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It took many years before I was able to make the connection between my eating disorder and my history of sexual trauma. In therapy, I began to recognize that addressing unexamined and unresolved feelings about past sexual assaults as well as exploring general unresolved concerns about my sexuality and femininity—concerns that existed since I was a young girl—would be a crucial part of my healing process.
While it is easy to blame the modeling industry for my eating disorder, I’ve come to realize that the roots of my struggles with food and body started long before I was paid to pose for pictures or walk down a runway. When I was nearing puberty, I had many unanswered questions. I had no strong female role model telling me that becoming a woman was something to celebrate, and that my changing body was part of an important rite of passage. I felt betrayed by my body. I wanted to stay small. I didn’t want breasts or curves. I wanted to look like a boy and I was terrified of having a body that would get attention from boys or that would indicate I was growing up.
I was filled with shame about my body and fear about the mysteries of womanhood. Controlling food intake became a way of managing this overwhelming experience. I decided that if I ate less I could somehow postpone not only bodily changes but perhaps I could avoid some greater unknown. In this way, restricting food was, for me, about avoiding becoming a woman altogether.
Despite my attempts to become invisible, I wasn’t able to control my body’s natural growth. And eventually my fears were realized as boys and men began to take notice. I simply wasn’t prepared for the looks and the comments that felt so aggressive and intrusive. Even just one lingering glance from a man felt like a violation. I hadn’t been prepared for any of it.
There had been no empowering and honest conversation about the attention my female body would receive, about what sex meant, about how I could assert personal boundaries and about how I could say no. I assumed that I had to be “sexy” and the messages I received from males, from peers and from media seemed to support this assumption. I was yearning to feel loved, and so I decided that being wanted by men was one way to receive the validation I was longing for.
In an attempt to control and manage all of this, eventually, my diet-mentality took over. And over the years, I struggled with various eating disorders. Unfortunately, I chose to work in an industry which seemed to celebrate my ever-shrinking body—even to equate my increasingly skinny body with “sex appeal”—and therefore my job actually supported my denial about the severity of my problem.
Because my career success was in many ways dependent on an unhealthy obsession with my body, my image, and an exploitation of my sexuality, my personal experiences in the modeling industry only reinforced the deeper sense of fear and shame I had carried since I was a young girl.
Two decades later, in intensive therapy, I began to realize that two triggers for my disordered eating and my reliance on excessive exercise as a means of purging, were sex and sexuality. I also began to see how past trauma—profound violations of my body including molestation and rape— had led me to feel dissociated from my body and disconnected from my deep intuition about how to make healthy choices in all areas of life.
My disordered eating behaviors, even my disordered thoughts about food, exercise and my body, were a way of avoiding the pain associated with not only these serious assaults and boundary violations, but a hatred for my own femininity and sexuality as well. Rather than celebrating my feminine intuition and the depth of my emotions, rather than tuning into my body and honoring its needs, I was punishing and abusing my own body in a misguided attempt to cope.
I learned that recovery wasn’t simply about eating and exercising “normally.” It would require a deeper healing as well as a new relationship to my sexual self. Gradually, with the help of my therapist, I was able to create conscious behavior and tracking mechanisms such as journaling of events, identifying triggers, and verbalizing what I wanted and what I didn’t want in my friendships or romantic relationships.
For many years, I feared true intimacy and the thought of being authentically open and vulnerable with another had me heading toward the hills, once again on the verge of relapse. But with dedication and a great support network I was able to continually make recovery the priority. And this meant focusing on rebuilding a foundation that had never been rock solid to begin with.
I had to find compassion for the young girl who believed that controlling her body would make her safer in the world, who believed that the sexual assaults may have somehow been her fault, who believed that her sexuality was something to use rather than celebrate. And as I began to internalize this compassion I began to honor my body in a profound new way. It was then that true recovery was possible.
Today I am free from eating disorders. It took a great deal of courage, dedication and a willingness to ask for help. I’ve made it my mission to educate not only my two daughters, but women in general about the importance of practicing compassion, love and respect for themselves and their bodies. While the road hasn’t been easy, I’m grateful to have transformed what once felt like an insurmountable obstacle into a bigger life purpose.
This article originally published by the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) in the June 2013 issue of Making Connections. For more information, visit www.NationalEatingDisorders.org.