Get Your Teeth Checked

Battling Generations of Body Shame

We were driving back from a family dinner at a posh Los Angeles restaurant, the kind whose clientele doesn’t dare to touch the breadbaskets. My mother could not stop blabbing about the owners of her gym, because that’s what you do when your daughter is home from her first year of college: “One time I went to dinner with them and they both ate steak and one order of French fries. But they still look amazing. But they split the fries...” I felt like I couldn’t even hear her. My ability to listen to my mother talk about her gym owners had disappeared when I had hit rock bottom four months prior and had put myself into therapy. Purging eight times in one day to cope with the emotional stress of being home during spring break had finally scared me enough to take action. And here I was again, stuck in a car with her. 

Without even thinking, the words erupted from my mouth.

“Well I’d rather have an over-eating disorder than an under-eating disorder.”

She said, “You don’t mean that,” to which I replied, “Yes I do. I’ve already had an under-eating one.”

Without missing a beat, she responded, “No, you haven’t.”

I paused, but before I knew it, the words were out of my mouth. “Yes, I have. I’ve been throwing up since the seventh grade.”

All of the air was sucked out of the space we both shared. This was not the way I wanted to tell her; this was not what I had planned. I had imagined a triumphant moment that involved eating a whole cake with my hands without breaking eye contact and saying, “YES, I HAVE BEEN A BULIMIC AND ANOREXIC FOR SEVEN YEARS. BUT NOW I AM BETTER. I AM EATING THIS CAKE BECAUSE I WANT IT AND I’M HUNGRY. AND GODDAMN IT TASTES GOOD.” But the words flew out of my mouth before I had a chance to take them back. The following moment was the longest and most painful silence of my life; I felt like my stomach was going to fall out and that I was going to projectile-vomit onto the windshield. After a silence that lasted far too long, she responded.

“Well, get your teeth checked.”

***

Two years later, I can say that for the first time in my entire life I have a functional relationship with my mother. Part of my recovery has been essentially creating a new relationship with her from scratch. Our bond has become stronger as a result of my letting her get to know a more genuine side of me. And as we get closer, I finally understand her reaction to the first time I opened up to her about my relationship with food. She needed me to be perfect, something that neither I nor anyone else can be.

My mother was not the only one demanding perfection from me. I was the pretty blonde girl who was a cheerleader and an ice skater. I got good grades, had a boyfriend, and was thin: I was living the life everyone had always told me I should want for myself. But I was suffering under the weight of “perfection” in a way that even I didn’t completely understand.

And how could I have understood it? My 13-year-long figure skating career fostered my eating disorder, which was normalized by the people around me. Both inside and outside the world of figure skating I was repeatedly praised for my “perfection.” Everyone constantly inquired about my thinness, asking how I did it and how they could emulate it. My hunger didn’t matter, I was told, because it was merely a means to an end. A friend’s mother told me that if I went to bed hungry, I would lose weight. And it was true. I began to realize that people liked me better thin. I had boyfriends who never failed to comment on how “amazing” and “beautiful” I looked; my friends and their mothers asked me what I ate and how I worked out. Thinness became my entire identity. Everyone needed me to be thin and, even worse, I needed myself to be thin.

I’m not the only woman who has suffered, though. Women are supposed to be small. As I watched my football-playing brothers stuff themselves with spaghetti carbonara, steak, and hot fudge sundaes, I would pick at my salad, as my mother did the same. It wasn’t just I who had been affected by society’s demands for my body. It was my mother and her mother before her.

As I started to let go of my mother’s mistakes, she started to let go of the idealized image she held of me. Only one month ago, I went shopping with her and she did not body-shame me by stewing in silent judgment when I needed a bigger size. That shopping trip is engraved as deeply in my mind as the infamous “teeth” moment. We laughed at the sweater that made me look like a butterfly-turned-cat lady. We zipped each other in and zipped each other out. The size of our bodies wasn’t the issue; the fit of the clothing was. In these two years, I’m not the only one who has grown—she has as well.

My grandmother lost all of her teeth when she was 20 years old. My mother has veneers because she didn’t like her smile. And me? I’m obsessive about my teeth. I brush them at least twice every day but, thanks to my genetics, I still get cavities. As with my teeth, when it comes to body image, I can’t expect a change overnight when the problem is not just mine but that of generations before me. Normalizing eating disorders reaches so much further than my nuclear family, where “diet and exercise” is our religion. We live in a society where an ideal of streamlined bodies occupies our every day. I’ve come to realize I can’t subject myself to that anymore. I am meant to have a butt, and “Czechoslovakian-baby-bearing” thighs (inherited from my great-grandmother Marie, according to my mother). That’s not to say that there aren’t women who are naturally thin and fit the ideal; no woman deserves criticism for her body. And no woman—neither I nor anyone else— can reverse generations upon generations of damage. We can, however, make our generation better than the one that came before it.

I am 21 years old and I still have all my teeth. But honestly, I’m a work in progress. Rather than punishing myself for the body I inhabit, I’m starting to care for it. It’s much easier, I’ve found, to like myself the way I am... and to make sure I brush my teeth every day. 

Comments

Plain text

  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
CAPTCHA
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
Image CAPTCHA
Enter the characters shown in the image.
Anonymous posted on

Was your dad your therapist?

Psychologists' Kid posted on

Almost definitely not. Mental health professionals (really all health professionals) are encouraged NOT to treat people who they have emotional ties to (family, friends, etc.) because they cannot possibly see them objectively.

Anonymous posted on

I started throwing up in 6th grade, after my older sister showed the "ropes". Five years later, I'm a raw food vegan and am healthy. My sister still throws up daily and is killing herself. Perhaps she'll have to strength to overcome!

Anonymous posted on

That you're a beautiful, inspiring individual. The fact that besides taking care of yourself now, you're a voice to help others do the same is incredible :)

Anonymous posted on

relevant, powerful piece performed at the diana last spring:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zQucWXWXp3k

Anonymous posted on

I am so honored to know you and call you my friend <3

Anonymous posted on

Paulina, you're so amazing. I'm so glad that you shared this to help so many women and men who feel that they need to fit an ideal body shape. I look at you and I feel incredibly happy to have met you.

Tom posted on

Thanks for sharing your story. Very well written and a great reminder of what's truly important. I have two little daughters so this really hits home. Again, thanks for this-

Michelle Yates posted on

You.are.amazing.
I am the mother of two daughters, one very naturally what our culture says is desirable, the other facing what will probably be a lifelong battle to stay in control of her weight. They are both beautiful and amazing and I would wish that they would each come to the awareness that you have come to and appreciate themselves for all they are beyond their bodies. Thank you for sharing!

Karrie posted on

Paulina....Thanks so much for sharing your story. I, too struggled with anorexia and spent 10 -15 years in the grip of this. (Had many relapses and spent nearly 2 years in & out of hospital). One year I spent over 300 days in the hospital. I still have trouble (20 years later) with "restricting" issues. But overall, I am so much better. Yes, I lost many of my teeth. I would eat barely 300 to 500 calories/day And then purge them and I'd over exercise !! So I guess I was bulimic as well. However, I didn't eat to excess then purge. I would just undereat and purge.

CR posted on

It's so hard to be sane in our culture - images of idealized female beauty at every turn, corporate America shoveling junky, empty food at us every other second. Be good to yourself, take care with yourself, be healthy, happy. Help, don't hurt, the one body you'll ever have. Make that choice everyday. Spend time figuring out that family you sprung from. Good luck beautiful lady.

CR posted on

I wanted to add...just saw you on CNN - you did a great job and seem like a dear person. Again, good luck!

Heather posted on

Thank you for being so candid. I was bulimic from about the age of fifteen and it carried on until about twenty-five. I don't know how I made it through without help but have amazingly supportive friends now. I never told my parents. I only wish there were more people speaking out about it when I was younger so that I wouldn't have felt so alone when it was happening. But now is as good as any to bring awareness.

And I'm obsessed with my teeth too :B

Mickey posted on

As usual some spoiled rich kid complaining because she has it all. Those of us who do not have rich parents to pay for our schooling, work full-time to put ourselves through school and have to worry about real issues, instead of how we look in our expensive ice skating clothes.
I feel worse for terminally ill people rather than morons who starve themselves.

Anonymous posted on

Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of all mental illness. Educate yourself. It effects people from all walks of life. It has nothing to do with money. Jealous much?

Anonymous posted on

I was raised by a single mom and paid to put myself through college and law school. I have also struggled with bulimia for more than 20 years. It's not a "rich" person's disease and it is not a "moron's" disease. It is a terrible illness that does not discriminate and I would not wish it on my worst enemy. It is something that I deal with on a daily basis, just like a recovering alcoholic. Learn to have some compassion for others.

Anonymous posted on

I completely agree with you. I have more sympathy and empathy for those who have an eating disorder but are not rich and privileged.

Lori posted on

You negative, MEAN, ignorant victim. Why share such negativity when what this woman wrote had NOTHING to do with having rich parents! She was writing from her heart about her experience with life and you say "who cares?" Truly unbelievable. You either love, or you don't - you don't get to pick and choose who you "feel worse for". By the way, genius, not feeding our bodies properly leads to terminal illness, so "morons" who starve themselves are very ill.

I'm no better than you, I'm judging what you've said just as you judged what Paulina wrote. I guess I am no longer willing to shut my mouth when people are so ignorantly mean and feel the need to reach out to someone with intentionally cruelty. Ever hear of anti-bullying campaigns? They're directed toward people such as yourself.

Marie posted on

I ate too much broccoli today and plotted how many laxatives I would take tonight to compensate for this momentary lack of self control.( A conversation I have had with myself almost daily for the last 34 years of my 49 yr life.) I just read your article and have started to wonder how important those laxatives really are(n't) in my life. Good for you Paulina!!!!!

Frances Zarnock posted on

Is maturity the reason you came to terms with your eating disorder? It appears that once you became an adult and could make your own decisions, you no longer needed your mother's approval and didn't have to be perfect any more.

Anonymous posted on

Paulina, you are an inspiration to many girls and boys (we should never forget them too!) who have been battling eating disorders for years secretly. I just watched an interview of yours and I have to say I'm thrilled with your openness and courage to speak out. Give you props!

Angela posted on

How incredibly courageous you are!! I too had an eating disorder from teen age years until I was 34. It's not easy, but it sure is fun getting to eat again! I went 572 days with no food! I'm now almost 42 and a healthy size and I commend you on being so brave and for putting yourself out there in hopes you can help other girls. I see why you thought you had to be thin to be perfect, but God made you perfect however he meant for your body to look and I think you look perfectly beautiful now!!!

Merle Langlois posted on

Adam used to joke that Drew's high anxiety perfectionism combined with the figure skating would give Paulina an eating disorder. Like so many other things in life, Adam was right, and Drew was wrong. I hope Paulina continues to do well against this eating disorder and that Drew and Susan take a long hard look at themselves.

j posted on

Bulimia is the nastiest of mind games. Such a secret disease, a disorder inspired by low sense of self worth and poor coping techniques. You don't even realize what you are doing is wrong, until your are deep. Thank you for sharing, I don't even think you know how courageous it is to confess such a secret. Bravo!

Elizabeth posted on

This is a lovely written piece, and I commend you for being so brave and open. Family dynamics and eating disorders are hard, particularly for me. I love that you rectified your relationship with your mother. I personally know this will never be my story with my family, but that's great yours is a happy ending. Keep being strong!

anedfortherestofus.blogspot.com

Kashi posted on

This is such a wonderful piece of writing. Good luck on your continuing journey of health and happiness. So happy to hear you and your mom have improved your relationship, that is amazing.

Lesley Speller posted on

You are such an incredibly brave young lady! You've done such a wonderful job taking back your control! So many women twice your age should be jealous!

Anonymous posted on

This is the BOMB - it's so refreshing to hear your story from a healing perspective AND while acknowledging the generational impact that so many of us aren't aware of or don't believe exists. Our ancestors are literally in our DNA, how is it a stretch to believe their issues are ours? It is possible to heal generational damage - you're proof of doing just that. You're also proof that as we heal ourselves, we heal those who came before us, and pave the way for a healthier future.

Write on, truth teller, our experiences have tremendous value and need to be shared with others!