A decade ago, my husband and I purchased an elliptical machine from a store that specialized in exercise equipment. The purchase price included a complementary session with a personal trainer. We took advantage of this offer, mostly to get some valuable pointers on how to use the machine and all its bells and whistles.
The personal trainer arrived and taught us how to use the features on the machine, but also how to relieve some of the tension stored in our bodies by using a foam roller. Even though we were aware that he was trying to lure us into purchasing more sessions with him, we found him helpful and likable and signed up for more sessions.
I had never worked with a personal trainer before and found myself feeling nervous. I’ve always been self-conscious about doing anything in front of others and this was no different. We worked more with the foam roller and worked on my balance. The trainer talked about yoga and chakras and told me that I didn’t trust my body. What?! I was taken aback, but as I let the words sink in, I realized that he was correct. I didn’t trust my body. What I didn’t know, was what that would mean.
My sessions with the trainer were helpful, but we never delved into my trust issues. We never talked about how I felt about my body or why I had trust issues. I don’t fault the trainer for that. He was a personal trainer, not a psychologist. I also wouldn’t have been open to it. I didn’t give the trust question further thought until several years ago, at age 65, when I began treatment for a diagnosis of anorexia nervosa.
I thought I was “eating healthy” and “watching my weight,” which was what society and diet culture had instructed me to do.
I’d lost a significant amount of weight through a popular weight loss program a decade before and was deeply proud of myself for not only maintaining the weight loss but also losing more. My doctors praised me for the weight loss, as did everyone else, therefore validating that I was doing the “right” thing.
Eating disorders are about more than the food; they’re about control. The amount of energy I’d expended for years to control the size of my body clearly indicated that my body couldn’t be trusted to be left to its own devices. I have a few ideas on where this distrust originated.
The first is diet culture and society. I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s when a model named Twiggy was all the rage along with mini-skirts and hot pants.
The thin ideal had been around way before that, but I hadn’t paid much attention to it until I was a young adolescent. Teen and fashion magazines became my bibles, sucking me into the vortex of diets and exercise programs in a big way. I was also surrounded by women going on diets of various kinds. My mother never dieted to my knowledge, but my aunt, the women I babysat for, and characters on television shows, all spent a lot of time talking about losing weight and how dissatisfied they were with their bodies. It became ingrained in me that being thin was the ideal way to be.
Throughout high school and college, I tried many fad diets and some more “sensible” ones. I participated several times when I was younger as well. While I rarely had success with the fad diets, I had success with the others, which was probably the worst thing that could’ve happened. I was hooked.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. In terms of body trust, the first major experience that made me question my body was when I got my first period at the age of 10. I had no idea what was happening; I thought I was dying. It happened at school (of course) during Girl Scout Week. I went to a Catholic school where the girls had to wear uniforms, but during Girl Scout week, we could wear our scout uniforms. That had no bearing on any of it, except for permanently burning it into my brain. I spent the entire day worrying about how I would tell my parents I was dying. I was terrified.
I told my mother that afternoon. She was surprised and flustered that this had happened “so early” and told me what to do. The way I remember it, she also told me not to tell anyone about it, which made me feel like menstruation was something to be ashamed of. I felt ashamed of myself, not only for what was happening to my body but because I was abnormal in some way for it happening when it did. Rule follower that I was (and still am) I didn’t tell my friends and even tried to act clueless when the Growing Up and Liking It movie was shown to the girls in my class later that year. I felt very much alone.
The perceived betrayal of my body as a 10-year-old paved the way for my desire to control my body in terms of weight and size for decades to come. The numerous diets, exercise, and other means of control (over-the-counter appetite suppressants, herbal supplements, diuretics) became my norm, always with the goal of shrinking and controlling my body. Again, I had no idea that my behavior was potentially dangerous or unhealthy. I merely thought that’s what women did to be accepted and loved.
Fast forward to my first pregnancy in 1982. I was thrilled to be allowed to eat “normally” and while I didn’t overdo it, a doctor made me feel that way as he shamed me for the pounds I was gaining. There was no consideration for the fact that perhaps I’d been underweight before the pregnancy and needed to catch up to be healthy enough to grow a human. I ignored the warnings for the most part, but the anxiety of needing to lose the baby weight afterwards was a constant, low hum in the background.
My body betrayed me for a second time when my son was stillborn at nearly 34 weeks. How did this happen? I’d done everything correctly—I ate healthy meals regularly, I didn’t drink alcohol or consume caffeine. I did everything as instructed and I still had no control. My faith in my body and God were severely shaken. An autopsy revealed that I had done nothing wrong; a virus of some sort had attacked the placenta, which resulted in my baby’s demise. It was nothing I could have prevented. While that alleviated a tiny bit of guilt, my trust in my body fell to a new level. My body had let me down in the most devastating and heartbreaking way.
With no baby to love and nurture, I embarked on a mission to regain control over my body through restriction and exercise, something I’d basically been advised to do by every baby book I’d read. On reflection, I also did this to handle the big emotions I felt in mourning my child. Possibly I was punishing my body for its betrayal, but I didn’t see it that way. I thought I was doing the right thing by losing the baby weight before I could conceive again.
Infertility issues made conceiving again more complicated when we tried a year later. Again, I felt as though I couldn’t trust my body to do what it was made to do. I felt guilt and shame and that I was at fault. Since realizing that I had an undiagnosed ED at that time, I wonder if that hampered my ability to conceive, although no doctor discussed how I nourished my body or felt about it. I feel some guilt for that now, but I try not to dwell on this because I can’t change what happened then. I thought I was doing what was expected of me as a woman.
Fast forward again to perimenopause, another time in my life when my body behaved in unexpected ways. In the years before this, I’d had two healthy daughters and had been busy being a mom, so was more focused on their well-being than my own. I was still weight-conscious but tried to be “normal” for my daughters’ sake. I even relaxed about it to a certain degree…until I didn’t. Suddenly, I had gained weight in my stomach, which aside from pregnancy, was something new. I panicked. That’s when I returned to the weight loss program I’d gone to before and the rest is history.
If a physician had told me that gaining weight is normal and healthy during perimenopause, especially in the abdomen, I might not have allowed the ED to take over my life so completely. Instead, and due to other stressors in my life, I decided that if I couldn’t control everything around me, I could control my weight.
So, when the personal trainer said I had trust issues with my body, he was right. I wasn’t ready to admit it at the time and didn’t fully appreciate what he was saying until I began treatment for my ED. I’ve learned much about the wonderful, magical ways my body works and takes care of me when I let it.
Diet culture and the weight loss industry have perpetuated lies and have profited from damaging the precious relationship I could have had with my life. I’m not saying that circumstances would’ve been different, but I would have been happier and less plagued with guilt and uncertainty in handling them.
Today I know that my body never betrayed me, that it’s been on my side the whole time. Through recovery, I have learned to trust my body to take care of me and, in return, I take better care of myself.