Being broke is no joke. Clever rhyming aside, it’s why I jumped on a paid research study for exposure therapy as a treatment modality for food anxiety. I have an eating disorder; I’m anxious about the whole concept of food. I was a shoe-in. The allure of Target gift cards seemed too tempting to resist. What’s a little bit of being triggered in exchange for some retail therapy? Retail therapy is therapy nonetheless.
Following the carefully worded phone screening by a graduate student, I qualified. The objectivity the questioning was strangely jarring to me; as someone with a comparatively late-onset eating disorder, I never felt “sick enough” to meet the criteria for a full blown ED. Hearing yourself quantify how many times you used to engage in behaviors over the last 12 months was eye opening. Apparently, this part of me meets their criterion.
Next, I filled out a lengthy survey to determine my baseline thoughts and feelings regarding body image and food. Rate your anxiety around this or that on a scale of 1 to 10, is this “mostly true” or “seldom true,” etcetera. I did this on the computer at my boyfriend’s house, simultaneously hoping he would and wouldn’t see my rating to the statement: “I am fearful my romantic partner will leave me because of my appearance.” I marked it “always true.”
The main component of the study was to complete writing sessions based on you imagining a situation where you are confronted with some of your biggest triggers for your anxiety around food. Some occurrence where your eating disordered thoughts would be a 10 out of 10. Full tilt anxiety.
I never got to complete this part of the study. The deadline for my submission passed, and I excused it as “life just getting in the way.” I never even collected my gift cards. I had pinpointed the exact triggering situation many weeks ago, but I supposed that even confronting it with words would be like opening Pandora’s box. So I kept the box closed. However, I never stopped to think: what would happen if this once-hypothetical situation actually occurred? Many of our fears are actually irrational in nature, but this one was a bit more rational than most. And shortly before the submission deadline I ultimately missed, it did happen. The once-arbitrary event was seeing a picture of my boyfriend’s ex-wife. Thanks to the joys of our social media obsessed culture (which, as a Millenial, I am helpless to resist) I stumbled upon a picture of her while casually scrolling through my Instagram feed. A former in-law of my boyfriend’s had posted the picture, and the cruel “based on people you know” algorithm had planted it right there for me to see. Right in between a ridiculously inappropriate meme and a heavily filtered selfie of an acquaintance with ample duckface. Pandora’s box had been opened. She is a woman I know, but have never met.
Her name is familiar to me, but I’ve never heard her voice. Sometimes I feel her presence in the room, but she’s not there. A perfect stranger in the sense that it’s perfect I’ve never had to see her. Until now. For months, I thought seeing what she looked like was my greatest fear with regards to my eating disorder. It was an eating disordered thought in and of itself: I feared her appearance over all else. I was afraid that finally knowing what she looks like would send me on a downward spiral into the depths of my ED. If she were thinner than me, I could restrict until I was thinner than her. If she were bigger than me, I could be more free to binge and purge. But I’d still want to be even thinner than I currently am to assert some asinine idea of dominance. That I “won.” While I can’t control the fact that she will forever be the mother of his children, I can at least control my weight and shape; I can win that battle. And seeing her was nothing like I had expected. My imagination had run wild for months straight. I’m not even sure what I imagined her to look like. Was she a perfectly coiffed woman who did Pilates three times a week and had wrinkle free skin even in her mid-forties? A rough around the edges, tattooed, edgy woman who was unconventionally beautiful? An older version of me, a la “You Oughta Know” by Alanis Morrisette? Was she even more beautiful than their stunningly beautiful daughter, who according to my boyfriend, is the “spitting image of her mother?” But most of all: was she thinner than me?
I closed the app in a hurried panic after realizing it was his ex-wife, with waves of anxiety flowing through me. But from what I saw, I was underwhelmed. She looked like your average middle-aged woman with an unremarkable hairstyle and indiscernible hair color. She was dressed like every suburban mom to teenage children, and wearing unflattering sunglasses. I couldn’t tell if she looked older than her actual age or not, but the stresses of raising two children and recently going through an acrimonious divorce had shaped her appearance. I guess it didn’t matter that she initiated it. My boyfriend had mentioned her dress size in passing a few months ago, and it roughly matched mine. Seeing this confirmed in the picture relieved me, but only fleetingly. For a moment, I had won this completely imaginary battle mentioned earlier. In a society wholly obsessed with youth, I already came out on top as a vibrant 20-something who already looks younger than her age. Despite how much I hated my body, it hadn’t birthed any children.
Having your body “ravaged” by childbirth is a simultaneously a womanly ideal and a shameful, unattractive flaw to be corrected. My clothes are both trendy and sexy, not dowdy; my hair long and thick with barely a glimmer of grey. After sharing my discovery with a friend, she joked, “What, are you happy that she’s ugly?” Then it hit me. Passing judgement on her appearance wouldn’t make me any more secure in my own. Calling her average doesn’t make me any more extraordinary. Commenting on her size doesn’t make me any more accepting of my own. Maybe the movie Mean Girls ingrained something into my impressionable teenaged brain with the line: “Calling somebody else fat won’t make you any skinnier. Calling someone stupid doesn’t make you any smarter.” It was my insecurity about my own perceived worthiness as an equal relationship partner that was at the root of this. Her appearance was just a symptom of a larger disease.
The entirely irrational thoughts run through my head from time to time: I will never birth his children and she did. They will share that connection forever, while neither he nor I can physically have children. I’m just a young plaything for his midlife crisis and will never be on equal footing with his vast life experience. That I have “daddy issues” because I want to date an older man; I’m looking for a parent and not a partner. That is “damaged goods,” and she laughs at me for being not emotionally equipped to handle a relationship with a divorced man with children. That I don’t deserve to be someone’s first wife if the relationship were to lead to marriage. That I’m unlovable and undesirable. That I should just be happy that he wants to be with someone as broken as I am. Giving into my eating disordered thoughts would be just a means to temporarily ease the storm in my mind. Confronting these issues is where the hard work lies, but If I were to binge, purge, or restrict, it would hurt not only myself, but the relationship I have now. And I’m happy with the progress I’ve made in both areas. However, old habits die hard. But they will die… without a vengeance.