Friday, August 31, 2012

The Experts Weigh In: Battling With Body Image


First of all, let’s be honest – I am no expert. The only thing I could possibly claim expertise for is being way too hard on myself. I am not an expert at navigating life, I am not an expert at work, and I am not an expert at surviving NYC. All I can offer you here is what I have learned over the past ten years - ten years that have left indelible ink on my soul and unforgettable emotions on my heart. Although my past has made me who I am today, shaping me and making me strong, I do not wish my experience on any woman. Unfortunately, I fear it is all too common amongst us these days.

I have no idea exactly when I started looking at myself and thinking I was fat. Actually, I eventually got to a point where I didn’t even need to look at myself to think I was fat; I just felt fat all the time, as it was so deeply ingrained in my mind. I began my freshman year at the University of Georgia like so many other 18-year-old women do – rushing a sorority, decorating my dorm room, rearranging my schedule. Going to UGA was going to change my life – I just knew it! I’d meet new friends, have a boyfriend, go to football games and find my path. Going to UGA did change my life. Although I can now look back fondly on my time there, I know that it was also strewn with hurt, pain, hopelessness and fear…and those feelings were rooted in my own self image.

If you’ve never been down South, you may not relate to me at all. You wouldn’t know that beautiful, thin, blonde girls rule the land, and let me tell you, they are EVERYWHERE. I quickly found that my 5’8” swimmer's build did not fit in down in Athens, Georgia. To this day I remember that shitty fraternity guy who walked by me as I wore 3 inch platform sandals (oh why??) and muttered “that girl is HUGE!”. I mean, what?? I knew I wasn’t huge! I knew I was fit and athletic (with a pension for the new pizza buffet at the dining hall maybe), but I was huge now…was I??

His words began to eat at me as I looked around campus, focusing only on those sorority girls I didn’t fit in with. I started reading Self, Fitness, Women’s Health, magazines I didn’t even pay attention to in high school. I went to the gym every day. I ate broccoli and chicken breasts for dinner. Every. Night. I remember going to bed with my stomach growling but not doing anything about it. I remember sitting in the hallway of my dorm crying my eyes out to my best friend because I had eaten a cookie at dinner and regretted it with every inch of my being. It seemed that overnight I had become obsessed with what I ate, when I ate, how much I ate and, even worse, what everyone else was eating as well.

By the summer after my freshman year I had stopped having a period. I’d lost 10-15 pounds. I'd caught the eye of a hot, older fraternity guy. A guy “friend” told me I was "looking good lately". All of these things made me think skinny = accepted.

That summer I found myself counting out the number of mints I’d eat at my hostess job. I felt guilty for having five after realizing that they had calories in them. I looked at everything for calorie counts. I was a nightmare to go out to eat with, scraping off any mayo, cheese or salad dressing that doused my plate. Sadly, this first year was just the start.

As my years at UGA went by, I continued to lose weight and became freakishly annoying about meals. I’d eat lettuce and tuna for dinner. I’d claim I wasn't feeling well when roommates wanted to go out to eat because I knew I would feel intense guilt for days after indulging in pizza or pasta. I even dated a guy who knew exactly how many calories were in a can of black beans – REAL healthy relationship. I talked about weight, thought about it, couldn’t let go of it. It ruined hours, days and weeks for me. God forbid I actually enjoy some bread and butter out with my family – nope! guilt, blame and fear would follow.

I cannot blame college, however, because unfortunately this behavior continued on throughout my early 20s after graduation and into my post-college life in Atlanta. I couldn’t enjoy eating ice cream on a date because the next day I would beat myself up. ICE CREAM! I would go into the bathroom at work and lift up my shirt to make sure my stomach was still flat. I would cheer myself on while shopping for being able to fit into a size 2 or size 4. Ribs and hip bones that stuck out were signs of strength and fitness. 5:30am wake up calls to get to the gym were regular, although I hated it and dreaded it. 

You know the worst part? These behavior patterns turned me into a person that I really didn't like. I was so caught up in ME that I couldn’t pour into those around me. It was always about how I looked, how I fit in, how I was seen through the eyes of others. I was miserable on the inside, and no matter how I looked on the outside, it would continue. Being skinny did not equal acceptance of myself. 

The funny thing was, I thought I was healthy…boy, was I wrong!

Summer of 2010 I took a new job, a job I never should have accepted, but at that time, I felt it was the best move for me. That job was the beginning of a deep, dark spiral to rock bottom. I was exhausted all the time but couldn't sleep. I was anxious all day and unable to concentrate on work. I didn’t find joy in normal activities. I didn’t want to be around ANYONE. Scared, I went to my doctor, who drew a lot of blood and ran a bunch of tests. The results, in laymans terms... I had NO hormones running through me, my iron levels were cancer-like low and my nutrients were nil. In short – I was the picture of sick. Not only was my body sick, but my mind was also. I sank into a deep, deep depression. I saw no use in moving forward because the future looked nothing short of bleak. I found myself wishing I would get into a horrible car accident because I just wanted a break – a break from life. I was so far gone that my mom feared for my life. She’d sit on the phone with me for hours every day while I cried and said my life was over. She promised me that I was stronger than I knew - that I would get through this and that we would go somewhere amazing when I did.

If I’m honest with myself, this need for 'a break' was a long time in the making. I was tired of trying to be someone I was not. In fact, I was plain exhausted with trying to keep up the appearance of being happy, thin and accepted. At this point, I started making decisions for my best interest. I quit my unhealthy job (step one...check!). Next I went on medication to heal myself from the inside (step two...check!). Finally, I took a job at Whole Foods (step three...check!). That was mid-October. 

By mid-November, it was like life had completely turned around. I was happy. REALLY happy. I know the other side. I’ve lived the other side. That November my mom came into town to celebrate my 26th birthday. We went to dinner, had champagne and she gave me the gift of a lifetime – two first class tickets to Italy. We were going to Tuscany to bike through the beautiful countryside for six days and seven nights. THIS was proof that I had made it. I had been strong enough to bring myself back to life.

Over the next year I found this life. I gained weight. I ate. I got back to exercising, not because I wanted to lose weight but because it made me happy. I ran a half marathon with a good friend, and then celebrated with wine and cheese. I visited my best friend, Alex, in Colorado, and we went hiking through the Rockies. I got a dream job at Southern Living magazine. And, in September, I went to Italy with my mom.

We ate, drank and biked our way through Tuscany with a group of 12 other divine people. Not a morsel went into my mouth that made me feel guilty. Not a pedal stroke was taken without thinking: 'If this was four years ago, I would've NEVER been able to do this'. I have never felt so close to God as I felt on those dark days…until I was speeding through the hills of Tuscany. He was there, telling me, you DESERVE THIS! You deserve true happiness. You deserve a life not bound by the counting of calories and the guilt of indulgence.

Today, I don’t know why but that guilty feeling is totally gone. Sure, maybe I shouldn’t eat that burger and fries ...AND milkshake, but you know what? I’m DONE with denying myself a full life. I spent so much time (WASTED so much time) worrying that if I wasn’t skinny, I wasn’t good enough. Reading that now just makes me shake my head. Today, I know that who I am is NOT what I eat. Who I am is what I enjoy, who I spend time with and how I treat myself. I cannot wait to take another trip like that one to Italy. It was a cleansing of the mind and the heart…and food for the soul - the wonderful, cheesy, Italian kind.

It's my hope that my daughter will never feel anything less than perfectly accepted by this world. It's my hope that she will never question how thin she is and how society perceives her. 

Acceptance and healing begin when you realize you are worth so much more than the worry, fear and insecurity you choose to carry around. True beauty comes from within. I'm so glad I finally believe that now.

Marissa Roy, a native of Richmond, Virginia, and a proud UGA grad, now lives in the heart of the East village in New York City. When she's not taking the digital advertising world by storm, you can find her at her favorite coffee shop 'The Bean', at the dog park at Tompkins Square Park, biking up the West Side Highway or restaurant hopping and wine drinking (with yours truly!). If you like making 'good time' on road trips, Marissa is NOT your companion of choice. She likes to stop at least once per hour on road trips to stretch her legs and rehydrate (she has to have at least 3 different beverages going at all times while on the road). While it may take double the time to get to your final destination, you're guaranteed to enjoy the ride with Marissa by your side.

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