Just like moseying into the kitchen to grab a coffee as soon as my eyelids cracked open, stopping to examine my body every time I passed a mirror was a subconscious compulsion I did without a second thought. I’d turn to one side, then the other, and determine my worth for the day based on how much my stomach protruded.
For as long as I could remember, at least since hitting puberty when my once-flat belly began to bloat, my stomach size determined my worth every single day. If it stuck out more than normal, I’d be ashamed and starve myself for the day. But, if it was within my acceptable range, I’d splurge and binge, sometimes eating thousands of calories in one meal.
Since giving birth to my oldest daughter, I knew I needed to get a handle on my eating disorders; my biggest fear was passing my habits onto her. But healing my relationship with food was always tomorrow’s problem. I continually told myself the children were too young to notice my habits, let alone comprehend my inner dialogue. One day I’d recover, but I didn’t have to quite yet.
Looking back, I wasn’t ready to heal because I feared that, without the appearance of control, my body would swing like a pendulum to a point of no return. My eating disorders wrapped me in a cocoon of self-absorption that kept me from reflecting on the things holding me back in my life. My fight against food meant I wasn’t fighting with my then-husband, setting boundaries with people who wronged me, or researching and advocating against issues in society. I was too busy spending every free moment reading about body cleanses and foods that blasted belly fat that I didn’t have the room to think about anything else.
One ordinary morning as I turned to the side to examine my body from every angle, I caught my five-year-old’s eye in the mirror. When I noticed her watching me, my nerves prickled like a startled cat as if I’d just been caught in a lie. I didn’t know how long she’d been watching, or if she saw me grab the skin and pull it out, and then suck it back in as far as I possibly could. I opened my mouth to try and say something witty or deflective but she looked away, seemingly uninterested, and I exhaled relief at the thought that I was still in the clear.
Not long after that, I caught her observing me in the mirror again. Her eyes were glazed over with a neutral look, the way she looked when we’d been walking through the Target aisles for two hours. But this time it didn’t alarm me as much; she had no idea what I was doing and didn’t care. According to her, I was looking at my body. It was innocent. It’s not like she’d ever seen me shove my toothbrush down my throat in an attempt to vomit an entire meal. I made certain to only do that at night when she was asleep, or when she was at preschool. Yes, she watched me weigh food, log it into my phone, and sometimes not eat, but anyone watching their weight did that. It was normal. I was normal(ish).
I was as certain that I was getting away with this big secret as I was that if I bought a carton of ice cream, I’d eat the entire thing in one sitting.
And then one day as I carried a bag full of laundry into my room to fold, I caught my daughter looking in the mirror as she turned to the side the same way I did. Her eyes grazed down her tiny body as she looked at her tummy like she was trying to understand what I had been doing. A red flag popped up, but that inner demon inside me — the one that gave me delusional self-worth based on my size — reassured me that she was only looking at herself in the mirror. Everyone did that. I took an extra precaution and cheerily said she looked beautiful and was so lucky to have such a strong and healthy body.
Then I caught her doing it again. And again. Every time her eyes were searching for some sort of answer. I don’t know if it was days or weeks later, but one morning as I left the bathroom and examined my stomach in the mirror, my five-year-old came into the room and said, “I wish my tummy was as small as yours, mommy.” My heart dropped into my stomach and knocked the air out of me.
It was one of those moments when the pretty glass reality you were living in gets cracked and tumbles down. When I looked at her face, I instantly recognized the pain in her eyes; it was the same pain I felt on the days I was deemed unworthy of food. I’d planted a seed of self-loathing in her brain, that I then watered every time I mentally picked myself apart in the mirror. And now here she was, about to start kindergarten, already filled with the agony I felt of not loving your body or self.
I said all the reassuring things that I thought would fix it. “Your body is perfect!” “You’re beautiful!” “Don’t think things like that!” “Don’t ever compare your body to anyone else’s!” As if throwing words at her would fix this problem before it snowballed into a life-consuming avalanche that she’d spend years trying to run from. And, of course, it didn’t work.
She’d later tell me three more times that she wished her stomach was smaller. And then a friend told me she overheard my sweet, gentle daughter tell her friends that she wanted to be as skinny as another friend’s mother when she was older. I didn’t understand how she even learned the verbiage when I’d been so careful not to say anything negative around her. I was a mother, her protector, and her teacher. Like a sponge, something ugly absorbed into her through our parent-child osmosis. She saw how I felt about myself and thought if I, her role model, didn’t love my body the way it was, then she shouldn’t love hers either.
I decided, at least for her, that it was time to stop hiding and numbing. Like learning a new language, I immersed myself in recovery. I bought books, listened to podcasts, read articles, watched YouTube videos of people who healed, and started going to therapy. I ate, breathed, and lived eating disorder recovery for six months as the pings of disillusion and fear became less and less. I retrained my lower brain to trust me by promising myself I’d never starve again, which eventually stopped the binging, followed by the desire to purge. And, so very slowly, almost beyond my awareness, I learned to let go of the control.
I began to love myself, to eat when I was hungry, and stop when I was full. I stopped excessively exercising with the mentality of punishment and began going on more walks with my children, and doing fewer sit-ups alone in my room. Over time, new pathways formed in my brain while others shut down like abandoned ghost towns.
Somewhere along the way, my daughter stopped talking about her body and looking in the mirror with criticism. Letting go of the control felt like hell, but it was worth it so my two daughters could grow up with a mother who mirrors self-love instead of self-hate.
My recovery may have been inspired by my daughter, but it ended up being especially for me.