I Hate my Body, What Should I Do?
Sam W replies:I'm in a long-distance relationship with a guy I met on a dating site, and I am having a very difficult time with showing him my body in a way that is real as opposed to posed/cropped/filtered in a way that makes me look better. To give some background, exactly a year ago I developed disordered eating, then "graduated" to binging/purging. I've always been fat, since I was little, and I think that is part of the reason I look the way I do now. I've always hated my body for obvious reasons, but I never really did anything about it until last year, and in fact the disordered eating developed from me deciding to lose weight the healthy way until I discovered that fewer calories = more weight loss. I lost this weight with literally zero exercise and for some reason I can't get myself to do it. So therein lies my issue.
Because I lost all this weight without any form of exercise outside of basic walking when necessary or working, my body is legitimately disgusting. It's flabby, loose, my breasts are like half empty sacks, my thighs are humongous blobs of fat and cellulite (not exaggerating, not body dysmorphia, real fact), and the only part of me that isn't obviously fat is my face and it's marred by the deep smile lines you get when you lose weight rapidly. I literally look so much fatter than girls 30+ lbs heavier than me, I don't carry the excess weight well at all. I've seen similar articles where you tell girls that fat does not mean they look bad/unsexy and I agree-- there was a particular article very similar to my situation except she noted that she carried her weight well and it was mostly just about the number on the scale, but it's just not applicable in my situation because of the disgusting state my rapid weight loss left my body in. I don't know what to do and it's affecting my relationship with my LDB because I'm basically lying to him about my attractiveness and I feel like he'll be so disgusted he'll leave me when he finds out what I really look like, and a big part of me thinks he's lying/sparing my feelings about liking what he's seen so far, because there's only so much that posing/trick cropping/filters can do.
I know the solution probably seems simple (start working out) but for some unfathomable reason I can't get myself to bother, even when looking at my body makes me physically repulsed and trying to take an attractive photo for my boyfriend usually ends with me in a depressed state/hating myself more than usual. I'm just kind of hoping there is some insight from someone else that I might be missing. I'm really trying to get back into restricting (I know it's stupid but I can't lose weight thru normal means anymore and I refuse to gain more weight just for the sake of recovery) but I always end up stuffing my face and then wanting to cry over the number on the scale the next day.
It gives me so much anxiety to even think about showing him the disgusting mess that is my body, and part of me hopes I'll magically get to my goal weight by this summer (when we said we'd meet) but objectively I know I won't because I'm not putting the effort into watching what I eat and exercising. He's already considered breaking up because of the distance, I can't imagine he'll wait around for me to get a more attractive body whenever/if I manage to. I love him so much, but I can't help but think his love for me isn't real because he doesn't know who he's claiming to love. I feel like a terrible person, selfish for staying in the relationship under essentially false pretenses. I just can't get myself to let him go even though I know I'm not worth his time.
I guess my question is: what can I do? I'm at the point of giving up on everything, honestly. Please if you have any advice (beyond seeking psych help-- other mental issues have interfered with my ability to talk to them in the past and I don't think my habits are dangerous/effective enough to warrant outside help yet anyway) please please help me.
There's a lot to unpack here, and I'm going to start by suggesting something you don't want to hear (and please bear with me, as I have lots to say beyond this): I think you need to go talk to a counselor, ideally one who specializes in treating eating disorders. You're saying you don't think what you're doing is dangerous, but the way you're describing your body and how you feel about yourself speaks to some serious self-hate and disgust going on. You're may not have read it that way, but the words you chose speak to someone who absolutely cannot stand the skin they're in. Plus, you're describing your eating habits in terms of disordered, bingeing, purging, and restricting. Those kind of emotions and behaviors often require someone who is trained in how to approach them to help you reach a place where you're feeling balanced and okay about your body.
Still with me?
If I can't convince you to see a counselor, then what I would suggest is seeing a nutritionist or other healthcare provider to talk about an eating plan (and maybe an exercise plan) that's healthy for you. Trying to manage weight is a tricky process to begin with for many people, so having someone who can help you figure out how to adjust your habits without trashing your body is extremely valuable.
There's more here than simply figuring out how to start a work-out plan though. You included details in your original message about how much you weighed and how many calories you'd been eating. I took them out because they are unimportant. Right now they may feel deathly crucial, but in the grand scheme of the universe they don't matter. Those numbers mean bugger all in terms of who you are as a person, who you are as a partner, and how much love you deserve (romantic or otherwise) from the people in your life. The amount on a scale or a calorie counter, or how your body chooses to carry those numbers, is one tiny fraction of what the whole you has to offer the world.
All those things I just said are likely running up against some messages that are pretty ingrained in your mind. I don't blame you for that. We have such narrowly defined and ultimately unattainable images about what counts as attractive in our culture that it's easy to have them mess with your head. Even the way many of us talk about food (though this seems particularly common among women)is loaded with negative ideas about food and bodies. Eating is somehow an "indulgence," and we find ways to bond over how much we wish our thighs were smaller, our waists narrower.
Between the images we see and the ideas we hear, we end up being encouraged treat out bodies the way an army general treats an enemy prisoner: starve it and force it to do physical tasks to make it conform to your desires. But our bodies don't always act exactly how we expect them or want them to. They also aren't particularly good mirrors of what our habits are. I know people who are thin in spite of eating nothing but beef jerky and coffee and people who are fat who work out and eat mostly veggies. Our bodies don't reflect our lifestyle as much as we're taught to believe they do, and they certainly do not reflect our worth as individuals.
One of the other reasons we encourage the notion of body positivity is that bodies change. Even if you score the body of your dreams and love the way it looks, there's no guarantee it will look like that forever. There are all sorts of factors that cause bodies to change. You could get sick, injured, end up on a specialized diet, have a baby, develop chronic pain, or simply grow older. All of those events can alter how your body looks. It helps to work on believing that your body is inherently worthy of love, or at least respect, so that when it inevitably experiences changes, you don't discover that the only reason you could tolerate it was because it fit into the box marked "attractive."
I can't say the process of learning to love (or even tolerate) your body is easy. There is so much pressure to look a certain way, and we're taught to scrutinize our looks from a young age. Even people who wholeheartedly embrace body positivity and feel good about their bodies have days when looking in the mirror brings a groan rather then a "heck yes." But you can, bit by bit, make those moments the exception rather than the rule of how you see your body.
Where does that leave you in terms of what you can do right now? Let's start with the gentleman friend of yours, since he is a big part of your question. My main recommendation is to take him at his word. If he's saying he's attracted to your brain and body, assume he is telling the truth and not saying those things out of pity. While there are some exceptions, most people do not start or continue relationships out of pity. Plus, there's often an understanding that when we're first dating someone, we tend to put our best face forward. He likely has a hunch that you've been sending him your most flattering photos (and there's nothing wrong with that. Good photos are the online equivalent of getting really made-up for your first few dates). If you're worried that he's never seen the "real" you, do you have a recent, candid photo yourself where you look happy? I would send that so that he can see you the whole, radiant you.
If he does choose to end this relationship, either now or in the future, odds are that will be for reasons other than your weight (since he's already mentioned the distance is an issue). If it does turn out he left because of your body, then ultimately you're better of without him. It may not feel like it at first, but the truth is you deserve a partner who loves and is attracted to the whole you, mind and body, and who loves that body with all the quirks and flaws it possesses.
The next step is to start adjusting the way you think about and talk about food. Food is not the enemy, and it doesn't have any moral value. Pie is just pie, not a marker of weakness and carrots are just carrots, not markers of virtue. Odds are, it's going to take more than reading that sentence in an advice column to make it stick. For that reason, I'm going to encourage you to start reading more body positive spaces like The Body is Not an Apology. If nothing else, those spaces often include stories from people who have gone through all the things you're currently feeling and they can share how they dealt with them.
If you decide to start exercising (again, if you choose to do so I highly encourage it to be with the help of a nutritionist), I have three recommendations. The first is to use this article as a starting point, because it focuses on factors besides weight loss. The second is to define exercise broadly. If you find going for a hike, or dancing, or paddle-boarding more pleasurable than running on a treadmill, then do those exercises instead. Doing something fun for exercise makes it easier to maintain the habit. Finally, at least in the beginning, it might be best to choose spaces to exercise in where it's hard to compare your body to other people's bodies. Gyms can be great places, but they can also give you lots of waists, hips, and thighs that feel somehow "better" than yours, which can feel discouraging. It's worth exploring ways to exercise at home, or in spaces where you'll be too focused on what you're doing to compare yourself to others.
In the end you're right to say there is no magic bullet. You can't snap your fingers and suddenly love what you see in the mirror. But if you start experimenting with a shift in how you view your body, you can move away from hating what you see to being okay with it. And that's a triumph in and of itself.