Imagine if, all of a sudden, 80 percent of your thoughts were taken away from you. Imagine if you were only allowed to plan, dream, act and be present during 20 percent of your waking hours, while the rest of your time was spoken for.
This is not just some strange thought experiment. This was my daily reality for five years.
And who was stealing 80 percent of my free-flowing thoughts? Who was enslaving my mind, forcing my attention away from things that mattered in life, preventing me from doing or even thinking about anything remotely important?
You might call her an eating disorder.
No licensed therapist ever called her that though, so she might better be named “body dysmorphia” or “body image issues.” Regardless of what we call her, she was evil. She was relentless. She was all-consuming.
I’ve shied away from sharing this story publicly for a long time because for years, “she” was my best-kept secret. Nobody knew about her, not even the people who knew me most intimately. She was something I buried deep inside of me under piles of shame and fear.
It’s strange that something so deeply rooted originated at surface level. Anyone who knows me or who has seen me from afar knows that I am tall. Not just tall. Tall. If there’s one word I’ve heard used to describe me most frequently, that is undoubtedly it. I’ve been taller than almost every one of my female peers (and most of the male ones, too) for as long as I can remember. And for just as long, people have made comments to me about it.
My family, my friends, my friends’ parents, people on the street — it seemed like all anyone had to say to me as I was growing up was, “You’re so tall.” Please believe me when I say, I truly don’t think a single one of these people had bad intentions when they were commenting on my stature. Regardless of their intentions, unfortunately, throughout years of being told by virtually everyone I met that I was tall, other people’s opinions about my body gradually gained importance to me.
My height increased much faster than my width could keep up with, so I was always pretty thin and lanky. I remember some of my friends giving me praise as early as elementary school because I could “eat anything I wanted” and still remain skinny. Over the course of my childhood and early adolescence, the main observation people made about me had something to do with my appearance.
It wasn’t long before my image became the core of my identity. I didn’t want it to be this way. I worked my butt off in school to show the world that I was more than just 5’11” and skinny. I wanted people to realize that inside the head attached to my long, slender body, there were brilliant ideas and intelligent questions and big dreams. Eventually, people started to use another word to describe me: “smart.” But what I didn’t realize while I was working toward straight A’s in an attempt to prove my worth was that I wasn’t freeing myself from judgments about my body. Instead, I was simply giving people one more adjective with which to describe me, and I was giving myself yet another faulty method of measuring my value.
There were now two major areas of my life I felt a desperate need to control, both of which were grounded in other peoples’ perception of me. When I went off to college and joined a sorority, my body image took the front seat. I equated my value with being accepted and liked by the people around me, and the majority of the people around me were stick-thin and talked incessantly about losing weight. This further fueled my desire to control the way I looked, and I kicked my already dangerous behaviors into high gear. I obsessively tracked the number of calories I ate at every meal, I exercised intensely for one to two hours every day and I began eliminating entire food groups from my diet. The thinner and more toned I became, the more validation I received, and the more validation I received, the more I was encouraged to continue pushing my body to its limit. After years of believing I was too tall — that I was too much for people — I was determined to become smaller.
My actions had terrible consequences on my health and my relationships. I was constantly sick, and I had amenorrhea (meaning I lost my period) for a year and a half. Even with all the extreme measures I was taking to make my body look the way I wanted it to, I was never satisfied. When I looked in the mirror, I saw a collage of parts that weren’t good enough. The physical exhaustion wasn’t even the worst part of this struggle. The worst part was that, no matter how hard I tried, I could not stop thinking about my body, food and exercise. My mind was captive to my body. From the moment I woke up to the moment I fell asleep, my stream of consciousness was filled to the brim with thoughts and criticisms about what was wrong with my exterior and how I was going to change it.
You may be thinking, “What a miserable existence!” The truth is, I went through life like this for years, allowing my disordered thoughts to control me without ever questioning them. As I mentioned, most of the women I surrounded myself with were on the same train, and obsessing over my body seemed utterly normal. Not having time or energy to think about anything else seemed normal, too.
Biology eventually caught up with me.
After a few days or weeks of restricting my food, my starving body would inevitably go on autopilot to get the calories it needed. I began a cycle of restricting, binge-eating everything in sight, feeling sick for twenty-four hours, vowing never to lose control of myself again, killing myself in the gym to work off the excess calories I had consumed, and restricting all over again. This began happening more and more frequently, and I grew frustrated with my inability to maintain control.
It wasn’t until my senior year of college that I finally had a much-needed wakeup call. I had just started leading a Bible study in my sorority about identity and the obstacles that prevent us from being fully alive. It was the first week of the study, and the topic just so happened to be Image. As I was wrapping up the night with a closing prayer, I felt a gentle, yet unmistakable, tug in my heart. My sorority sisters filed out of the room, but I sat there with a sudden conviction that God wanted more for me than what I had been choosing for myself. I knew what He saw in me was so different from the collection of parts I saw when I looked in the mirror. Tears began to fall from my eyes as the blinders were lifted from them. I knew I needed to make a change, and I knew I couldn’t do it on my own.
In the weeks that followed, I began regularly seeing counselors and nutritionists to help me begin healing from the physical and emotional damage I had experienced. I eventually was connected with an amazing life coach who was a complete Godsend; together, we worked through the underlying reasons I had turned outward in search of my value. I eventually opened up to a few of my closest friends, and they reaffirmed my true identity — a beloved, cherished daughter of our loving Creator.
It has taken me a long time to allow new thoughts, ideas and dreams to take over that vast chasm of space which used to be occupied by her, my body image struggle. I would be lying if I said she has completely vacated the premises; she comes to visit from time to time, but I do my best to kick her to the curb as soon as I realize she’s broken in. I know I’m not the only one she takes up residence with. She is a disease in our culture, and she is insidious. Most people don’t even realize she’s there.
“Diet culture” is a term used to describe the one in which we are currently living, one that says our worth depends on how well we match up to the current societal standard of beauty. I implore you not to concede to this way of thinking. You are more than the world’s opinion of you, and you have so much more to offer than a slim figure or strong muscles. Time is one of our most precious resources, and we cannot afford to waste any of it on vain pursuits. God has given each of us a unique and unrepeatable purpose, and my prayer is that you would be free to discover it.
Imagine if, all of a sudden, 80 percent of your thoughts were given back to you. What would you do?