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taking up space ll shape interview

This interview originally appeared on Shape.com on July 29, 2019 by Bethany C. Meyers as told to Faith Brar

My eating disorder began when I was 15 years old, a cheerleader in high school. Cheer was my whole life. When I wasn’t busy competing or at sporting events, I was practicing.

During practice, we always had to wear sports bras. Coaches had to be able to see our bodies in order to observe or correct our form. I was a flyer, a position where it helps if you’re light so that it’s easy to propel you into the air.

No one ever said out loud that you needed to be a certain weight to be a flyer, but it was very much a vibe you couldn’t ignore. The smallest people were going to be on top of the pyramid—that’s how it had always been. That vibe first introduced me to the idea that not all bodies are the same—being small was somehow aspirational.

That same year, my mom started struggling to lose weight. She joined a weight loss program at our church and I remember tagging along with her a few times. During one of my visits, the woman leading the group brought out this blubber-like prop that was meant to represent the fat in your body. (Seriously, you can’t make this stuff up.)

The woman then emphasized how bad fat was and passed the prop around so that people cringed at how it looked and felt. I distinctly remember seeing it myself and just feeling inherently scared of it. I wanted so badly to be healthy and didn’t want that icky-looking fat in my body. As a result, I started labeling foods as good and bad. In my mind, I thought I was nurturing my body—not eating fats, carbs, or any “bad” foods that could lead to weight gain. But in fact, I had developed a disordered way of eating, where those foods began terrifying me and soon controlled the way I was living my life.

This perception of food stuck with me as I entered my 20s. My cheerleading days were far behind me but the pressure to look and be thin was still at the forefront of my mind. I became the person who started following every diet trend out there. First I became vegetarian, then graduated to veganism. To clarify, there is absolutely nothing wrong with these diets. Honestly, all the power to the people who can follow these ways of eating in a healthy way—but for me, it was all about restriction.

Case in point: After being vegan for a while, I moved onto into raw foodism, taking restriction to another level. For two years, I only ate uncooked and unprocessed foods. If you couldn’t pick it from the ground, I wouldn’t eat it. In the beginning, eating so clean felt great. But ultimately, it became detrimental for me at a personal level. I was in this “religion” of restriction and kept finding myself wanting to “sin.” And when I did sin/or cheat, it led to binging, which then led to me hating myself for failing. It was a vicious cycle that quickly spun out of control.

"we have this idea that the less space you take up, the more important that you are. it helped me to think about taking up more space, to owning more presence."

Similar to how I developed my eating disorder, overcoming it was gradual. Some people have a singular defining moment or experience that forces them to make a drastic change in their life, but for me, it took time.

As I approached my thirties, I became tired of feeling unhappy. No matter what I ate or how much I worked out, I was never satisfied. I also realized I wasn’t alone in that feeling. People around me, who had seemingly perfect bodies, were also unhappy. It started to become evident that the pressure to look a certain way and reach an unattainable aesthetic had nothing to do with my body itself. It was much deeper than that. It was about society’s expectations. Once I understood that I had unknowingly taken the first step to learning how to love myself.

During this time, I also started sharing my thoughts about food and my journey to recovery on social media. There is something so freeing in being honest about what you’re going through. Opening up about my thoughts—the way I viewed food and my way of eating—removed this blanket of shame I’d put on myself. As I started sharing those feelings, people started to respond. Each time someone said they totally related, were thankful that I opened up, or were encouraged to overcome their issues with food, I felt encouraged and empowered to continue doing what I was doing.

After years of difficult but constructive conversations with myself, what I put into my body became determined solely by how it made me feel. It might sound simple, but it’s a very helpful technique. Sometimes eating ‘bad’ foods (notice the quotes around bad, because I really don’t believe in food labeling) makes me happy. I’ve learned that there is nothing wrong with that. If you go by how food is making you feel, I truly believe you naturally know when and how to indulge in a healthy way.

Even though this is something I practice to this day, there are still moments when I feel challenged. Recently, I went up a clothing size. For a moment, I let myself feel nervous and negative about it. But I paused and asked myself why I was feeling that way.

After some introspection, something struck me: Women, in particular, are often told that they can’t or shouldn’t take up space—in both an energetic and physical space. Being loud, having a bold opinion, or fighting for a position of power are all qualities often defined as un-feminine and are discouraged by society. And physically, those born into a female body are told by society to be a certain size and shape. That being small is somehow powerful. It all boils down to not being allowed to take up space

What I’ve realized, though, is that you don’t need anyone’s permission. You simply need to allow yourself to take up space, to be powerful on your own terms, and to stand out. So what if your favorite pair of jeans no longer fit? Your body does not define who you are. As long as you feel good, it shouldn’t matter what others think.

It’s been five years since I’ve truly embodied that way of thinking. I say that because getting to that level of peace with yourself takes practice. Self-acceptance and self-confidence is a muscle. If you work on strengthening and solidifying it every day, you will get to where you need to be.

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