The family story about me that has enthralled me most has to do with my thighs. My mother says that the nurses who cared for me in the hospital nursery would pick up my newborn legs and laugh about the immense size of my thighs–far too big for an average-weight baby, they chided. Eventually, this disproportion led to body-shaming nicknames, like Thunder Thighs and Drumstick. On the one hand, I embraced their abundance. They were thick and powerful and helped me easily press double my weight in the gym. But more often than not I hated my thighs, wishing out loud more than once that I could “cut the excess flesh from the bone with a carving knife.”
And now at 43 years old I wonder if I ever had a chance to escape developing an eating disorder when the first memorable comments made about my body were insults. Even babies aren’t safe from the prison of the perfect body image, I guess.
At the same time, I have come to a different place with my body than I ever knew possible. I spent my teens dieting and exercising my way to a thinner body that never appeared. In my twenties I hid out in an ever-expanding body that simultaneously protected me from hurt and hurt me with ill health. And I found recovery in my thirties and learned to accept what at first seemed like a hard truth: my body size has limits that cannot be dictated by me or any expectations set forth on the covers of a thousand magazines.
Not only was I born a certain fleshly dimension, I also have other factors that influence the way my body uses food. I have polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), an endocrine-metabolic disorder that almost always presents itself through sudden weight gain and a resistance to losing weight and keeping it off. I struggle with binge eating disorder (BED), which frequently leads sufferers to gaining excess weight. And after more than thirty years of yo-yo dieting and weight loss, it has become harder than ever to shed weight.
For years I thought if I accepted my body just as it is in that very moment in time I was making excuses for myself. I believed that if I did not want to be model thin then there was something psychologically wrong with me. I assumed that even though my family on both sides is populated by women with large hips and round thighs that somehow I should be the exception. I made it my life’s goal to whittle myself away to a body that I now know will not and cannot exist.
I was so sad, depressed, and frustrated that I finally went online and started searching for overeating symptoms. I found the National Eating Disorders Association website, took their screening, and it said I had symptoms consistent with binge eating disorder. I signed up for the NEDA Navigators program and I was connected with a wonderful NEDA Navigator who helped to guide me through my early months of recovery.
When I entered recovery for BED, I struggled to reconcile the desperate need to heal my mind from this mental disorder with absolute disinterest in ever focusing on weight loss again. Many programs for binge eaters focus on improving psychological wellbeing in addition to weight loss. While I understand the health risks of excess weight, I simply could not put myself through that torture again–of desiring less of my flesh, of transforming the body I know into a body that felt foreign and strange.
Ultimately, as I worked my way through my recovery plan, I lost weight. As I binged less and less, the pounds came off, but I found myself at the height of my recovery nowhere near what medical experts would call a healthy BMI. Despite feeling better and stronger and more energetic than I had in decades, my doctor still called my efforts failure. Even as friends and acquaintances complimented the revelation of my cheek bones and the disappearance of my love handles, they kept urging me to lose more to see “how cute you can get.” The final blow came when I was sexually harassed by a room full of men, which ultimately pushed me back to a place of trauma, where I thought that food and weight protected me from that kind of pain.
And then I relapsed. The thought of working harder than I already had been to achieve some ideal body type that was neither realistic nor even possible led to a slow but sure derailment of most of the significant lifestyle changes I had made during my recovery. As I dove deeper into the wreck of compulsive overeating, I could not feel my flesh expanding. I could not see my body growing larger by the day. All I knew was that I had lost it all again. I had failed again.
Now, over a year and a half on the other side of that relapse I am living in what I believe to be realistic recovery. I have accepted my body for what it is and refuse to listen to any talk about it. After all, even seemingly positive remarks can send my mind into a tailspin. I ask not to be weighed at the doctor’s office. I ask friends and loved ones not to compliment me on my appearance. I ask instead for feedback on how I am treating them and myself. Am I being a good friend? Am I getting enough rest? Learning how to take responsibility for my body is the greatest gift I have given myself. No one lives in this body but me, and I do want to live in it. Prioritizing weight loss is not part of my recovery.
Christina Fisanick Greer, Ph.D. Is a professional writer and an associate professor of English at California University of Pennsylvania. She has suffered from BED since age 11. She founded the Facebook group Food Addiction Recovery in 2013, which now boasts nearly 9,000 members. Her latest book is a memoir about her recovery journey, The Optimistic Food Addict: Recovering from Binge Eating Disorder.
This story is part of the Marginalized Voices Project. Learn more.