“I’m following the meal plan….but I still hate my body.” “I’m in recovery….but I still hate my body.” “I’m talking back to ED….but I still hate my body.” As a psychologist specializing in the treatment of eating disorders, I must hear a variation of this phrase from at least one person a day. In response to this refrain, I must reiterate the very phrase that used to infuriate me years earlier, during my own recovery: “Keep going. Body image takes the longest.”
Now I am well aware of how maddening this response is. Nothing, and I mean NOTHING used to frustrate me more than when my therapist would say this to me. (That’s a lie. “Fat is not a feeling” made my blood boil.) However, this statement is the truth. And it’s incredibly important to hear.
Body image takes the longest. It makes sense when you break it down. After all, physical symptoms are usually the first to go. The body heals before the mind. Thoughts and feelings are a bit more stubborn. Anyone who has been to inpatient treatment can likely empathize with the experience of leaving treatment weight restored, but feeling absolutely raw and riddled with thoughts of wanting to go back to the ED. Then comes the real work. The excruciating period between weight/health restoration and becoming fully emotionally and psychologically healed.
This work may very well mean acknowledging what role weight plays in your eating disorder. What does losing weight really mean? What does a skinny body actually represent to you? Yes, eating disorders are about more than weight, but weight is certainly a common thread throughout the illness. After all, research shows that the biggest risk factor for an eating disorder is starting a diet. Hence if the disorder was triggered for many by a quest for weight loss, it makes sense that body dissatisfaction may be a vexingly persistent experience well into recovery.
So, with that said, recognizing that you still idealize weight loss well into recovery certainly does not take away from how far you have come. In fact, it is just the opposite. Acknowledging these feelings is incredibly courageous and shows that you are determined to be honest with yourself no matter how painful the truth. This will also allow you to confront these dark thoughts head on, which will reduce the likelihood that they will sneak up on you during times of high stress and trigger a relapse.
I would argue that body image, then, must be addressed throughout the recovery process. One must continue to evaluate and address the impact of a changing body in our diet-obsessed, thin-idealizing culture. Truth be told, weight gain and body acceptance fly in the face of every message that our society tries to send us. In this sense, it is no wonder that we still hate our bodies in recovery. In order to break through this layer of recovery, one must rally against one’s own ED voice, and the voice of society. But body acceptance will come. This is a proven fact. If you continue forward, continue to do the work, continue to address the very heart and root of these thoughts and feelings, body acceptance will come. Maybe even body love. But you must be proactive about the fight. And you must be patient. And, most importantly, you must be honest with yourself. If you still hate your body, say this to your therapist, say this to your dietician, say it to your friend. Then nonjudgmentally keep moving forward and forge on towards the body acceptance that you so much deserve and will have one day