Life in Circles: Balancing the scales

March 26, 2016
Melissa Wagner

Melissa Wagner

Life Circles, by Stephanie Wagner.

A breathless hug. A quick body scan. “Oh my gosh!  How are you?  You look great!” It’s a woman’s version of a friendly hello. At the grocery store, the soccer field, a professional meeting – we validate each other with kindness directed at our appearances.

For Melissa Wagner, 42, it reinforces years of shame and secrets.

“It’s time to talk about this.  If more women were open about their eating disorders and body shame, maybe others wouldn’t suffer so much.”  

A child of the 80s, Melissa grew up with the same messages about body image that I did. Jane Fonda wore neon high cut leotards while she aerobicized, Dexatrim commercials ran non-stop during Dynasty, and my grandma was on the grapefruit diet. Being empowered meant being thin, being fit, and never admitting you were tired.

“It never came from my mom. I don’t ever remember her dieting… but everyone’s childhood has its own kind of chaos. I think we look for ways to recreate that chaos when life is calm.”

When Melissa was 34, life was pretty calm. She had a husband who supported and loved her, three healthy children, and meaningful advocacy work.

“But my kids were growing up, and not needing me so much. And then I saw this picture of myself: I was wearing a green shirt and I thought to myself, ‘I’m huge’.  I was out of breath going upstairs.  I knew it was time to do something.”

What started out as healthy eating quickly spiraled into an eating disorder that took over Melissa’s life.

She began planning her days around a binge-purge cycle. Waking up in the middle of the night to weigh herself to see if she could eat breakfast the next morning. Taking massive doses of laxatives just to see if she could make the scale budge a little bit more.  

“As sick as it sounds, it really was a rush. The planning, the eating, the purging, the reward when the scale dropped a couple of ounces. I felt in control of this one thing in my life, and I was proud of how well I was hiding it from everyone.”

Then there were the compliments and comments, particularly from other women. Melissa was noticed, and it felt good.

“It was truly an addiction.  Just like a drug addict, I thought no one knew. I thought I was in control.”

Fortunately for Melissa, rock bottom didn’t require a major health crisis or losing everything. It was her developing daughters that prompted her to get help.  

“My eating disorder made me not present. Even when I was with my family, I was always thinking about food and planning for my next purge. I was sending mixed signals, and I wanted better for them.”

She started out by admitting to her husband just how bad things had gotten, and then she asked for his help. “I needed to be held accountable.”

They walked after meals. He didn’t let her disappear into the bathroom after eating anymore. She started therapy. She got a job. They adopted again.

And slowly, she healed.

“Sometimes it is harder than others. New Year’s, when everyone is making weight loss resolutions. Spring break, when the magazines are focused on swimsuit season. And honestly – this conversation is a trigger. I actually ordered black coffee today because I was thinking about the calories in a latte!”

Most importantly, Melissa has changed both the messages she gives to other women and her daughters, especially Anna who is just beginning to date.

“I’m trying to teach Anna all that is good about her – not how she looks – that’s what is important. She weighs more than I did at my thinnest, but she can run faster than I ever could!  She’s fearless and strong. That is what matters.”

The same goes for how she treats other women. She’s still jealous of women who know how to put on makeup, but appearance no longer defines her relationships.

“I don’t know why women do that to each other.  Women are way harder on other women than men are. Men don’t even notice most of the time how a woman looks unless it is drastic.  Why do we care so much?”

I’ve often wondered the same thing. How might all of our lives be different if we stopped comparing ourselves to other women? If instead of remarking on how we look, we noticed just simply that someone is.  

Melissa jokes that if we all walked around with a t-shirt listing our problems, we would be a lot kinder. “Of course, I would need a prom dress to list them all!”

Perhaps we can all take a lesson from that. My guess is, we would all need a prom dress. Mine would be long and tender pink, and covered with years worth of comparisons where I didn’t measure up, where I wasn’t “enough”.

But it would also list my hopes and dreams. The successes that build me up when the failures threaten to take me down.  The things that make me whole.

So the next time we see each other, let’s acknowledge our prom dresses. I’ll hug you, you’ll hug me back. I’ll ask about how you are, and when you tell me that your house is a mess and your son is failing Math – I’ll say that mine is too, but that we will both survive because we are strong and smart.

And when you walk away, I’ll notice that the ink on your dress has faded just a little.

Editor’s note: Melissa Wagner is Stephanie’s aunt through marriage. 

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