Finding Meaning with Alice

Last weekend, I saw Alice Through the Looking Glass. I hadn’t seen the first remake, but I’ve seen the original, so it didn’t matter. The movie was incredibly creative and well done, and I give it two thumbs up.

Spoilers ahead (!):

The main theme of the movie is “You cannot change the past, but you might learn something from it.” Alice seeks to help the Mad Hatter, who is mourning the loss of his family, while also believing there is a chance they are still alive. Alice attempts to get him to (radically) accept that they are gone, but when his grief does not lift, she sets out to travel back in time and prevent their deaths from happening in the first place.

Once she begins her voyage, she quickly remembers that another significant event contributed to the death of The Hatter’s family. Prior to their disappearance, Iracebeth (the Red Queen) had promised revenge following the Hatter’s family publicly mocking her for her swollen head. If only her head hadn’t been swollen, Alice thinks, my friend’s family wouldn’t have been killed in the past, and all will be well in the present. Alice travels even further back in time to the scene of the tragic accident in which Iracebeth hit her head, leading to it becoming literally (and figuratively) permanently swollen. Alice successfully runs interference so Iracebeth can dodge the object that leads to her injury. Iracebeth, however, then slips and knocks her head into a fountain, leading to instant swelling and permanent damage – the exact outcome Alice was hoping to prevent.

It is in this moment that Alice realizes that she cannot change the past, as hard as she may try. Still determined to help her friend, she seeks to find more information about events that have already occurred. Rather than preventing these events, she studies them, and gains new insights, clarifies misinterpretations, and ultimately, helps the Hatter find peace.

In real life, we obviously cannot travel back in time and have as close a look into past events as Alice did … though her chronosphere ship would be pretty fun to navigate. What we can do is reflect on past events and, once we aren’t in the heat of the moment (aka DBT’s “emotion mind”), look back on what we may have missed the first time around. One DBT skill I have always loved to teach is “Meaning Making,” which comes from the IMPROVE skill for distress tolerance. This skill is all about finding the significance behind something distressing, rather than trying to change what has already happened. Personally, I have a love/hate relationship with the expression “Everything happens for a reason,” as this can feel invalidating in some situations … I instead like to think that there is meaning in everything that happens, albeit sometimes hidden at first.

End spoilers.

Let’s try looking at things dialectically: Perhaps your eating disorder put you through hell, and showed you how deeply your family and friends care for you. Sure, given the chance to relive life without the ED, you might take it … but since life doesn’t work that way, perhaps you can now reflect on how strong your relationships became through your illness. Maybe since recovering, you’ve become passionate about spreading awareness about mental health and helping increase access to care.

Perhaps the loss of your family member led to a deep depression, and allowed you to recognize your own strength and pour yourself into new activities. Again, you’d do anything to get that person back, but since you cannot, you instead learn from your tragedy … perhaps the loss affects the way you engage in relationships moving forward. One day, you may be able to help someone coping with their own loss in a way you couldn’t have otherwise.

It isn’t always easy. Perhaps you cannot seem to find the meaning behind something, but instead, reflecting on the past can highlight the ways in which you’ve grown and changed, ways that others had cared (and still care) so deeply for you, or in some cases, ways you can make sense of the behavior of others.

Perhaps someone treated you so poorly because they were struggling with their own problems at the time. Their unkind words and actions may have been more about them than about you.

Perhaps you treated someone with disrespect because you were struggling with your own problems. Perhaps looking back, your behavior was a cry for help.

Finding the meaning may not justify what happened, but it may help you make peace. Sometimes when you look closely enough, you can see something you hadn’t seen before.

All of this being said, learning from hardship can at times seem impossible, especially in light of the current tragedies sweeping the nation: The Stanford rape case, and the subsequent verdict. The abhorrent massacre at an Orlando LGBTQ nightclub leaving 49 innocent people dead. There is no way to make sense of the nonsensical. Sometimes you can examine and dissect the evidence until you’re blue in the face, and still find yourself confused, scared, and feeling helpless.

These are the moments when, perhaps, you hug the people close to you extra tightly. Perhaps you start living like it is your last day, truly Living the Fourth (for any Jesuit-school grads who know the significance behind this). Perhaps you pour yourself into advocating for those who cannot. Learn something from the good, the bad, and the in-between, and find your meaning.



Body-Shaming, Age 8+


Age 8: “Your mom is fat,” the boys in my second grade class announce to me, giggling to each other in the corner of the playground at recess.

Their laughter haunts me.

I ask my mom not to come to Visitation Day that year. I won’t tell her my reasoning behind that request until I’m 29 years old.

Age 9:  We are climbing the rope in gym class.  My classmates get to the top easily.  I struggle.  My arms can’t hold me up.  I make it halfway and have to come back down. All of my classmates are watching.

My friend Catherine has the same experience.  We decide we must be too fat.  We talk about weight loss and I sneak my mom’s dieting book into school the next day.  Catherine comes over that weekend and we eat oranges for lunch.  “Dieting is silly,” we say after a few hours following our new “plan.”  We start eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with chips and a carton of milk again.

At no point did we consider that as non-athletic third graders, we didn’t have the muscles that activity requires. Less food seemed like the only answer.

Age 10: I am at the movie theater with a friend and her mom, who is fat.  She gets up to use the restroom before the film starts.  When she gets up, her butt grazes the back of the heads of the boys in front of us.  They all point and giggle.  She doesn’t see them, but I do.  I don’t tell my friend; I don’t want her to feel embarrassed.  But I hold back hot tears, angry at the boys for getting a rise out of mocking someone else.

Age 13: I’m at camp, waiting with the other pre-CITs to go swimming.  My friend leans over to me and says, “Look at the girl next to you!”

The girl next to me is a fat 10-year-old girl in her swimsuit.

My friend had headphones on and spoke louder than she meant to.  The little girl hears, and tightly curls her towel around her body.

Age 21: I visit friends who are studying abroad in Spain.  One night, we get street food while waiting for the train.

“You’re a vegetarian?” a friend of a friend asks me.

“Yes! Well, I eat fish. But no other meat.”

“Hm, I wouldn’t have guessed that … I mean, you don’t have the body of a vegetarian .… ”

I am distracted by something else, so I don’t hear what comes next.  My friend gives him a talking to, to which he responds, “I mean, she’s not that fat .… ”

I don’t have any distinct body-shaming memories from ages 14 to 20.  The only way I can make sense of this is by assuming that body-shaming was so rampant in my teenage years that I stopped remembering each exact instance.

Age 24: I start working as a therapist at an eating disorder treatment center.  Body-shaming is everywhere.

The teenagers I work with body-shame themselves constantly.  This is what inspires me to start writing about it.

Sometimes, they body-shame other teenagers.

Often, parents do it too … they say, “I had an eating disorder when I was younger but clearly I’m recovered,” and laugh as they motion toward their round stomach and plump legs.

“Actually, you can’t tell if someone is sick or recovered by looking at them,” I respond, stone-faced serious.

I’m not upset with the kids and their families.  Parents do not create eating disorders.  Body-shaming is simply a product of the culture we live in.  I am no angel; I have put myself down countless times, admired someone’s weight loss, and noticed another’s weight gain. I have also worked on this tremendously once I began to witness, first-hand in my work, the impact it has on mental and physical health.

I realize that my experience is not unique in any way.  I have always been slender, a bit curvy, and in no way can I claim to have been the victim of body-shaming to the same degree that too many others have.  If I’ve experienced body-shaming, I cannot imagine what it is like for those in larger bodies.  It’s as though being thin (or even “not fat”) in a skinny-focused, fat-shaming world has become a new sense of Privilege that we have to keep in check.

I’ve learned a lot working as an eating disorder therapist.  When a kid tells you, “I think I’m fat,” and you respond with “You are not fat,” you are perpetuating the idea that being fat would be the worst thing that could happen.

I learned this best from one of my 16-year-old clients in my first year working in the field.  Like many young people struggling with anorexia, this client was preoccupied with the idea that she was fat, and the fact that part of her treatment plan required steady weight gain as part of recovery did not exactly make her distortions go away.

During a check-in, she told me that her dad, one of her biggest supports, made a comment that she needed to address with him.  They were driving home after a particularly challenging night of treatment, and a fat woman was walking down the street.

“See, it’s not like you look like that!” her dad said.

He was trying to help. He was, as a father, doing his absolute best to help his child see herself based on reality, not based on her distorted thinking. I think any parent in a similar situation would do the same.

She explained to me that all that did was show her that if she were walking down the street, people would be judging her based on her body.  It told her that our society judges fat people and maintains the idea that we “shouldn’t” look a certain way.  And she did a beautiful job explaining this to her father so he could best support her recovery.

Here’s the bottom line: Most 10-year-olds are more afraid of getting fat than getting cancer, the idea of war, or losing both of their parents.  What does that say about the messages we are perpetuating?  You have the power to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem.  Body-shaming doesn’t end overnight.  Habits take time to make and to break, and even longer to see an impact.  The next time you have a shaming thought, notice it, let yourself think it – you aren’t a bad person for having a thought you’ve been raised to believe is true.  Just be mindful of what you do with it.  Is it necessary to say it out loud?  This is true not only when the shaming thought is about another person, but when it is about yourself.  After a few weeks of simply noticing the thought without 1) announcing it or 2) changing your behavior in response to it, you might start to feel better.  And you just might cause a ripple effect on the people around you.

Note: I used the word “fat” a few times in this post – chances are, you’ve internalized this as a word with a negative connotation – almost a swear word.  I definitely have fallen into that trap, especially as a kid … and adolescent … and 20-something.  Let’s remember that “fat” is just an adjective.  Some people are fat.  Some people have brown hair.  Some people have freckles.  And all of those things are okay.  Check out Jes Baker’s book “Things No One Will Tell Fat Girls,” regardless of what your body looks like, for some of the most empowering reading on body love and acceptance you may ever come across.