I am not a special snowflake. I have the same body image story that lots of you do. See if any of this rings a bell: young, American, fat girl, eating disorder, lacking self-esteem, confused about identity, hating her body, feeling unsatisfied.
I spent more than a decade totally disconnected from my body.
Either I was at war with my body – trying to control it by dieting, or I was punishing it through disordered eating, punitive exercise, hating it, ignoring it altogether.
When I first started my journey to recovering from disordered eating, poor self-esteem, and bad body image, one of the things I did was chart my hunger. All day, every day, I hauled out little index cards and wrote down how hungry I was at different times of the day (on a scale of 1-10), and what I was feeling at the time. Most of the time, the cards looked like this:
February 20, 9:45am
Feeling: I feel fine?
Most of the hunger ratings ended in question marks.
All the feelings ended in question marks.
Honestly, I had no idea how hungry I was.
I had spent so long being completely disconnected from my body. I could understand things like feeling hot or having to pee, but identifying a mental state or what I felt in my heart or my gut – no clue.
As I started to pay attention to my physical hungers and understand those sensations in my body, I also had to acknowledge that it was never really about the food. The core of the problem wasn’t about how full or empty my stomach was. I was hungry for something else.
What was I really hungry for?
Bingeing and soothing myself with food seemed like autopilot for a really long time. It was the only option. I knew that whenever a strong emotion would come my way – anger, sadness, vulnerability, even elation, I was going to binge. Even though a large part of me knew that I didn’t want to do it, I was going to do it anyway.
Using food to numb out would take the edge off the “I’m not ok” feeling, or the anger, loneliness, and sadness. Numbing out with food was a temporary fix, and always left me feeling worse afterward since I would also feel shame about bingeing on top of the unpleasant emotions I started with.
Bingeing physically hurt me, filled me with shame, and I knew deep down, that it was never going to touch the deeper, real hunger – no matter how full I stuffed myself. It took a long time of practicing, reflecting, asking, learning, messing up, being vulnerable before I started to understand what I was truly hungry for.
Here’s what I know about figuring out true hunger:
It takes sitting with that bone deep pain, the pain that feels like it consumes your whole being, and knowing that it will pass.
It takes letting it suck, and telling yourself that no feeling is final.
It takes learning “this too shall pass” deep down in your body, and once it does pass, asking yourself hard questions about what you’re really hungry for.
It took a long time to figure it out, and yes, I’m still figuring it out.
I’ve discovered that most of the time I’m truly hungry for…
- true connection
- physical touch
- to be seen and heard
- deep community
- to be fed spiritually
- joyful movement
- really inhabiting my body
What yoga taught me about true hunger
Yoga cracked open my curiosity toward my body. I didn’t think I could love it, but I thought that maybe it could be my partner in crime. I thought I could at least be in it, and use it to explore things.
As I have practiced throughout the years, I cultivated awareness of my body. I got to know it. I learned about the sensations I was feeling. I started to be able to identify them. I learned the difference between hunger in my stomach and hunger for affirmation, recognition, being seen, being heard, being touched.
I learned to cultivate that internal witness.
I learned mindfulness – paying attention, on purpose, without judgment.
Through practicing mindfulness with things like my breath or sensations from my body in a pose – I was able to look at myself off the mat and really be honest about what I felt, what I saw.
Through mindfulness, I was able to be present, which helped me recognize feelings in my body and the difference between physical hunger and emotional hunger.
Through mindfulness, I learned to look, to watch – without judgment – and see what I was really hungry for, without worrying too much about what that meant about me as a person.
Yoga helped me find the courage to know that I am enough, just as I am. That I don’t have to strive for a thinner body, a better career, or a perfect natarajasana to be worthy of love and care.
Starving for awareness
I was one of the lucky ones. Eating disorders – such as anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorder – are serious, potentially life-threatening conditions that affect both a person’s emotional and physical health.
February 26-March 4 is National Eating Disorders Awareness week.
Eating disorders, especially anorexia nervosa – have the highest death rate of any mental illness. Between 5% and 20% of people who develop the disease eventually die from it. The longer you have it, the more likely you will die from it. Even for those who survive, the disorder can damage almost every body system.
In the United States alone, 30 million people will be impacted by an eating disorder at some point in their lifetime. Eating disorders can include extreme emotions, attitudes, and behaviors surrounding weight and food issues. They affect all kinds of people and don’t discriminate by race, age, sex, age or size.
At least 1 in 20 adults have exhibited some key symptoms of anorexia, but do not exhibit the full-blown illness.
Unfortunately, many never receive treatment because they don’t fully meet the diagnostic criteria — even though subthreshold eating disorders can be just as severe in terms of eating pathology, physical complications and other mental health problems.
– Jenni Shaefer and Dr. Jennifer Thomas, authors of Almost Anorexic
If you or someone you know is struggling, help is available. Take a free screening. It could save your life.