From T.O.P.S. to Wreck Beach

A Journey of Disordered Eating

Dena Ellery

Reprinted from "Eating Disorders" issue of Visions Journal, 2002, No. 16, pp. 14-15

Disordered eating: that’s what I’ve come to call it. And I don’t think I’m alone. Most women I know have a disordered relationship with food. I have struggled through many downward spirals of bingeing and purging, and food is still an addiction that I use to avoid facing squarely my real turmoils and troubles.

Each person who struggles with disordered eating has their own reasons. My own journey through disordered eating has been and continues to be a spiritual, emotional and a political one. In my reading, reflection and experience, I’ve come to understand that food is not just a physiological need. It is also intimately bound up with our emotional and spiritual sustenance and our identity. And the relationship to food becomes disordered when food becomes confused with other needs.

Beginnings

In elementary school, I remember waiting for my mom to come home from work. I was alone in the house, an only child. My only friend was food. I ate for two hours until Mom came home. By the time I was 12, my weight was a source of constant ridicule by other students (“Fatty, fatty, two-by four, can’t get through the bathroom door.”) So in Grade 6, I started attending a weight-watching program called T.O.P.S. (Take Off Pounds Sensibly) that met weekly and gave out prizes to people who lost the most and booby prizes to people who gained the most.

Identity

I remember the first years of being on my own in my late teens and early 20s, dissatisfied with my life, my body image and sexual attractiveness. I would travel to two, sometimes three fast food outlets and eat a meal at each . . . then to an allnight store to pick up laxatives. The physical aspect of the purging was always secondary to the psychological ones of nurture in the face of uncertainty and risk, and of release — letting go of emotional pain and baggage. I knew that some people purged by vomiting, but on the one occasion when I tried (after a cancelled date led to a binge), I couldn’t. Hands down my throat, a voice in my head said, “ You don’t have to do this. Your mother loves you.”

Yet, the messages that I am essentially unlovable plague me. Everywhere in magazines, TV, movies and billboards are the so-called models of sexual attractiveness, telling me that if I don’t have this lotion or potion or product, I’ll never be like them. Never be loveable or desirable. It has taken years to build up an arsenal of protection for my fragile self-image. Below are some of these steps toward wholeness.

Addiction

I spent several years attending 12-Step groups of Overeaters Anonymous. I came to see food as an addiction, something I turn toward to avoid, to ignore, to numb. The emotional connection became clear, but there were times I wished my addiction might be alcohol or drugs, something I could do without altogether. I still needed to eat in order to live.

Reintegration It was a women’s film festival that helped me reintegrate my relationship to food. Here, at every planning meeting, women gathered to eat and share and work at planning the festival. I watched as women ate with gusto and vigour, sharing in the sensual delights of our food. It was a spiritual experience: food as a sensual and community event helped me to reintegrate my sense of nurturing. I recognized that nurturing comes from community, and that food is the vehicle, not the source of healing. I no longer feared my food, but embraced it with loving intention in preparation and in eating.

Body Image

I became a representative for MediaWatch, a national feminist organization that monitors the portrayal of women in the media. As I learned and presented materials about women in the media, it became clear that our media culture has an influence on our psyches. I found my critical eye. I read Naomi Wolf’s Beauty Myth and began to deconstruct the consumer ad culture that plays on women’s self-esteem. I went on a media diet, giving up cable, all fashion magazines and lived boldly by Wolf’s motto, “The woman wins who calls herself beautiful and challenges the world to truly see her.” I developed body image workshops for women to help them untangle themselves from soul and psyche-degrading media messages.

Body Acceptance

When I moved to Vancouver, a friend introduced me to Wreck Beach, a clothing-optional beach near the University of BC. In stages, I became comfortable being at this place where body acceptance is the goal, and any kind of voyeurism is frowned upon. I looked around and saw that I was just one imperfect body among all the imperfect bodies there. And I realized that there is beauty in all our shapes and sizes and colours and imperfections. When I saw a woman there who could have been a billboard model, she seemed somehow out of place among nature’s beautiful imperfections.

My disordered eating has taken me on a healing journey. I’ve found moments of wholeness — a self-acceptance and sense of balance and perspective that, ir onically, I might not have found otherwise. In some ways, I’m grateful for this spiritual teacher in my life.

 
About the author
Dena is a candidate for Unitarian Universalist ministry and was an educator with the Canadian Mental Health Association in Nova Scotia and BC
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