When I was in college, I lived in a house built in the early 1800’s with low ceilings and narrow doorways. The doorway that opened into my bedroom was particularly narrow. So narrow that I used to turn sideways to enter the room, to avoid getting stuck or, ya know, dislocating a shoulder. Did I mention that I was suffering from an eating disorder while I was in college? Ah,- important fact that I left out there hu? My sideways entry makes a little more sense given that my entire body image was grossly distorted (to the point that one therapist even referred to my perception of my physique as “on the brink of psychosis.”) This was a very impactful part of my eating disorder. Cognitively, I knew that it was just a small doorway, that my roommates walked through just fine, but it always made me feel like I was literally filling the entire doorway. I had visions of my hips getting caught between the sides with a solid “thunk” as I tried to saunter through.
In order to fit ourselves through openings like doors, we need to have a basic estimate of the size of our bodies. Most non-eating disorder individuals have a somewhat accurate idea of their general shape and size, and consequentially do not find themselves trying to contort their bodies to fit into doorways that they can clearly walk clean through. This basic body image awareness can often be impaired in individual suffering from eating disorder. As a result, body schema, which relates to how we actually move through the physical world, can become extremely distorted.
As you can probably imagine, the sideways saunter was not the only way my distorted body schema affected how I maneuvered around my world. I refused to sit in certain chairs, nixed standing next to specific people, and contorted my body into odd positions when I sat, desperate to take up less space and positive that I was taking up far more than I should. This symptom of my eating disorder was both anxiety provoking and attention-drawing. That is why, when I finally got help for my eating disorder, I was recruited for a body tracing almost immediately.
Body tracings are a common component of ED treatment, where you draw out what you think the outline of your body is and then the therapist traces your actual body. You then process if and how your perceived outline of your body is different from the therapist’s tracing.
I remember being downright terrified that my drawing would be bigger or even the same as the real tracing. I remember thinking, “What it it’s accurate and there is no explanation for how I feel about my body size except that’s the way it really looks and they are all trying to make me feel better?” Tensions ran sky high as I stood against that wall and watched my therapist trace an outline around me. I remember watching her like a hawk, sure she was going to try to fake something. I remember sweating and clenching my muscles, then unclenching them thinking, “What does that prove?” I remember getting into a near yelling match with my therapist over the fact that the two drawings were so vastly different from one another. “But there’s just no way! How can this be?” And “Who cares if my true body looks one way if I feel like it looks another? Doesn’t how I FEEL MATTER TO ANYONE HERE?”
After the battlefield cleared (read: my 10/10 anxiety dissipated a bit) and I got some time away from the dreaded tracing, I was able to think a little more clearly. My therapist even brought it into our next session, and we were able to process the distortion together. Talking out how much pain this distortion had caused me, and how it had actually gotten in the way of my day-to-day functioning was one of the few “light bulb moments” that I have had in my years of therapy.
So post body image tracing, post treatment, post body-scheme light bulb moment, where am I now? I live behavior free. The ED thoughts come and go, and I am getting better and better at challenging them every day. My body schema has slowly gotten more accurate, but I wont lie to you- I had to put my trust and faith in the fact that I did not see my body clearly for a long time during my recovery (which sounds odd, but for me and my constellation of symptoms, it was just what I needed). I’m not perfect, but each day gets a teeny bit easier. And no, I no longer do the sideways saunter 😉