This week, I wanted to share with you a story from Lavena Johanson, a great friend of mine who I met 2 years ago and has been a boxing client of mine ever since. Lavena is a cellist who works all over as a commanding performer and consummate musician. As good as she can play music, Lavena is amazingly strong and can box like nobody’s business.
Similarly, her words are beautiful and important. Read on to hear her true story of dealing with body dysmorphia. I hope her words can inspire you, educate you and give you a sense of hope in your own journey toward mental health, like it did for me.
I don’t remember the last time I was truly happy with my body. As long as I can remember, I’ve weighed more than I wanted to, or more than I sensed from others was okay, but it didn’t really start to bother me until a certain boyfriend in high school told me I should lose weight. I was 15 turning 16 and he was a senior. I was so impressed by the idea that he would take me to prom and I felt a lot of pressure to “look good” for him. My mom had bought me this red strapless dress that I loved at first sight, but couldn’t quite fit into. But instead of thinking, “well, I guess we should see if they have the next size up” I completely assumed it was my own failure and resolved to do something about it. Because I needed to lose weight anyway, right? I was so desperate for this guy to validate my attractiveness (which at the time was the only way I felt like I had any value as a person)…and I couldn’t see at the time that he was so not worth it.
The Red Dress
First I tried to starve myself, but I was not good at being hungry. I had read that purging was not only gross but not effective, so I didn’t even try that. But I did decide to drastically reduce my food intake, and I also decided to give exercise a serious try for the first time in my life. The idea of needing to fit into the red dress for prom truly became an obsession for me. I am so thankful fitness trackers had not been invented yet. Every morning I tried on the red dress to see if I was making any progress. I exercised every chance I could, and if I couldn’t I just tried to fidget as much as possible so I was still moving. I was not eating enough, and I remember that all I could think about was food. It was horrible. I had decided that after prom was over, I could eat as much as I wanted of whatever I wanted.
Food Became an Obsession
One week before the big day, I was on my way home from a big competition with my string quartet and was upset that we hadn’t placed. Someone had bought a package of Oreos for us all to share on the ride home, and I ate a lot of them. Then I completely freaked out. I thought I had ruined everything. So I essentially punished myself with more exercise and less food to hopefully make up for my (as I saw it at the time), TOTAL failure. I was able to fit into the dress on the day, and had fun at my first prom but also felt uncomfortable because the dress was so tight (oh, and I was wearing a corset underneath) and also none of my friends were there because I was one of the only sophomores. The next day I called my boyfriend and told him about all the work I had put in to fit into the dress. I think I knew deep down that something was wrong and I wanted his reaction to validate that. But instead he said,
“But you lost weight, right?”
“So that’s good!”
As much as I knew at the time that was a messed up reaction to what I had just admitted to him, my self-worth was so low and I hated my body so much that I felt like he must be right. Losing weight, no matter the circumstances, was good. Because when I lost weight, I became more attractive to others, I could fit into clothes I wanted to wear, and most importantly, hang on to this fleeting hope that I might be able to see myself as worthy of love and validation.
As a side note, I went to prom two other times with friends, wearing dresses that actually fit (no corsets!), and I had WAY more fun.
I Thought I was Bigger Than I Was
It never occurred to me that the way I viewed my body had a name. I went to a therapist while finishing my Master’s degree who told me about body dysmorphia, and showed me how it was manifesting in me. She made it clear that I hated my body so much that I assumed it took up more space than it really did, that I thought I was bigger than I really was. This idea blew my mind. But I didn’t really get a chance to explore it further – that therapist left and I had more pressing issues come up that I focused on with the new therapist I was assigned to. It would be years before I would come back to the issue in therapy, because I thought this was how I was supposed to feel. If I looked at my body in the mirror and didn’t like what I saw, isn’t the answer to do something about it? Also, I thought it was normal for women to hate their bodies? Although I never felt like it made sense when other women hated theirs, even if I tried to pick apart their flaws I always came away feeling like what they had was better than what I had. I also assumed that when people looked at me they saw what I saw, and that they would think it was weird if I wasn’t dissatisfied with my body.
“Why Are You Doing This?”
The turning point for me was actually a few months after I had started training with Diana. She is an awesome, encouraging trainer, and I was really loving learning to box (which I had never done before). One day she asked me (in a very motivational personal trainer kind of way), “WHY ARE YOU DOING THIS???” And the answer that popped into my head was, “Because I hate my body.” This shocked me. It shouldn’t have, but it did. I mistakenly thought my relationship with my body wasn’t that bad. Sure, I didn’t LIKE my body, but that’s normal, right? That moment showed me I was fooling myself. I had a problem and I needed to get help, now. So I went back to therapy and spent a whole year focused on my body dysmorphia – how to deal with it, how to recognize it, how to accept it and live a healthy life with it.
Accepting and Embracing Body Dysmorphia
The most helpful thing she told me is that it was not going to go away. That would be a battle that I could not win. What I can do is learn how to accept its presence in my life, learn how to recognize which thoughts were rational and which thoughts were irrational, and learn which behaviors were feeding the dysmorphia and which ones were actually healthy. It took a really long time, and I still struggle with it now. But I know my head is a much healthier place than it has ever been.
Mental Health is a Journey, not a Destination
I can honestly say that I am grateful for my body, and I am amazed every day at what it can do for me. I don’t always feel like I love it, but I no longer hate it. I no longer feel like it defines my worth. I no longer feel ashamed of it, instead I feel lucky to have it. Sometimes I slip up, and what I said at the beginning of this post is unfortunately still true. But I feel like it’s important to share what it’s like to be in a state of progress as opposed to at the end of a journey – my struggle with this has not been conquered. But I take it one day at a time, and I have more good days now than I ever have in my entire life.