This is my story…MINE. I still have a hard time accepting that. I love where I am today, but I honestly struggle with loving where I’ve been. There is a lot within my past that I am tempted to feel shameful about, but I have to remind myself that because of where it has led, it too is beautiful.

As you can see from my sister’s post yesterday, there are reasons that we feel the way we do. In reading her post, I kept thinking “She was twelve years old…TWELVE YEARS OLD.” My sister was just a little girl when she was bit by the lie that she was not beautiful enough just the way she was. And she didn’t just pull that lie out of thin air.

I was also twelve years old. And completely unequipped to understand and cope with the struggles that my sister was facing. I was losing my best friend to a lie that previously had no place in our lives, and I began to believe that lie for myself. Sadly, that lie was not the only one to work its way between us. At thirteen years old, and not long after being told by my parents that my sister had been diagnosed with anorexia, I made a conscious decision to “not be a part of my sister’s problems.” I had resolved to be okay at all costs because I didn’t want to burden my parents with a need for attention that could otherwise be given to my sister. I believed the lie that in order to be beautiful, I had to be okay--strong, stable, and self-sufficient. At THIRTEEN YEARS OLD.

Looking back now, I realize that even then I was perpetuating the lie in my sister’s head that she was not good enough. My desperate attempts to be “okay” at that time sent the message that she was not. That saddens me to the core. I so badly wish that I could go back and just hug her. Everyday. And tell her that I loved her and saw her as beautiful through all of it. That I believed in her and knew that she would be stronger for everything she was going through. And I think I probably needed the same.

No matter how hard I tried to convince myself that I was okay, I wasn’t. Between thirteen and fourteen years of age, I grew increasingly jealous of my sister and the attention she was receiving, and increasingly lonely in my own battle for self-worth. Crying in bed at night became a frequent occurrence. I found myself very stuck between wanting to be as “beautiful” as my sister, and not wanting to worry or disappoint my parents. I put on a façade of being totally okay, while in secret I began to change the things I didn’t like about myself - and in no healthy way.

It started with simply working out. I bought kickboxing workout videos and began running, religiously ensuring that I worked out every day. I literally planned my day around exercise, feeling anxious if I didn’t get any in for the day. At the same time, I started restricting my food. However, I had the added trouble of being more readily found out by my mom because her senses were heightened due to my sister’s behavior patterns. I had to get smart too.

I knew that if I went under 100 pounds, I would have to see my doctor. So that’s where I aimed. To stay there, I too would fix meals away from my family so they couldn’t see how little I was eating. And if a meal could be skipped, I would skip it. I’d lie to my parents so I could continue to look the way I wanted, and I’d lie to myself so that I didn’t have to feel bad about it. How well do you think that worked?

Because I was involved in our youth group leadership, and had a fairly consistent routine of praying and reading my Bible, I thought I was okay. I thought that the whole “me and God alone” thing would work. The problem was that it actually became an excuse to keep hiding my struggles from everyone else, mostly because I didn’t want to feel shame. Hiding really just gave those struggles more power in my life.

At fifteen, things started to change again for my sister. After a summer Bible camp, she had “come out of her shell.” She was bubbly, outgoing, and started making new friends. She definitely felt better about herself, and again, I got jealous. I still missed my sister and desired to be the person she most wanted to spend time with. At this point though, that’s not who I was. And I don’t blame her. I was unhappy, critical, and I didn’t want anyone, even her, close enough to see what was really going on.

Previously homeschooled, my sister and I started our sophomore year at public high school. I started running for the cross-country team. And I also started making myself throw up.

It began as a way to eat a normal amount of food while, as I believed, still losing weight. It then became a means to eat only a little amount of food and lose even more weight. I would often keep the contents of my lunch in a brown paper bag, so that as I ate no one could see just how little I was taking out. During my class after lunch, I would excuse myself to the bathroom because there was less likely to be anyone in there who would hear what was happening. And it would be far enough before cross-country practice that my body would feel somewhat okay for the workout.

That continued until Christmas time, when my mom caught me in the bathroom right after purging. I knew she had heard what was happening, and when she asked I couldn’t lie. The shame I felt in that moment was unlike any I had felt before. All the hard work I had put in to appearing okay in my parents’ eyes had crumbled, and so did I. I cried and promised I wouldn’t engage in that behavior anymore so that I wouldn’t have to see our doctor. I didn’t want anyone else knowing what I had been doing.

So I resolved yet again to be okay, even when I wasn’t really. I didn’t purge for the entire following semester, but that summer the bulimic episodes returned with a vengeance.  It was bad. Some nights I would pray to God, asking for someone to save me. I wasn’t super serious about that prayer. Yet, He was. I believe it was the end of that summer when my sister was driving me to one of my first cross-country practices of that season. On the way there we were silent, until finally she asked, “Heather, have you been making yourself throw up again?” I couldn’t lie. I broke down and had her turn the car around to take me home, where my mom was waiting to talk with me.

I had long stretches of being okay (not purging, but still restricting), and long stretches of not (not restricting, but purging A LOT). Because my mind was so obsessed with eating, not eating, purging, and exercising, the timeline of my story sort of blends together here. Life at that point felt like a blur. To continue to hide my shame, I no longer did school athletics and eventually stopped going to public high school. Dead set against the use of medication, I received some holistic help from our local clinic, which, for a time, seemed to distract me.

While the binging and purging had taken a respite during the first part of my freshman year of college, exercising and restricting were still frequent flyers in my daily routine. At the same time, I began a long-distance relationship, with zero self-respect and a depleted desire to stand up for myself. I found way too much value in how I looked to him, whether I was pleasing or not. When criticized one way or another, I would again find myself crying in bed at night, hiding my hurt from everyone else, desperately wanting to feel okay. I was in no place to truly be a support to myself, let alone my sister when she admitted to struggling with starving herself once more. And that’s when the binging and purging started again.

Near the end of that school year, I had had enough. This time it was me who went to my parents and admitted that I had yet again slipped back into my destructive habits, though I am pretty sure I lied about how long it had been happening. I went to counseling during the summer, which I desperately wish I could tell you worked. But it didn’t. Which is something even much of my family hasn’t heard from me yet.

The fall of sophomore year came with increased difficulties in my relationship with my boyfriend, a whole lot more to hide, and a new way to measure my beauty—by how much of my body I was willing to give to a man. Giving away far more of myself sexually than I had wanted, my self-esteem was shot. Fearful of the shame of anyone finding out what was happening in that relationship, I isolated myself even further from those closest to me. I allowed myself nowhere to turn but down. I was binging and purging heavily enough at this point that I took a break from running and exercising because I didn’t want to put my body under any more stress. Ironic, ehh? The bulimic behaviors no longer were a means to lose weight, because my metabolism was ruined and I knew it. Those behaviors were the only source of comfort I allowed myself at that time, and losing weight wasn’t worth that loss of comfort. Well, the end of that first semester found me with the feeling of death-like pain from stressed-induced kidney stones…Not the feeling of beauty.

Something(S!!!) had to change. The start of the second semester of sophomore year brought with it the end of that relationship, a need for true physical health in my life, and thus the end of making myself throw up. It brought with it the greatest distance I had yet felt from my sister, as well as some of the greatest healing in our relationship. It (along with some meddling on my sister’s part) brought me to the man I am now married to. It brought surrender, or maybe just tiredness. But one way or another, I was DONE.  

I know what it feels like to binge and purge so much in one day that the following day I felt too poorly to go to school, work, social events, etc. I know what it feels like to workout for hours on end in an attempt to have the body that I see so many others around me coveting. I know what it’s like to not even see the world around me because I was looking too intently on a number on a scale.  I know what it is to be so nutritionally depleted that making a healthy decision for myself was nearly impossible. I know the pain of choosing lies and loneliness. I know what it’s like to be fully disgusted with every part of who I am. And I am still DONE.

This doesn’t mean that I don’t still struggle with accepting my body just as it is. I often see before and after images of bikini-clad women, who were already absolutely beautiful, showing how they came to be thinner, more toned and tight, and therefore happier than they were. And I still feel triggered to question my beauty. I wonder how many other women feel the urge to question their beauty too. That can lead down a road that I know all too well--one that, with every part of my body, I wish for no other woman or girl to walk down.

This is what I have to say about those images and the messages being sent by the women in those photos. They have NOTHING to do with you. Just because someone else thinks that their own perfectly beautiful self needs to be even more “beautiful,” doesn’t mean that your perfectly beautiful self needs to change too. We have the CHOICE to love ourselves for who we are in this very moment, even when others aren’t making that choice. As a twelve year old girl, I would have benefited to know that truth.

And this is what I can tell you about the women in those images. They were beautiful before, and they are beautiful after. But not because of the work they put into changing their bodies. Instead, it’s because they were created by God, with their very own wild and innate beauty.

I’m incredibly thankful for God’s grace in my life—for time to heal (physically, emotionally, spiritually, and relationally), for self-confidence (or “sass,” if you will), for the realization that certain things deserve my time and effort, while others DON’T. I’m thankful for a beautiful, healthy three-month old son, when my past behaviors could very well have jeopardized that.  And I’m thankful for the presence of mind to make decisions about my body that don’t include becoming more “beautiful,” but rather with how I can add to the health of myself and my son.

I’m thankful for a husband who has shown me how God desires for me to be treated, and to put His opinion of me before anyone else’s, including my own. And I’m thankful for a sister, who has offered me more grace and forgiveness than I deserved, and whose own beautiful story brought transformation in my own life.

Lastly, I am thankful for this story of mine. For how wild and beautiful it was, and how wild and beautiful it continues to be.

-Heather Cummings