I spend a lot of time in my head. I believe that I can use logic and reason to get through every situation. If I just think about it enough, I will solve the problem and everything will be OK. And then I think about this some more and I know it is not true. Because life is more than thinking. Life is feeling and experiencing. In fact, thinking has become a somewhat hazardous coping skill of mine. I can reason myself into a pretty deep hole.
I tend to minimize milestones in my recovery. I vowed to myself that I wouldn’t do that with this project. Today, on the day of my photo shoot, it has been four years and twenty three days since I first received treatment for my eating disorder. Needless to say, my relationship with my body is complicated.
For most of my life I have been afraid of my body. I remember when I was young, maybe four years old, I felt naked without shoes on my feet. I refused to take my shoes off unless I was in the bathtub or in my bed. Until the day she died, my grandmother had another child’s foot prints hanging on her wall with text that read “May I follow in His footsteps” and my name in the bottom right corner. When I was in high school, I overheard two boys in my AP psychology class talking about the way women’s bodies should look. “Fit but not too strong, you know? I don’t want to date a girl stronger than me, but I would never date a fat chick. I want a girl who cares about her appearance.” I excused myself from class and spent the remainder of the period in the bathroom, overwhelmed with anger. I was angry at the boys for saying that, and angry at myself for not being what they wanted.
I was a pretty normal teenager. I liked to read magazines, or rather just look at the pictures. I liked to watch reality TV (America’s Next Top Model was a favorite) and I loved playing soccer. I, like most adolescent girls, was bombarded with images depicting how I should look and act and who I should be in the world. When I was 19 and taking a gender studies class in college, a professor recommended I check out “Killing Us Softly 3,” a documentary on the media and how it presents women. Things started to make sense. I felt validated. Like there was a reason I felt so bad about myself. It also pointed out to me the sexualization and objectification of women. I remember feeling so passionately. I resolved never to let anyone objectify me like that and thus cut myself off from my body.
Ironic, right? I was so afraid of how others might objectify me that I ended up objectifying myself by severing the connection between my mind and body and treating them as opposing parts of me that could not coexist. My body became the end all and be all of who I was. I had to look perfect so that nobody would notice how sad I was inside.
Meanwhile, my mind was constantly racing with thoughts and ideas and feelings.I felt sadness, grief, envy. I wanted to be somebody else. Someone more loveable. I felt determined to repress these feelings as I did not have the skills to handle them. When I was twenty one and in residential treatment, the clinical director gave me a shower quota. I had to take at least two showers a week, she said as she alluded to the “important areas” that I needed to wash… like my belly button. I felt so uncomfortable with my body that being naked in the shower for just a few minutes was too confrontational and too much to bear.
Then today, I bared all.
I used to spend hours in front of the mirror, flexing and distorting my body, trying to feel a certain way. I spent a lot of time picking myself apart without ever putting the pieces back together. Before my shoot, I was feeling some emotions that I did not like: sadness; fear; anticipation; loneliness; frustration. I have been trying to feel emotions without becoming them. I often feel overwhelmed by emotions and they seem to take over. On top of feeling all of these emotions, I was nervous that the emotions would keep me from enjoying my time in front of the camera.
When we arrived at the river, I felt cold and the last thing I wanted to do was take my clothes off and get in. I started by testing the waters. Taking my shoes off, and then my socks, and touching my toes to the icy cold water. This river is very special to me. It is where I ran when my parents announced their divorce. It is where I made an island out of rocks so that I could be in the river and “swim” despite having a cast on my ankle after surgery. It is where I came when I was convinced my life was over. And that other time I was convinced my life was over. This is where I come when I need to get grounded. I like to imagine the rocks on the riverbanks are whatever is troubling me. I throw them as hard as I can across the river and how satisfying it feels when they make a big splash. I take my shoes off and I walk in the water. The mountain runoff is cold even in the summer and the slippery, often sharp rocks stimulate the nerves in my feet. My mind is drawn to the sensation and away from whatever else is in my mind.
The day of my Embody Project photo shoot was no different. I felt surprised at how easy it was to let go. I was able to notice the presence of my emotions, and also notice the way the water felt as it rushed over my toes and around my calves. I didn’t notice my scars or my tan lines, my muscles or my bones. I just existed for a moment, mind and body as one.
Once my feet were wet, I was ready. I took my clothes off and stepped into the water. My mind was drawn away from all the emotions that had been muddying the water like sediment in a river after a heavy rain. All I could see was clear water all around me. All I could feel were the rocks beneath my feet and the subtle pain shooting up my calves from the bitter cold water. I actually forgot that I was naked. I didn’t feel sexual or objectified, but rather childlike and playful as I began splashing and throwing rocks. I felt so alive and free and embodied. I was present in my body more than I have ever been. I began to enjoy myself and my time with myself.
I am by no means in love with my body every day, but I am learning to be comfortable in it and most importantly, I am thankful for it. I had such a good time today splashing in the cold mountain river water and embracing my body and loving my body. I had hoped and kind of expected that after the fact, I would feel like a different person. Somehow freer or more in touch. To be honest, I feel about the same. The only difference is that I want to do things like this more often.