightful.

That version of events is one that I love, because it’s so simple and comforting. One shiny, bright epiphany, and I emerge victorious, having evolved beyond any worldly, frivolous concerns about my stretch marks or eating ice cream for breakfast.

“Fuck you, diet culture!” I jubilantly exclaim. “I know better now. I’ve learned my lesson.

When you are a mental health advocate and writer, especially in such a public way, it’s easy to trick yourself into thinking that you have all the answers to your own problems. But that illusion of control and self-awareness is exactly that — an illusion, and a deceitful one at that.

It’s easy to point to the years I’ve spent in this space, and everything I’ve published about this exact thing, and insist I’ve got things under control. It’s not my first rodeo, pal. Or second. Third. Fourth. (I’ve got experience on my side.)

If I can support others through their recovery, surely I can navigate my own. Even as I write that, I know it’s patently ridiculous — giving good advice is much easier than applying it to yourself, especially where mental illness is concerned.

But the version of me that I prefer is the one that said in this interview, as recently as last June, “When you get to the other side of whatever you’re struggling with, you’ll see that not taking those chances — living only half the life you could’ve been living — is a lot scarier than any disaster you imagined would come from eating that slice of cake or whatever it was.”

Says the person who is, really and truly, living in that fear in a life half-lived right at this very moment.

Body positivity has felt like a relationship I dove into at such a young age, long before I knew myself or even my eating disorder. And once I was in too deep, having positioned myself as triumphant, I didn’t know how to step back enough to ask for help.

I wanted to believe it was like an incantation I could say in front of the mirror several times — “all bodies are good bodies! all bodies are good bodies! all bodies are good bodies!” — and POOF! I was absolved of any guilt, shame, or fear I felt around food or my body.

I could say all the right things, like a script that I’d rehearsed, and love the idea and the image of myself when I peered through those rosy-colored lenses.

But where eating disorder recovery is concerned, a script — even when memorized — is not a substitute for the work.

And no amount of Instagram memes and photos of belly fat could touch on the old, painful wounds that had positioned food as my enemy, and my body as the site of a war.

Which is all to say, I am not recovered. The work hadn’t even begun. In fact, I used my proximity to body positive spaces to disregard the very idea that I needed help — and I’m paying the price physically, mentally, and emotionally now.

I wore body positivity like an accessory, to project the image of myself that I wanted to be, and my eating disorder reveled in the idea that I could suspend the reality of my illness simply by curating my social media accordingly.

My understanding of body positivity — and by extension, its roots in fat acceptance and liberation — was shallow at best, but only because my eating disorder thrived so long as I sustained the illusion that I knew better. This was yet another way of convincing myself that I was in control, that I was smarter than my ED.

My disorder had a vested interest in lulling me into a false sense of security. I couldn’t have an eating disorder, I thought — disordered eating, maybe, but who doesn’t? I couldn’t because I was evolved. As if mental illness ever gives a fuck about the books you’ve read.

Eating disorders have a way of sneaking up on you. That realization is a new one for me — not because I didn’t logically understand that, but because I’ve only come to accept it in the context of my own lived experience in the last few days.

And I wish I could say that this epiphany came to me on my own, inspiring me to reclaim my life, but there’s no such heroism here. It came to the surface only because my doctor asked the right questions during a routine checkup, and my bloodwork revealed what I feared to be true — my body was coming undone in the absence of adequate, much less nutritious, food.

“I don’t understand how people decide when to eat,” I confessed to my therapist. His eyes widened with deep concern.

“They eat when they’re hungry, Sam,” he said gently.

At some point or another, I had utterly forgotten that simple, basic fact. There is a mechanism in the body, intended to guide me, and I’d cut all ties to it completely.

I don’t share this as a criticism of myself, but rather, as a very simple truth: Many of us who are lauded as faces of recovery are still, in many ways, right in the thick of it along with you.

Sometimes what you’re seeing is not a portrait of success, but rather, a small piece of a more elaborate, messy puzzle that we’re frantically trying to assemble behind the scenes, so that no one notices that we’re in pieces.

My eating disorder recovery is, in truth, in its very infancy. I’ve only recently stopped using “disordered eating” to obscure the reality, and this morning, finally spoke to a dietician that specializes in EDs.

This morning.

Today is, in actuality, the first real day of recovery. That’s three years after, by the way, I wrote these words: “No more justifications. No more excuses. Not another day . . . this is not control.”

I know there are readers who might have looked at my work in body positivity, and absorbed the misguided notion that eating disorders (or any kind of body negativity or food aversion) are simply mazes that we think (or in my case, write) ourselves out of.

If that were true, I wouldn’t be sitting here, sharing with you a very uncomfortable truth about recovery: There are no shortcuts, no mantras, and no quick fixes.

And as we glamorize the idea of an easily attainable self-love — as though it’s just one perfect crop top away — we miss the deeper work that must be done within ourselves, that no amount of sparkly, inspirational quotes we retweet can replace.

Trauma is not on the surface, and to strike the heart of it, we have to go deeper.

This is an awful and uncomfortable truth that I am coming to grips with — mainstream, watered-down body positivity can open the door and invite us in, but it’s up to us to do the real work of recovery.

And that begins not externally, but within us. Recovery is an ongoing commitment that we must choose every single day, deliberately and courageously, with as much rigorous honesty with ourselves and our support systems as humanly possible.

No matter how we curate our social media to remind us of where we’d like to be, the aspirational vision we create is never a substitute for the reality that we’re living in.

As is so often the case with eating disorders, I’m realizing, the aspiration — that “what could be” — so often becomes a compulsive, maddening drive, where we live in a future that we never arrive at.

And unless we commit ourselves to being grounded firmly in the present, even (and especially) when it’s uncomfortable to be here, we relinquish our power and fall under its spell.

My ED loved the naïveté of Insta-friendly body positivity, leveraging that illusion of safety to delude me into thinking I was in control, that I was better than all this.

And I can’t say I’m surprised by it — EDs seem to take many of the things we love (ice cream, yoga, fashion) and turn them against us in some way or another.

I don’t have all the answers, except to say this: We are works in progress, all of us, even those that you look up to. A pedestal is a lonely place to be, and loneliness, I think, is where eating disorders (and many mental illnesses) often thrive. I’ve been up here for too long, silently waiting to fall or for it to crumble underneath me — whichever came first.

As I make my descent, slowly climbing down from the pedestal and stepping into the light of my recovery, I’m going to embrace the truth that every one of us needs to remember: It is okay not to be okay.

It’s okay to not have all the answers, even if the rest of the world expects you to, even if you expect yourself to.

I am not, as some people have described me, “the face of transgender body positivity.” If I am, I don’t want to be — I don’t want any of us to be if that means we’re not allowed to be human.

I want you to scrub that image from your mind and, instead, know where I really was yesterday: Clinging onto a nutritional shake for dear life (literally — it’s kept me alive these last few months), having not showered for three days, while texting the words “I think I need help.”

So many of the advocates you look up to have had equally unromantic but profoundly brave moments just like that.

We do every single day, whether we have a selfie to prove it happened or not. (Some of us have group texts, and trust me, we are all on the Hot Mess Express together. Promise.)

If you’ve felt like you’re not allowed to “fail” (or rather, have an imperfect, messy, even fucked up recovery), I want to give you permission to live that truth, with every bit of honesty and vulnerability that you need.

It’s okay to let go of performing recovery. And trust me, I know how big of an ask that is, because that performance has been my security blanket (and the source of my denial) for so, so long.

You can surrender to the doubt, the fear, and the discomfort that comes with doing the work, and give yourself permission to be human. You can let go of that control and — I’m told, anyway — it will all be okay.

And this amazing community of recovery warriors that we’ve created with our memes, our inspirational quotes, and our crop tops? We will be right here, waiting to support you.

I can’t say that I know this for certain (hello, Day One), but I have a strong suspicion that this kind of honesty is where the real growth happens. And wherever there’s growth, I’ve found, that’s where the healing truly begins.

And that’s what we deserve, every one of us. Not the aspirational kind of healing, but the deeper stuff.

I want that for me. I want that for all of us.

signature

Struggling with food? Body stuff? Or just need someone to talk to? The National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) is a wonderful place to start. They’ve been an incredible resource for me — and I hope they’ll be for you as well.

Before you go…

cropped-heart

This blog is not sponsored by any fancy pants investors that are trying to sell you stuff.

It’s funded by readers like you via Patreon!

Every donation counts. Help keep resources like these accessible to everyone that needs them! And help buy me a cup of coffee, because I write a lot of these blogs after work, late at night, so I could definitely use the caffeine.

Photo by Laurenz Kleinheider on Unsplash

15 thoughts on “I preached body positivity — and sunk deeper into my eating disorder at the same time.

  1. As someone with EDNOS who literally questioned and said nah nah, I just have a few bad days. It’s not am actual each g disorder. This stings. But that sting is what has me reaching for my coffee (that has both sugar and milk in it because I refuse to let my taste buds feel bad right now) and trying to figure out what to eat for breakfast not /if/ I will eat breakfast.
    While my instagram and Tumblr all have so much about how food is good and bodies are perfect any way, my brain does not compute that.
    So here I am, just like you. Admitting. I have an eating disorder. And that. Is damn scary, but worth it, for the recovery.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. It is easy for people to imagine recovery as a straight line path from A to B to C to … to Fixed. At it’s most orderly, it is more of a spiral staircase, meeting the same issues over and over at different levels. I think this piece speaks to that difference very well.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m so glad to hear and proud of you for reaching out for the help you so clearly needed. That’s the hardest step, whether it’s dealing with mental or physical illness. It’s so easy to hide behind the social media mask we all wear, and pretend anything you don’t post doesn’t happen. I personally don’t have an ED, but definitely disordered eating and a slew of mental and physical health issues. I’ve dedicated 2019 to healing and reconnecting with my body, which I’ve hated and punished for being broken. It’s time to embrace, love and care for this body. It’s the only one I have! All the best to you in all you do.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I am so very happy and proud of you for reaching out for the help you needed. I know it’s not easy, at least for me, no matter what kind of help you need, to admit you need it. It’s so easy to hide behind the social media mask we all wear, pretending that whatever you didn’t post just didn’t happen. Wishing you all of the success in the world!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Thank you for writing what I haven’t been able to put to words, as always. ❤️ You touched upon so many things I’m currently experiencing. I hope you find the support you deserve and that feels good to you. I know you have the courage to do this.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. This is a really good, but hard to hear post. As somebody with extreme anorexia who’s really suffering at the moment, it’s hard to hear because I know it’s true. We can’t just skip through recovery by giving advice to other people, even if helping other people is a lot easier than helping ourselves. I can write and write and write about body positivity, but I can never apply that to myself.

    I’m not recovered, either, and I don’t even know if I’m willing to go into recovery because of the comfort that my eating disorder offers. However, I’m trying to make steps to get there. I created my blog – http://www.blurrythought.com – a few days ago to help people with their mental illnesses and to share the experiences of my own. If my story can help anyone at all, then I’m achieving more than I ever thought I would. I hope that, in sharing, I’m able to somewhat hold myself accountable for getting to the point of managing.

    Thank you again for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Hi! I’m a dietitian specializing in eating disorder treatment in NH. You are courageous and brave! Thank you for sharing your story with us! I wish you all the best, you’ve got this!

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s