Body Love in the Face of Illness or Feeling Unwell
October 2, 2012

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A few months ago, I wrote a post candidly sharing my thoughts on “Fitspiration.” In it, I commented on the slogan “strong is the new skinny,” which I think is well intentioned but not particularly helpful in the sense that it trades one ideal (skinny) for another (fit/strong). The comments on that post were really terrific. A lot of you shared the idea that the only ideal we should be pursuing is that of good health and well-being; “healthy is the new skinny,” in other words.

I’ve been thinking about that idea for a while now, mostly because I spend most of my time thinking about health. One of the beautiful things about the online wellness community is that we’re all so inspired to thrive. Most of us have, at some point or another, had our health profoundly transformed by changes in diet, activity, attitude, or a combination of all of those things. Anyone who has had this experience knows how empowering it is to realize that small changes in what we put into our bodies can actually help to reduce physical discomfort, suffering, and anxiety. Regardless of how sick you were before you had this revelation, the revelation is profound.

I was once asked by someone, “but why do you eat so healthily? It’s not like you were really sick.” Well, I wasn’t really sick in the sense that my life was never in jeopardy, I didn’t need constant medical attention, and I wasn’t forced into drugs or procedures. But IBS and anorexia aren’t exactly negligible health complaints, either (especially since my IBS really did interfere with the quality of my life). Moreover, I don’t think that only life-threatening health conditions are the ones worth heeding. What I said to the person who asked me was this: “I think most of us walk around assuming that all sorts of nagging health issues—fatigue, headaches, indigestion—are normal, and it’s only until we make changes that we realize how much better we can feel.”

I stand by that statement: it’s really incredible how easy it is to write off all sorts of health complaints as being “normal,” when in fact they could be alleviated through nourishing food choices and listening to the body. But today, I want to talk about how we can strive for good health while also accepting and loving our bodies even when we fall ill.

I guess what struck me as problematic when I heard the phrase “healthy is the new skinny” is that so many of my readers have found my blog because they suffer from some condition or another. I have readers with GI ailments like Crohn’s or colitis; readers with multiple food intolerances or allergies; readers with cancer; readers with eating disorders; readers with diabetes, thyroid disease, fertility problems, and a host of autoimmune conditions. We come together here at Choosing Raw to celebrate the possibility of better health, but we also come together so that we can support each other in the moments where health is a bit of a struggle. To present “healthy” as an ideal is both wonderful and a little tricky: wonderful because it gives us hope and motivates us; tricky because it can make those of us with health conditions feel frustrated with our bodies, or even blame ourselves for the fact that we’re not always glowy, energetic, and pain-free.

The truth of the matter is that good health isn’t always just a few green juices away. Sometimes the journey toward wellness is long, and “wellness” is relative, too: for those of us who live with chronic pain or various chronic ailments, it may be important to redefine “health” in a way that makes sense for our lives at this moment, and doesn’t make us feel as though we’re falling short of an ideal. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t all hope for pain free, disease free lives, but what I am saying is that sickness is mysterious, it can visit us all from time to time, and that it’s important for us to find ways to value and love our bodies in spite of that.

I very often get emails from readers who say that they hate their bodies because they feel sick. Though I’ve never had an acute, long-term illness, I do know what it’s like to feel endless frustration with one’s own body. Every time my IBS flared up in the past, I would feel tremendously resentful about what my body wouldn’t let me do: why couldn’t I wear pants without constriction from bloating? Why couldn’t I make travel plans without living in fear that I’d be in a hotel room the whole time, in a fetal position? Why couldn’t I approach restaurant dining like a normal person, rather than fretting about whether or not the chef’s special would have me doubled over in pain? My relationship with my body was already very fraught: feeling as though my GI system might wage a rebellion at any moment made it even more complex.

Ultimately, the symptoms of my IBS changed dramatically, and today I experience flare ups only when I’m very stressed or very sleep deprived (and those two things typically go hand in hand). But it took a long time, and in the meantime, I needed to find ways to be at peace with my body even throughout its ups and downs.

Physical suffering is a very intimate, individual phenomenon, and I can’t claim to know or understand exactly what those of you with illnesses are feeling. But if I can extrapolate from my limited experience, here are some tips I’d suggest for body love in sickness and in health:

1) Try to focus on what your body enables you to do, rather than comparing yourself to others, or feeling frustrated about what you can’t do. I would imagine that it’s sometimes hard to be a part of the online health community if you’re suffering from an illness, because the emphasis on “thriving” and “optimal health” is so very intense. Rather than wondering why you can’t run a marathon or wake up every day feeling like a million bucks, try to focus on the movements and good experiences that you do feel day to day.

2) Choose your reading material selectively. If a blog, book, or health resource makes you feel inadequate, or makes you assign blame to yourself for feeling unwell, take a break. Some health resources present a vision of health that’s a bit unrealistic, and it’s important to edit.

3) Tell loved ones what you need. This is a huge topic in itself, but it’s important to give friends and family the tools they need to support you when you don’t feel well. If excessive concern makes you cringe, just say “I really appreciate your care and concern, but I’d love to feel a bit liberated from my pain/condition right now, so can we talk about stuff that’s unrelated?” If people seem not to understand how bad you feel, tell them. Say, “I know it’s probably hard for you to see how poorly I feel, but I’m really uncomfortable right now, and I could use your support.”

As a side note, autoimmune disease and GI diseases are notoriously hard for people to empathize with because they’re not as “visible” or as well understood as other conditions. I remember when I used to tell people I had IBS, and the typical response belied an assumption that it was “all in my head.” I know that friends of mine with autoimmune disease have expressed even more frustration at how hard it is to convey one’s illness to those who don’t understand it. Just do your best; if you need to, don’t even give info on the condition itself, but rather express how it makes you feel.

4) Stay motivated, but be patient. I can’t tell you how many times I’m asked “how long did it take to heal your IBS?” Honest answer? Years. And by “heal,” I really mean “manage;” IBS, like many GI conditions, can be managed well through diet and lifestyle and stress management, but it’s rarely “cured” for good. This year, as a student, I’ve had plenty of flare ups; I don’t like it, but I am grateful it’s not chronic the way it used to be, and I know that there’s only so much I can do to control stress, fatigue, and so on.

If you are suffering through something a lot worse than IBS, I can only say that I hope you find ways to balance your motivation to get well with a realistic, patient approach to the healing process. Find others who have been through what you’re going through, and talk to them. Talk to your health care providers, talk to your loved ones, and remain hopeful that, no matter how long it takes, you will feel better.

5) No matter what, your body is beautiful. I know this can be a hard thing to feel or think when you’re in pain, and of course if you’re not in the mood to feel that way, it’s OK. But I do believe that all bodies, no matter what, are beautiful. Yours and mine.

Hope that this post is helpful both to my readers who struggle with long-term health conditions, and to those of you who are coping with mild, everyday complaints, but finding it hard to reconcile them with your dedication to healthy living. And I wish you all a great night.

xo

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    82 Comments
  1. […] Almost everybody who practises yoga approaches it as a process of “finding oneself” – becoming “more at one” with the body, “relaxing the mind”, channelling some kind of “inner peace”. Textbook Pink Cloud eating disorder recoveries (which RecoveringAnorexic discussed here) all seem to feature the same Healthy pillars: running. Yoga. Pilates. Clean eating. Strong Is The New Skinny. Love Your Body (All The Time). (I’m not going to go into my thoughts on this behaviour and substitutions here, but Gena @ Choosing Raw discussed the stereotypes of fully recovered body image and ‘fitspo’ here and here.) […]

  2. Thank you for this post. I’ve had IBS for about 2 years now and it’s been a struggle. Before it developed (my second year in college) I’d always felt like such a healthy person, and then all of a sudden I was chronically unwell. I am still on my journey to personal “wellness” and I get so frustrated and mad at myself when I falter or my body isn’t “perfect”…Even if I make all the “right” choices regarding diet/lifestyle, I have to learn to accept that healing is a process that will take time. But it’s hard, and your post has helped me on my way to accepting that and to letting go of some anxiety. So, thanks again.

  3. […] Almost everybody who practises yoga approaches it as a process of “finding oneself” – becoming “more at one” with the body, “relaxing the mind”, channelling some kind of “inner peace”. Textbook Pink Cloud eating disorder recoveries (which RecoveringAnorexic discussed here) all seem to feature the same Healthy pillars: running. Yoga. Pilates. Clean eating. Strong Is The New Skinny. Love Your Body (All The Time). (I’m not going to go into my thoughts on this behaviour and substitutions here, but Gena @ Choosing Raw discussed the stereotypes of fully recovered body image and ‘fitspo’ here and here.) […]

  4. This is a great post. I too have struggled with anorexia and for the past two years have been dealing with IBS issues that were greatly magnified by some sort of infection. I am a baker by trade and my stomach issues have caused me to have to quit my last three baking jobs due to pain and odd working hours. I often find myself angry and frustrated with my body and this post was a great reminder about what I can focus on instead. I am currently working on figuring out how best to manage my stomach and hopeful that I can move on to the next stage of my life.

  5. Thank you so much for this post! I’m 23 and living with a brain tumour (and the side issues it causes) and I have been really struggling to feel good about myself. It’s great to see some health advice I can actually use, rather than feeling pressured to do yoga every day and run marathons.

    Lois

  6. Thank you for this wonderful article. I have had chronic pain for 22 yrs and what you wrote really helped me

  7. I love this post! I am currently off work lying in bed with a bout of food poisoning or a stomach flu or something and was talking to my Mum on the phone just earlier about how hard it was to accept myself falling ill when I take so much care to nourish and nuture my body everyday! Falling ill feels like a waste of precious time =) And as I feel nauseous the thought of a green vegetable makes me run a mile which makes me sad to know I am rejecting such loving life force foods! But this was a good reminder to just accept, let go, and let be!
    Thankyou!

  8. This is a fantastic post Gena! As they always are!! I also could not agree more with Amber that sometimes the pressure to appreciate, accept and “love” our bodies can be very difficult at times. My sister and my best friend are constantly telling me to love myself and to stop comparing and torturing myself both mentally and physically. Unfortunately it is easier said then done. I think I’ve become accustomed to self hatred and its so familiar and routine for me now that I don’t know how to change. Although self acceptance is something I truly do want, I don’t know that I am ready to open up and talk anout the pain and emotion and reasoning necessary to get to the root of my problem and fix It. Never the less I do appreciate your beautiful posts and constantly encouraging words. Your blog is definitely one of my favorites! It also is very heart warming to see those from other fantastic blogs i follow comment here.. (Almost vegan,love of kale). I thouroughly enjoy the online health community you ladies contribute to!! 🙂

  9. Gena, this is so great. Re: being selective in which health literature you read, I have definitely reduced the amount I read in the last 3 years. I used to check literally hundreds of blogs… now I think I check 5-10 “healthy living” blogs that span a far bigger range of diet and attitude than the blogs and books I used to read. Your blog is one of the 3 I check every day, and articles like these just remind me why I do…

    Echoing someone above, you can add “reader(s) with mental illnesses and disorders such as bipolar disorder or obsessive compulsive disorder” to your group of readers!

    PS. I kind of wish WordPress had a “like” button beside the “reply” button for the comments… I’d go on a “like”ing spree…

  10. So, so lovely! I really enjoyed this post and your gentle, uplifting, and realistic perspective!

  11. Another great post.
    It really was well-timed for me. I’ve been struggling with IBS for a year and a half now and, despite being vegan for over a year and following an Eat-to-Live style diet for the past 6 months, not much has improved.
    I find myself resenting my body when I have to choose my outfits to allow for the possibility of a swollen abdomen. Most nights I’m put in a bad mood as I go to bed with a bloated stomach, feeling enormous and uncomfortable. The way that affects my relationship with my partner only compounds the problem.
    Reading so many blogs where people have been ‘cured’ of IBS makes me frustrated – I’m doing those same things – exercising and eating the right foods. It makes me wonder if I’m missing something, or if it’s ever treatable.
    Hearing your thoughts and the way you bring it all back to reality makes me feel more normal and hopeful.
    Thank you!

    • Cat,

      For what it’s worth, I find that some oil is quit helpful to steady elimination, and that the ETL style was (personally) less effective than a slightly higher fat plan. Just my perspective, but I’ve had other friends who experimented with low-oil echo it. I’m all for moderation, but elimination may be a bit too much.

      G

      • Thanks for your advice! I read something along those lines recently in fact. Maybe I should try it, because whatever I’m doing isn’t working very well!

        I know you try not to worry about calorie counts too much etc, but I would like to know whether you found any real difference in weight etc when you did move to a higher fat plan? And I see that you use the occasional oil in cooking or in dressings… I’m still hesitant to do that. Do you think increasing nut/seed butters and avocado would be as effective? Still being higher in fat and all, just not refined?

        • Cat,

          I only flirted with ETL very briefly, to be fair: I found it way too restrictive, given my past. But when my IBS was awful, It tried everything. I can’t really remember if I lost weight when I tried ETL for that short time, but I don’t think I did, and I’ve had stable, healthy, slim-but-vibrant weight for many years now as a vegan who eats quite a bit of fat.

          I do use oils, especially for roasting, but also on salads. I really don’t agree with the no-oil philosophy (I think something like hemp or flax oil can have some health benefits, and is no more processed if you get it from a reputable brand than is tofu). But you could see if nut butters will do the trick. IBS is very complicated…I’ll be thinking of you!

          G

          • That’s fair enough – ETL can be quite restrictive. I find that in most cases the eating style works for me, except for the complete ban on salt! But I can appreciate that it could easily perpetuate disordered eating.

            Interestingly I haven’t noticed any real change in my weight either, but then it doesn’t tend to fluctuate much. Perhaps being a little more relaxed about oils wouldn’t hurt 🙂

            You make a good point about the level of refinement. I’m still going to start with avocado and nut butters though, I’ve been avoiding them as well so it might be a good start.

            IBS certainly is a strange beast! It seems to be different for each person, different depending on the time of day, week, year, level of stress – so many subtle factors that weigh in.

            Thank you for your advice and thoughtfulness x

            • Cat,

              For the sake of your mental health, yes, do start with avocado and nut butters. Too much change will make you anxious. From there, become comfortable with the fact that your body is withstanding the transition just fine, and consider some oils; not low quality ones, but rather flax, hemp, sacha inchi, avocado, coconut for high temperature cooking, and olive when it works in a recipe (though it’s the least high quality of those).

              G

  12. Thank you for this beautiful post, it came at just the right time for me. I am a third year student at the University of British Columbia. I was riding my bike to school September 12th and was hit by a truck that turned unexpectedly into the bike lane. I received multiple fractures to my radius and ulna of my forearm, three fractures to the metacarpals of my left hand (I’m a lefty … darn!) and two severe fractures to my jaw. After over 12 hours of surgery and many days in the hospital I am back at home but unable to continue my academic year. My heart broke when the doctors told me I would not be able to return to my studies. I am also recovering from anorexia nervosa and was working towards maintaining a healthy weight before my accident. I was forced to fast for many days in the hospital as I kept getting bumped everyday from my spot in line for the second surgery. I could relate so much to your post. With my arm swollen up to twice the size of the other, after skin grafts due to compartment syndrome I was honestly feeling ugly. I lost too much weight in hospital, needed blood transfusions and felt awful. But once I finally got my surgery and was able to eat I kept a mantra going during each meal–“This food is love, this food is healing”. It took this accident to make me realize I love my body and will do whatever it takes it get it better. I look at my poor arm and I cry sometimes because it is so hurt. Eating is still difficult and I can only eat very soft foods because of my broken jaw, but I am doing my best to get nourished, heal, and GAIN good things. Thank you so much Gena. I am actually going to print the goals you listed and stick them my bed so I can read them every morning

    • God, what a harrowing story. I am so sorry for the suffering this year, and the complicated way it has interacted with your recovery. Be strong, and please take care of yourself, Gemma!

  13. You never cease to amaze me, Gena. How you are able to articulate your thoughts with such clarity is truly a gift.

    I am currently in recovery from anorexia and struggling with some health issues as a result of it. Everything you said in this post resonated with me so much!

    P.S. As a fellow pre-med, I hope your courses are all going well and MCAT prep isn’t too tortuous! We’ll get there together! <3

    • No one ever talks about the health issues that follow a major bout of ED, but there are quite a few of them. Sending you healing vibes, and remember, patience! Give your body time and love 🙂

  14. I really appreciated reading this and the comments that followed. I appreciate that you know that your readers are not all one type of person and the same as you and that means a lot. I have felt very excluded from healthy living and raw food blogs because I don’t follow the mold of raw-food-diet-cured-me and all-natural-no-pharmaceuticals. It also appreciate your advice to eliminate some blogs from my reader that make me feel bad about myself. When certain food bloggers have switched to obsessive fitness and worrying about ab definition it makes me feel bad about myself, because my goals for fitness are very different given my condition.

    As for body love, well, it’s hard to love something that makes you sick but I am working on it. Perhaps just because one part of your body is making you sick or in pain doesn’t mean the whole body is to blame. I think part of my resistance to some of the body love philosophy is the quick-fix approach of Louise Hay who says that if you just recite an affirmation then that ailment will be gone and I have severe skepticism of that (having tried it). But accepting the pain or not being body-hating is different. Any advice there would be appreciated.

  15. Thank you for this article Gena! I grew up a very athletic and fit girl and now struggle because I have a form of rheumatoid arthritis that effects by day to day living. It has made me realize though, all things considering, my life is still pretty good.
    I love your blog and I love this article. I am printing it out right now to have when I need to look at it.
    Thanks 🙂
    Emily

  16. Really great post! I think, as a person who has not experienced such an illness, it is hard to sympathise. Thanks for the reminder to think more broadly.

  17. As a medical student, I was really glad to read this post. Sometimes, some people in the “healthy, vegan, raw, etc.” community seem to forget that not all illnesses can be cured through nutrition. I see sick people pretty often and sometimes they’ve done everything “right” for their health and they are still lying in a hospital bed. People should do their best to live as well as they can, while they can. As other people have commented, each person is unique and should follow the advice that they feel is best suited to their body and situation.

    • Thanks so much for this comment, Rosa. I couldn’t agree more, and my own hospital work has confirmed it. Nutrition is not always the answer.

  18. What a great post, Gena. And I so agree. As someone who also has IBS (now also mostly under control) as well as some more “visible” issues, it can be hard to accept that this body, with all its flaws, should be loved, especially when it’s not operating the way I’d like. But i do think it’s important to remember how much better you can feel when you do focus on what your body needs, nourishing, healthy food, sleep, etc–and how much better you feel when you do that. I may not be 100% where I’d like to be, but I am so, so much better than i was before.

  19. i found you when googling how to make banana fro- yo (delicious by the way!) and i love your message. a few fitness blogs i have followed in the past have turned entirely too competitive… thanks for reminding me that i may need a break!

  20. Great post. So many people accept the SAD diet, while others restrict or try fads, none of which really allow you to feel a high quality level of health. If what you are doing makes you feel great, than that’s all anyone else needs to know. It’s so funny that someone would think you eat healthy only because you would be “sick” otherwise.

  21. Thank you so much. I struggle so bad to the point now I have to go to treatment I’m terrified of the food won’t be all healthy or all vegan but I know inside I have to heal. Thank you. What are your thoughts on treatment?

    • Having been in inpatient treatment and eaten a lot of food that I don’t consider in any way healthy the advice I would suggest is to remember that this is a stepping stone to living the life you want to lead – the more you engage with treatment and take the best that it has to offer you, then you will be able to get back to your own life, make your own food choices and live the life you want to lead. For now you have to hand over that control and maybe make some sacrifices/compromises but hopefully they will enable you to never have to go in again and so to make a sustainable commitment to health. Does that make any sense at all?

    • Aubrey,

      My guess is that, if treatment has been suggested, then you need it. Embrace it wholeheartedly, and do whatever you need to do to succeed in your treatment center.

      G

  22. I think the thing I love most about this post is that it caters to the individual. I particularly like how you suggest to read selectively. If something makes you fell bad then avoid it. Each person is on his or her own journey and you really highlight that here. Strangely enough this is not so common in the healthy living/wellness blog and book world.

    It was mentioned in some of the comments that people are often told what is and isn’t the only way to be healthy, but with each unique mind, personality, and body, that level of standardized living can’t and doesn’t work or apply. Getting in touch with ourselves, communicating our needs, allowing ourselves to be drawn to what enhances our feelings of joy and fulfillment as well as avoiding the poisonous things and people in our lives is what we all need to be reminded of.

    I like that you pretty adamantly don’t give a one size fits all vibe.

  23. Wonderful post with such great information, thanks! It’s easy to get wrapped up in the influences of the blogosphere and start comparing yourself to others wondering if you’re skinny or fit enough. Focusing on a healthy lifestyle for the long term instead of short term goals is a much more positive and inspiring message.

  24. Hi Gena,

    This post is much long awaited because this topic of “health and wellness” can be microscopic on blogsphere or any public media these days. You brought up certain very good points about health and thriving being a relative term, depending on the individuals. It’s hard not to compare ourselves to others while they serve as motivations for something like from getting to run a marathon to just to move around when we’re able due to ailments or other limiting conditions. Thank you for sharing your voice about this and it’s my first comment on your blog. You’ve been a source of inspirations and knowledge sharing, not just about conscious eating, veganism, also striving to live a balanced life, and well-being in general.

  25. Gena, thanks for sharing your thoughts. I really enjoy your posts like these. It digs so much deeper than just recipes (although yummy!) and what the surface of healthy eating can really do for our bodies.

    For a long time I was always bloated after meals, and thought that was normal. It wasn’t until a friend suggested I try cutting out gluten, red meat, beans/legumes, dairy, and nuts one by one to see what was irritating my system. After that, I was able to figure out that you DON’T have to be bloated (lightbulb!) after meals. Soon after, I was also able to incorporate back into my diet what worked, and learn to avoid the things that irritate my system. And with that said, I feel SO much better health wise, like my body is functioning the way it’s supposed to. \

    Thanks again for sharing!

    xo,
    Tiffany

  26. Gena, thank you. Thank you so much for this post.

    “Sometimes the journey toward wellness is long, and “wellness” is relative, too…it may be important to redefine “health” in a way that makes sense for our lives at this moment, and doesn’t make us feel as though we’re falling short of an ideal. ” Yes a million times over. This goes hand in hand with tip #1. Often, I’ll mourn the loss of my independence, my ability to just pick up and go without help or excessive planning. It’s tough not feeling “normal” health-wise, but it is so helpful to give thanks for what I do have. For example, I am no longer bedridden, I have a passion for nutrition, I finally felt ready to get a dog because I knew the joy and healing that would come from him.

    Wellness being relative is such an important concept. When I drink my green juice, eat my clean diet, think more beneficial thoughts, I (in a way) feel strangely more well than I ever did when I was “well.” For me, illness drew attention to the fact that there are multiple layers of wellness, only one of which is that level of health of which I was previously aware.

    “…autoimmune disease and GI diseases are notoriously hard for people to empathize with because they’re not as “visible” or as well understood as other conditions.” This is hands down the hardest part of my everyday recovery. Adrenal fatigue is so misunderstood. People even tell me, “You look so great!” on my worst days. They don’t get that even if I look good on the outside, I can be suffering greatly on the inside. I’ve cut off former friends because despite my repeated attempts to explain my condition (both with my feelings and with scientific facts/blood work results), they still treated me like I had nothing more than a small cold. Seeking out a strong support system and surrounding yourself with people who are going to aid in recovery, not hinder it, is vital.

    Staying motivated and patient is great advice. Because recovery can be a long road, I like to use quote and affirmations to keep me on track. Repeating things like “I was given this life because I’m strong enough to live it” and “I am right where I need to be” help immensely.

    I could go on and on about this. You did a remarkable job at summing up this topic. Again, thank you. I think it’ll not only help those of us struggling with being unwell but also help our friends and families to understand us better.

  27. “The truth of the matter is that good health isn’t always just a few green juices away. Sometimes the journey toward wellness is long, and “wellness” is relative, too: for those of us who live with chronic pain or various chronic ailments, it may be important to redefine “health” in a way that makes sense for our lives at this moment, and doesn’t make us feel as though we’re falling short of an ideal.”

    Gosh that just really hits home for me. Though I am far past the situation at this point, two years ago I was really struggling with watching friends and bloggers conquer various health conditions, while mine continually got worse despite my *perfect* diet and lifestyle. I was so angry with my body for not being able to heal on its own and the emotional toll was very damaging. I certainly agree than many ailments can be made better by making small changes, however I’m so glad you pointed out that sometimes the heath struggles we encounter are far beyond the reach of diet alone.

    I’m much kinder to myself these days and so pleased with what my body can do. It’s funny, I used to be so meticulous with everything that entered my mouth thinking that each bite might either send me into wellness or doom my health forever. Now, I’m 3 months pregnant and so grateful to be more relaxed about food and my body, even if it’s far from perfect. There are days when all I can manage to get down are rice noodles and ginger ale due to my terrible case of morning sickness. Previously, this would have scared me to no end, but now I’m able to accept that it’s the best I can do and know that the situation will eventually change.

    Thanks for your great insight, as always. You always seem to hit the nail on the head. xo

    • I’m so glad you feel freer, Kathleen. The truth of the matter–and this is what’s so unfortunate about orthorexia–we don’t need to be so exacting about everything we eat to be healthy. There’s some space, some freedom to diverge from food that’s “ideal.” I’m all for healthy food and healthy living, but I don’t think that constant deprivation is at all necessary to achieve it.

  28. This was a really great complement to that already wonderful article about “strong is the new skinny”. For me, learning to read selectively was really important. When I went vegan, I never experience the glowing skin, perfect digestion, and effortless weight loss that so many vegans proclaimed. For a long time it really bothered me, and I felt like I just needed to find the “more perfect” diet to get that glowing skin, perfect digestion, etc. Eventually I realised that what I needed was to figure out what was and wasn’t working for me, and to do so I needed to get rid of all that ‘noise’ in the form of blogs, books, and websites that were only making me feel like I was a failure or an anomaly! But this is why your site has been a mainstay for me. You don’t claim that we will all achieve “perfect” health (whatever that means) or that if we don’t have it we just need to eat even better. Your emphasis on honouring your body and what it can do is a wonderful one.

    And to be honest, in the last few years I’ve come to realise that I don’t like this obsession with “optimal” health that’s so prominent in the vegan, raw, healthy living, paleo (etc. etc.) communities. What I eat is not all about ME, nor do I believe it should be. Frankly I get a bit turned off by the obsessive pursuit of optimum health, particularly when it sacrifices other values and distracts from more important things in the process.

    • I loved this comment. I don’t like the obsession with optimal health/longevity in raw vegan circles either (though I’m most irked by the obsession with “cleansing”), and I often ponder why I’m so discomfited by those with “orthorexic” tendencies, while I retain so much compassion for those with anorexia. I don’t find it remotely triggering, so that’s not it. If someone’s starving themselves, or caught up in the pursuit of “lightness” or “thinness”, I get it, I’m perfectly at ease with it. But I’m somehow put off by the obsession with health.

      • I love both comments! As someone who was admittedly very seduced by the language of “optimal health” and “thriving” for a long time, it came to be one of the main reasons I drifted in some ways from the raw community. It seemed so obsessive to me, and so self-centered. Elizabeth, I know you said the raw vegan community, but it was actually the raw community at large that put me off, not just raw vegans. In fact, part of what alienated me was the notion–popular in some raw circles–that eating dear antler, mammalian placenta, or whatever else is fine, so long as it makes us live an extra 0.333 years. Within the vegan community, I find much more interest on tasty food and on eating responsibly and conscientiously (of course some vegans are motivated exclusively by health, but this isn’t the part of the vegan community into which I “fit,” as it were).

        Perhaps what turns you off is the inherent joylessness of orthorexia. I remember constantly reading about raw foodists who would eat nothing all day but fistfuls of dried fruit and water mixed with green powders, and it all struck me as so…depressing. Food is fuel, but it is also a source of pleasure and delight, as you and I have discussed (and I have come to understand) many times. To see food only as a means of life extension saddens me, and beyond all that, it’s unnecessary; one needn’t obsess so much or be so limited to be healthy. Maybe a topic for another post, another day!

        • How ironic isn’t it – trying so hard to be healthier and live longer when life has been made joyless by this very pursuit. Life fast, die young 😉 (or live well, die at a normal age) x

  29. This is a really great post, Gena, and it hits home for me. Despite people frequently asking me how I’m doing, the least stressful way for me to go through each day is to NOT talk about it – it only causes the agitation and frustration with my body to well back up again.

    I almost feel like the latest “thing” is for people to insist that you HAVE to love and embrace your body, inside and out, at all times. That can make those of us who are uncomfortable feel even more frustrated and depressed, like there’s something wrong with us for not being able to look in the mirror and grin and claim to love everything we see. Thanks for handling this issue with sensitivity and grace.

    • Exactly Amber! I too feel even worse if I am unable to have “body love” but I realize that hating one’s body isn’t healthy either. So being compassionate is a goal I’m working towards. But it’s hard to love a body that makes you feel like crap.

    • Amber,

      You make a great point. And I hope the idea of body love is not itself upsetting. I don’t think it’s a mandate that everyone love her body; I just think we all need to do our best to be compassionate to our bodies.

      G

  30. These are such lovely sentiments—and your tips are hugely important ones to keep in mind, even for those of us not suffering from illness. Thank you!

  31. Great post. When my IBS was at its worst, my ED was probably at its worst as well because of the feeling of inadequacy and frustration at my body not functioning “as it should”. Our relationships with our bodies are so complex, aren’t they. I’m going through a whole new struggle with my body since being pregnant. It’s so strange having it be completely out of your control, and having aversions to healthy food, and gaining weight. It’s taken body love and acceptance to a whole new level that I can’t seem to reach yet. xxx

  32. This is a great post. I had daily stomach aches and cramps and doctors gave me lots of medicine and even surgery that didn’t help. I really felt like my body was my enemy at that time and lost a once in a lifetime travel/volunteer opportunity due to the surgery. I finally did an elimination diet and realized that a high raw diet combined with probiotics and avoiding nightshade vegetables made a huge difference. People are critical of my diet but they don’t understand that it totally changed my life. Still, about a year and a half out, I am still distrustful of my body and think it could turn on me at any point. Your suggestions are really helpful.

  33. Thank you, Gena, for a wonderful post. You have a beautiful attitude toward life, and your posts are always so inspirational.

    As someone who is still struggling with a GI condition, I can really relate to your experiences: not always being able to “explain” your condition to others, feeling frustrated when recovery isn’t happening quickly and illness is having a serious impact on lifestyle, and feelings of guilt when doing the tiniest thing wrong leads to a flare up of the health condition. I agree that patience and learning to love your body no matter what is an important part of the recovery process.

  34. Man is this article ever on point.
    People just dont get it-and the looks on friends faces sometimes!
    but, what can you do, you cant explain it away so I just smile, and say if they only knew.

    thanks for this article, it makes me feel as if i am not so alone in my suffering, as diminished as it may feel at times, i know it is there waiting to flare-and its an aweful feeling of lack of control-so yeah! I totally get it and agree.
    thanks

  35. THANK YOU for this. THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU. You are amazing and inspiring and are doing so many good things for so many people. Really. #4 is so right on – it’s so easy to get frustrated and impatient (and even more frustrated and impatient when doctors say “be patient/don’t get frustrated” !!) THANK YOU for being so candid and open and showing us that it is possible to live a “normal” life (what is “normal” anyway? 🙂 despite the setbacks. And back to the “….is the new skinny” – as someone struggling to put on weight (and “skinny” because of being sick) I absolutely hate that expression in all its forms. I want to say to people “do you KNOW what I’ve been through?” So again, THANK YOU (did I mention that yet? 🙂 for the post. Love, Patient in Paris 🙂

  36. Thanks for such a thoughtful post. As someone who has had a number of chronic health issues this really rings true for me. Veganism has improved all of my health challenges, yet cured none. I definitely have to beware of what I read and take in. So much of the holistic health community is inspiring and helpful, but there is a piece that does blame the “patient”. That can be particularly hard to get past when you feel as though you are doing everything you can to be healthy. I have really appreciated Kris Carr’s writings on this topic. I read somewhere how much better she felt when she stopped trying to cure herself, and instead took care of herself (summarizing here). I’ll be referring back to your tips when I start to feel I am not healthy or well enough. As you say health is defined by each person and their own body.

  37. Thank you so much for sharing this. As I’ve been recovering from my mysterious pains, it’s been really hard to just accept my body and myself when I have flare-ups. I keep thinking that my body is not working properly and that I’m broken. When I have a little room to love myself, I begin to trust that there is a reason for it. That I will learn something and it will make me a better person. We are all on this beautiful journey to make sense of who we are and what we are here to accomplish. Thank you for your candidness and openness.

  38. Oh, this is wonderful. I’m not a vegan, but I visit your blog regularly for exactly these kinds of insights and gentle reminders. There is a great deal of well-intended advice out there about ultimate health; not being able to achieve it through diet and exercise feels like an inadequacy. There are some things nutrition can’t heal. This is related to the invisible illnesses you mentioned above. I have a major mental illness and, because I worked in the supplement industry when I was younger and really bought into the lifestyle, I refrained from taking medication for a very long time. This was a damaging belief – very. All the B-vitamins and kale in the world will never make me well. If it could, believe me, I’d be there by now. A healthful diet is a big part of my total care plan, but really, it’s an adjunct to life-saving medication. I wish I’d accepted this sooner. Obviously, I feel pretty strongly about health gurus who imply or outright say that a disease like manic depressive illness or schizophrenia is simply a product of poor diet. That’s such a harmful belief system. Shaming people for having an invisible illness, especially a mental illness, is just plain wrong.

    Anyway, I do so love this post. It’s a good reminder for me that not only is my body beautiful, but my brain is as well – however imperfect it may be. Thank you. <3

    • JC,

      I’m so glad you worked in the perspective of someone with a mental illness; Indeed, I wanted to mention that sweeping and optimistic claims about health definitely apply to mental health as well, and the pressures thereto can be equally harmful.

      G

  39. I love this post. I’ve read countless healthy living blogs over the last year and while I credit them for changing a lot of my outlook on life and health/fitness in general, I’ve found more and more these days I’ve withdrawn from them a bit because I have a more laid-back approach to it.

    Haha – I even write my own pseudo-healthy living blog (more really about my life and random things with some thoughts on my never-ending yoga/running journey) but have hesitated in dishing out ‘advice’ or posts as such that might serve as a pedestal for someone because I don’t want them to look at me and think THAT’S the only way I can be healthy. That being said, I truly do enjoy sharing my knowledge and blogging about it is half me sorting my own thoughts in my mind for my own self.

    What I have taken as my biggest lesson is that health is personal and it’s different for everyone. I think people can take healthy to extremes – in a way striving for a different kind of perfection – (e.g. orthorexia) which can be quite harmful as well.

    I think health is more than the physical side of it – it’s the balance of being mentally, emotionally and spiritually healthy as well.

  40. I don’t really think that any phrase like “_____ is the new skinny” will ever be acceptable. First, it still acknowledges that skinny is somehow important. Why should we give the idea of being skinny that much power? Saying it needs to be replaced by something else. Secondly, if you are prone to obsess over being thin, then isn’t it likely that you’ll just obsess over the “new skinny?” I tried making “healthy” my new goal for a while but I almost had a panic attack after eating something I deemed unhealthy, so then I realized that wasn’t working. If you have a skewed perception of what it means to be “healthy” or “strong” then you will never be happy trying to achieve it.

    • I agree with Micaela. I don’t think we ought to be giving skinny any power at all.

      I feel like I’m emerging from years of super-health conscious behavior, I loved/hated it. I felt like the over emphasis on healthy demonized anything that was “less than.”

      I don’t want to live my life spending my hours & hours a week analyzing my diet, or my fitness routine, or anything health related (because I did spend years of my life doing this). Health *is* important. I’m grateful that I currently experience good health, but there are so many, many other things that are important (I’d even say, more important) than WIAW, or my latest running schedule (which I don’t run, just using that as an example).

      I taught fitness classes professionally, & I came to discover, as much as we’d like to think we have control over our health, there are still many things outside of our hands. I think a few important points are to be present, have gratitude for what is, & do the best we can to live healthful, love-filled, lives.

      • Janae,

        Well said! I love your input here and I agree wholeheartedly. I think many of us followers of CR either are or have gone through periods of hyper healthful living awareness. It’s this hyper-awareness that you’re talking about that drags us down.

        “Be present.” Probably the best advice out there right after “do the best we can.” Feel the moment and really listen to our hearts, intuitions, and bodies. those forces will guide us. I’m always telling my yoga students to just listen. Feel and listen.

        Cheers to you!

      • This: “I think a few important points are to be present, have gratitude for what is, & do the best we can to live healthful, love-filled, lives.” Totally agree, Janae!

  41. This is such an important topic , so thank you for writing it!
    I have been eating ridiculously healthy for over a year now and mt skin is still a mess. I often get frustrated but I remember all the amazing things my diet change has lead to.
    Paitence is the key I think.

  42. This is so beautiful, and so needed. It’s sobering to remember that no matter how conscious our diets, how well-planned our exercise routine, or (perhaps my least-favorite health dictate of all) how positive our thinking, that we are mortal. There is a kind of hubris in some of the very well-intentioned work out there that’s meant to encourage us to ‘perfect’ health. The truth is that bodies are vulnerable and health isn’t something we can force our bodies to achieve or maintain. It’s challenging for me as a practitioner when I experience flare-ups or health challenges because I can hear that added pressure in my mind that I need to be a role model, a good example, and somehow not only practice what I preach but also reap the rewards of perfect health that I might inspire others. I know it’s a big load of crap, but the thoughts still arise.

    There’s the other weird experience I’ve had, being a person who as both experienced an eating disorder and a digestive disorder that caused massive weight loss followed by re-bound weight gain, the experience of being desperately sick while people I hadn’t seen in years told me how “great” I looked because I was very thin but still substantial enough to avoid the “is she anorexic?” mumblings. Sometimes I was pissed off enough to actually say, “I have Ulcerative Colitis and that’s why I now weight what I weighed in 8th grade…” but more often the compliments were very triggering and made me feel an unsavory kind of grinning pride.

    We have to re-frame the idea that our bodies are possessions. I believe that our bodies are a part of who we are, part of our Self in a very deep and personal way. Our bodies are always in the process of becoming, always changing, always breaking down and building back up. They’re our vehicles for having a human experience, not a possession that earns its keep by being enviable in some way.

    Thank you so much for this. My thoughts aren’t as structured as I might like, but I felt compelled to respond right away since this resonates on so many levels for me. I’m learning a lot from disability activism and from my friends who are disabled. In fact, many of them have shared the perspective that it’s more accurate for people who are not experiencing any health challenges to consider themselves *temporarily* able-bodied. That one little word makes all the difference.

    • I totally relate to you Melanie (and you Gena of course). It really amazed me this year when I was at my “worst” and looked like a skeleton, people in Paris, especially in the film/TV/fashion industry, would say “what are you talking about? you don’t LOOK sick. you look GREAT!” There’s an understanding in society that if you’re “skinny” (and I hate that word and use it here somewhat ironically) then it must mean that you are starving yourself. I hope that articles like yours Gena, and people sharing their experiences through forums like this (Melanie and the others below) will increase awareness among not only our friends and family members, but also people around us. It’s important to remember that when you look at someone, you have no idea what is going on with them or why they “look” a certain way. I was on TV today talking about how celebrities are criticized when they become “too skinny” when people have no idea WHY they lose weight, attributing it only to anorexia, but never bothering to look deeper and understand that it may be the result of depression, disease, stressful schedules, metabolism… And EVERYWHERE you turn it’s “I drink green smoothies and now I’m beautiful AND thin!” What about those of us who can drink all of the green smoothies in the world and still struggle with health problems? Gena, I like how you differentiate between “managing” a condition and being “cured.” People ask “WHAT do you have?” (as if putting a name on an illness is all that matters) and then “Oh I thought you were better?” It’s hard to explain that yes, some days I am “better,” and then others, very ill. It’s great to see that other people have gone/are going through similar experiences. Not great in that I wouldn’t wish these diseases on anyone ever, but great in that, after the years and years that, like you Gena, I was told “it’s all in your head” and for all of the looks from people and hurtful comments, finally I am learning more and more that I am not alone in this and that, while it may take many more months, years or a lifetime to be “better” or perhaps I may never be “better,” I can learn to live with it. What I love about this post which is something I have slowly come to realize recently is that we can’t change other people or even change society, but we can change the way we look at those people and that society. As cheesy as it sounds, it all comes down to loving ourselves enough to be strong enough not to care what other people think or say, and focus on our health. Before, if I were to go to a fancy, sit-down dinner I’d always worry “what will I eat?” or “what will people say if I don’t eat what is served?” Well, now, I don’t care what they say. And for all of you reading this, you shouldn’t either. I know it is easier said than done, but when you have a moment like that, just remember Gena, her wonderful blog, and the support of all of the people here who are going through similar experiences. Love your body more than those people because, at the end of the day, you’ll need a healthy, happy body much more than the people around you judging that body. (Sorry for the long response, but this post just really hit so close to home and I felt the need to share.) Thanks again for your candidness and insight Gena and thank you to all of the brave women (and men? in case I missed someone? 🙂 ) out there sharing their stories.

    • Melanie,

      Your point about weight loss after UC makes total sense; I’d actually point out that a huge number of ED stories begin with “I’d gotten sick, and lost a lot of weight, and people kept telling me how great I looked.” A good friend of mine was battling a health challenge a few years ago, and lost far too much weight. She knew it wasn’t healthy, and indeed, is delighted to be better, but the loss triggered disordered/orthorexic thinking for a while, and she admits that it took her a while to bounce back.

      Interesting point about disability awareness, and the notion that being able-bodied is not a guaranteed entitlement, but a temporary gift. Thanks for your insights!

      G

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