After anorexia, I had to learn to love myself and be sexual all over again.
I tugged at my black party dress as I looked at myself in the mirror. It was fitted at the waist then flared out, with a low neckline proudly displaying my cleavage.
I’d been recovered from anorexia nervosa (physically and emotionally) for nearly two years. But in an instant, along with the nerves and butterflies that come with preparing for a first date, I felt all of those old, toxic feelings come back. I wanted so desperately to feel sexy and confident (and oh boy, was I trying), but I just couldn’t seem to stop the flood of thoughts, questions and predictions.
What if he wants to kiss me?
Will he feel my body when he puts his arm around me? What if he’s disgusted?
He should be disgusted. I’m disgusting.
Look at my f*cking arms.
Even with these boobs. Was it worth it?
I wouldn’t feel this way if I hadn’t recovered. I’d be better.
He’ll never want to sleep with me.
As it turns out, he saw past everything that I thought was wrong with me and valued me for who I am. Despite all of these ugly thoughts in my head, the first date went incredibly well. Coffee turned into a very long walk, which turned into “I want to see you again tomorrow,” which turned into a house, a dog, five years together and a wedding last month.
Through those five years, I’ve thrown some curveballs my husband’s way. When I first told him about my eating disorder, he didn’t quite know how to process it. I kept the details to the bare minimum, and as time went on and I got more comfortable, I slowly let my guard down.
These days, he’s incredibly familiar with everything my past has involved. He’s listened to my secrets. Held me as I cried. Struggled to know what to do as I relapsed. Celebrated my triumphs with me. It’s safe to say that I can feel comfortable with him.
But it wasn’t always this easy, and it’s not always smooth sailing either. When I first recovered, I didn’t truly understand the impact my eating disorder had on my sex life and my relationships, so there were some big life lessons along the way.
Here are 4 of the biggest lessons I learned (and am still learning, every day):
1. External validation never feels like you think it should.
In recovery, you learn that you don’t need to define yourself based on your body… so when it comes to sex and feeling sexy, this can be confusing. I struggled with this a lot. I bounced back and forth between two extremes: not wanting to be looked at sexually at all because I wasn’t defined by my body, and being so enamoured with my newly recovered body that I wanted to be devoured and praised and heralded for it.
And as much as I thought compliments from partners were part of the solution, it was hard to find a soft ground for them to fall. Early in my recovery, if I didn’t receive compliments I immediately wondered what was wrong with me and fell back on old thoughts. Yet if I was showered with compliments, I’d assume that my partner was lying and would become suspicious of their motivations. No matter how many times I told myself that I was inherently worthy, it took some time and a lot of work before I could negotiate these concepts with a partner with ease.
Even when partners would compliment me on my non-physical attributes, my early recovery brain had a twisted way of shaping those words into a backhanded insult.
Why were they complimenting my personality? Is that all I have to offer? Am I just “smart”? OK, great, I’m driven; but am I beautiful?
It took me time to understand just how deeply anorexia had impacted every single aspect of my life and personality.
“Eating disorders literally fuse with your identity.” — Melissa A. Fabello
2. Certain physical touches need to be off-limits.
The first time a partner touched my collarbones intimately, I cried. I had no idea what was wrong with me. I blamed it on a sad movie and excused myself to the bathroom to sort myself out. As I sat on the toilet and mopped my face, I realized that my collarbones were a physical trigger for me. I’d always fixated on them during my disorder, and having them touched flooded me with memories of feeling like I’d failed if I hadn’t shrunk enough.
Since discovering this, I’ve learned ways to work around this and it’s not always a sensitive trigger for me anymore. But the potential is always there. Knowing this trigger and being able to communicate with partners is incredibly important.
3. It’s okay to want sexual satisfaction for myself.
Ahh, the elusive “Big O.” The pervasive pop culture trope of the bumbling man who can never find the damn clitoris and the woman who thinks it’s easier just to “fake” it seems to be a case of art imitating life imitating art imitating life.
And in my case, my own feelings of unworthiness came into play during sex an awful lot. I vividly remember one occasion where I found myself immensely confused during sex. I lay there, staring at the sea-foam-blue ceiling of my boyfriend’s bedroom as he thrust into me. He kept grunting and asking me questions. He wanted me to talk dirty to him, tell him how good it felt and how close I was — but I didn’t know what to say.
Truthfully, it didn’t feel good. It felt about as good as the misguided jabbing thrusts of a porn-obsessed teenage guy. I wasn’t aroused. And how could I be, when all I could think about was how long I could hold my breath in so I could suck my stomach in to make myself look thinner — so that maybe the experience of sleeping with me might be better for him. How sad is that?
I wasn’t even sure if I wanted an orgasm. I mean, sure, it would feel good, but did I deserve it?
“Anorexics are typically restrictors, and not just in the food sense. Some people with anorexia may “derive satisfaction from avoiding pleasure.” — Wendy Persson, LSW
It wasn’t until years later that I figured out that:
a. Orgasm wasn’t the defining moment of sex;
b. I was allowed to want an orgasm; and
c. I was allowed to view sex as mutually beneficial, rather than for the sole pleasure of my partner.
4. Intimacy takes time and libido isn’t a light switch.
And not just sexual intimacy, either. It took me time and great courage to work myself up to any form of intimacy, even just a private chat with a date over a cup of coffee. It seems so simple, but allowing someone into my private space to know details about my life was something that I wasn’t used to. My anorexia had thrived so deeply on my secrecy and lies about every part of my life.
“A consequence of female self-love is that the woman grows convinced of social worth. Her love for her body will be unqualified, which is the basis of female identification. If a woman loves her own body, she doesn’t grudge what other women do with theirs; if she loves femaleness, she champions its rights. It’s true what they say about women: Women are insatiable. We are greedy. Our appetites do need to be controlled if things are to stay in place. If the world were ours too, if we believed we could get away with it, we would ask for more love, more sex, more money, more commitment to children, more food, more care. These sexual, emotional, and physical demands would begin to extend to social demands: payment for care of the elderly, parental leave, childcare, etc. The force of female desire would be so great that society would truly have to reckon with what women want, in bed and in the world.” — Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth
I very quickly found through sexual interactions that it’s easy for me to feel “used” by partners if it feels like we haven’t done enough groundwork in trust and care and support beforehand. It was a huge lesson in boundary-setting for me, one that was vital to all of my relationships.
During the worst of my disorder, you could fit the amount of sex drive that I had into a matchbox (which isn’t surprising, as it’s damn near impossible to view yourself as a sexual being when you’re so committed to your own destruction).
And physiologically, the anorexic brain begins to switch off bodily functions, such as the ability to produce children, to focus the limited energy resources on brain and heart function. The hormones that allow menstruation need fat cells in order to be produced. When the levels of fat in the body fall below certain levels, fertility hormones are no longer produced, and sexual desire also falls. Several studies have also shown that sexual satisfaction is closely related to degree of caloric restriction. The greater the weight loss, the greater the loss of sexual enjoyment.
I naively assumed that once I recovered, my libido would come flooding back (pardon my pun) instantly and I’d be ready to go. Alas, that wasn’t the case. It took a while for my sex drive to slowly return and even now, I’m not exactly like the Engergizer Bunny. And that’s okay.
“My experience has shown me that even when weight is restored (resulting generally in restored cognitive functioning and normal hormone levels,) sexual issues and dysfunction often remain for people with eating disorders.” —Judy Scheel, Ph.D., L.C.S.W.