I remember there was a time in which I didn’t think much about what I ate and a time in which that’s all I thought about. I didn’t wake up one day and think, “Today I will have an eating disorder.” Actually, it took me years to recognize that my behavior and mindset toward food was even out of order. I find that the most destructive forces in life are the things that creep in unnoticed, like a whisper. There is an old saying “a little yeast works through the whole batch of dough”. Just one thought gives birth to an action, and soon, a pattern is established. Through the years I’ve identified that there have been quite a few of these forces that heed my struggle. For example, I am a perfectionist. Both my blessing and my curse is that I strive for it, demand it, and yet find it near impossible to achieve. This inner drive coupled with those whispers of the world entangled my vision of body image and perfection.
I want to share this piece of my story because I believe in the power of transparency. That is how I think we truly relate to one another. As a nutrition coach, I also want to be authentic, and that involves my own vulnerability. So, here we go!
My image of myself and my attitude toward food spiraled down hill when I was a teenager. Peering back into my childhood, I can now recognize trigger points of my body dysmorphia. I won’t get into all the specifics, but I do remember that part of it began with comparison. Let me interject with a quote: “Comparison is the thief of joy.” TRUTH. Anyway, we had our body fat checked in middle school gym class -yeah, middle school of all the pubescent and hormonal times, and mine was always higher than my chicken-legged, female peers. At the same time, the “thigh gap” icon emerged, and after I hit puberty, so did chaffing. Now, it’s just not genetically favorable for my thighs to spend time apart from each other, but at that time, my sight was blurred with imperfections.
My sophomore year of high school, I quit my job at this cookie place in the mall (because I can be a serious binger -more on that later), and I started working out for the first time at the local YMCA. This was the first year I wasn’t involved in gymnastics or cheerleading, and so I knew I needed to be active. I heard running was a thing, and when that was boring, there were lots of weird machines to try. I’m still not sure what this machine is called, but the “good girl, bad girl” (okay, it’s for your adductor/abductor muscles) as some would say, I thought was my ticket to the thigh gap. Anyway, like most people (and by most I mean everyone) new to working out, I had no idea what I was doing.
Long story short, I ended up chronically exercising 2-3 hrs a day, and was eating very, very low calories. I also read a lot of stuff on the internet, and that’s always right, right? I had no clue what eating healthy was, but I thought it meant Special K Cereal and an apple. So, for stretches of time, I ate about 500-800 calories a day. I would come home from the Y and lay on the couch light headed and dizzy. I was dropping weight, and it felt so sickly satisfying to restrict and be so controlled.
However, one extreme behavior fosters another extreme behavior. If you are, or have been my client, you’ve heard me reference my pendulum metaphor, swinging from one side to the other.
Every so often I broke down and binged. Even if it was a meal that I didn’t necessarily eat a lot of, just one that felt “unsafe” to me, anxiety encompassed me afterward. This lead to the pendulum effect, and I falsely soothed my anxiety by meeting it with restriction and excessive exercise.
My wake up call came when my best friend confessed to me that she was battling a severe eating disorder, and leaving for an inpatient facility to receive help. She was like a mirror, and I saw myself in her. That is the moment that I decided I would fight back. It would be some time before I would truly fight for my own sake, but at the time, she needed me, and that was enough.
I am extremely introspective, and believe God used that to wake me up to myself. However, awareness is really the gateway to the decision we must make next; acceptance or denial. I’d love to say that from there I loved my body, and myself for the matter, and all my issues with control and perfection were resolved. But that’s not really how life works. So that isn’t what happened. I acknowledged my struggle, but I didn’t want to accept my responsibility or take action. I therefore altered my behavior, and subtle patterns continued in college. I hid under the label “health nut”. I ate, but very minimal, and I was a running addict. Without it, I was anxious and angry. Funny story -I remember wondering to myself if I still had some sort of an issue that only manifested itself through another medium. I specifically wrote in my journal “If this is a problem, God will just have to break my leg.” I was totally joking, and yet I totally broke my leg a week later.
I’m going to fast forward to now. I hope I am breaking up the image I might project that diet and fitness come naturally to me -it is my career after all! But the struggle is real! It’s real for me. No part of being vulnerable and allowing others to take another look at you is easy. My intention for this story comes full circle in this next part -how my acceptance equated responsibility over my weaknesses, rather than letting them dictate my life. So, please read on.
I realized I needed to understand food, know the facts, and how nutrition operates within the body so that I could make objective-based behaviors, not emotional ones. Thus my career path to being a registered dietitian began.
I sought counseling. This was hard for me at first. “I’m seeing a therapist” made me sound crazy to myself. The truth about pride is that it is more binding than we realize. It acts as a shield around our egos. I want to dissuade the stigma around receiving counseling -no one is above it, and if you think you are, then you probably need it most of all.
Through counseling, I pinpointed that when I felt like I had lost control in some area of my life, I tended to restrict food. On the other side, when I felt like everything was controlling me, I swung toward binging. This then would lead to purging through exercise, a tricky behavior that is hard to identify as a means for control because it masks itself as “good”.
I joined Crossfit. For the first time, I stopped working out in vain. I threw out the thigh gap mindset, and embraced strength. Like I said, I’m not really a natural, and so Crossfit gave me something to work hard for. This is when I started to actually like what my body for what it could do! Which then transpired into what it looked like. I started to see my own skin clearly, and be comfortable in it, for the first time in a long time.
I focused my eating habits as a means to perform, fueling with nutrition rather than feeling with it. Due to years of poor food behaviors, my body weight and body fat bounced around. My resting metabolic rate was a whopping 800 calories (that is sadly low). However, consistency with my diet, relying on the facts not my feelings, increased my performance as an athlete, and even doubled my metabolism!
My perspective had to change. I eat to enjoy, but I don’t eat to feel joy. It’s simple. Food was designed to be a means for celebration. Think about how everything in culture is based on food -birthdays, weddings, football games, holidays, and every social gathering known to man. It is no wonder that it really does have such a strong emotional component.
I pray a lot. When life feels bigger than you, that’s because it is. Listen, facing yourself, knowing yourself, it’s often an ugly thing to do, but shame wasn’t something we were meant to hold on to. Admittance sets us free from that. Here’s the thing. I still struggle to find balance, but I must choose it every day.
When my old habits creep up, when I feel like I’m losing control or nothing is good enough, and when I break loose of all boundaries (if you are wondering who stole all the cookies from the cookie jar, it was me), I just have to let it go. I lean on trusted relationships, give myself some grace, and let tomorrow be a new day. I stop myself from letting one extreme mindset/behavior foster another. I’m still vulnerable to my old thoughts and fears, but I am also completely in control of what I do next. That is the difference!
I know, my first blog post is a bit long winded. So, a big thank you for reading! If you wrestle with any type of addiction, distorted self-image, or simply finding a “balance”, I encourage you to deeply acknowledge that and take ownership. Get to the root of the issue! You aren’t a victim until you relent personal control. Remember that awareness alone doesn’t hold you accountable. True acceptance enables you to take action, and that is what produces real change. Oh, and you’ll screw up. That’s normal too, but it doesn’t have to define you.