What Brings Comfort?

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By Bethany N, Guest Contributor

There is an innocuous photo somewhere on Facebook taken at a Christmas party over a decade ago. Six college girls pose in a kitchen, grinning widely for the camera. Five are dressed in flattering party attire. I’m hiding in the back wearing giant yellow sweatpants and a hoodie, looking underdressed and more than slightly lost.

The ill-selected yellow sweatpants never fit. But convinced I was on the verge of expanding to fit them at any moment, I wore them more than any other article of clothing for my first two years of college. It wasn’t a sloppy college student phase- I was wildly uncomfortable in anything else. When I did slide into a pair of jeans, I spent the day yanking at the waistband and pulling at the edges of my shirt to make sure everything stayed hidden.

My body didn’t feel like my own. Convinced that I needed to get a grip on my “eating problem,” I was consumed with mentally planning my meals from the moment I woke to the last few minutes before I fell asleep at night.

My actual weight was unrelated to my thought processes. I avoided scales, convinced they would confirm what I feared: that I had completely lost control. For the first 17 years of my life, I regularly heard “You’re SO skinny!” from friends, family, and random people at school and dance classes. (I say ‘random’, because it is still considered socially acceptable to comment on the low weight of a near-complete stranger, no matter what age). I compare it to the enthusiastic height comments my brother has heard throughout his life, with the exception that he was a tall child who grew up to be a tall adult. I was a skinny child who developed an average-sized body and no longer knew how I fit into society. One message I embraced growing up was that my body was highly visible to the people around me and they approved of it; therefore, I could approve of it. When the external recognition stopped, I became frantic to get it back.

While I figured my ever increasing self-loathing wasn’t exactly normal, I didn’t have adequate language to describe what I was experiencing. I wasn’t anorexic or bulimic, but I wasn’t okay. I regularly ate to the point of intense nausea, and I hated myself for it. During a school informational assembly, a representative from the campus health center listed “support for people with eating disorders and disordered eating” among the services offered. I scheduled an appointment with a dietician immediately. Three days of food tracking revealed only that I understood how to feed myself a balanced diet, and I was referred to the campus counseling center. For the next four semesters, I worked with my counselor, Deb (I’m still thinking of an adequate superhero name for her), to begin a new relationship with my body and how I care for myself.

Of the many insights I gained, the greatest centers on why my eating habits caused me so much pain. When I left home for the first time and moved across the state for college, feeding myself became my primary source of comfort. As I navigated new friendships, entirely re-worked my belief system, and tried to determine if I was skilled enough to pursue my chosen major, I sought respite in the moments where I could isolate and feed myself. My public, cafeteria eating appeared normal, but my hidden binge eating left me disoriented, sick, and ashamed. In those moments when I felt most vulnerable, more aggression and verbal self flagellation only propelled me to eat more.

I experienced incredible relief with the realization that my impulse to overeat was a signal that I needed care. As one of my favorite experts on emotional eating, Geneen Roth, writes, “For some reason, we are truly convinced that if we criticize ourselves, the criticism will lead to change. If we are harsh, we believe we will end up being kind. If we shame ourselves, we believe we will end up loving ourselves. It has never been true, not for a moment, that shame leads to love. Only love leads to love.” I committed then to learning how to talk to myself with kindness, as if to a friend, asking what is needed instead of automatically trying to heal myself with food.

For the past ten years, my relationship with my body has been easier. I would love to say that my disordered eating habits have entirely disappeared, but they still serve as a cue to slow down and pay closer attention to my feelings. I’m far more sensitive and responsive to when my eating habits go awry, and I know to lean on other skills I’ve developed to care for myself well. Making time to dance, practice yoga, hike, and take walks through the neighborhood with my family brings a huge amount of joy to my life. I generally stay away from exercise settings that are results-oriented, opting instead for more organic ways of moving that connect me with myself and the people I love.

 As a yoga teacher, I am intentional in the language I use to support my students’ practice, ever conscious of how so many of us berate ourselves over the imperfect nature of our bodies. In the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the only physical yoga posture (asana) mentioned is the sitting position for meditation. The wide range of fascinating yoga poses that yoga practitioners perform is for the purpose of sitting comfortably in silence for extended periods of time.

Learning this shifted my perspective on how I approach movement, prompting me to continuously ask, “Does this pose, and how I approach it, create space or is it coming from a place of aggression?”

Indian spiritual leader Sri Sri Ravi Shankar discusses the purpose of asana in this way: “What brings comfort? The shorter your comfort zone, the more miserable you are. If you are comfortable only in a limited sphere, then your life becomes miserable. Your happiness depends on the extent of your comfort zone. Yoga asana expands your comfort zone.” That word again, comfort.

As obvious as this all appears in writing, at times I still feel vulnerable to falling back into hurtful eating patterns. When this familiar anxiety arises, it’s then I remember that my relationship to food is so often a reflection of my relationship to life itself. While I can’t create a future where everything aligns exactly the way I want and where I feel externally validated at all times, I can create a supportive, comforting space for myself in the ways I think and move my body. I find peace knowing that I now have the language and resources to process what I’m feeling, as well as to find healing and love through each season of my life.

Bethany is a Yoga Instructor (RYT 200) and certified K-12 Visual Arts Teacher with a BFA in Studio Art. She spent a year teaching English in South Korea, where she also led a children's yoga class and worked as an actor, director, and designer with a local theater group. For the past four years, Bethany served as an Art Teacher and Regional Team Specialist in Denver Public Schools. She and her husband recently relocated to Pittsburgh, where she now teaches yoga and co-organizes a Spanish conversation group.