Eating Disorders

NEDAwareness Week: I Had No Idea

This week is National Eating Disorders Awareness Week. The theme this year is “I had no idea”, drawing attention to the fact that although eating disorders are all around us, they remain private, mysterious, and often invisible. NEDA has a quiz on their website with some pretty surprising facts that dispel some of the myths about EDs and show just how pervasive they’ve become. For instance, did you know that there are more people in the United States with eating disorders than there are with green eyes? Take a look at the quiz and test your knowledge. I consider myself pretty knowledgeable when it comes to EDs, but I didn’t manage to score 100%.

This year’s NEDAW theme raises a question that I find myself thinking about a lot: have disordered eating behaviors become so normal in our society that we’re losing track of what actual normal eating is*? So many of us are trying to conform to a beauty standard that is literally impossible for us to live up to–are we getting so used to the restrictive or other extreme food-related behaviors that seem to go hand-in-hand with chasing this impossible ideal that we no longer even notice them? It’s possible that when we say, “I had no idea”, part of what we mean is “I didn’t think this was disordered, it doesn’t seem unusual to me.” I want to be sure to note here that disordered eating and eating disorders are different things (I’m not using them interchangeably), but since disordered eating might as well be considered a gateway drug, I think it’s valid to discuss them both here.

I go through phases where I feel like there’s no point in continuing to talk about how photoshopped all the pictures we see are, or how nice it would be to see more diversity in body shapes and sizes. I mean, we all know this, right? Every picture has been retouched. We don’t all look like supermodels. And the images we’re exposed to that create this standard aren’t going to change anyway. As for my part, who’s even reading this stuff I write about body image positivity and eating disorders, anyway? What’s the point? There’s nothing I can do that will have a big enough impact to change anything. It’s discouraging to feel like you’re up against something so big and ingrained. But then I see facts like the ones below, and realize that no matter what, we can’t stop talking about these things, we can’t ignore them, and we can’t give up. Calling out the many ways in which our society encourages and rewards disordered eating will never stop being important, and it has to be done. So even though I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: there’s no such thing as a perfect body, every body is just as good as every other one, and most importantly, every body deserves to be loved.

Media Literacyinfographic2_13

*I know the word “normal” often has less-than-neutral connotations when used in a context like this one. It’s definitely not an ideal word, but it’s the best I can come up with. I mean, trying to work out an alternative to “normal” is a post unto itself.


Blipping Out

About a week and a half ago I posted about the Proud2BMe pledge, part of NEDA’s push to get teens to accept who they are and what they look like by encouraging them to build confidence in a variety of ways. The pledge focused specifically on sharing images–more specifically, not sharing or posting images that we’ve altered in any way and instead posting images that are true, accurate representations of who we are. There’s so much photoshopping done these days that it’s hard to tell if we’re ever looking at pictures that haven’t been manipulated in some way, however small. The Proud2BMe pledge was an effort to encourage people to fight the pressure to be something other than who they really are and, in the process, show that they’re happy and accepting of the images they’re sharing.

After taking the pledge, I mentioned trying out a daily self-portrait project. The goal would be to take a self-portrait every day. It wouldn’t be fancy, posed, or planned in any way, really, it would just be an expression of who I was in the moment I took the picture. And unlike most things that I say I’m going to do and then never follow-up on, I actually started this project by creating an account at blipfoto and posting my pictures there. I’ll be honest, there have been days when I’ve forgotten to take a picture, let alone post one. As a result, I’ve only got a handful of self-portraits to flip through so far. And even though I’ve only been doing it for a few days, I’ve already got some thoughts on the whole thing.

Such as: it’s a daunting project. There’s something about the thought of taking a picture of myself every day that I sort of hate. It just seems so self-indulgent and egotistical even though I know, rationally, that it’s not. I didn’t feel that way when my friend and fellow blogger Jill did something similar, and I wouldn’t feel that way if I came across someone else doing the same thing (unless it really was very ostensibly self-indulgent and egotistical, in which case I guess it wouldn’t really be the same thing). But taking a picture of myself, because it’s me taking a picture of me, feels impossible and selfish. It’s a cliché, but I think in this case it rings true–it’s hard for me to turn the lens on myself and really look at who I am, what I’m doing, and what I look like while doing it. Every time I post a picture, part of me is thinking about how stupid it is, and resisting the entire thing. That’s why I’ve missed a few days. I guess the difficulty is what makes the whole thing worthwhile though…right?

Also: what could be more boring than to look at pictures of yourself? Again, I think this has to do with my feelings of discomfort about being on camera. It could also have to do with the fact that from one day to the next, very little about the way we look changes. In spite of that, though, we’re always changing and when I look back at the self-portraits I’ve accumulated over the course of a year (or, I don’t know, a few months or whatever), I’m sure the changes will be much more obvious. For now, though, I feel some self-imposed pressure to take interesting pictures, all the while recognizing that doing so wouldn’t really be in line with what the project is all about.

Finally: my dad is an incredible photographer and even though I know I could do better (I mean, these pictures have either been taken with my cell phone or my MacBook’s Photo Booth program), when I look at my pictures, I feel embarrassed for him! His quick pics, the ones he takes casually while walking down the street in any given place, are amazing. I would buy prints of any one of them and hang them on my wall. Or in a gallery. I won’t even start on how good his stuff is when he’s actually working on composition and lighting and all that photography stuff.

I don’t know. Maybe this will get easier. Maybe it will get harder. My goal is just to keep doing it, and to keep working on accepting what I see when I take the picture.

Living by the Numbers

Scale model

Scale model (Photo credit: Brett Jordan)

Last week, while still in the grips of a very bad few days, I did something I hadn’t done for about two years: I pulled out the scale and weighed myself.

I don’t know why I did it. I knew at the time that it was a bad idea, and I hadn’t had too much trouble studiously avoiding the scale since being advised to stop weighing myself when I started recovering. As I was pulling it out from its “hiding place” (which has always been lame–it’s underneath the couch in our studio apartment), a little voice inside me was saying, “It’s not a big deal. It won’t bother you. You’ll just find out how much you weigh, and then you can go back to ignoring it. It’ll be fine! Just do it, just step on the scale!” Somehow, I managed to convince myself it was alright. And then I stepped on the scale, and before I even looked at the number, I regretted it.

The thing is there’s no way I could possibly have not regretted it. There’s no way in which the idea could have been anything other than a bad one. As far as I’m concerned, no good can come from knowing my weight. If I feel like I’m too heavy, it’s bad because I end up wanting to lose weight; if I feel like I’m where I want to be or below, I end up getting obsessed with staying at that point, or continuing to dip lower. It’s a battle I know I can’t win, at least not at this point in my recovery.

Ever since I weighed myself, my feelings about my body and my weight have been nothing but negative. I feel more self-conscious than I did before stepping on the scale, and instead of paying attention to how my body feels (am I hungry? full? tired?) and acting accordingly, I’ve been thinking in terms of my weight and letting it determine whether it’s a good day or a bad day, or whether I’m exercising enough or not. For a while now working out has meant a lot more to me than looking a certain way or fitting into a certain size; I run to feel good, deal with stress, spend time with friends, and do something I love. Getting to this point has taken effort, and it’s something I’m really proud of. But over the past few days I’ve taken a few steps back and slipped into thinking about exercise to lose weight.

The effect those numbers have had on me makes me think of how I used to feel when I would go for a run and feel like I hadn’t run fast enough or far enough based on what my Garmin would tell me. A “good” run had more to do with the numbers on the watch than the way I felt when all was said and done. Now that I’ve run largely Garmin-free for a pretty long while, I find that I’m much more focused on the way running effects my mood, and how good I feel to run a few miles regardless of the pace–choosing to stop living by those numbers made an enormous difference for me and put me back in touch with all the best things about running. Now the bad days are much fewer and farther between, and when I do have them, I dwell on them much less than I used to.

My mood and my attitude about my body shouldn’t be dictated by what the scale says, and next time I feel tempted to get on it I’m going to remind myself of that fact. There’s nothing to be gained from knowing my weight, and I’m much better off working on getting things into balance emotionally and physically and keeping them there. I know it will take me a while to get over the way I’m currently feeling about my body, but I’m glad that now I can at least recognize that I shouldn’t try to measure my happiness and satisfaction in pounds.

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The Problem with Food

As I write this, I’m trying to sit through the very uncomfortable feeling of fullness that accompanies eating. Just trying to process the discomfort–which, in my case, is both physical and emotional–makes me realize that it’s not only been a while since I’ve tried to sit with these feelings, but it’s also been a while since I’ve blogged at all about my relationship with food, eating, and hunger.

Junk food copy

Image via Wikipedia

I wish I could say the silence was because I had nothing to say. Sadly, though, that’s not the case. What’s more accurate is that I’ve had a lot to say, I’ve just been avoiding having to say any of it. Moreover, in avoiding saying it, I’ve avoided dealing with it. I’ve been working to maintain a healthy, balanced diet over the past few months, but I haven’t really succeeded. Instead, I’ve struggled off an on with feeling like I’m not eating too much, and then feeling like I’ve eaten far too much. Most of the time lately, I think I’ve been in the latter category. And that, I think, brings us full circle to where things stand right now.

About an hour ago, I had a late lunch: a bowl of penne pasta with vodka sauce. Nat brought it home for me after being out for a little bit, correctly predicting that in his absence, I hadn’t eaten. I’d had some pretzels (and what I consider a surfeit of junk food–a bagel with cream cheese for breakfast, and a salted caramel blondie, the last of a package of four Nat brought home on Friday). I wasn’t particularly hungry when I ate the pasta, and now I feel almost sick to my stomach as a result of eating it. I felt obligated to, though. And therein lies the problem with food, especially when you’re recovering from an eating disorder.

Food, I think it’s safe to say, is widely viewed as a means of comfort; it’s the centerpiece of family meals, a way to show sympathy in difficult situations (just think of how common it is to cook a casserole for a neighbor when someone in their family passes away), and a method by which people care for someone who might not be able to do the care-taking themselves. But seeing it in that context doesn’t make it any easier for me to want to have anything to do with it. And in fact, all it really does is add a level of complexity to the act of eating that I really just don’t need in my life. When I’m presented with a package of blondies because I had a long day at work, I’m grateful for the emotion that spurred the purchase. I can also appreciate the motivation behind coming home with ready-made pasta and a huge slice of red velvet cake. But I have a very hard time when I then have to deal with the fact that I’m meant to do something with these gifts (specifically: eat them). At times like these, I can’t help but feel burdened by a sense of obligation, guilt, and expectation. If I don’t eat the food that’s presented, I’m not only rejecting a present that’s been offered, I’m also caving into my illness.

Perhaps the hardest part of all of it is how difficult it is to explain to someone who doesn’t have similar feelings about food the reasons why I’d prefer not to have to deal with edible gifts, especially given how appreciated and accepted they are by others. How do you tell someone you don’t want a plate of cupcakes or cookies on your birthday, or that you’d prefer meeting for coffee instead of going out to dinner? When you’re in the minority, it can be really hard to express to people that what they consider a warm, friendly gesture has the potential to come off as somewhat uncomfortable or thoughtless to you. Obviously I don’t want to come off as ungrateful or accusatory, but it can be tiring enough when normal interactions with food are stressful. When you add the dimension of social obligation or expectation, the entire thing just becomes a mess.

I can’t help but wonder if there is a way to get people to understand that although I appreciate the thought, I would prefer not to come home to find a slice of cake waiting for me. Or is it possible that as someone with admittedly disordered behaviors and thoughts about food, I should be responsible for adjusting in such a way that makes gifts like these more welcome? When (or if) I figure it out, you will all be the first to know.

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Embrace: Responding

For a long time, my mom and I have had this joke about a website we want to create. It would be called Doctor Commonsense, and would consist of really straightforward “problems” that the good doctor would solve.

An example:

“Hungry? Try eating something! You’ll be surprised at how well it works!”

I’m not sure how we came up with this ridiculous amazing idea, but the farthest we’ve gone with it is to create a tumblr. You have to start somewhere, right? The thing is that the website is funny because it’s all so obvious. OR IS IT? (dun dun dun)

Obviously knowing how to satisfy our most basic biological urges is something we assume everyone can do; knowing how to deal with hunger and thirst is so built-in to our nature that we take it for granted, right? Well, yes and no. As I’m constantly having to remind myself, sometimes basic self-care (including feeding and watering) is hard to do. I’m hungry. I know I should eat. But do I? Not necessarily. I’m thirsty, and I live in a city with great tap water. Do I drink it? Not necessarily. Dealing with these things involves more than just instinctual behavior, and all because where there’s food, there’s Feelings.

In my case, those Feelings revolve around whether or not the hunger is “valid”–how valid ends up being defined can depend on any number of variables. And I’m guessing that I’m not alone in this, given how often I see articles that suggest that feelings of hunger might actually be stress, or boredom, or thirst, or something (anything!) other than hunger. Basically, we live in a society that is trying to instill in us a deeply-rooted mistrust of our bodies. It can be hard to remember that magazine articles and posts on the most popular “health” blogs* don’t have a better understanding of what our bodies need than we do.

Recently, I’ve been making an effort to listen to what my body is telling me. I’ve spent years trying to make it shut up, and separate myself from it (as though that’s even possible) in order to suppress needs and urges. Now, though, I’ve arrived at a point where I’m starting to appreciate what my body is capable of telling me. I’m actually listening, and understanding that I have a responsibility to respond.

In the past few weeks, the tension in my shoulders has become incredibly distracting; for the past couple days, my lower back has felt slightly weird; I’ve been tired and a little bit groggy, and had a bad headache since the week started. These are all things that need to be acknowledged, and dealt with. Obviously, it’s time to work a bit more on stress management, strengthen my core muscles to help with the back pain, and probably get back to drinking a lot of water in order to get rid of my headaches. Responding takes work, and conscious, deliberate action.

What is your body asking for? Take some time to listen and respond. You’ll be surprised at how well it works!

*Scare quotes what up? If I’d really applied myself, I probably could have worked a set into every paragraph. Still, three in one post ain’t bad.

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I knew yesterday that I wanted to write an Embrace:Me post today, since I had something else in mind and couldn’t give it its usual Monday night spot. But then I got home from work and started reading about this H&M mini-scandal, and got sort of intrigued by the whole thing. That, of course, made me wonder if maybe I should write about what it might mean that a major retailer is no longer even trying to make people believe that it’s using images of real women’s bodies to sell its clothes. Ultimately, though, I realized that I wanted some more time to get my thoughts together on that whole matter, and that I should probably just stick to the original plan. And so here we are.

When I first started the whole Embrace:Me thing, I had grand visions of it being wildly popular, and receiving consistent contributions from people who wanted to share their stories of learning to love their bodies, developing a healthy body image, and winning the fight against bodily-motivated low self-esteem. Needless to say, things didn’t quite go that way; as a result, I’ve gone back and forth between trying to build the project into something that is sustainable but not entirely dependent on other people for content, and scrapping it entirely. Recently, though, I had a tiny revelation: why not just tweak it a bit, so that its focus isn’t as narrow as I originally planned for it to be? There are, after all, about a million ways in which we can talk about improving body image–Embrace:Me doesn’t always have to be centered around one person’s story.

In a way, this would really be sort of a continuation of what I’ve been doing with it for the past while, except that it would be a deliberate building of the project and not just me trying to come up with something to write about in order to make sure that the whole enterprise doesn’t just disappear entirely. Sometimes I feel like the things I ramble on about here can get a bit too disconnected, and I’ve been trying to come up with a way to preserve body positive content while still writing a blog that’s mostly about running; I think this might be the way to do it.

So! From now on, Embrace:Me will be embracing body image-related content in a more general way. I still really want to share any stories or tips you have relating to your own struggles and triumphs with learning to feel good about yourself, so if you have anything to send my way, I am more than happy to receive it. Otherwise, I’ll be serving up other kinds of body-lovin’ goodness every Monday night. So make sure to report back so that you don’t miss anything!

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Lourdes confession

Image via Wikipedia

Here’s a confession: for the past couple weeks, I’ve been pretty fixated on all the little parts of my body that I wish I could change.  Several times I’ve seriously considered the various ways in which I could try to lose some weight.  More than once I’ve completely given myself over to the idea that if I were thinner, my life would be great and I’d have no problems!

Reality check!

When you have trouble with food and eating, it’s probably not a good idea to go on a diet.  It doesn’t help to obsess over all the parts of your body that you wish were different.  And if you were thinner, you’d have all the same problems, and maybe even a few more.  Sometimes it can be hard for me to fully internalize these things, even though I can understand them perfectly well on an intellectual level.

Wouldn’t life be so much simpler if we could just love our bodies and not worry about these things?  Or if there were at least some easy way out of these body-hating ruts we can sometimes get stuck in?

When I’m having a difficult day (whether it’s because I’m depressed, or disappointed, or angry, or whatever), Nat basically just hugs me until I feel better.  It’s like a full-on attack of love and even though I sometimes resist it at first, when I eventually give in and accept the hug, I’m able to let go of a lot of the things that are bothering me.  And maybe that’s the best way to deal with these sorts of feelings when they come up: instead of giving in and becoming submerged in these negative ideas about ourselves, we should try fighting back with a barrage of self-love and acceptance.

It could work, right?  And even if it doesn’t, there’s really nothing to lose.  A little self-acceptance never hurt nobody.



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