“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”
~ Ian MacLaren
I am very comfortable talking and writing about my past struggles with Bulimia Nervosa. However, it wasn’t always like that.
I clearly remember the moment that my eating disorder started forming deeper roots. The seeds had been laid several years earlier, but when my French ballet teacher humiliated me in front of 10 other dancers, the shame and fear dug deeper holes into my fragile sense of self. In a rather loud and dismissive tone, my teacher said: “Brigitte, you are starting to gain weight like all the other au-pairs. Not good!”
I shrunk in shame. I was 18 and working as an au-pair in the South of France. Being far away from home, I had been eating more to comfort myself, and I no longer had a strict disciplined exercise routine. Moreover, I was already dealing with what is clinically known as “distortion of body image”. My menstrual cycle had not yet begun, but the hormones had started slowly changing my very slender body, giving it more female curves. It felt as if I no longer had the same control over it.
I knew very little about eating disorders. When I was growing up, it was rarely talked about in families, schools, or any form of media. In 1986, at the age of 19, when I had moved to Los Angeles, I thought I had discovered the amazing art of eating and throwing up in order to control my weight. I would generally starve myself, then end up secretively binging on food, feeling uncomfortably full, then throwing up, feeling empty, exhausted, and full of shame. It was a horrible and depressing cycle. But the eating was an opportunity for me to escape, to disconnect, and to vanish, to fill up, be out of control, go numb, and then empty. It was a way for me to control my anxiety and to numb any feelings of inadequacy. I couldn’t possibly live up my self-imposed perfectionism.
I was indeed suffering from Bulimia. It was very hard for me to tell anyone that I had this particular eating disorder. I kept it a secret for many years, which made it a very lonely way of suffering and even harder to heal. From talking with many women, I know that compared to other eating disorders, it is much more difficult to admit to have suffered or be suffering from Bulimia since it involves the act of throwing up. I remember writing a letter to my mom, sharing my struggles. I never sent it. I was too embarrassed to admit that I was not this seemingly perfect-in-control-daughter. At the darkest times, I contemplated taking my own life.
Two years into my on-and-off battle with Bulimia, I recall seeing a TV movie about a woman who was suffering with Bulimia. I felt so relieved that I was not alone. I knew that I had to stop; I was afraid of losing myself completely…because as anyone with addiction knows, you can lose yourself to the point that the return becomes close to impossible. That was my fear. The fear of losing myself to this horrible disease. It was then that I also discovered the practice of Yoga.
In my early yoga days, I was especially drawn to teachers who were warm and compassionate, and who made me feel safe and accepted. I was plenty hard on myself, so I was not attracted to classes that were strict and competitive. My yoga practice gave me an opportunity to form a healthier relationship with my body, to feel my body from the inside out, and not measure my wellbeing by a number on the scale. I had been stepping onto the scale almost every day since starting gymnastics at the age of 12. To this day, I do not own a scale.
The most healing part of my yoga journey was being able to calmly arrive to a place of stillness and feeling what was going on inside my body. This process is also called interoception and plays a huge role in developing a sense of connectedness, a way to deepen our relationship with our Innermost Self, so that we are not stuck with an over identification with our physical bodies. Now, as a teacher, this is my most heartfelt intention to share with my students.
Healing is gradual and my healing was indeed one step at a time. I stopped and started several times. I never sought help. I wish I had. The biggest reason why I share my experience is to let people know that they are not alone, to encourage them to talk about their eating disorder, and seek professional help. It is also very clear to me that social media has contributed to the increase in eating disorders and that the ones who are most susceptible are our very young people. I believe that the effect of social media should be part of the curriculum in our schools and Yoga Teacher Trainings.
There are many teachers and students suffering with eating disorders, whether it is Anorexia, Bulimia, or Orthorexia (extreme fixation with the “purity” of food). Fasting, which is common amongst yogis and often encouraged, can be a trigger to ignite or restart an eating disorder. In our yoga community there is pressure to look a certain way. I know of several teachers and students who have digitally changed images to look thinner and taller. Teachers feel that they have to communicate perfection and sadly this is indirectly relayed to our students.
I find that my yoga and meditation practice have helped me become more of an intuitive eater. In general, a restrictive diet or an obsession with food, health, perfectionism, and exercise can trigger an eating disorder. Though my mother never knew of the severity of my disorder, I live by her advice to eat everything in moderation. I know that Bulimia was a symptom and a coping mechanism to help me deal with anxiety, self-criticism, and a negative internalized image of my body. Yoga in turn continues to nourish me with kindness, compassion, and acceptance.
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