Content note: this article discusses childhood abuse and self-harm; those paragraphs have green text.
After working in fat liberation and body positivity for about a decade, I am super familiar with the power of this kind of work. In short, it transforms people and it often does so in unexpected ways.
When we reconnect with our body, it doesn’t just mean we may have more confidence or a better relationship to the mirror. It means we reconnect to the information superhighway that is our body. It means we reconnect to what our bodies are telling us - not just about food or hunger - about everything.
It might mean that our intuition becomes stronger and we make an unexpected realization about our career or a big move in our relationship. We might have a creative breakthrough after years of blockage. I’ve seen this happen to other women when they “break up” with diet culture. And in my case, reconnecting to my body helped me realize - and undeniably feel - just how toxic my relationship to my family was.
My family has been ravaged by the trauma of immigration, war, multiple generations of being unparented, and the legacy of alcoholism (which continues even if the child of an alcoholic is technically sober). I was raised in the shadow of their unresolved hurt and pain. In fact, my mother has told me that she decided to have me so that I could possibly help with healing the adults around me. I grew up in a family that harmed me, but I was deeply loved and had consistent access to material security. There are, for instance, pictures of me smiling with stacks of Christmas presents. In fact, there are lots of pictures of me looking happy, playing, and sharing sweet moments with my mother, grandmother and aunt. It took a long time to reconcile those photos with my memories of loneliness, fear, anxiety and emotional instability.
This is the fundamental problem for the child of a so-called “toxic family” (I don’t love that term because it feels dehumanizing and reductive, but I haven’t come up with another one): we don’t trust our recollection of the events. Often all we have is our memory and the instinct that something is very wrong, but we’ve been taught to deny these things. In fact, our brains sometimes forget what happened so we can reconcile still engaging with the people who fundamentally undercut our ability to ever truly feel safe.
There’s no documentation of the childhood where my aunt showed me porn, where my baby brother cried at night and I was the one who had to wake up to give him a bottle, where my grandfather gave me the silent treatment for hours as I cried, where my mother left without announcement for months on end, where my anxiety was so acute that for years I was convinced that I would die if I fell asleep, where my grandmother didn’t know what to do so she did nothing in hopes of keeping the peace.
I can look back and intellectually understand that my family is made up of real, live, squishy people who are very hurt. I wish life had been different for all of us, especially them. I wish no one had hurt my grandparents. I wish my mom had support and a strong foundation of self-worth. I can understand that they need compassion, which I am happy to give. I can recognize that the pain I feel around them doesn’t take away from the love I will always have for them. I can recognize that they need support and that they actually did their version of their very best.
But the body is not a creature of intellect.
It doesn’t care how damaged or hurt my family is because all my body knows is the very thing that has been beating like a drum in the pit of my stomach for as long as I can remember: I am not safe here.
Before body positivity, I had been able to ignore that signal my entire life.
When I decided I wanted to fundamentally change my relationship to my body, I thought that this decision was about refusing to diet or criticize my thighs anymore. It ended up being about a lot more than that. That decision pushed me to actually listen to the messages my body was sending me. Coming off of nearly two decades of restrictive eating, at first it was mostly saying, “FEED ME!” But once I got better at eating consistently, it started telling me other things: when I felt tired, anxious, when I didn’t like someone and when I didn’t feel safe. It was like I had opened a floodgate that had been shut since I was a kid.
To be clear, the body never stops giving us information, but up until body positivity I had a rock solid system in place that kept that voice at bay: nowhere above a whisper. It wasn’t a whisper anymore though. It was loud. It was clear. It was undeniable. And honestly, it was overwhelming.
That drum in my stomach I mentioned earlier, the one that was telling me to get away from my family, got louder and louder and louder.
I tried to bargain with my body. I decided that I couldn’t leave. So I would just “fix” everything. I started with trying to be honest with my family, believing repair was not only possible but straightforward and desired on both sides. I got them registered with a year of therapy, which they sabotaged. I wrote them letters, sent them pamphlets, shared encouraging words, told my story, wrote a novella about it, got angry, got vulnerable, got sad, reasoned, pleaded. I went to therapy. I read self-help books. I wrote in my journal. I did cord-cutting rituals. I tried everything I could think of.
My grandmother - the matriarch and most emotionally powerful member of my family - persisted in sticking to a version of the story where the grown ups all around me were just good Christians who took me on annual trips to Disneyland and, hey, made a few mistakes here and there but who doesn’t? And I know that in her mind, that is what happened. That is her truth - a truth she is, in my opinion, entitled to have. My grandparents experienced much, much worse abuse and neglect at the hands of their parents than anything that ever happened to me. So my grandma’s body has a threat detection system that is totally different from mine. We’re speaking two different languages and neither of us knows how to translate the other’s. I’m still working on accepting that her truth and my truth can co-exist, even though each creates a radically different path.
Before I went no-contact and was still trying to work through things with them, they’d often pleadingly ask me, “Was it really so bad?” This question would fill me with doubt and with shame for being ungrateful, dramatic and possibly delusional.
Before my body positive journey, I used to commute almost two hours each way to visit them every single weekend. Each time, I would dread the days leading up to the visit. When the day finally came, it felt like my adult self was dragging my inner child out of my apartment kicking and screaming. I would sit through my visit, clenching my whole body and talking non-stop in hopes that entertaining them would prevent some awful thing from happening. I’d go home afterwards, relieved and tell myself, “Now that wasn’t so bad was it?”
Once I progressed deeper into my relationship with my body, every part of that story got harder and harder. So I tried to visit them less frequently, thinking this might solve the problem. My visits went from weekly to bi-weekly to monthly and then down to once every 6 or 8 weeks. This strategy actually had the opposite effect. The less I went, the less I flexed my self-silencing.
Because my body positive practice was picking up steam, I was no longer spending time with people who made me feel bad. This made the visits even more unbearable because the contrast between how I felt with them and away from them was so stark.
Before long, another unexpected thing happened: I found I was unable to stop from self-harming on the way home from my already infrequent visits. I would pinch and scratch my legs or eat a bunch of crackers really quickly until I had difficulty breathing.
I tried to shut up that voice in my body, intellectualize and move forward. But my body wasn’t having it anymore. I had opened the lines of communication, and now my body was giving me information I wanted - as well as information I didn’t.
I ultimately went no-contact because my commitment to listening to my body had created a reality where it was simply impossible to stay. It’s wild to believe that it all started with wanting to stop dieting. But that’s the thing. We’re taught that not eating is some small, throwaway thing. But it’s actually everything. When we don’t have the most fundamental thing - food - our bodies never get past the first level of communication: please, feed me.
I’m still deep in the process of what it means to be no-contact my family. I have no idea how long it will last. I want my family to be ok. I hate that my absence hurts them. I dream of a world where we can reconcile or they forget about me. I dream of waking up one day with the perfect solution that will make everything better. I feel guilt, shame and confusion every single day. I exist in the space between “I will always love them deeply” and “I may never be able to see them again.” It’s a type of emotional anguish that I’ve accepted because I know deep down that it’s somehow exactly what I’m supposed to be doing right now. Some days are, of course, harder than others. But each time my brain kicks me into a spiral, I turn inward and ask, “Do you want to go back?” And for almost four years the answer has been no.
Until that answer changes, I’ll be right here with a confused head and a very, very clear body.
Virgie Tovar, MA is one of the nation's leading experts and lecturers on fat discrimination and body image. She is the founder of Babecamp (a 4 week online course focused on helping people break up with diet culture) and the editor of Hot & Heavy: Fierce Fat Girls on Life, Love and Fashion (Seal Press, 2012). She writes about the intersections of size, identity, sexuality and politics. See more updates on Facebook.