This Passover, I Hope To Set Myself Free.
It’s a voice I thought I had vanquished.
But at the most unpredictable times, those scathing whispers slip surreptitiously back into my thought patterns as I pull my chair up to the table.
My body responds to the thoughts — stomach clenching, jaw tightening, nausea fluttering. I do not want this food. I cannot have this food. I hate this food. I hate me.
For years, I have struggled with disordered eating — a term that describes the multitude of abnormal eating behaviors that, although alone do not warrant a diagnosis, demand attention nonetheless. I have been through enough therapy to understand that my relationship with food has very little — if anything at all — to do with the items on my plate. When my inner world is veering towards a cliff, food becomes an easy target. Control over eating is a smokescreen to distract from my true source of distress.
For too long, I have been enslaved to this constant, grating dissatisfaction with self. This year, as I flip through the Haggadah in advance of the seder, phrases that dance through my childhood memories come into fresh focus.
Halach maanya — this is the bread of affliction…now we are slaves, next year may we be free…Avadim Hayinu — once upon a time, we were slaves…today, we shall sing a new song of praise to you for our redemption and for the liberation of our souls.
We are instructed to personalize the Exodus story — as if we ourselves left the biblical Egypt to rejoice in newfound freedom. And, if we do not feel free, we are told to hope — to sing, even as we wander — that one day we will be free.
As I think about our nation’s long-fought struggle towards liberation, I consider my own personal journey. I reflect on the forces that continue to bind me — the insecurities and never-enoughness that continue to tie my hands.
When I’m hurting inside — when I’m scared, and life’s unpredictability taps me on the shoulder and asks for my seat — food becomes a convenient way to redirect the pain.
Struggle. Power. Restraint. Triumph. Punishment. Control. Control. Control.
I know this game. I cracked this code. I busted the Oz of my adolescent insecurities — now it’s time for me to click my heels and go home.
So why — when I know that the food on my plate is not the problem, only the excuse — do those feelings continue to bubble to the surface? Why does the feeling of a full stomach and a taut waistline still provoke shame, and sometimes panic? Why do the numbers on the scale still seem to have such a disproportionate influence over my emotional homeostasis?
I thought I made peace with my body. I thought this war was over. I’ve worked to embrace the stretch marks on my hips and thighs. I’ve fought to embrace the horizontal scar that reminds me how my son came into this world. Finally, after years of navigating a relationship with food that seemed more dysfunctional than any of the Kardashians, I had outed the enemies — bagels, ice-cream, butter — as imposters. At long last, I turned my attentions towards what lay beneath the soft pink flesh that carries me, patiently, from day to day.
We were once slaves in Egypt, now we are free.
But now, as these murmurs of discontent begin to reappear — I must wonder: am I yet free? Perhaps I underestimated my oppressor. Perhaps I did not realize the extent to which I associate thinness with “goodness.” Slenderness with desirability. Tautness with self-control.
Do I remain a slave to the arbitrary definitions of beauty and success that surround me? Did I ever fully debunk the malignant, deep-held belief that how much I weigh correlates with how much I deserve to be loved?
Eighteen months ago, when I gave birth to my son, my body underwent the most significant transition it had ever faced. I ran a 40-week marathon of aching hips and vomiting pit stops and peeing my pants when I sneezed and — after all of it — I had finished. After processing a complicated birth and conquering the problematic breasts that sustained my son for a year against tough odds, I thought clear waters for my relationship with my body must be ahead. After years of questioning this frame, I had — for that brief, precious, euphoric moment — irrefutable evidence that this body was amazing. I told myself then that no doctor, no nurse, no magazine cover or blaring Victoria’s secret billboard would ever convince me otherwise.
Yet here we are. The voices, creeping back into my thought patterns. Sabotaging my enjoyment of a hard-earned lunchbreak. Contaminating my relationship with exercise. Tainting the four cups of wine I raise to freedom.
The story of Exodus is not merely a retelling of our past — it’s a personal prayer for the future. The golden Jerusalem of our collective dreaming might also represent a place of refuge from the storm of inadequacy, shame and self-loathing that threatens our freedom from within.
I realize my struggle for liberation is not yet won. The oppressor — the constant, grating dissatisfaction with the woman I see every morning in the mirror — is more resilient than I thought. More devious than I anticipated. The roots of self-doubt planted when I was in grade school are still deeply intertwined.
Someday, I will uproot the toxic belief that my self-worth is connected to some arbitrary standard of beauty or body size. Someday, I will forever cast out the myth — peddled by every advertisement and neatly boxed item on the pharmacy shelf — that I am not enough. That there is something to fix. That there is, and forever will be, something wrong with me.
The journey to recover from any mental health struggle is far from linear; quite the opposite, it can feel like meandering through a sun-scorched desert in pursuit of a promise, a mercurial vision of what could be.
But with each setback, recovery becomes more manageable — the road is tamed by footsteps that have come before. You keep strategizing and hoping and learning. You keep your eye on the next ladder — grab hold, swing forward, place foot on top of rung, foot on top of rung.
Movement towards recovery is not glorious or triumphant. It is hard. Progress is incremental. But a new bump in the road does not mean you’re back where you began. With the proper support — from friends, family and professionals — recovery is attainable, not despite the setbacks, but because of them.
Today, I know what it feels like to walk past my reflection in a store window and see not the flaws, but the strong limbs that carry me with purpose and direction. I know how it feels to see a face in the mirror, not eyes too tired, skin too tarnished or hair too drab. I know that gratitude can replace dissatisfaction, regard undermine reproach and wonder absolve senseless shame.
I will get back there.
Next year, in Jerusalem.
Shira Lankin Sheps graduated from Hunter College School of Social Work with an MSW in clinical social work. After working in the clinical field, marketing and photojournalism, she decided to start The Layers Project to help break down stigma and promote healing within our Jewish community. She feels strongly about presenting women, who are so often shown as shallow characters or fully removed from Jewish media spaces, as three-dimensional individuals whose lives are full and rich with resilience. Shira is the founder, Publisher and CEO of The Layers Project Magazine.