Comes the Darkness, Comes the Light

Comes the Darkness, Comes the Light: A Memoir of Cutting, Healing, and Hope is a powerful new book by Vanessa Vega about her journey into therapy for self-injury and an eating disorder. The book is not for the faint of heart: In sometimes poignant and graphic detail, she describes her self-destructive behaviors and her early experiences in psychotherapy. Ultimately, it is a memoir of courage, strength, and hope.

It is a compulsion like no other, the inescapable consequence and intermingling of tension, shame, guilt, and frustration. It is a descent into a realm of darkness few can understand… yet many secretly experience. It is the disorder known as cutting…

Vanessa Vega would stop at nothing to cause – and therefore control – her own pain. When she wasn’t cutting herself, she might be slamming a hand or arm or leg against a wall. Or she might donate blood or get her iron checked – just to feel the prick of the needle. Her actions would sometimes leave her in a trance-like state, large portions of her day left only as foggy images if they weren’t blocked out completely. The need to cut called to her, even as she fought back, sometimes succeeding, often giving in to a need she herself couldn’t hope to understand…

Slowly, with the help of family, friends, therapists, and an abiding faith, Vanessa gradually and painfuly began to shake off the bonds of despair and helplessness, ultimately gaining strength, until at last she looked the demon in the eye – and stared him down.

This is one woman’s story of a life lost and then regained. Offering hope and agonizingly hard-won insight to others battling this painful disorder, it is a chilling look at the destructive power of the human mind, and an unprecedented account of the tragic results of self-mutilation. But in the end, it is a testament to the incredible power of the desire to live, and to the endless strength available to all of us – even in our darkest hour.

In addition, Vanessa’s account addresses the fear, shame, and misunderstanding that confronts many people beginning psychotherapy, and the relief and comfort that comes from learning that one is not alone in the struggle, that others have journeyed down similar roads and emerged victorious.

This is a book that should be required reading for therapists or loved ones attempting to understand why individuals self-injure and how to assist them in recovery.

self-injury, self-mutilation, eating disorders, therapy, psychotherapy

No Body is Perfect: Body Image and Shame

No Body is Perfect: Body Image and Shame
by Brené Brown, Ph.D., L.M.S.W.
Author of I Thought It Was Just Me

We often want to believe that shame is reserved for the unfortunate few who have survived terrible traumas, but this is not true. Shame is something we all experience. And, while it feels like shame hides in our darkest corners, it actually tends to lurk in all of the familiar places. After interviewing over 400 women across the US, I learned that there are twelve areas that are particularly vulnerable for women: appearance and body image, motherhood, family, parenting, money and work, mental and physical health (including addiction), aging, sex, religion, surviving trauma, speaking out and being labeled or stereotyped.

Interestingly, there are no absolutely universal shame triggers. The issues and situations that I find shaming may not even come up on another woman’s radar. This is because the messages and expectations that drive shame come from a unique combination of places including our families of origin, our own beliefs, the media and our culture. One place where women find themselves surrounded by unattainable and conflicting expectations is body image.

While some of us might have quieted the tapes about “not being smart enough” or “not being good enough” – it seems that almost all women continue to wage battle with looking beautiful, cool, sexy, stylish, young and thin enough. With more than 90% of the participants experiencing shame about their bodies, body image is the one issue that comes closest to being a “universal trigger”. In fact, body shame is so powerful and often so deeply rooted in our psyches that it actually affects why and how we feel shame in many of the other categories, including sexuality, motherhood, parenting, health, aging and a woman’s ability to speak out with confidence.

Our body image is how we think and feel about our bodies. It is the mental picture we have of our physical bodies. Unfortunately, our pictures, thoughts and feelings may have little to do with our actual appearance. It is our image of what our bodies are, often held up to our image of what they should be.

While we normally talk about body image as a general reflection of what we look like, we can’t ignore the specifics — the body parts that come together to create this image. If we work from the understanding that women most often experience shame when we become trapped in a web of layered, conflicting and competing expectations of who, what and how we should be, we can’t ignore that there are social-community expectations for every single, tiny part of us — literally from our heads to our toes. I’m going to list our body parts because I think they are important: head, hair, neck, face, ears, skin, nose, eyes, lips, chin, teeth, shoulders, back, breasts, waist, hips, stomach, abdomen, buttocks, vulva, anus, arms, wrists, hands, fingers, fingernails, thighs, knees, calves, ankles, feet, toes, body hair, body fluids, pimples, scars, freckles, stretch marks and moles.

I bet if you look at each of these areas, you have specific body part images for each one — not to mention a mental list of what you’d like it to look like and what you’d hate to have a specific part look like.

When our very own bodies fill us with shame and feelings of worthlessness, we jeopardize the connection we have with ourselves (our authenticity) and the connection we have with the important people in our lives. Consider the woman who stays quiet in public out of the fear that her stained and crooked teeth will make people question the value of her contributions. Or the women who told me that “the one thing she hates about being fat” is the constant pressure to be nice to people. She explained, “If you’re bitchy, they might make a cruel remark about your weight.” The research participants also spoke often about how body shame either kept them from enjoying sex or pushed them into having it when they didn’t really want to but were desperate for some type of physical validation of worthiness.

There were also many women who talked about the shame of having their bodies betray them. These were women who spoke about physical illness, mental illness and infertility. We often conceptualize “body image” too narrowly — it’s about more than wanting to be thin and attractive. When we begin to blame and hate our bodies for failing to live up to our expectations, we start splitting ourselves in parts and move away from our wholeness.

We can’t talk about shame and body image without talking about the pregnant body. Has any body image been more exploited in the past few years? Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for exploring the wonders of the pregnant body and removing the stigma and shame of the pregnant belly. But let’s not replace that with one more airbrushed, computer-generated, shame-inducing image for women to not be able to live up to. Movie stars who gain fifteen pounds and have their stretch marks airbrushed for their “Look! I’m human too!” portraits do not represent the realities that most of us face while pregnant.

Parenting is also a shame category affected by body image. As an admittedly vulnerable, imperfect parent, I’m not one to jump on the “blame parents for everything — especially the mothers” bandwagon. Having said that, I will tell you what I found in my research. Shame creates shame. Parents have a tremendous amount of influence on their children’s body image development, and girls are still being shamed by their parents — primarily their mothers — about their weight.

When it comes to parenting and body image, I find that parents fall along a continuum. On one side of the continuum, there are parents who are keenly aware that they are the most influential role models in their children’s lives. They work diligently to model positive body image behaviors (self-acceptance, acceptance of others, no emphasis placed on the unattainable or ideal, focusing on health rather than weight, deconstructing media messages, etc.).

On the other side of the continuum are parents who love their children just as much as their counterparts, but are so determined to spare their daughters the pain of being overweight or unattractive (and their sons the pain of being weak) that they will do anything to steer their children toward achievement of the ideal – including belittling and shaming them. Many of these parents struggle with their own body images and process their shame by shaming.

Last, there are the folks in the middle, who really do nothing to counter the negative body-image issues but also don’t shame their children. Unfortunately, due to societal pressures and the media, most of these kids do not appear to develop strong shame resilience skills around body image. There just doesn’t appear to be any room for neutrality on this issue – you are either actively working to help your children develop a positive self-concept or, by default, you are sacrificing them to the media- and society-driven expectations.

Power, Courage and Resilience
As you can see, what we think, hate, loathe and question about our bodies reaches much further and affects far more than our appearance alone. The long reach of body shame can impact how we live and love. If we are willing to examine the messages and practice empathy around body image and appearance, we can start to develop shame resilience. We can never become completely resistant to shame; however, we can develop the resilience we need to recognize shame, move through it constructively and grow from our experiences.

Across the interviews, women with high levels of shame resilience shared four things in common. I refer to these factors as the four elements of shame resilience. The four elements of shame resilience are the heart of my work. If we are going to confront the shame we feel about our bodies, it is imperative that we start by exploring our vulnerabilities. What is important to us? We must look at each body part and explore our expectations and the sources of these expectations. While it often painful to acknowledge our secret goals and expectations, it is the first step to building shame resilience. We have to know and explicitly identify what’s important and why. I believe there is even power in writing it down.

Next, we need to develop critical awareness about these expectations and their importance to us. One way to develop critical awareness is to run our expectations through a reality-check. I use this list of questions in my work:

·  Where do the expectations about my body come from?

·  How realistic are my expectations?

·  Can I be all these things all of the time?

·  Can all of these characteristics exist in one person?

·  Do the expectations conflict with each other?

·  Am I describing who I want to be or who others want me to be?

·  What are my fears?

We must also find the courage to share our stories and experiences. We must reach out to others and speak our shame. If we feed shame the secrecy and silence it craves — if we keep the struggles with our bodies buried inside — the shame will fester and grow. We must learn to reach out to one another with empathy and understanding. If, in a diverse sample of women ages 18 – 80, over 90% of the women struggled with body image, it is clear not one of us is alone. There is a tremendous amount of freedom that comes with identifying and naming common experiences and fears — this is the foundation of shame resilience.

Brené Brown, Ph.D., L.M.S.W., is an educator, writer, and nationally renowned lecturer, as well as a member of the research faculty at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, where she recently completed a six-year study of shame and its impact on women. She lives in Houston, Texas, with her husband and two children.

She is the author of I Thought It Was Just Me: Women Reclaiming Power and Courage in a Culture of Shame. Published by Gotham Books. February 2007; $26.00 USD/$32.50 CAD; 978-1-592-40263-2.

For more information, please visit

Action against and recovery from pro-anorexia websites

Spanish authorities have taken strong action against a website actively promoting anorexia:

Spanish health authority bans website promoting anorexia

MADRID, Jan 10, 2007 (AFP) – Spanish authorities have banned an internet site which was about to run a competition for young women suffering from anorexia, a regional health spokesman said Tuesday.

“This kind of thing is just not acceptable,” a spokesman for the Madrid health and consumer department told AFP, while a statement by the authority condemned a scheme which it viewed as “posing a health threat, above all for those suffering a food-related disorder.”

After being alerted by police to the competition on the Porcelain Princesses website the health authority threatened legal action, prompting the site to suspend its services.

Aware that recent studies say some 100,000 young women in Spain are anorexia sufferers, Spain has cracked down on the problem.

Last September, Madrid’s prestigious Pasarela Cibeles fashion show banned five models from participating because they did not meet World Health Organisation (WHO) weight guidelines saying that a body mass index of less than 18 (56 kilograms for 1.75 meters or 123 pounds for five feet eight inches) is unhealthy.

The competition, which would have run for a fortnight from January 13, offered points to those reducing their calorie intake to a minimum, with starvation rations of 50-150 calories a day worth nine points while “the honour of a podium placing” and a maximum ten points was offered for not eating all day.

Prior to its closure the website said in a disclaimer it advised visitors to “not follow” advice they might read there.

Following the furore, the site is currently down, save for a message advising that “princesasdeporcelana has been suspended.”

In another development, for individuals who have been “brainwashed” by the pro-ana movement, help is available. The website describes itself as “the first post-pro-ana website”, run by and for males and females who have previously found themselves caught up in the pro-ana movement and broken free:

This is the site that comes after the madness. There is no place for people to go who have been finding support on pro-ana forums, communities and email lists once they decide they don’t want to do the ana thing anymore… not until now.

Welcome to the first post-proana forum! This is an eating disorder recovery community, with an orange twist.

Pro-ana strengthens negative behavioral patterns, while post-proana strengthens positive ones. Have thinspiration pictures lost all appeal? Maybe you just want them to lose their grip on you. Maybe you are starting to feel like you’re growing out of this eating disorder thing, or at least you want to learn how…? Find bulimic behavior returning like a bad habit? You might find a verbal purge helps you deal with the seed of the problem that motivates your disordered eating habits. Ever wonder what it would be like to finally work on not punishing yourself for punishing yourself?

Stop shaming yourself for seeking support on eating disorder forums, and instead improve your outlook. You have found a truly unique eating disorder forum, made especially for those exiting proana boards and communities. We’ve got our wits, and we can take control of our lives by making better choices for ourselves. Choice is powerful. With anorexic behavior, you feel in control initially by starving yourself – then you lose your control to your eating disorder. The thing that you use to feel in control ultimately controls you, and on this site, we are trying to regain control in a frank and honest way. We try to keep a positive outlook, because recovery is a trust game with your body.

Recovery is a process, a journey – not a destination. This is not like anorexia with goal weights, and some marker that says you are “there”. We believe that recovery takes a series of many choices… and you need simply be choosing each moment to be a little better to yourself. Don’t rush. Allow yourself to have as much time to get out of this thing as it took you to get into it. Allow yourself a moment to suppose that maybe you can still have a tight group of online friends without destroying yourself. Help yourself and you can help your friends. It’s as easy and as hard as that.

pro-anorexia sites, eating disorders, pro-bulimia sites, debriefing, after pro-ana, after pro-mia, eating disorder recovery

Beautiful Boo

A beautiful girl’s memory: Girl’s death inspires Web site for teenagers
Wednesday February 19, 2003
By Mike Strobel, Toronto Sun

Boo MacLeod, forever 18, lies beneath a granite heart in an Orangeville graveyard. She is buried next to Lyn-Zee Kelly. I wrote last year about Lyn-Zee, whose death at 17 inspired her mom to start a home for unwed mothers. That the two young women lie side by side is pure chance. But it is as it should be.

Stephanie “Boo” MacLeod was inspiring, too. Monday was the second anniversary of her death from meningitis. Maybe you saw her smile light up our announcements page this week. You could not help but smile back.

I make my way to her mom and dad’s Rexdale bungalow, where the photos of a tight-knit family cover the walls. Where Boo’s room is as it was the day she fell into a coma at Etobicoke General. Where her parents, Ed and Enid, both 47, and sister Natalie, 22, are working on Boo’s legacy:

It is new online and will be a place for teenage girls to share stories and seek inspiration. About love. About looks. About all the dreams and demons that dwell in teenage girls.

Boo had her share of demons. After Grade 8, she drifted into depression. Her family thinks she tried to carry the problems that beset a family. Oldest brother Eddy’s marriage breakdown. Other brother Paul’s struggle to become a cop (he’s now with the Peel force). Boo couldn’t fix it all, so she went to ground, limping along at Thistletown Collegiate, taking credits here and there. She didn’t know she was beautiful and smart. She thought she was fat, ugly, stupid. After she died, her mom found a photo collage of skinny models in her room.

She was four years adrift. Sick Kids’ teen clinic finally brought her out of it the summer before she died. It was a magic summer. “She was Boo again,” says Enid. She gussied up the bridesmaids when Eddy remarried. She had a flair for makeup. She got a tattoo on the small of her back. Boo, it said, in Japanese. You can see the cloud lifted from her face in the photos from that summer. The rebel in her took over. The rebel who, after she got her tongue pierced, lived at brother Paul’s house ’til the swelling went down. So her folks wouldn’t know. She caught up on nightclubbing, using Natalie’s ID. She went back to school full-time. The world was hers again. “She was always so magnetic,” says her dad. “She would light up a room.”

Then on Valentine’s Day, 2001, she felt off. They thought it was the flu. But the next night, Enid found her in the bathtub, sick and weeping. In a cubicle at Etobicoke General, Enid tried a cold cloth on her daughter and waited for blood tests. “Then she sat up and made sounds that weren’t words. I ran for the doctor. But she just stopped breathing.”

On Feb. 17, with her room full of family, they turned off the life support. The seventeenth of the second month.

Funny thing. The MacLeods are not very religious, but after Boo died, they found a Bible she had picked up at school. She had highlighted Genesis 7:11.

In the second month, on the seventeenth day … all the fountains of the great deep burst forth, and the windows of the heavens were opened.

I dunno. But I do know Boo’s family will not let her memory die. They have high hopes for It was Natalie’s idea. Her longtime beau Stanley Bergman, 24, does the tech work. Ed is a graphic designer. Enid and Natalie are spreading the word to high schools. And they all have “Boo” tattoos in Japanese. Natalie got hers on her back after the funeral. Ed got one on his shoulder last month. Enid got one over her heart on Monday. Stanley has one. So do Boo’s brothers and their wives. Her locker at Thistletown is sealed, full of notes and photos. Best friend Patricia Peatling drew a rose on the door.

On Jan. 6, the day Boo would have turned 20, a family mob gathered at the Orangeville grave. Eddy and Paul live nearby. Ed and Enid plan to move up there, too. They lighted candles and drank tequila, Boo’s club drink. They wrote messages on 18 balloons – “I miss you,” said her mom – and let them go. Then one of the closest families I ever met huddled in the cold and watched the balloons disappear in the slate-grey sky.


One and a half months before her sudden death in February 2001, Stephanie wrote this poem, the only thing that would be written in her journal of Dreams & Aspirations.

I came to realize a short while ago
that the only person that I can be is me.
I cannot please everyone,
but I can please myself.
I will not be liked by everyone,
but I can like myself.
I do not need anyones acceptance,
I just need to accept myself.
I always tried to be the best of everyone.
Then it came to me,
the people that I am taking
the pieces from are not perfect,
so then why do I expect it from myself?
All I can be is me,
and being me is just wonderful.
I am a strong young woman who is
very bright in many talented ways.
I am a person who knows how to love,
And gets love in return.
I am me.
I am beautiful.

teens, grief, memorial, inspiration, eating disorders

DMOZ still promoting pro-anorexia, pro-self-injury sites

I last posted on these DMOZ listings on May 2, 2006, almost a month ago (see DMOZ and web sites promoting anorexia and self-injury). I just checked back today – nothing has changed.

DMOZ, also knows as the Open Directory Project or ODP, is a large human-edited internet directory owned by Netscape which is in turn owned by America Online (AOL) which is in turn owned by Time Warner, Inc. Recently, Google purchased a share of AOL making them also part-owners of DMOZ.

DMOZ is endorsing and promoting web sites whose primary purpose is helping young people starve themselves into ill health or death, mutilate their bodies through self-injury, or kill themselves. The rationale for this seems to be that this is some sort of lifestyle choice. The defense of the practice, as with the previous DMOZ defense of endorsing and promoting pro-pedophilia web sites, is the banner of “free speech”.

Anorexia is not a lifestyle choice. It is a mental disorder. So is self-injury. So is suicidal ideation (at least in the overwhelming majority of cases, leaving out the issue of incurable terminal illness). Endorsing such web sites is akin to promoting web sites that promote depression or panic attacks or paranoid thinking as a lifestyle choice.

Have a look at some of the listings in these DMOZ categories – these are presented as a quick sample and not intended to represent an exhaustive list:

Where is the social value in sites like these? Who do they benefit? Where is the social responsibility in promoting and endorsing sites like these? Does anyone really believe that mixing in a few sites on the dangers of anorexia or self-injury justifies the listing of pro-anorexia and pro-self-injury sites in a public directory with the size and status of DMOZ?

ODP, DMOZ, eating disorders, anorexia, bulimia, self-injury, suicide, social responsibility, social irresponsibility