A few weeks ago, I received an email from a longtime CR reader. She wrote,
“I am recovering from an eating disorder, and even though I am eating enough with the help of a dietitian and therapist, I still have severe issues with body image. When someone talks about exercise, or their routine, it creates tremendous amounts of anxiety for me. I feel so much pressure to look like the bikini models, with toned, flat abs and bulging forearm and leg muscles…I have been exercising more than I have been told to but I can’t get the “perfect body” pressure out of my head.
Just this morning one of my younger friends was talking in a Facebook group chat about how she is cutting back on calories to build muscle and have better abs and biceps, following a 1500 kcal diet, avoiding fats and pasta and such because they make you fat. It was so triggering and the idea of her having the perfect body was seriously unsettling to me. I don’t know how to get over this preoccupation. How have you dealt with this kind of pressure during your recovery? What is a healthy body, does it mean you should have abs and biceps? I would really appreciate your advice. Thanks!”
This email tugged so strongly at my heartstrings; to hear other men and women talk about their vigorous fitness and/or diet regimes can be an excruciating experience for someone who’s in recovery, especially the early phases of recovery. I’m reminded of the words of a therapist I know who specializes in EDs: she once told me that she won’t even keep a yoga mat in her office, because the sight of it might trigger one of her patients. This may sound a little extreme, but if you’ve ever been through recovery, then you know that it’s actually a perfectly sensible posture for a therapist/caregiver to take.
Eating disorders can be incredibly competitive in nature, fueled by the desire to more disciplined, more regimented, thinner, lighter, more active, stronger, more restrained, or leaner than everybody else. For me, one of the most painful parts of recovery was accepting that I simply couldn’t be the thinnest person in every room (a ridiculous mark of distinction that nevertheless made me feel special) while maintaining my health. I couldn’t exercise more than everybody else (or even as much as a lot of women I know) without feeling as though I was running my body into the ground. I couldn’t have the shape that felt desirable to me because it wasn’t reasonable. Recovery meant giving up my fanciful dream body, my punishing fitness routine, and my ludicrous belief that I could be an exercise-obsessed waif and a healthy woman at the same time.
Over time I came to accept this tradeoff. I realized that changes in my body were a worthwhile price to pay for feeling energetic, healthy, and strong again. I came to feel that having a robust, carefree social life was more important to me than having that “dream body” I’d been so intent on. I decided that the things recovery gave me–health, joy, connection, intimacy–were more important than the things I’d lost. But that didn’t make it any easier to hear about other peoples’ quests for “perfect” bodies, their cleanses, their fasts, their diet regimes, their twice daily spin classes. Such conversations would only open up my deep well of dissatisfaction with my new body–my recovered body, which I was struggling so hard to accept–and my feeling, however unfair, that in letting my disorder go I’d failed somehow.
Today, I’m further into my recovery than I was back then, and the kinds of anecdotes I’m describing don’t hit me with such painful impact anymore. I will confess, though, that I find it unpleasant to be around women or men who are talking about dieting, or even about any brand of nutrition extremism: elimination diets, juice fasts, crash diets, and so on.
When I hear about these regimes, I feel two things. The rational, mature half of me feels a sense of sympathy, because I know that flirting with deprivation is almost always bound to backfire. There’s also an irrational, petulant, and stubborn part of me that hears these things and feels an instinctual urge to compete. To interject with my own nutrition expertise, or (much worse) to prove that I’m no less capable of incredible feats of self-discipline. I don’t act on the impulse, which is good, but the whole thing leaves me unnerved and insecure.
You can have a great relationship with food, a restored relationship with your own body, and many years of recovery behind you and still feel triggered by what I call “food noise”: that great nimbus of conversation that includes, but is not limited to, detoxes, weight loss initiatives, slim downs, tone ups, dietary reboots, and/or lessons in why a particular food is the devil, or why a bite of some other suspect ingredient is sure to make you fat, sick, and nearly dead. And if you’re anything like me, the fact that these moments make you feel anxious becomes yet another source of grief, because there’s nothing more frustrating than realizing that you’re just a little more tender and vulnerable than you thought you were.
My best advice to anyone who’s experiencing this stuff is the obvious advice: focus on you. Tune out the noise. But that’s easier said than done, so here are some of the things I like to remember when I’m besieged by food noise.
1. I’m capable of examining things critically. Some of the food noise you’ll hear is perfectly sensible: a friend might tell you that he’s trying to reduce meat consumption, or eat more vegetables. Your coworker might say that she’s challenging herself to cook more meals at home, or play around with whole food ingredients. A family member who’s never been active in the past might tell you that he or she has just joined a gym for the first time, and is working out. Eat real food, get in the kitchen, get moving, focus on plants: it’s all perfectly reasonable stuff.
But if you hear about some elimination diet that sounds pretty darn extreme or ascetic or tasteless, or a “detox” that involves sipping juice for a couple of days in place of eating real food, or a fitness routine so brutal that it cannot possibly impart any joy to anyone, put on your critical thinking cap. Rather than allowing yourself to be seduced by the too-good-to-be-true promises that these plans make–age reversal! perfect skin! the body of your dreams! perfect digestion! agelessness!–try to evaluate them scientifically. Do they sound balanced? Evidence based? Well validated? Heck, do they even sound sensible? Do you trust the folks who are selling these plans?
If they don’t pass the critical thinking test, or the simple common sense test, then there’s a good chance that the regimes in question wouldn’t be right for you.
2. I know my body. We all have an intuitive sense of what works for us and what doesn’t. Here’s what I know about my body:
- I feel good when I eat consistently throughout the day
- I don’t feel good when I skip meals
- Eliminating or drastically reducing food groups (carbs, fat) leaves me feeling dissatisfied, and it evokes a lot of the ED stuff that I’ve tried to leave behind me
- I’m happiest when I eat food that tastes good
- I enjoy eating in a way that affords me freedom to get out and about and socialize and travel and try things that are new and appealing
- I enjoy being conscious of the quality of the food I eat, but I don’t enjoy pressure to be health-obsessed, or to scrutinize every morsel that passes my lips, and I never will again (because been there, done that)
Any way of eating that would seriously compromise any of those priorities probably won’t work for me.
It’s tempting to hear about some new fad diet or health craze or food elimination and immediately wonder if you wouldn’t be just a little slimmer and healthier and more energetic if you jumped aboard the trend, too. But try to remember everything you’ve learned from your experiences with food, and (if relevant) your recovery. Try to connect with your sense of intuition and ask yourself whether the plan in question would really be right for you. If there’s anything we can take away from our struggles with food, shouldn’t it be a sense of self-awareness? Listen to the part of you that is intuitive and wise. It’ll help you to sift through the noise, and regain a sense of self-assurance.
3. I’m responsible for taking care of myself. For me, getting carried away with a drastic diet, a mentality that is overly rigid, or any kind of excessive exercise would mean flirting with the old demons. And that isn’t a place I’m willing to go. My recovery–the balance I’ve managed to create in my relationship with food, in spite of a very long and troubled history–is very hard won, and it has to come first. And if that means tuning out when I hear too much diet chatter around New Year’s, or gracefully switching topics when a conversation turns toward calorie counting or detoxing, that’s fine. I’ll do what I have to do to.
Of course I can’t make diet talk and body talk and body shaming go away; no one can. That’s the world we live in, and our culture does not promise to release its obsession with body manipulation any time soon. But I can do my best to surround myself with influences that help to enhance, compliment, and sustain my recovery: healthful and caring friendships, the company of people who love to eat, blogs that celebrate the beauty of food. When I happen to hear or see something that feels (to me) triggering, I’ll try to find a respectful, polite way to put some distance in place.
4. Live and let live. When you struggle with food (as so many of us do), and especially if you have a particularly rocky history with it, it’s hard not to resent the world for presenting you with triggers. It’s hard not to feel a little angry at people who loudly discuss their plans for dieting, or working out, or even getting healthy (because to some extent, fixation on “perfect” health and “clean eating” is almost as prevalent as diet talk these days, if not more so).
But the truth is that it’s not up to you to censor how other people want to treat their bodies. It may be impossible for someone with an ED history to understand, but there are some folks who can go on a diet for a few weeks without ever getting lured into dark places. There are folks who can do a ten day juice fast and feel tip top and never have that experience trigger any sort of imbalance or negativity. There are some folks who can commit to incredible exercise and fitness routines out of sheer love of being athletic, who don’t have any interest in looking a certain way. It may not be how you’d ever feel if you embarked upon such initiatives. But it’s how other people feel, and it’s their right to feel that way.
However food noise makes you feel, try to understand that the triggers it evokes for you are personal. You have every right to be conscious of what you expose yourself to, to distance yourself from bad or painful influences, and to prioritize your healthy relationship with food and body at all times. But you can’t censor the world. It’s not possible, and it’s also not fair. Take care of yourself, and let others do the same.
Just as the idea for this post was coming into fruition, a nutrition client of mine admitted that, even though she’s years away from her ED recovery, discussions of nutrition or healthy eating still make her anxious. I admitted to her that I sometimes feel the same, and assured that I think it’s pretty normal. We were even able to exchange a laugh about it. If I have any final word of advice about this particular kind of anxiety, it’s that you find folks who can understand where you’re coming from. They may be friends, bloggers, folks you meet in a forum. They may be health care givers: nutritionists or therapists. But find them. Connect. Admit to how you’re feeling, and if you can, bring some levity to the experience.
To my reader who sent me that email, I hope this is helpful. And I hope it’s clear by now that no, I do not think a healthy body means toned abs and perfect biceps. I think that a healthy body is one that you are taking care of, with nourishing foods, movement that feels fun to you, adequate rest, life-enhacing relationships, hobbies you love, passions that sustain you, and a sense of self respect. That’s it. That’s the kind of health I wish you, and everyone.
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