A few weekends ago, a friend approached me with the question, “How do you do it?”
She had stumbled upon my blog earlier in the week, and read my opening post, Starting from the beginning. If you’ve been following my story, then you’re already aware of my history with eating disorders and negative body image. This friend came to me in total confidence, vulnerably unraveling her own story of eating disorders, and seeking advice on how to avoid the seemingly unavoidable – relapse.
In that moment, I felt a wild mix of emotions teetering somewhere between empathy on the deepest level, and guilt. Guilt because I knew that she entered this conversation, expecting that I had the miracle solution to all of our body image woes. But the fact of the matter is, I don’t.
I think there is a lot of misconception surrounding the reality of struggling with an eating disorder. Plain and simple: Eating disorders are mental illnesses. Its not so easy as choosing to stop bad behavior, or suddenly seeing the light and forever putting starvation/vomiting/exercise abuse to rest. Every experience is unique to the individual, and I know that there are people out there who are 100% free from their struggle. However, that is not my experience, yet. There are days when I question whether or not the scars of that time are too deep to ever erase. Although I have gained enough control to refrain from acting on impulses to relapse, the blueprint for a downward spiral is still heavily outlined in my brain. I have to actively choose to make healthy decisions and decide to view myself in a positive light on a daily basis. That’s right. A daily fucking basis. Six years removed from the thick of it. Still. BUT. I have made so much progress, and have done so much internal work to get to where I am now – the point at which my knee-jerk reaction is to respond to self-sabotage from a place of love, rather than a place of hate.
Back to my friend’s request for advice. I have been pondering over that conversation for a few weeks now, and have honed in on the things that have been the most helpful to me throughout my ongoing process.
- Food. Ironic, huh? Turns out that the thing I was most afraid of at one point is now one of my greatest therapeutic assets. Let me explain.
When recovering from an eating disorder, it is incredibly important to redefine your relationship with food. And by important, I mean imperative. It took me a long time to see food as something other than a number. Calories in, Calories out. I knew the Caloric content of numerous foods by heart, and was heavily addicted to the Calorie tracker app on my phone.
Aside from deleting the app and vowing never to use it again, I started by avoiding foods with Nutrition Facts labels (a good rule of thumb, anyway, to avoid processed foods) as often as possible. I found that I did (and do) better when there is minimal possibility of triggering any attachment to numbers. This left me with the option of whole foods, which again, is a good rule of thumb for anyone.
At some point, I became interested in food politics – especially literature and documentaries on this topic. I found that as I committed to nourishing my body properly, I became insatiably curious about the history of the food I was consuming. I won’t go too deep into detail here, but a few of my favorite books that really helped develop an awareness of mindful consumption for me, are The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan, and What to Eat by Marion Nestle. My point in bringing this up is that I started to give a shit about what I put into my body – not because I was concerned with how skinny I was anymore, but because I genuinely wanted to take care of myself.
After I had my daughter, and was navigating the transition from working overtime to being more or less a stay at home mom, I decided to explore cooking in my free time. This was a major turning point for me. I strongly believe that the mere act of preparing one’s own food is one of the greatest acts of self-love and self-care that we can engage in. The entire process of grocery shopping, foraging, gardening, collecting, cooking, and finally, eating satisfies something on a deep, primal level. When we cook our own meals, all of the five senses are utilized, and repeat exposure allows us to tap into the intuition of what our body needs, nutritionally.
2. Mothering a daughter. Now this isn’t to say, go out and have a bunch of female babies. It just so happens that the young female in my life who looks up to me, is my own kid.
I think it can go without saying that our society is a tad fucked when it comes to social norms and expectations for females. I grew up with “ideals” being set in the form of skin and bones models who were constantly on a diet. I participated in sports that involved “optimal” body type/weight/shape. And when I finally had to step away from those activities due to overuse injuries, I gained a little weight, and felt as though I was somehow, less-than.
I remember when I found out I was having a daughter. It was our 20 week appointment. And up to that point, I had more or less convinced myself that I was going to have a boy. Even though I had dreamed of having a girl – I ignored the wives tales of the gender dreams, and formed a daily mantra of its a boy, it HAS to be a boy. When the ultrasound tech confirmed that I was, very obviously, carrying a girl, I almost cried (and not out of joy).
It took me some time to sort out why I had wanted a boy so badly – why the hell I had reacted so poorly, initially, to hearing what should have been great news. Turns out, I was scared. Terrified really, of raising a female, when I had so many unresolved, existing problems related to the female experience myself. The last thing I wanted to do was raise her wrong. I didn’t want her to have to grow up with such a flawed mother. I didn’t want her to ever feel less-than or insufficient in any way, as I have.
After a few days of coming to grips with the news, I made a promise to myself that I would get my shit together. That I would make my self-worth a priority. That I would be damned if I didn’t raise a strong, confident daughter who would do better than me. Without a doubt, she is my greatest inspiration to be better. Everyday.
3. Don’t own a scale. Again with the attachment to numbers, I do not and will not ever own a scale. At the end of the day, weight is only a number. It holds very little value in regards to health, and it says nothing about happiness.
4. Yoga. A huge part of my struggle with an eating disorder was exercise addiction. I would literally go to the gym and park myself on an elliptical for hours until the “Calories Burned” value reflected something in the thousands. I made a conscious decision during my initial recovery phase to avoid the gym like the plague. I haven’t had a gym membership since.
The first dedicated physical activity I pursued after taking some time away from exercise, was yoga. As someone who has always been relatively active, finding movement for leisure after so much time spent using movement as punishment, was indescribable. The liberation that I experience each time I come to my mat, is indispensable. There are no numbers. No restrictions. Just the breath and a desire to explore my strengths and what my structure is capable of.
*I’m aware that modern yoga, especially in a heated setting, has the potential to harbor those like me, who struggle with self-image and abuse physical activity to obtain thin, fit results. If this is you, and yoga is a trigger, don’t do it. I have seen it, unfortunately, all too often – especially in studio settings with a competitive yoga culture. Be aware of yourself. Do you become agitated if you cannot make it to class? Or if you can’t do a pose? Does a missed session result in punishment (usually with Calorie restriction) somewhere else in your life throughout the day? If yes, it may be time to find something that serves you better.*
5. Be vocal about your experience. One of the most empowering things for me, is sharing my experience (the good, the bad, and the ugly) with others. The mistakes that I have made, and the lessons that I have – and am – learning along the way, are invaluable tools that can be used for good. When we use our voices to shine a light on our darkest hours, change happens. On a personal level. On a community level. On a global level.
To sum it up, I am not perfect. I definitely do not have it all figured out. I struggle. Everyday. BUT. I truly believe that I matter. The things that I do matter. The body that I move through this world in matters. And I refuse to waive the white flag in surrender, even if it is literally taking years to find complete freedom. If you struggle with any sort of body-image issue, I sincerely hope that you might also find relief and healing from the things that have helped heal me.