Lying in my hospital bed, eating a nice, thiiickkk burrito, I had a revelation: “I never would have been able to do this before.” Meaning, I never would have been able to lie in a hospital bed, unable to run or bike or even walk, and eat food I truly enjoyed. There have been long periods in my life during which I felt the need to earn the food I enjoyed, or punished myself for not following a certain (crappy, illogical) set of rules. And yet here I was, eating foods I enjoyed (it didn’t hurt that friends had been delivering me pints of mint chip ice cream #shoutouttokathrynandandy), and not going into a full-fledged anxiety/depression/whatever spiral.
I spend so much time looking forward, wanting to progress and improve, that I leave little room for reflection on how far I’ve come. Making time for this reflection was crucial in my eating disorder recovery, and remains important to maintain it. Remembering the ways in which my relationships, health, happiness, and fullness of life have been positively impacted by my recovery are the reasons I don’t relapse, especially during times that might otherwise be triggering. And I’m not that great at “patting myself on the back” either, which is why I’m sorta writing this to remind myself that the changes I’ve made are worthwhile and something to be proud of, because – no matter how trivial they might seem to others – they required a looooot of work.
The one thing that has continually frustrated me about recovery (from an eating disorder or disordered eating) is that it’s such a vague term. What does “recovery” even mean? What does “being recovered” look like? I’m someone who needs straight answers, definitions, and quantitative measures; half the reason I studied math in college is that it meant everything was well-defined, nothing left open-ended. Unfortunately, there isn’t a straight answer or definition when it comes to recovery, and I’ve had to learn to be OK with that. It’s a spectrum, of course, and might look different for everyone. Personally, I measure my recovery in terms of fullness of life: the more “recovered” I am, the more fully I experience my life and participate in relationships.
I had some thoughts the other day about the stages I’ve experienced in my recovery and, even more importantly, where I want to be today and in the future. I visualized a sort of combination iceberg-pyramid in which some changes happened above the surface (the tip of the iceberg) and the rest below the surface but become more and more foundational as you go deeper:
The first layer – the tip of the iceberg – was the changing of my visible behaviors, physical actions, and habits. This meant eating and exercising in a healthy way and in opposition to the rules I’d created for myself. Often this change was forced upon me – there are debates in the ED treatment community as to whether or not it’s helpful to force behavior changes first or to address thought patterns first; I think it’s probably a combination, and also dependent on the individual – though it’s often a little vague as to how I was able to make these changes when I look back on them.
The next layer, of course, was addressing the thought patterns and rules driving the behavior. This stage is where the CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) played a role, etc. I don’t want to spend too much time on these first two stages because the thoughts I had recently were around the next two layers on the pyramid. I should also note that these layers are specific to the way I think (or don’t think) about my body; they aren’t directly correlated to recovery as a whole. Eating disorders are much, much more (especially in my case) about issues other than body image, so I don’t want to conflate improved body image with improved overall recovery. I do, however, find that the body image piece of recovery is something that comes up frequently in day-to-day life as it’s a piece largely influenced by our unavoidable society and culture.
Ok, so, that being said, the next-most foundational layer in the pyramid of body image is developing an appreciation for your body. If you’re a young woman, I’m sure you’ve encountered some sort of “love your body for ___” or “be grateful for your body because it can ____” messaging as part of an attempt to improve body image. For me, this stage would be saying to myself, “I am grateful for my strong legs that allow me to hike mountains and play squash,” or, “I’m grateful for my body because it’s healthy and strong.” I see many girls and women similar to me (athletes or outdoor junkies especially) spreading similar messages, likely working to convince themselves that their body is OK because it “helps them run marathons” or “is strong and lifts heavy objects.” I understand that this framing might be helpful for the vast majority who are still stuck in the “I hate my body” phase of recovery, and I, too, found it helpful at some point in my journey. The problem with the, “Thank you, legs and body, for helping me run up mountains” is that it’s predicated on some sort of athletic achievement or ability to perform a certain action. While useful at first in transitioning from body-hate to body-gratitude, I don’t think it’s sustainable, at least not for me. If I’m only grateful for my body when it can do certain things, what happens when it can’t? What happens when I’m lying in a hotel bed and my body is struggling to get enough air into its lungs? I still should love it then. Or, what about all the other people who don’t like to hike or play squash – should they not love their bodies? (Rhetorical question; of course not.)
Here’s where the final layer of my body image journey comes in. I’ve heard the term “body neutrality” being thrown around a lot recently, and by some definitions that’s what I’m striving for. An article in HuffPost (I just Googled “body neutrality” and went with the first article that popped up) defines body neutrality as “seeing your body as a vehicle that, when treated with care, can help you move about the world in a way that brings you joy. That’s it. No thinking about how you look, either good or bad.” This last piece, “no thinking about how you look” is what I would describe as my idea of full recovery, but I would extend it a little further: “no thinking about how I look, my body, my food, my exercise.” Of course I don’t mean that I shouldn’t think about food or my body at all, I just mean that my goal is to only think about those things in positive or helpful contexts (“my body is tired, I’d better rest” or “this food is delicious”) or – more simply put – as I would before any disordered behaviors or thoughts took over.
Despite having clicked on this Huffington Post article because it was the first in my Google search results, it mentions exactly the reason I push to reach this final layer of body neutrality: “When we spend less time thinking about our bodies, it affords us room to focus on other things.”
Louder, for the people in the back!!!!!!
For real, though. Imagine what would happen if every young woman (not to mention every person, as this extends to every gender, age group, demographic, etc.) used the brain space they dedicate to obsessing over body image, weight, diets, food, etc. and redirected it towards other things!!! Imagine how much more powerful we’d be!!!!
Almost every day I am saddened by a woman wasting her time and energy on fixing her body to meet some bullsh*t ideal; in fact, I was inspired to write this after watching a young woman who I perceived to be attractive, smart, capable, and kind next to me on the plane spend the entire five-hour flight reading a book about dieting. I didn’t feel it was my place to say anything, but all I wanted to do was rip the stupid book from her hands and tell her she was so much more than her appearance, that the hours she’d spent reading that book could have been used for something that (hopefully) matters more at the end of the day.
I’ve heard the female executives in my office chatting to one another in the hallways about the latest exercise routine they’ve started to shed a few pounds, and all I can think to myself is, “You’re a BADASS WOMAN WITH AN INCREDIBLE CAREER and you still feel such pressure to look a certain way?!”
I suppose the purpose of this post is to give me a place to scream these things … into the ether of the interwebs …
My Bitmoji, yelling into the ether
IMAGINE WHAT YOU COULD CREATE IF YOU DIDN’T SPEND TIME WORRYING ABOUT FOLLOWING FOOD RULES!
IMAGINE THE RELATIONSHIPS YOU COULD DEVELOP IF YOU DIDN’T SPEND TIME THINKING ABOUT HOW TO LOSE WEIGHT!
IMAGINE THE ENERGY YOU COULD PUT TOWARDS WORK, FAMILY, FRIENDS, ART, IF YOU DIDN’T TRY TO READ ABOUT EVERY NEW FAD DIET!