About six months ago I admitted to you all that it pissed me off that the joy of a big accomplishment like running my first marathon was muted by my poor body image. A little over a week ago, I promised I was going to finally take some action to try and improve this mental and spiritual ailment that has plagued me since I was a young girl. That’s what this is: THE ACTION. Almost ten years ago now (I can’t freakin’ believe that!) I used the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous to get sober. To this day I still use them to stay sober–this shit is a disease and the recovery from it is an ongoing process. It occurred to me a while ago that I might try and use the 12 steps to repair and reconfigure my body image as well. After all, groups all over the world have adopted and adapted these steps for pretty much every issue you can think of: gambling, sex, food addiction, you name it.
In order to establish and maintain a commitment to this process, I have decided to document it here. I invite any and all to join me–especially those struggling with something themselves. Ten years ago, alcohol was literally destroying my life. My health was failing, I had been arrested, I’d lost jobs and friends, I was having mortifying and highly regrettable sexual experiences on a regular basis. Things were bad. While it was great to find groups of people that I could relate to and who offered me support, that in and of itself was not enough. Just not drinking was not enough. I had to intrinsically change the person I was inside. If I didn’t, I knew eventually I would go back to being that person who lied and stole and couldn’t be depended on. I also knew that I couldn’t bear being that person without a drink–the shame of that life was too much to live with. So, if I wanted to not just get sober, but stay sober, I knew I had to rewrite the constitution of my being. Enter: The 12 steps.
While the situation I am facing now with my body image does not outwardly appear to be nearly as dire–the inward ache in my soul is similarly agonizing. I don’t believe that not starving myself is as good as it can get. I don’t accept that “feeling fat” is just a part of being a woman. I’m determined to fight the system that upholds a culture where women are expected to be obsessed with how their bodies look. In order to fight that system though, I need to resign from it and actually live and think differently myself. I am hoping these steps can help me move in the right direction.
Quickly, about me: I’ve struggled with my body image since I understood that not all bodies were the same (about 5 years old). From the age of 12 till about 25 I struggled with both anorexia and bulimia. I spent about three months in a treatment center for eating disorders and self harm when I was 22 years old, but didn’t completely abstain from those behaviors until I got sober at the age of 25. If you’d like to read more in depth about my experience with eating disorders you can do so here–or with sobriety, here.
If this is your first introduction to any type of 12-Step recovery work–welcome. I hope in witnessing my journey you’ll find something useful for yourself. In my recovery I have found it more productive to relate to what I can in someone’s story, rather than needlessly compare. Take what is valuable to you–and share it, and leave whatever is not.
Seeking only progress in this space, not perfection. Thanks for coming along for the ride. Here we go…
Step One: We admitted we were powerless over our body image–that our lives had become unmanageable
What does it mean to “admit” something?
I just looked up the definition of admit and not surprisingly it felt spot on–confess to be true or to be the case, often reluctantly. It’s the word reluctant that really hits home for me. When I share something, I’m usually doing it willingly. When I “admit” something, it’s usually with some hesitation–the admission feels a bit like a defeat. I usually only admit when I feel like I have to. Not coincidentally at all that that’s the spot I am in now. Instead of feeling defeated though I instead feel encouraged that I am no longer in denial. I’m not blogging or posting on social media about how body confident I am or only showing the best pictures of myself and acting like it’s all I see. Admitting means coming out of the darkness of denial and into the light, and I’m happy to be out and seen.
Why do you think this steps says “We” admitted, rather than “I” admitted?
I think the step says “We” rather than “I” because we are not alone. That is the entire basis of the 12 step program–it is the foundation of how it worked from the very beginning. It was one alcoholic helping another alcoholic by sharing their story. In some ways, it rarely has to get more complicated than that. I think the “we” definitely applies to the issue I am trying to tackle here as well–body image. I know I am not the only one struggling. While I’ve been in the camp that’s taken that struggle to the extremes at times (i.e eating disorders, self harm), I’m now a part of the broader population whose become accustomed to a general dissatisfaction with their bodies. I am not the only who feels this way, and I don’t have to try and get better all by myself. There are others. There is help.
What does the term “powerless over body image mean?”
To me, “powerless over body image” means that I am unable to control the percentage of my brain that is occupied by thoughts surrounding the physical appearance of my body. The fact that many of my actions are guided by my thoughts surrounding my physical appearance (although these actions are not as severe as they once were), also indicates that I am powerless over my body image.
What does the term “our lives had become unmanageable mean?”
To me, “Our lives had become unmanageable” simply means that we have gotten to a point where the way we are living is no longer sustainable. When I first got sober, I had some trouble with the idea of my life being unmanageable– (although once I went through ways it was with a sponsor it became very clear). The truth was I was “getting by”, so I thought I was ok. Then I entered recovery and learned that there was another way to live. That thriving–rather than just getting by–was an option. I discovered that actually wanting to get up in the morning, and wanting to LIVE, was actually a thing–that not every person was just surviving like I was. Once I understood that there was more than one way to live–I was able to look at my life and realize how unmanageable and unsustainable it was. With my drinking, I knew I couldn’t continue on that way and not eventually want to kill myself. With my body image now, I know that I can’t fully be the person I want to be and really possess the full autonomy I desire, if I remain on the same path.
- List examples of your powerlessness (try for at least 10)
- I can be having a perfectly lovely day, and one glance in the mirror can steal my joy.
- I can’t seem to walk by glass doors or windows without scrutinizing my appearance.
- I have body dysmorphia. There are women who I know factually weigh more and wear larger sizes than me, yet I still see myself as “bigger” than them.
- Tied to the body dysmorphia…I can think I look fine and even “thin”, but then what I see in the mirror physically changes if I eat sugar or a lot of grains.
- I almost always order one or two sizes too big when I online shop because each time I go to purchase new clothes I don’t believe I really wear the size I wear, and I always assume I’ve probably grown in size.
- A person’s comment about my body–whether positive or seemingly negative can disrupt my train of thought for LONG periods of time.
- I wake up in the morning, determined to engage in only positive self talk–but many days, I’m not able to sustain that and the negative thoughts about my body become the most prominent in my mind.
- Less so now than in the past, but still, feeling “fat” often leads to actions such as not eating a certain food or pushing it harder in a workout–or even adding an extra workout, when I had previously planned to rest.
- I am generally averse to flesh–whether it’s my own or that of other people. If someone has what society has deemed the appropriate amount of flesh or fat on their body, I find their appearance generally acceptable. If however I see someone in short shorts or a crop top that has more than the acceptable amount of flesh hanging out, my immediate thought is that they should cover up–that their exposure of their flesh is somehow offensive. My second thought is more power to them for living free and not being inhibited by society’s norms but I am definitely powerless over that very automatic first thought.
- List examples of how your life became/is unmanageable (try for at least 10)
- The joy of major life moments is sometimes dulled due to thoughts surrounding my body image. Examples: During my wedding, I thought my arms looked fat. After I ran my first marathon, I thought I looked chubby in all of the photos.
- I put things off until I look “fit” enough. Examples: Taking photos for my blog, wearing a dress that I love.
- I focus less on how I will feel when I accomplish athletic goals, and more on how my body might look once I’ve done the work that might allow me to achieve them.
- When I picture being happy in the future, it always includes being “fit” enough.
- When I picture being successful, it always includes being “fit” enough. So in my mind I guess I couldn’t ever be truly happy or successful if I wasn’t also “fit”.
- I have a lot of things I want to accomplish, but often feel like a good portion of my energy, resources, and brain power are being spent on my body image.
- Obsessing over how I look takes from me, but it never really gives me anything back–and yet I continue to engage and go back for more torture. I don’t really do that with other things. I’m allergic to pumpkin seed oil (really random, I know). It makes me feel like I can’t breathe. Because of this, I don’t eat it. Similarly, obsessing over my body makes me feel like I can’t breathe–yet I go back to it over and over again. There’s that powerlessness again.
- I often dress in a way that desexualizes my body and tamps down my appearance in order to disappear and not provoke attention. It makes me feel disconnected to myself as a woman, but is also often a relief. I feel a daily choice of whether to be an “attractive” woman that is objectified, or an unattractive one who no one sees. This choice often originates from the perception of my weight and physical form that day.
#9 on my powerless list makes me feel ashamed. I hate that my first instinct is to judge other women. I contribute to my own objectification when I judge someone else’s skin and how much of it they choose to show. I am glad though that I can feel this changing. That first thought is always there–but my second thought is coming behind it more and more quickly and it’s much more loving and accepting, and reveals a certain admiration for women who can live out loud and freely in their own skin–regardless of their size.
#8 on my unmanageable list is a whole lotta shit to unpack. Another day…
I’m fairly embarrassed to write just one post about how much space body image and weight take up in my brain. The fact that I have eleven more to go isn’t easy to think about. I don’t want you to see me as a basket case who doesn’t have her shit together. I want you to see me as a strong and confident woman. The truth is though, more than I want you to see me as that–I want to be that. If I’m to become the badass I want to become, then I’ve got to be open and vulnerable and honest about what’s really inside. In some ways, it does feels good to put this all down on paper and say it out loud. It reminds me of when I was first just going to AA meetings because I was court ordered to. I wouldn’t say I was an alcoholic. I’d say my name and then something awkward about how I was sent there. Finally, when I ran into a woman from my past at a meeting, a woman who would become (and still is) my sponsor, I asked her what the hell she was doing there. She laughed and answered, “I’m an alcoholic, what are you doing here?” Finally defeated and teary eyed, I sat down on the picnic table next to her and replied, “I’m an alcoholic too.” If I would have known the relief that would come from saying those words, “I’m an alcoholic”, I would have said them years before. So sure, there’s some defeat in all these admissions–in the revelation of my powerlessness. But there’s freedom too–and you better believe that’s what I’m here for.
cat h. bradley
header: Jennifer Burk