Body Image · Holistic Health · Mental Health · Recovery

Before & After

Before and after weight loss pictures have always irked me. And for multiple reasons.

First of all, whether on TV or social media, these pictures often portray a mostly nude person censored in such a way to hide their identity. Now I don’t have a problem with nudity, but it just feels strange to reduce another person to a headless body. This objectifying and dehumanising portrayal feels opposite to the celebration of health such pictures are attempting to depict. I’m all for celebrating a person’s journey towards health, but I don’t think these before & after pictures accurately honor such progress.

This brings me to my second point, which is that there is absolutely no possible way to determine the true health of a person through a picture of their body. Body size, shape, and weight are not accurate indicators of a person’s health, metabolic fitness, and wellbeing. Health is determined primarily by social factors as well as our genetics, actions, and behaviors- all things that are not apparent in a photograph of the body. Each person’s body is unique, and healthy bodies come in all shapes and sizes.

This is the principle behind the Health at Every Size (HAES) movement.

“Health at Every Size is the new peace movement. It supports people of all sizes in addressing health directly by adopting healthy behaviors. It is an inclusive movement, recognizing that our social characteristics, such as our size, race, national origin, sexuality, gender, disability status, and other attributes, are assets, and acknowledges and challenges the structural and systemic forces that impinge on living well.”

Ultimately, the goal of HAES is to help all people regardless of size move towards a healthy lifestyle in their unique body. HAES aims to improve the quality of life for all individuals even if their weight does not fall within conventional height/weight guidelines. Therefore, HAES stresses the many behaviours and actions that a person can take to move towards whatever a healthy lifestyle looks like in their life, which includes a healthy relationship with food, movement, and body.

Some additional information about HAES from the Association for Size Diversity and Health:

There is considerable scientific evidence supporting the HAES approach and establishing that “obesity” is not the health risk it has been reported to be.

  • Weight and BMI are poor predictors of disease and longevity. The bulk of epidemiological evidence suggests that five pounds “underweight” is more dangerous than 75 pounds “overweight”.
  • Multiple studies are suggesting that a focus on weight as a health criterion is often misdirected and harmful.

So back to my initial point, I do not believe that before & after photos depict an accurate portrayal of a person’s health and wellness. We cannot accurately decipher how a person eats, whether or not they exercise, if they have a medical condition, if they smoke cigarettes or do drugs, if they drink in excess, if they feel mentally well, or any other aspect of their health by looking at their body shape, size, and weight. Therefore, I propose movement away from such photos in order to celebrate true health and a person’s journey towards it.

When we speak of progress, why not speak of increased ability, vitality, or mobility? Why not talk about feeling more engaged in life and excited about movement and activity? Why not share experiences of decreased pain and symptoms of illness? This is the kind of information that I believe most accurately depicts a person’s unique journey towards a healthy lifestyle. And we don’t get this information from a before & after picture.

People often say that they set health goals to feel better, not look better. Well, why not reflect that in the way we illustrate progress toward these goals as well?

So back to the headless before & after pictures that spread the message that health is depicted through the appearance of our bodies.

Here’s my body transformation journey toward my eating disorder, I mean, healthy lifestyle:

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Before: 2007                                                       After: 2008

Awwwww, don’t I look happy to be skinny in the picture on the right! Damn, I must have been so healthy in 2008.

But you know what’s more accurate?

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Yup, no one told me that losing 30% of my body weight in one year would come with a whole slew of other problems. What started as an innocent attempt to “eat healthy” soon turned into an obsession with eating “clean”, which soon turned into orthorexia, then anorexia, then bulimia…and the cycle just went on and on.

In addition, I found myself in a deep depression and often wished that I could just not exist anymore so that I would no longer have to feel any of the emotional and physical pain that I experienced on a daily basis. My days mostly consisted of obsessing over calories and eating only the food I regarded as healthy enough. And I was eating all the good stuff: lentils, beans, colourful veggies, fruits, whole grains- you know the drill, the “clean” things. Plus it was all organic and mostly local so it was super healthy, ya know?

Anyways, each night, I would plan out my workout for the next day. I was super active and everyone applauded me for being in great shape. I biked and swam almost daily, and went rock climbing a couple nights a week. Little did people know that I would briefly black out almost anytime I stood up too quickly.

I don’t even think I need to say it, but my body was not in the least bit healthy at this time. I lost my period for about 2 years, which is a symptom of disordered eating known as amenorrhea.  I fainted once while hiking and casually blamed it on altitude sickness rather than the fact that I was just not eating enough to support my body’s basic functioning. And I was constantly trying to avoid having to actually sit in my mental distress and self-hatred. My focus on weight loss offered a nice distraction from the emotional pain I was experiencing.


I don’t want to get into my full eating disorder story here. Rather, I want to make the point that it would have been impossible for anyone to decipher the true state of not only my physical health but also my mental health by looking at my “after” picture. Actually, people looked at me for a whole 7 years before anyone caught on to the fact that I had a raging eating disorder.

And this is why I think it is so important to shift our view of health to a holistic one that includes not only physical health but also mental health. You see, I’d much rather be at my all-time heaviest weight (or even higher) if it brings stability and peace to my mental wellbeing. And for me, addressing my mental health has required weight gain. It also required not exercising for over a year to heal my relationship with exercise and discover what joyful movement meant. It required that I eat candy and donuts often until I no longer obsessed about the “empty” calories or experienced tremendous amounts of stress and anxiety when faced with these foods. And finally, it required about 7 years of really intense psychological treatment to work through all of the emotional baggage that fueled my eating disorder.

So I really urge that we boycott the photos and instead highlight the true marks of progress and victories towards health and wellness.

Let’s celebrate being able to do a pull-up, walk around the block, cook eggplant for the first time, be sober for a week, quit smoking, experience less chronic pain, stretch, be self-compassionate, run a marathon, run a mile, walk a mile, bike in the park, go to therapy, pick up a child or pet, take a break, read for pleasure, improve cholesterol, take prescribed medications, resist ED behaviors, and other actions that move us towards whatever improved health uniquely looks like in each of our lives.

#truthbehindtheafter

Joy · Lifey-ness · Recovery

What Is Lifey-ness?

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Lifey-ness means being filled with life.

It’s a word my former therapist used to say all the time. So no, I, unfortunately, cannot take credit for it.

It means immersion, connection, vitality, and engagement.

We all have lifey moments. You know them. They’re those moments when you feel more present in your existence. You’ve succeeded in escaping the inner chatter of your mind, and you find yourself purely in experience. That’s lifey-ness.

I strive to connect with lifey-ness as often as I can because I’ve found that it’s just about the most healing and joyful place for me to be.

Creating lifey moments has been a critical element in my recovery.

It means eating donuts with family and without thoughts of guilt.

It means hiking through Georgia mountains and feeling the soft ground under my feet (and not thinking of my calorie count).

It means doing cartwheels and handstands in the park.

It means eating a cheesecake out of a casserole dish for dinner on the floor of my apartment.

It means watching Broad City and cracking up with friends without thinking about the many other things I “should” be doing.

It means riding my bike to work and feeling the wind hit my face.

It means running my fingers through the soft, white fur of my cat’s underbelly.

Lifey-ness is every moment in which I feel like I am experiencing the fullness of my life rather than waiting for it to begin one day, which is how I lived for many years in my eating disorder.

And so, this blog documents my journey into lifey-ness and the things that bring me wholesome joy, connection, and wellness. Rediscovering a peaceful relationship with food and my body has been critical for me in connecting to my life and actually feeling like I am living it.

My goal is to help others connect with lifey moments and discover their authentic lifey-ness.

This blog will often discuss topics related to recovery and wellness, but I also want it to function as a general space for creativity, playfulness, adventures, and joy.

Body Image · Intuitive Eating · Recovery

Body Trust

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– Nayyirah Waheed

I just finished listening to an episode from the podcast Food Psych this morning, which by the way is an excellent podcast about intuitive eating, body positivity, Health at Every Size, and topics related to making peace with food. This particular episode, titled “How to Trust Your Intuition about Food,  featured an interview with intuitive eating coach Daxle Collier in which she shared her experience in healing her relationship with food. Near the end of the interview, Daxle affirms that “if weight gain is a fear, then body trust is not possible. And if body trust is not possible, then the self-awareness and intuitiveness of intuitive eating is not possible.” These words hit me hard as they have been difficult for me to come to terms with in my recovery.

“If weight gain is a fear, then body trust is not possible. And if body trust is not possible, then the self-awareness and intuitiveness of intuitive eating is not possible.”

– Daxle Collier

I wholeheartedly believe in the healing abilities of intuitive eating, and I have basked in the freedom, peace, and lifey-ness that it has brought back into my life. However, for many years of my recovery, I put a condition on my commitment to intuitive eating. I would allow myself to eat “intuitively”, following my hunger and cravings, as long as my weight stayed in the range I was comfortable with.

I was following what many people have termed “the intuitive eating diet” (which is not true intuitive eating by any means). I ate when I was hungry and stopped when I was full while also ensuring that I did not “mess up” by eating past fullness. I rebelled against the diet mentality of good food and bad food, allowing myself to eat any food item I wanted- as long as I didn’t have “too much” or gain any weight. You see, I had put these limits on my dedication to intuitive eating, and consequently, I had limited my recovery and the extent to which I had allowed my relationship with food to actually heal.

This was neither food freedom nor truly peaceful. Every inch I gave myself came with a set of rules and limits. I could eat candy but not too much. I could have a bagel but only twice a week. I could eat out but had to take some food home as leftovers. Rules like this did not come from my body’s intuition. They came from my eating disordered mind that still looked for guidelines within a way of eating that urged for the eradication of rules and guidelines. I wanted to make sure I was doing this whole intuitive eating thing right, which in my mind was determined by my weight staying the same.

This led to a couple years in a place of limbo between my eating disorder and recovery. I was semi-committed and semi-recovered. And while it was better than having a full-blown eating disorder, it still sucked. I never felt truly free from food during this time. I was surviving but not thriving.

Flash forward to now.

My relationship with food is constantly evolving, but the one thing I’ve found true above all else is that I must make peace with my body in order to completely heal my relationship with food. This means allowing my body to be the weight it wants to be, even if that’s not where my head (and this fatphobic society) want. This has been a difficult process which has involved mourning the many false promises of the thin ideal as well as accepting the struggles that come with rebelling against a body-focussed world.

I strive to move towards body love, although I am currently in a place of practicing body acceptance. I have my good days and bad days still. But overall, the good outways the bad, and I notice it getting easier over time. I’ve learned that focussing on my body’s abilities and practicing gratitude helps me immensely. I’ve discovered that getting outdoors and connecting with something more in life helps to shift my priorities from my appearance to my true values. And I continue to learn more about my body and grow in my relationship with it daily. It’s a constant practice that I do my best to commit my energy to.

But the best perk of putting in so much hard work in the realm of body acceptance has been the shift it has produced in my relationship with food. Letting go of the constant fear of weight gain has allowed me to finally trust my body. Don’t get me wrong though, there are still days when weight fear pops up and I question my body’s food judgment; however,  I’ve learned to challenge those fearful thoughts and talk back to them. I ask myself the question: what’s really not okay in my life that’s leading me to hyperfocus on my body right now? This guides me to the true deeper insecurity that actually needs to be addressed for my healing.

Knowing that I can trust my body, I aim to allow my body to take care of food decisions for me (and leave my head out of the equation as best as I can). Yes, sometimes I “mess up” and eat beyond fullness, but that is intuitive eating. It’s allowing those moments to happen and showing myself compassion regardless. It’s allowing the freedom for flexibility and the permission to eat in a way that nourishes both the body and soul.

It’s allowing those moments to happen and showing myslef compassion regardless. It’s allowing the freedom for flexibility and the permission to eat in a way that nourishes both the body and soul.

Intuitive Eating · Recovery

How Do I Eat?

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Can you tell I love peanut butter?

How do I eat? I still ask myself this question all the time. And there’s still just no simple answer to it.

I eat a lot, sometimes. But sometimes, I eat a little. Sometimes I eat whole foods. Other times I eat processed foods. It just depends.

I tell people I eat intuitively, but it’s pretty unclear what exactly that means. By definition intuitively means “without conscious reasoning; or instinctively”. And that’s partly true. But the thing is, there are many steps that occur for me when figuring out if I’m hungry, decoding my hunger, deciding what to eat, and knowing when I’m full.

I am not a nutritionist, however, every other non-human animal on this planet is also not a nutritionist, and they’ve got this eating thing down, so I’m pretty sure there must be something intuitive and instinctive to it. Keeping that in mind, I am in no way trying to delve out nutrition advice. I’m simply wanting to share what has helped me heal my relationship with food and my body in hopes that it might help someone else out there.

Honoring Hunger

For many years I did not acknowledge my hunger. Instead, I did my best to ignore and suppress it, which eventually led to bouts of binge-eating followed by more extreme dieting. This was no way to live. I was trapped in a cycle of restriction and binging, which ultimately led me to develop binge-purge type anorexia nervosa.

In recovery, it took me months to relearn how to identify my hunger cues. I had completely lost sense of this instinctive ability to tell when my body needed food and it was extremely difficult to get back after years of disordered eating.

So, the first step in relearning how to eat involved learning to acknowledge my hunger. I made many mistakes in this process. I remember constantly questioning whether or not the sensations I felt meant I was hungry, or if I was overreacting to my body’s cues. I remember times when my mouth would start watering and I’d think about food but didn’t notice typical hunger sensations in my stomach. Was this true hunger or something else?

Over time it became easier to identify. I began to notice varying degrees of hunger, some that felt mild like food cravings and others that left me irritable and snappy. Acknowledging and honoring my hunger cues as signs of my body’s needs has always been the first step in eating for me.

Sitting with Hunger and Decoding It

Next, I had to figure out what type of hunger I was experiencing: physical or emotional? This part has not always been so easy. It involves pausing and taking the time to sit with hunger. I had to my hunger and ask my body, “what are you hungry for?”

Sometimes the answer would be obvious. “Food, I’m hungry for food,” my stomach would growl back. Those moments are still the easiest for me. I am able to clearly acknowledge and pangs of physical hunger, and I know how to address the situation.

Other times when I sit with my hunger, I discover that it’s not physical at all but rather emotional. It might be boredom, loneliness, anger, sadness, or excitement. You see, all eating has some emotional component to it because simply put, food is pleasurable and pleasure is an emotional experience.

I had to learn that it is okay to emotionally eat, I just have to be conscious of those moments and what I am doing by feeding my emotions with food. And yes, sometimes I do emotionally eat. I’ll have a cookie when I’m bored at the office or I’ll eat a bit extra of something simply because it tasted good and I wanted the excitement.

But sometimes I choose not to eat when I have the emotional urge to. Instead, I’ll sit with this emotional hunger and ask if something else might feed it more appropriately. And I’ll wait for the answer. If I’m sad, this hunger may lead me to talk to a friend. If I’m bored, this hunger might lead me to read or knit. If I’m anxious, this hunger might lead me to take a moment to pause, breath, and pet my cat.

I constantly ask myself the question: What are you hungry for?

What to Eat?

When I’m physically hungry, the next step for me is figuring out what to eat. At the beginning of my recovery, I purely ate based on cravings and what I wanted. I had to throw out all concepts of nutrition in order to get to a place where I could stop obsessing about “good” food and “bad” food. This meant that no food was off limits, and I allowed myself to eat whatever I wanted at any time.

This was a much-needed period of time for me to heal my relationship with food. And it worked. After some time, I found myself in a peaceful place where food was just food. I felt comfortable eating foods that once filled me with guilt, and I stopped fixating on food. I was able to enjoy the sensations and experience of eating one cookie without the crazy urges to eat ten more. This was something I never thought possible and taking the time to feed my cravings was a necessary step.

Now that it’s been a while, I have shifted to try and balance honoring my food cravings with my nutritional needs. I get joy from feeding my body nutrient-dense foods. But I also get joy from pop tarts and cheesecake. It’s an endless strive for balance. The thing is though, I had to first heal my relationship with food before I could even begin to think about nutrition and health.

I currently have no format for how I eat. I was trying to think of some percentage like 70% nutrition-focussed and 30% fun/craving-focussed, but my food just doesn’t work that way. I still eat what I want, but I get pleasure from knowing that I am nourishing my body with food choices that fuel my physical health. I also know that I am nourishing my mind with other choices (ahem, dessert). Overall, I try to eat a variety of foods while also trusting my body to inform me of what it needs.

When to Stop Eating?

Discovering fullness was a journey similar to learning my hunger cues. In fact, it has often been more difficult for me to figure out my fullness level than my hunger level. Like hunger, it took a lot of trial and error to learn to listen to my fullness.

I discovered that I had two types of “full”: physical fullness and satisfaction. I found out that I could feel physically full but unsatisfied with a meal. This usually happens when I eat enough food but not the food I actually want. For instance, if I chose to eat a salad when I really want a sandwich. The salad may physically fill me up but I might notice continued food thoughts and a desire to keep eating afterward. Additionally, I noticed times when I would eat exactly what I wanted and become full and satisfied after eating only a third of my meal.

I discovered that, for me, being pleasantly full means being both satisfied and physically satiated. But I had to relearn my body’s cues for fullness. I learned that being mindful while eating allowed me to be more in touch with the way my food felt in my body. I learned that pausing and checking in helped me tune into the subtle sensations of fullness. I learned that it would sometimes take 15+ minutes after a meal for me to feel the presence of food in my stomach.

There were also many times when I just couldn’t figure out my satiety level and would end up eating past fullness. This left me with discomfort, both physical and emotional. But I learned that the discomfort would pass and that the only real consequence was that it would take me longer to once again become hungry.

What is Normal Eating?

I want to end this post with one of my favorite quotes about the subject of eating, which pretty much sums up my philosophy.

“Normal eating is being able to eat when you are hungry and continue eating until you are satisfied. Normal eating is being able to use some moderate constraint in your food selection to get the right food, but not being so restrictive that you miss out on pleasurable foods.

Normal eating is giving yourself permission to eat sometimes because you’re happy, sad, or bored, or just because it feels good. Normal eating is three meals a day, most of the time, but it can also be choosing to munch along the way. It is leaving some cookies on the plate because you know you can have some tomorrow, or it is eating them now because they taste so good when they’re fresh.

Normal eating is overeating sometimes and feeling stuffed and uncomfortable. It is also undereating at times and wishing you had more. Normal eating is trusting your body to make up for your mistakes and eating.

Normal eating takes up some of your attention, but it keeps its place as only one important area in your life. In short, normal eating is flexible. It varies in response to your emotions, your schedule, your hunger, and your proximity to food.”

-Ellyn Satter

Recovery

National Eating Disorder Awareness Week 2017

This week is National Eating Disorders Awareness week, which is historically the week I post the most on social media about the importance of eating disorder treatment, advocacy, and prevention.

The goal of NEDA Week is to shine the spotlight on eating disorders and put life-saving resources into the hands of those in need. This year’s theme is It’s Time to Talk About It and NEDA is encouraging everyone to get screened.

Many people know that I am very open about having struggled with an eating disorder and been in recovery for the past 9 (!) years. I now also work as a therapist who specialises in eating disorder treatment and many know that I post constantly about topics related to eating disorders, body image, Health at Every Size, fat shaming/stigma, etc. all over social media. In essence, I am no stranger to talking about eating disorders, but I remember a time when I did not talk about them. Actually, I remember 5 years when I did not talk about them and would not admit to the fact that I had an eating disorder.

The day I asked my parents (who are my recovery heroes) for help and consequently discovered that my unhealthy relationship with food and my body was in fact a diagnosable disorder changed my life. Using my voice changed my life. Then, talking to others about my experience in recovery and connecting with others in recovery changed my life. So yes, I agree that it’s time to talk about eating disorders.

Talking about eating disorders saves lives. It gets people the treatment and help they deserve. It connects people to support and resources. It minimises the shame and stigma around disordered eating. It makes people not feel so alone in their struggles. It helps those in recovery not feel broken and hopeless. And it makes recovery possible.

Some of the most meaningful moments in my life have been when someone has connected with me in some way or another after hearing my story. Sometimes it has led them to share their story with me, ask for support and help for themselves, or ask for resources for a friend. These moments give me hope that things can get better, that I can make a difference, and that the simple act of talking about eating disorders matters.

So yes, I encourage people to talk about eating disorders.

End the taboo.
Get screened.
Seek and give support.
Share stories of struggle and success in safe spaces.

Becuase it matters.