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Learning to Embrace My Body After Years of Disordered Eating

For much of my life, food controlled me.

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Woman standing on scale with projections of manipulated body shapes behind her
Elena Lacey
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The first time I took a seat on the diet train, I had just turned 11. My jeans were starting to feel snug, and my mother’s frequent belly pokes were a reminder that I was gaining weight. I didn't know the first thing about dieting, but my older sister Cherie did. She counted calories and carefully measured her food before each meal. I never understood why she wanted to lose weight — she looked perfect to me. But our family's gene pool was filled with large-boned ancestors who had equally large appetites and incredibly slow metabolisms. Cherie was determined to break our stubborn cycle of weight gain by trying every fad diet offered by Cosmopolitan magazine.

Middle school was starting soon, and I had to get rid of my belly if I wanted to fit in with the popular crowd. When Cherie offered to help me, I jumped at the chance, not realizing the sacrifices expected if I wanted to be skinny. Dining on turkey sliced paper thin and served over a bed of dry lettuce was not satisfying. I wanted more, but my mother guarded the refrigerator as if  it were Fort Knox. I lasted only two weeks on the diet but, to my surprise, lost 10 pounds. I loved the praise I received for losing weight, but deep down I was miserable with hunger. Not even my smaller jeans could rival the siren call of pizza and chocolate bars. 

My diet derailed the night I snuck into the pantry and shoveled fistfuls of dry Trix cereal into my mouth while everyone else was watching Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In. It felt strangely freeing to cross the boundary of what was considered acceptable eating in my family and do something I enjoyed with total abandon.

Secret eating became my dirty little habit. I planned my binge eating around the hours when no one else was home or after everybody else had gone to bed, and hoarded extra food in my bedroom. Puberty was just starting to set in, and I felt as if my body were betraying me. As the changes occurred the numbers on the bathroom scale crept up. I decreased my intake to 600 calories a day until the pounds fell off, but then I would begin the cycle of binge eating again. I was still at war with my body during college, my quest to be thinner amplified when I found a way to drop weight while enjoying fattening foods.

Several of my girlfriends ate whatever they wanted, then induced vomiting afterward without gaining a single pound. Once I figured out how easy it was to purge after a major binge, it became my routine in a vicious cycle of reward and punishment that lasted for many years. 

After I met my future husband, a man with a big heart who was generous with compliments and affection, I felt more comfortable in my own skin. Stepping on the brakes to end my dangerous dieting habits, I found what I considered a healthier alternative to control my weight when aerobic classes became popular in the '80s. I jumped into the heavy cardio workouts, believing that the more I exercised, the skinnier I'd become.

But food was still controlling my life: If I ate a cheeseburger and fries, I headed immediately to the gym for a double workout to burn off the 900-calorie meal. When I was pregnant with my first child, I continued high-intensity exercise despite my doctor's advice to stop. I'd seen what postpartum weight did to my friends who'd let their bodies go soft and vowed never to let that happen. But nine years and four babies later, I suddenly found myself trapped inside a body I no longer recognized. 

The yo-yo dieting started all over again with late-night binge-eating sprees, followed by days of fasting. For years I spent a small fortune on diet plans and pills that falsely promised I'd effortlessly lose 20 pounds, but nothing worked. Food was my drug of choice; I just didn't have the courage to admit that I was an addict. Instead, I criticized my reflection in the mirror every morning and concealed my self-loathing behind baggy clothing in the hopes that no one would notice my struggle. 

But my daughters noticed. They grew up frowning at their reflections and experimenting with whatever diet was currently trendy. I should have taught them to love themselves no matter how they looked and to believe that real beauty comes from the heart. But I'd failed them by allowing my weight to define me. It took years of support and in-depth conversations with them to undo the damage I'd caused.

I'm working hard now to make the necessary changes in myself, and it is my daughters who have given me the courage to do so. They're young adults today — successful and confident, but more importantly, they are happy. And they are my role models. I've stepped off the diet train, no longer allowing food to control me.

The first step was acknowledging that I have an eating disorder; the second was learning to be kinder to myself. I stay active and eat right for the most part, but I don't obsess over calories anymore or punish myself with grueling workouts. Sure, it would be nice to be 30 pounds lighter, but as I get older the numbers on the scale are less important to me, as long as I'm still healthy and surrounded by the people I love. 

When I look in the mirror now, I see beyond my skin to the heart that beats beneath. And I am finally free to embrace this perfectly imperfect body.

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