“Mom, do you think you might have an eating disorder?” one of my children, who shall go unnamed, asked with more than a little hesitation.
My immediate reaction was, “Wait, what???” followed by confusion, anger and defensiveness. I have a complicated relationship with diagnoses. I welcome information but not the sense of being defined and limited that can accompany a diagnosis. Although I understand the necessity of giving and receiving it in service of progress and improvement, I have also seen the damage it can cause when we accept it as the final word and make it our resting place.
Human beings are incredibly complex systems and we all fall on a spectrum of physical, mental and emotional well-being. I hesitate to even use the words wellness or illness because short of extreme conditions of illness, most of the rest of us are comparing ourselves to other people whose mental, emotional and physical state we know nothing about.
So when I was asked a question regarding my relationship with food in a way that indicated something had gone terribly wrong with my mental/emotional wellbeing, I understandably became defensive. But soon after, curiosity won over and pulled out a back seat for my ego to sit and cool off. I wondered why someone so very close to me, someone who loves me dearly and unconditionally would wonder if my relationship with food may not be a healthy one.
I recently finished an Ultramarathon in which I had the privilege of having my dear friend and one of the best Ultra endurance coaches, Michael Li, share most of the eleven hours of trail time with me. Michael, in everyday life, is one of the kindest, gentlest and most thoughtful human beings I know. During a race, he is even more focused and mindful to only encourage and inspire me to the finish line. It’s no easy task given the length and challenges of these races, but he is a master at helping me get past the regular visitations of self doubt. I will never forget his words and tone when half way through this most recent race, he looked at me and said, “Carolyn, I’m telling you right here and now, we are never doing this again. Not like this!” What he meant by “this” is how I chose to eat in my everyday life as well as during races. He said I was being unintelligent (read stupid) and worst, disrespecting my body.
If I wasn’t already crying for other reasons, I would have done so when he gave me this talking to.
Michael had been my guest the night before the race when I hosted a number of runners for our “last meal” and served delicious steak and hamburgers, while I ate my banana, sprinkled with cinnamon and a dollop of nut butter. The next morning, I had my usual breakfast of coffee with oat milk before toeing the start line at 7.00am. It became evident during the race that I had started with an energy deficit which I expected my body to cover by tapping into my fat reserves, or some other kind of magic.
Now, with the race in the rear view mirror, Michael and my children having returned to their own lives of school and work, I realize that maybe my child was on to something. Maybe after decades of being told by the culture and media what my body should look like, a directive that seems to change every few years, I continue to be confused and disordered in my thinking about what nourishing and respecting this miraculous gift of a body requires.
Today, my body looks strong and capable on the outside, but on the inside, the central governor is often (not always) the fifteen year old who was on a constant search for thinness. Remember the Beverly Hills Diet, where we ate only pineapple and papaya for days and days until we developed sores in our mouths? I did that. How about Nutri-systems, where 3 meals a day were served out of boxes that were so filled with preservatives that they would have survived an apocalypse? I did that. The model for how I wanted to look was Kate Moss. Look her up. She’s gorgeous, but had the body of an adolescent boy. I strived for those proportions although my god-given shape couldn’t be more different. No matter! I kept at it and somewhere near my forties, I finally managed to get rid of the curves, cheeks, and general roundness that did not match the ideal body proportions of the culture. I remember when I was managing Saint Laurent in the early 2000’s and a client remarked with admiration, “Carolyn, you’re like a hanger. Everything looks good on you.” I was so proud. I had finally become a hanger!
And then something terrible happened.
The culture changed its mind. Seemingly overnight, bigger breasts, bigger cheekbones, and eventually, bigger butts were decided (by who?) to represent the ideal proportions of an attractive woman! I know that as women who are in the second half of our lives, there is an expectation that we should accept and love our bodies as they are. But in truth, when it comes to how we see and experience our bodies, so many of us still carry the confused and disordered thinking – distinctly different than a disorder diagnosis – of our teenage selves. I don’t have an easy solution to creating order from this decades long confusion, but am confident that a good place to start is to strive for an honest and truthful awareness of how we have been treating our bodies thus far in our life journey.
My child’s innocent yet profoundly thought provoking question was just a beginning for me, and beginnings always start with questions, not answers. If any professional tells you they have a simple answer to a problem that has taken years to develop, well, don’t believe them. The question I’ll be exploring in the year ahead is, “What is the purpose of my body?” I will ask, write about and explore this question with my own Coach because I know the first step to transforming disorder into a measure of clarity and order always begins with identifying purpose. I know this to be true because I’ve experienced that sense of deep purpose and connection with my body twice; each time I was pregnant. When my body’s purpose was crystal clear, so was my dedication and commitment to its nurture. But I lost my way soon after I stopped nursing my last child, and have been wandering in a desert that so many other women, and some men, spend a lifetime in.
Once I understand the purpose or purposes of my body, at this unique time in my life, then I can begin to create the kind of order that serves me, rather than the fickle culture and media surrounding us. I know this process won’t be easy or fast, it will require quiet courage and radical honesty, and a tribe of women who are willing to speak up and make this pilgrimage with me.
What is the question inside you that’s begging to be asked? The one that points you away from the ever changing and brutal game of whack-a-mole the culture plays with women’s body image, and towards your own unique and private conspiracy of purpose?
I want to know!
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