This blog post is part of the Week of Self-Love hosted by Anne-Sophie Reinhardt of annesophie.us.
I’ve been thinking a lot about sex and love lately. (Yeah, okay, let’s all be grownups here please…)
I’ve written before about how my negative body image and my food rules and my compulsive exercise has kept me in a mostly-monogamous relationship with ED for the majority of my adult life. About how my obsession with my physical imperfections made it hard to be in a physical relationship with someone else. About how I missed my missed connection and about how I let ED enter into an unfortunate ménage à trois with me and my Lysander.
For the last 14 years, the idea of being in a healthy, sexual, grown-up relationship has always trumped the actual act of being in a healthy, sexual, grown-up relationship…and I realized recently that nearly every time I gave loving someone else the ol’ college try, I ended up falling back into eating disordered behaviors.
It took actually sitting down and listing out the relationships I’d had and the reasons why they never lasted, and I was surprised to realize that I’d simply been living the same “love story” over and over:
- Girl meets boy.
- Girl forms a deep, intellectual bond with boy. Values his opinion, feels validated by their conversations.
- Girl realizes that boy wants more than intellectual connection.
- Girl realizes that boy must see her body.
- Girl hates her body.
- Girl sets a goal to “transform” her body before she deems it ready to be seen.
- Girl starts to distance herself from boy because intellectual connection takes up precious time from compulsive exercise and often includes having to eat meals in public places, which doesn’t fit in with restrictive eating regime.
- Girl has panic attack when boy attempts to see her body before it is “ready” and “perfect.”
- Girl gives ED a booty call instead.
And so it has gone in varying degrees of the same story since my first “boyfriend” when I was 13, the one who I started “dating”* on the day that I met ED in 2001.
Over the past several years, I’ve attempted to “work on”** my issues surrounding sexuality and body image, but without this self-knowledge, I’ve never managed to free myself from this pattern of relationship-killing.
For a long time, I shut down–went “frigid,” if you will. Part of that has to do with the disruption of my hormones and neurotransmitters as I allowed my ED and my compulsive exercise to deplete my body of its vitality and sexual energy, but some of it was because I simply didn’t want to go through the pain of relapse again. I stopped wanting to be in a physical relationship because the idea of touching and being touched–of baring the body and being seen–was simply too painful.
But I realized something in the course of the last several months, something that’s given me hope for a future in which something like a healthy sexual relationship free from triggers is no longer an unattainable pipe dream:
I couldn’t be trusted to love or be loved by someone else, because I couldn’t trust myself to love myself.
My inability to bare or share my body with another person had nothing to do with the other person. Not entirely, anyway. I was so busy worrying about what the other person might think of my own perceived imperfections that I sabotaged the hope of building a relationship with anyone but myself–and my own neuroses.
Until I learn to love my body, I will never be able to let anybody else love my body. Moreover, until I stop focusing on “fixing” my own “imperfect” body, I will never be able to love anybody else’s body either.
Here’s the thing: human bodies were made to be embraced. Physically and emotionally. We cannot flourish without touch. And yet, the more we shy away from touch, the more we hide our bodies from others and ourselves, the more we seek fulfillment somewhere else and the easier it becomes to embrace disorder.
(Mel Brooks said it best in his 2000 Year Old Man sketch with Carl Reiner):
While I still struggle every day with this new, recovering body that I see in the mirror–a body with hips and breasts and curves and substance and power and life–it’s up to me to write a new “love story”–and this time, it’s going to start with “self-love:”
- Girl meets body.
- Girl looks at body in mirror. Spends time with the uncomfortable nature of nakedness until, like saying a word over and over until it stops having meaning, she feels comfortable looking at body.
- Body has “imperfections.”
- Girl writes list of “imperfections” and then finds something perfect about each one. (For example: Wide hips = enough body fat for fertility and normal sexual function; scars from surgeries and accidents = proof I have the strength to overcome injury and disability; etc.)
- Girl stops trying to transform her body and instead feeds it when it’s hungry and exercises so it feels good. (In my case, that means following ancestral health principles and doing yoga/going for walks with my dog.)
- Girl sometimes gets triggered. Reaches out to her support system, calls a friend, goes for a walk, talks to her therapist, listens to a podcast, reads a book…and forgives herself and her body for being uncomfortable. Realizes that this too shall pass.
- Girl starts getting comfortable with body. Allows herself to touch or be touched in a safe, controlled environment–a pedicure or a massage, a hug from a friend, etc. Allows her physical being to have substance and mass that can be felt by her and others.
- And if girl meets boy, then she brings her body along. And she goes slow. And she is honest with herself and boy and body, and she respects herself enough to walk away if she’s not ready.
- ED calls. Girl presses “ignore.”
Self-love is not easy. It’s an every day practice, and it’s your most important health ritual, even more important than nutrition or exercise.
And please remember, if you’re struggling to balance your relationships and your body image:
Self-love cannot be validated by anyone else–it can only be amplified.
If your relationship with another person is based on your perception of the way they will judge (or do judge) your body, then you will ultimately end up dating ED again. But if you bring your best body to the table–not the one you transformed, or the one that lost weight, or the one that did whatever you thought the other person wanted you to do–but your best body for you, then you and any potential partner you have will ultimately be more fulfilled.
For those of you out there who have struggled with body image in your relationships, how have you overcome the fear of intimacy? What self-love practices have you tried? And if you’re still struggling, what is holding you back from embracing your body and your sexuality?
*I say “dating” in quotes because it was a summer camp thing, and we were silly middle schoolers…we went on maybe two “dates” and never kissed, except for an awkward almost-peck on the lips once. But the pertinent fact here is that as soon as he acknowledged me as a potentially sexual being, I freaked out and started trying to manipulate my body through restriction and compulsive exercise
** “Working on” my issues mostly meant trying to date people, making myself uncomfortable to the point of panic and depression, and then relapsing. And then trying again without understanding why I felt the way I did.