By Sarah Rzemieniak
Eating disorder recovery is one of the most courageous and transformative experiences you’ll ever go through.
Recovery requires working through fears and challenges, and often body image fears and distress can feel like some of the most challenging.
Part of you may truly want to give up your food rules and the constant thoughts about food and your body. However, fears of how your body will change and of how you will feel when it does, might seem like a huge barrier to making the changes part of you wants to be able to make.
For me, the fear that I might never feel at peace in my body was one of the biggest obstacles to being able to give up my eating disorder behaviors and fully recover. It felt like such a confusing and insurmountable obstacle.
If you feel the same, know that you are not alone. And also, know that this does not have to be a final stumbling block.
Each of the following helped me significantly and pulled me through many dark times when I believed recovery wasn't worth it or possible, and when I felt like daily behaviors surely must be better than feeling trapped in a body I could never feel at peace with.
I hope the following practices will bring you comfort, hope and renewed motivation to keep moving forwards.
1. Embrace Your Suffering
Weight gain as a phobia
It felt like what I can only imagine a phobic reaction feeling like.
For the first long while in my recovery every time I moved, every time I sat down in tight pants, every time I put on clothes or looked in a mirror or reflective window a feeling of panic would come over me, like I was having a phobic reaction to my changing, gaining body.
I had conditioned myself for so long to equate a certain body size with peace of mind and personal success and discipline that of course going against this by my own actions brought about the opposite feelings and thoughts automatically – panic, disgust, shame and fear. And for my anxious perfectionistic mind, this brought about a sense of panic that felt like a phobic reaction to my changing body.
However, a new way of viewing my struggle helped me significantly in being able to tolerate and push through this fear and discomfort.
I started working on accepting that yes it was absolutely hard, painfully hard, but also courageous. AND that it would get better. And that yes, my pain was real, it was like having a phobic reaction to my body after everything I had programmed myself to think for so long.
This concept of accepting the pain and discomfort that must come with overcoming a phobia helped me to compare my body discomfort to other things that feel uncomfortable and foreign at first, and then become normal to the brain over time: losing a tooth, having something new against your skin, your hand getting used to cold water.
It helped to remind myself that my brain just needed time to catch up to my body, and that my discomfort with my body just meant it was new, not that it was inherently wrong. The pain and discomfort were normal, AND would pass. My struggles were indeed courageous because of how hard they were. A phobia was no small thing to overcome.
The power of “Yes”
Saying “Yes” became an invaluable part of my recovery toolbox, despite how simple it seemed.
I learned this acceptance practice from Tara Brach’s book True Refuge.
Whenever I noticed thoughts that were in resistance to my current circumstances or to my body, I would simply repeat to myself slowly, “Yes”, several times in my head. It was amazing how my body would relax and soften and the distress from my thoughts would lessen.
Crying for healing
Letting myself cry became a transformative and healing practice for me. It acted as a powerful release when I felt overwhelmed by my changing body and fears that it would never get easier or feel worth it.
I would simply let myself cry, and soothe myself as best I could with self-compassionate thoughts and inner dialogues inspired by Kristin Neff’s wonderful book, Self-Compassion.
For example, with thoughts like, "It's okay, suffering is a part of life, and connects you to all of humanity. What you're doing is so brave. I'm so sorry you're in so much pain, but it's a beautiful, transformative thing. Let yourself feel it, you're doing such powerful work."
After, I would almost always feel more clear-headed and brave about the magnitude of the work I was doing. This made it so much easier to continue onwards and to not give up, even when it felt so painfully hard.
2. Start the Gradual Process of Unlearning
Beginning to question why I thought a thin, toned body was so beautiful and worth striving for in the first place was also a necessary practice.
Automatically seeing any body fat as a failure that needed to be fixed had become so ingrained for me. However, beginning to examine this belief helped me greatly in being able to lessen the automatic fearful thoughts that would pop up when I examined my changing body.
I started thinking about how unnatural it seemed that society viewed female bodies as beautiful when they were incredibly thin and had too little body fat to bear children….surely this must be a learned and not an inherent phenomena or we would never have survived as a species.
So if it was a conditioned preference, it could also then be unconditioned.
Looking at paintings and images of women from other eras such as the Renaissance, or images and sculptures of the Sacred Feminine and goddesses, which resembled anything but current mainstream models, helped me a lot.
I started seeking out images of larger models, larger famous women, and recovered individuals to look at as often as I could.
I stopped looking at magazines and social media that fed into the mainstream ideal of beauty, femininity and fitness, and this helped my unlearning a lot.
I also began listening to podcasts and reading books about the Health At Every Size® movement and Intuitive Eating, and found this extremely empowering and healing.
These approaches gave me new concepts and information to help me counter the mainstream messages about smaller bodies, less body fat, and clean eating equalling admirable personal responsibility.
3. Don't Just Tell Yourself, But Experience, How You Are So Much More
It can be so hard to accept perceived imperfections in our bodies when we feel like they represent so much of who we are.
Yes, they are the first thing people might notice about us, and people might judge us for them. Therefore for me, the biggest healing approach was to do things that helped me connect with the part of me that was so much more than my body.
I refer to this part of myself as my Soul, my heart, my inner wise self, or my higher self or healthy self, and you might refer to it as so many other things. But it’s the part of you that people would miss if you passed away, and in a deeper way than your personality. It’s the essence of who you are, whatever that might mean for you.
It’s what you love about those close to you even when they've gained weight, and even when they're in a bad mood.
Try to do as many things throughout your day as you can to connect with that part of you.
It might be meditating, even just for one minute. It might be a quiet walk in nature, appreciating a sunrise or sunset, or a feeling you get doing yoga or playing with an animal.
It's a feeling of connection to something larger than you, from a place deeper within you. A place that is lovable and potent regardless of your weight, shape or beauty.
Over the years of your eating disorder being the main voice you listen to and give power to in your mind, you may have lost awareness of this deeper part of you. However, it has just gotten buried and weakened over time, it is never truly gone.
Through the recovery process, the work will be to reawaken and strengthen it. It is this part of you that will heal and reintegrate your eating disorder self, and ultimately heal your body image.
This healthy self is the part of you that during recovery you are going to connect with more and more, and by doing so strengthen it. Then, it can provide all of the things your eating disorder has been providing for you, gradually putting your eating disorder out of a job.
Gradually, you will begin to feel connected to this part of you that is so much more than your body. Gradually, how you live your life and connect with yourself and others, with your body as your vehicle, will mean so much more than how your vehicle itself looks.
This is a wonderful TEDx talk that discusses body image resilience and the importance of not objectifying ourselves, which is something that can feel so normal to do over time. It ties in really well with the concept of experiencing ourselves as more than our bodies.
The Bottom Line
Anticipating the changes your body might have to go through during eating disorder recovery can feel daunting or even paralyzing.
When you've identified with a certain way of feeling good about yourself and coping with life for so long, it can feel like a Herculean task to consider being able to feel good about yourself and handle life without these. That makes so much sense.
I believe the key to being able to challenge your eating disorder behaviors and to strive for full recovery is to keep reminding yourself that your brain really can change. How you think about your recovered body now can fundamentally change.
Your brain became like this over time, and so with time and lots of patience, conscious repetition of new thoughts and new, scary behaviors it can also transform to be at peace with whatever your recovered body might be.
Full recovery takes time, and we often judge it in its intermediate stages, thinking they're the best it will ever get.
I know it can feel impossible to believe sometimes, that it really will get better, and this is where faith comes in.
We do so many courageous things in life that require some faith that the outcome will be positive and worth it, with no solid proof: saying our wedding vows, deciding to have children, starting a new career with an incredibly steep and not guaranteed learning curve.
Trust that when it comes to your body, your faith that you can have it all - a life free from eating disorder behaviors and thoughts, AND peace and joy in your new body - is not misplaced.
Please Note: In this post, I reflect on my experience with body image during my eating disorder recovery journey which included weight gain. I want to acknowledge here that the severity of an eating disorder is so often not related to being at a low weight or with any body weight or shape at all. I want to acknowledge that I do experience thin privilege (as well as other privileges) in this culture and that I do not and did not have to face oppression from our culture due to my recovered body’s size. I feel so much compassion for those who do, and dream and work for a culture where one's weight, size and health are viewed as neutral to who we are.
Sarah provides eating disorder recovery coaching to people worldwide via video.
Work With Sarah
Book your free 20 minute video consultation.
The Eating Disorder Center is a premier outpatient eating disorder therapy center founded by Jennifer Rollin. We specialize in helping teens and adults struggling with anorexia, binge eating disorder, bulimia, OSFED, and body image issues. We also offer therapy for obsessive compulsive disorder. We provide eating disorder therapy in Rockville, MD, easily accessible to individuals in Potomac, North Potomac, Bethesda, Olney, Silver Spring, Germantown, and Washington D.C. We provide eating disorder recovery coaching via Zoom to people worldwide. Connect with us through our website at www.theeatingdisordercenter.com
The Eating Disorder Center
We are a premier outpatient eating disorder therapy center in Rockville, Maryland.