There was a little girl…

There was a little girl
Who had a little curl
Right in the middle of her forehead
When she was good
She was very, very good
And when she was bad, she was horrid

The above nursery rhyme, from what was initially a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, feels similar to an eating disorder for me. 

If you’re ‘good’, you’re amazing. If you’re dieting, thin, skinny, starving, purging food or over-exercising, and fitting into the smallest sizes, you’re fabulous. If you’re horrid, or bad, it’s because you’re eating, thinking about eating anything, not purging, your size and body is not like the others, you’ve gained any amount of weight or your belly is not completely flat all the time.

This is what I hear from my patients – I learn so much from their experiences and what they live when they are entrenched with their ED. This is why in many sessions with patients I suggest we don’t use these words around food or our bodies – good, bad, sorry, should, can’t, healthy, clean and diet(ing).

I have a vivid memory of stepping on the scale in front of my mother when I was young. This is when I was about 14 years old and could be described as a skinny teenager. I weighed exactly 100 pounds. I remember standing on the scale, in my parent’s bedroom, in the morning before school.

My mom weighed herself every day at least once. At least this is what I remember. She looked at me that morning – she was still lying in bed – and asked me my weight. When I told her ‘100 pounds,’ her response was, “You should always try to stay under 100 pounds, Robyn. Men like thin women.”

At the age of 14 I was not interested in men. Boys, yes, but even so not very much at that time. I was planning to study abroad and was heavily involved with my friends, school, church, and family. That comment stuck with me though.

This is a photo of me and my best friend from growing up. We were getting our fall sports team photos done with the rest of the school on this particular day. It was at this age, 14, that I became increasingly body conscious and constantly worried about getting fat. This little girl, with a curling iron curl and a lot of hair spray to keep it stay all day, was worried about not being good. She was worried she might be horrid if she became fat, ate food(s) with any fat at all, and weighed over 100 lbs.

Everywhere it seemed the adult women in my life at the time were infatuated with their weight. I remember my mom saying things like “I shouldn’t eat this, I should just tape it to my thighs.” So many comments about weight gained in three pregnancies and never lost. Then there was, “I’m just going to eat what Robyn eats because she’s skinny.” Grown (any age) women trying to look like they are young adolescents is a terrible idea.

When we’re young, these comments stick with us. There is research suggesting even infants learn their parents’ body language and attitudes toward food. Other research suggests this all begins in utero.

Hearing, listening, wondering, observing, and even learning (not positively) these thoughts and behaviors around food, weight, and bodies was definitely what drew me to my career. Even as a young teen I knew there absolutely had to be a better way to feel about your body. To think and relate to food. What did the scale matter anyway? But it did. For a long while.

Not until I got to college and took advanced nutrition classes did I really begin to understand how to position my own nutrition choices and body image around facts. Around science. Also, to connect my brain to my body and know I was loveable at any size or shape.

I decided the infatuation around food and weight and negative body image was not going to be my life. But it took years and hard work on my own and with some amazingly talented therapists. Others around me struggled with eating disorders or disordered eating. A college friend passed away, losing her battle with her eating disorder, shortly after graduation.

We do our best as parents. Every single day – even every single hour or minute for that matter. But there are parts of us based on our past and present environments – and our genes play a role, too. Eating disorders are genetically related and more about intergenerational trauma is available now than even a few years ago. Science is impassable in this regard. I don’t think my mom knew her comments or thoughts about herself and her relationships with food, her body, and her weight were sitting in my heart. In fact, I know she didn’t. It took a lot of undoing though. I think I am lucky.

Society and the media have become more accepting of bodies that come in different shapes and sizes, but have they? We still have a long way to go and specifically toward damaging and false social media trends.

When every day can seem harder or every meal can seem like a mountain to climb, don’t give up. Don’t let that boy, girl, friend, mom, dad, sister, brother, parent, or anyone else give up either. There is way more than the scale, your belly fat (real or perceived and is your belly really bloated or is your body digesting food and fluid?), a leggings ‘fad’, fitting into a smaller size and losing weight.

Eating and food can be enjoyable – fun, even. A specific body size, type or weight to be loved is NOT positive self-esteem. FreEDdom can be available to all of us. 

Resources for eating disorders awareness week (and beyond…):

Multi-Service Eating Disorders Association

Alliance for Eating Disorders Awareness