First of all: hi from the west coast! It’s gorgeous here, as always, and my mom and I are soaking it all up. I can’t wait to recap our adventures for you. But in the meantime, some musings today. I want to warn my readers that this post may be very triggering to some, and contains a lot of raw emotions/material about my personal recovery process. If you feel vulnerable reading this sort of material, please feel free not to skip past the “jump.”
I was at the grocery store a couple of weeks ago when the cashier–perhaps in response to the hemp milk, the nut butters, and the quinoa–asked if I was vegan. I said I was, and he responded, “Well, I have to say, you don’t look like most of the vegans we get in here.”
“What do they look like?” I responded.
“They’re usually super skinny,” he said. In response to what must have been raised eyebrows, he quickly added “I mean, it’s a good thing. You look healthy. Not, you know, emaciated like some of the ones we see.”
There’s definitely a post in here about how sad I am that vegans have the reputation of being emaciated, and how I wish more people could see the vegan community that I have seen: a group of individuals whose shapes are as diverse as they are. But since I haven’t written anything about body image in a while, I’ll take the confessional route today instead, and talk about how the comment made me feel. It was a mixture of two things: on the one hand, pride that I’d managed to somehow undermine a limited perception of vegans and vegan diet as being restrictive or under-nourishing. Isn’t this what my whole blog career is devoted to? Sharing a positive, healthy approach to veganism? Proving that the diet is abundant?
And then there was the other feeling, the one I’m not proud of. The one that vies directly with my desire to serve as a positive example of veganism and recovery. This was the part of me that winced inwardly at the realization that, to strangers, I’m no longer “super skinny.” I’m no longer a waif. My body is no longer the topic of concerned conversation, of attention. It’s a healthy body, which is precisely what I’ve fought very hard to make it. So why does “healthy” still feel like “unremarkable” sometimes? And why does that remain painful, so far into my recovery?
It’s embarrassing to admit that I should have felt anything other than pride and gratitude that, to the outside world, I appear healthy. And I don’t look back at that time in my life fondly; the moment I remember the obsession and energy involved in maintaining the kind of appearance he was talking about, I recoil and thank my lucky stars that I’ve come so far. But I can’t pretend that I don’t sometimes still long for the way my physical frailty used to make me feel: unique. Special. Noticeable.
A few years ago, I wrote about regaining a sense of distinctiveness post-recovery, and the point of that post was to break down how false the feeling of “specialness” that comes from restriction (and its consequences) is. But what’s crystal clear to me in my life as someone who writes about eating disorders is still sometimes hard to accept as someone who used to have one. Sometimes I feel ashamed that my life is no longer governed by a will of iron–an ability to say “no” to my body’s needs, again and again and again. Sometimes I’m ashamed of being healthy. It feels as if a certain intensity, embodied in that narrow and angular physical shape, has been lost. Once in a while, for a split second, I wonder if I’m diminished without it.
For the most part, this has been a year full of strides forward in the body image realm. At VVC, back in late May, my friend (and body image champion) JL made a remark to me when she saw me arrive for dinner in jeans and a fitted top. “When I first met you,” she said, “you were always wearing billowy dresses; lately you seem to be a lot more comfortable just showing up in your body.” It’s true. I don’t gravitate toward tight clothing, and I remain a big fan of dresses, but I used to hide behind drapery in a way I don’t anymore. It’s a sign that I’ve become far more comfortable with my shape. I’m more confident wearing what I want, not over thinking how things will make me look, and there’s a new kind of sexual confidence, too–a comfort that comes of accepting who I am.
And yet. There is always that little streak of vulnerability, of doubt. Every now and then, someone or something manages to unearth it.
In writing about this, I wonder how many other folks share this inner conflict. The tension feels especially acute to me because I spend so much time trying to advocate recovery on the one hand, and to present a positive vision of veganism on the other. My lingering moments of weakness are directly at odds with both of those missions, and make me particularly frustrated for that reason. But I think anyone who’s endeavored to lead a healthy life after disordered eating might be able to relate to the uneasy discord between a full embrace of good health, and the struggle to let go of the things that used to give one’s life a sense of identity and meaning–no matter how falsely.
As always, I treat these moments of struggle as an organic and inevitable part of the recovery process. Recovery is not a black and white before and after; it’s a journey, and the journey involves missteps and stumbles and occasional moments of looking back at the terrain you’ve covered, thoughtfully and with a touch of nostalgia. I never used to think it was possible to feel nostalgia or longing for any period of one’s life except the happy ones, but I realize that this isn’t the case. Even so, I’ve often been surprised this year by how far I’ve come in my relationship with food, my body, and my commitment to health. I’m so much further along than I used to be, and have made progress even through some stressful times that might have ordinarily triggered me. I am profoundly grateful for this, and can only accept and acknowledge the moments of struggle as they go by.
I hope you don’t mind my sharing these moments with all of you. I participate in the “green recovery” dialog on this blog just as actively as readers and contributors do. Writing is the and always has been the way I make sense of the recovery process, hold myself accountable, and come to resolution. I’m lucky that I have this community to share with.
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