If you are just now joining me on this project, read this first:
About six months ago I admitted to you all that it pissed me off that the joy of a big accomplishment like running my first marathon was muted by my poor body image. A shorter time ago, I promised I was going to finally take some action to try and improve this mental and spiritual ailment that has plagued me since I was a young girl. That’s what this is: THE ACTION. Almost ten years ago now (I can’t freakin’ believe that!) I used the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous to get sober. To this day I still use them to stay sober–this shit is a disease and the recovery from it is an ongoing process. It occurred to me a while ago that I might try and use the 12 steps to repair and reconfigure my body image as well. After all, groups all over the world have adopted and adapted these steps for pretty much every issue you can think of: gambling, sex, food addiction, you name it.
In order to establish and maintain a commitment to this process, I have decided to document it here. I invite any and all to join me–especially those struggling with something themselves. Ten years ago, alcohol was literally destroying my life. My health was failing, I had been arrested, I’d lost jobs and friends, I was having mortifying and highly regrettable sexual experiences on a regular basis. Things were bad. While it was great to find groups of people that I could relate to and who offered me support, that in and of itself was not enough. Just not drinking was not enough. I had to intrinsically change the person I was inside. If I didn’t, I knew eventually I would go back to being that person who lied and stole and couldn’t be depended on. I also knew that I couldn’t bear being that person without a drink–the shame of that life was too much to live with. So, if I wanted to not just get sober, but stay sober, I knew I had to rewrite the constitution of my being. Enter: The 12 steps.
While the situation I am facing now with my body image does not outwardly appear to be nearly as dire–the inward ache in my soul is similarly agonizing. I don’t believe that not starving myself is as good as it can get. I don’t accept that “feeling fat” is just a part of being a woman. I’m determined to fight the system that upholds a culture where women are expected to be obsessed with how their bodies look. In order to fight that system though, I need to resign from it and actually live and think differently myself. I am hoping these steps can help me move in the right direction.
Quickly, about me: I’ve struggled with my body image since I understood that not all bodies were the same (about 5 years old). From the age of 12 till about 25 I struggled with both anorexia and bulimia. I spent about three months in a treatment center for eating disorders and self harm when I was 22 years old, but didn’t completely abstain from those behaviors until I got sober at the age of 25. If you’d like to read more in depth about my experience with eating disorders you can do so here–or with sobriety, here.
If this is your first introduction to any type of 12-Step recovery work–welcome. I hope in witnessing my journey you’ll find something useful for yourself. In my recovery I have found it more productive to relate to what I can in someone’s story, rather than needlessly compare. Take what is valuable to you–and share it, and leave whatever is not.
Seeking only progress in this space, not perfection. Thanks for coming along for the ride. Here we go…
Notes: Along with completing this step work, I myself am reading the corresponding chapter from the 12 & 12 and meditate on what I’ve read for a few days in a row. This might not be necessary for everyone, just sharing what I’ve chosen to do and what works for me.
In case you missed it:
Step 2: Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity
What does the phrase “Power greater than ourselves” mean?
I think the phrase “power greater than ourselves” means any being or system that is more capable than we are. A lot of people who try to participate in 12 step programs get stuck on step two because they are sure that a Power (capital P!) greater than themselves must only be a reference to some religious conception of God. If you are rigid in that interpretation of this step, and you don’t believe that there is a God, then indeed, you’ve arrived at a place with a seemingly valid excuse to call it quits.
The thing is though, there are SO many powers that are greater than us that it’s pretty easy to work this step without attaching yourself to the idea of a God. Which brings me to the next item…
List 10 examples of something greater than you.
- Mother Nature. Every time there is a big storm I am reminded how much greater and more powerful nature is than all of us.
- The ocean. On our honeymoon we went snorkeling (others in the group went scuba diving), and we took a boat about 45 minutes off from the coast in Puerto Rico. It was the furthest out into the middle of the ocean I had ever been. It was the first time I recognized how vast and powerful the sea was and how powerless and small I felt in it.
- The sky/the universe. I need only look at the sun and my constant need for it to understand just a bit of it’s power.
- The world. Although I often act like the center of the universe, I know that the world is MUCH greater than what is going on in my life, my city, and even my country.
- Food. Has the power to both maintain and take life.
- Water. Same as #5
- My husband and I together as a couple. The life we have been able to live together is much bigger than what I was capable of on my own. Our love is powerful.
- My coworkers and I together. I work with a lot of individuals who are very strong by themselves and hold specific talents–but they would not be able to create the content or complete our goals without every other member of the team.
- My blogosphere. If I wrote all the content I do and kept it to myself, it wouldn’t have the same impact on me. It wouldn’t have any impact on the world. All of you guys make my writing and my world bigger, stronger, and more dynamic than it could ever be on it’s own.
- *An AA meeting. Two drunks are more powerful than one.
- God. I happen to believe in God–whom I also call the ‘Universe’ and ‘Love’. When I first got sober I wasn’t sure what I believed in. But as I stayed sober and worked the steps, things started happening in my life that made me very clear about what I believed in. I think this happens differently for each person and in their own time and is not something that has to be forced.
* I use this example not only because it has been true in my own life–(sharing my story with another alcoholic has made it easier for me to stay sober than trying to do it on my own)-but because many people in recovery take this second step with this idea of the group in mind. In AA, when people have difficulty signing on to some conception of God we say, “No problem–only two rules for a higher power: 1. It’s not you. 2. It’s something greater than yourself.” A helpful acronym we use is Group Of Drunks (GOD). After all, it’s been proven over and over that all of us together are more powerful than any one of us alone.
If helpful, you could look at this step as saying: “Came to believe that I could not be restored to sanity on my own.”
As used in this step, what does the term “sanity” mean to you?
It’s interesting because with my alcoholism, I only recognized all my insanity in retrospect. Even now, every once in a while I pull up a memory and I’m shocked to realize what I thought was normal. For example I used to be a bartender and would often have the day shift at the restaurant I worked at in my early twenties. To get through the morning without yacking and to calm my hands, I would often spike my iced coffee with a couple shots of vanilla vodka. At the time, to me, I really didn’t think it was that different than someone drinking a vanilla latte. In fact in my head, I often looked down at a coworker with their plastic Starbucks cup with whipped cream on it and thought, “At least I’m not drinking all that sugar.”Yeah. Insanity.
I had to be sober and removed from that behavior for a while before I recognized how crazy it was. In regards to my body image though, as long as I’m being honest with myself, I’m able to see the insanity even as I am in it. There’s a lot that I want to gain from working these steps–but the number one goal is certainly to be restored to sanity. I know my brain is not right after years of being conditioned by a society that allows only a narrow definition of beauty.
To me, sanity would mean…
- Detaching the stigma from certain foods (i.e. not feeling like I’ve suddenly gained weight because I’ve eaten grains or sugar.)
- Not having my mood change based on how I think I look.
- Checking mirrors to see if there’s something in my teeth–not to see if my butt looks too big.
- Viewing my body as it is itself– not in comparison to the toned, slender, white figure that’s dominated my head since I was five.
- Not judging other women for how they present their bodies to the world.
- Not being fearful or ashamed of having my body out in the world.
- Regularly buying the correct size of clothing because I see myself realistically (now often buy one or two sizes too big, never convinced my actual size will fit.)
- Spending less time thinking about the size of my body. PERIOD. NUMERO UNO. I want all that time and energy to go into projects and activities and endeavors that will actually serve me and the world.
Why does the step say that a Power greater than ourselves “could” restore us to sanity rather than “would” restore us to sanity?
WORK. That’s all this is about to me. This applies not only to this step but to really anything that I want in life–I’ve got to work for it. I believe that the power and the opportunity is always there, but it’s up to me to take the action to make things happen. I got sober in Michigan. I’ve now lived in New York for almost 9 years. I tell people here all the time that there’s something I hear in meetings in NYC that I hate, and that I never heard in Michigan. “Don’t drink and go to meetings.” People say that all the time. I understand why they say it. They are trying to keep it simple for the newcomers. I can attest to early sobriety being a very cloudy and confusing time. It’s true that you’re probably best served by keeping it straightforward– don’t drink a day at a time, and go to meetings to listen and learn from other people who have had your problem and gotten better. The problem with this is if all you ever do is go to meetings, not much is actually changing on the inside. You might feel better temporarily, especially while you are at meetings. But you can’t live at meetings–you’ve got to live out in the real world. This means you’ve got to do some work and start cleaning up your insides so you can live on the outside. You’ve got to change the habitat of your head and your heart so they are places you can comfortably reside–places you can feel safe in and count on. When we begin taking estimable actions and start living in a way that keeps our conscience clear, we can finally be comfortable in our own skin and become far less likely to be driven to a drink or a drug or whatever destructive behavior we have come to rely on to fill the hole inside us. For me, the steps were the actions I took that led me to live in a way that made me feel worthy of respect and dignity. I don’t believe I am owed anything. Still, everything I need has been provided for me. If I do the work, I receive the benefits.
You have been running the show thus far and have been unsuccessful at fixing your problem. Are you willing to believe that something else can fix your problem?
Yes. I didn’t used to believe that the issues with my body image were spiritual in nature. I think this is largely due to the fact that for a long time, I tricked myself into thinking that the way I felt about my body was changing. I suppose in some ways it was. After all, I haven’t starved myself or purged in years. Also, as an athlete, I’ve had great instances of appreciation for my body–for what it can do and all it has carried me through. Still, if I am being honest–my most pronounced moments of body positivity in real life and on social media have come when I’ve perceived my body to be at a state closer to society’s ideal. For reasons I’ll discuss in another piece, I recently started posting to my Instagram account again. If you look back on the time when I was most active a couple years ago, you’ll see that I talked a lot about loving my body and being confident in my skin. For the past year, I’ve been longing for that time–for that body. I’ve kept trying to capture exactly how many miles I was running a week, what I was doing for strength training, what I was eating. I looked good. And I felt good.
Nowadays I’m about 10 lbs heavier than I was then. It was the beginning of falling into another cycle of trying to get back to that smaller body (my “best’ body as I like to call it), that woke me up and became the catalyst to this steps project. If I can’t feel the same way about my body–if I can’t love it and believe it’s beautiful and worthy, with just 10 extra pounds–well then whatever self-esteem and body positivity I thought I had was crap. All those IG posts didn’t mean shit. They were hollow. The moment I realized this was the moment I understood that my body image was a spiritual problem–an inside job.
I’ve got a hole inside of me. I used to fill it with booze. It wasn’t until I stopped doing that that I realized the depth of the emptiness. It felt impossible to sit with. Naturally I’d reach for other things to fill it–food, shopping, men–easing the pain temporarily felt better than taking on the truth. But eventually, those things stopped working. The steps made me understand that I had to start filling that hole with something that couldn’t be taken away from me. I could lose a boyfriend, or money, or stuff–people and circumstances could rip those things away from me. If they were what I was to rely upon for my strength, if they were the foundation of my being, then I’d surely crumble. What outward things and beings could not strip me of is my character and my integrity. They couldn’t dampen my relationship with a power greater than myself. Only I have the power to diminish or strengthen my connection with the Universe. Only I can control the love I put out into the world. Only I can make myself vulnerable and open to receiving that great love.
So what is ten pounds? For the past year, I’ve allowed it to be enough to make me crumble. I had built a foundation that was being held up by false supports. By “confidence” gained through toned legs. By “esteem” built on a flat stomach. I looked in the mirror and saw something closer to what society has told me is ideal. I allowed that image to fill me up–to make me feel good and “right”, temporarily. Now, ironically, with ten more pounds on my frame, I am deflated. Physically I’ve got more to hang on to, but inside, I’ve got nothing. So now I see, as long as I keep trying to fill this hole with a “closer to perfect” outside, I’ll never truly possess the love and respect for my body that I am truly seeking.
I believe that a Power greater than myself, can restore me to sanity. With help, I can get better.
I’ll keep this very brief as this post is already quite sufficient in length.
Things are getting better. I don’t really get why, or how. I didn’t totally get it when I got sober either. But something is changing inside me. Perhaps that’s the key. Whatever is changing is taking place on the inside. I’m feeling steady, like I’m beginning to have something to hold on to. This transformation is also changing what I see on the outside. I’ve noticed the dialogue that I have with myself is shifting. When I look in the mirror, instead of thinking, “you look gross” or on a good day, “almost there,” I’ve instead been thinking, “Alright BRAIN! Get to changin’! What society taught you was FALSE! That softness on your stomach, that curve on your thighs–that’s NOT gross. You’re an athlete! You ran a 7:57 mile today! You are POWERFUL! You are FIT! You are STRONG! You are a person who FIGHTS! You are a person who LOVES! I see YOU, and YOU are BEAUTIFUL!”
Yeah, idk. But that’s what’s happening. I don’t like using all those caps–but those words are the loudest. They are the loudest.
I’m gonna keep putting in the work.
cat h. bradley
header: averie woodard