5 min read
by Iona Holloway | 05/19/2021
CW: explicit description of eating disorder (ED) experience
Dread pulled me through the floor as I sat on the toilet, cast in the gloom of the early morning.
Blood in my underwear. A woman of sorts, again.
For many years I found strength, purpose, safety, control, and self-worth by shrinking my body. Losing my period was collateral damage of an embodied war, and I loved it. Its absence was proof that I was “doing it right.”
When I found the heart to heal and began to bleed again I wasn’t happy. There was no red balloon. My period’s return felt like an admission of failure. My body was no longer a cold, efficient tundra, but a soft and gentle place.
A safe space for someone to live; just not me. Reclaiming my cycle and what its return symbolized took a lot of time, kindness, and unlearning.
I first stood on the olive green carpeted scales in our family bathroom at the age of four. My dark eyes glued to the number nestled between my tiny toes.
For as long as I can remember I had a good reason to shrink, or at least an engineered one. Being in a small body felt correct for someone like me: a smart and athletic girl who was also a bit of a black sheep.
I made my life look too easy. Praise and awards stuck to me like glue. As I grew older I hit up against my own limitations, but no one else seemed to notice. I was left with a choice: tell the truth, or “prove” I was perfect.
And that’s where shrinking “saved” me. My body became the way to express the pain and the struggle no one else saw. Shrinking channeled the pressure of being the talented, independent young woman who “had it all.”
My smallness also met the standards for our generation: the beauty of looking a little hungry. I could count on two hands the number of periods I had in my twenties. I eventually hit rock bottom at 29. Something had to change. I had to change.
And I did. I did the bravest thing in my whole small world.
I chose to get well.
The eating was needed. The kindness towards myself was needed. The rest was needed. A small layer of fat started seeping over the bones and muscles I had sharpened and polished through years of stripping naked on scales, sweating in the gym, and tracking the calories in gum. I feel tenderness for the younger version of me who was desperate to feel safe and whole, but was hunting in all the wrong caves.
When I started eating enough, the blood came back. Like a long-held tide.
But I did not dance with joy. Not even close. That chilly morning sitting on the toilet with my ruined underwear at my ankles felt like a funeral. It may sound weird that such a natural process felt like an assault on my identity, but it did. My period’s return symbolized that I may never feel as powerful, feel as unique, look as small, or feel as maniacally focused on perfection ever again. I couldn’t see the gift of being well yet.
It felt like a special and powerful part of me died that day. When I stopped shrinking I feared I was averaging out. Like everyone else. I was no longer visibly special. I’d cast the same cruel spell for so long, I was numb to how sad, cold, and rigid my existence was.
The cost was high. I was paying with my life.
Dominating my body started out feeling like freedom; now I stood prisoner in a fortress built of fear. My worth was conditional and earned, fluctuating daily by the half-pound. The small body I fought so hard to maintain felt special but at no point did I feel safe.
Trying to be “perfect” is no match for being a woman who likes her own company, speaks her mind without crushing other people’s ideas, lets her partner cook dinner, backs herself enough to launch a business, and runs in the early morning sunlight for clarity, not calories. Letting go of the lie that a small enough body was somehow going to get me “there” was the most generous gift I have ever given myself. By being brave enough to loosen the shackles, I gained freedom no “body” could ever give me: space for my soul to rise.
My healing was not overnight, I couldn't rush if I tried. It sat on me for months. Low-grade dread mixed with hope. In softening the extremes that forced my body out of monthly rhythm, I slowly melted the iron-clad will that let me run through walls and bypass hunger.
It took forever to relearn the language of my subtle body and all its lilting shifts. It took even longer to have the guts to pull my fingers out my ears, listen to my body, and not override it.
It was odd to do puberty all over again. To learn what hormones felt like.
Those two days every month where I blinked open my eyes and fatigue pinned me to the mattress like a grizzly bear? That was not laziness to plough through. Those two days where the day’s usual irritations suddenly felt like death by a thousand ragged-nail scratches? That was not neediness to numb. I was not a broken, irrational, weak, or horrible person on those days. I was a woman with a period learning how to dance with herself. In time, my feet fell into a rhythm.
As I thawed from emotional freeze I had to do something I swore only weak women did: rest.
Rest looked like lots of things. Eating cheese on bread. Not bottling the tears when they built up behind my eyes. Carrying my keys around in a luminous yellow fanny pack. Napping on a Wednesday afternoon.
All the long-lost gifts I’d starved to stillness found their way back into my life. The childhood dream of writing a book was no longer “on hold” until I was small enough. It was something I was allowed to do right now. And I did.
Learning how to live in my body changed me. I thought I could never step off the shrinking train. That I was damned for a lifetime of losing and gaining the same five pounds. Living through the sometimes brutal hum of learning and testing emotional honesty is the making of us. It’s the baking of the bread.
Here are some anchors to drop into if listening to your body, and having your period, still feels foreign:
Treating myself like a precious object makes me strong.
My body is like weather. Ever changing, always here.
I am not my emotions. I am the space that holds them.
Kindness is a practice. I am what I practice.
We are strong when we are human. We are strong when we are well.
Reflect on your own life. Even if you don’t physically shrink, where are you gripping too tightly in your life? Can you let go to make space for your soul to rise?
Iona is the #1 Best-selling author of Ghost - Why Perfect Women Shrink. Iona helps women reclaim their bodies, worth, and power through vulnerability, creativity, and breathwork in her speaking and coaching business. Read the first chapter of Ghost free and follow Iona on Instagram and Pinterest for her unfiltered, honest, and often lighthearted take on doing “the work.”
by Iona Holloway