1. Body image as a coping mechanism
Most diets begin and end with body dissatisfaction. I say this because the motivation to start a diet almost always involves some component of wanting to change our bodies, and most diets end because compliance is pretty much impossible after a while, leading to rebound weight gain and subsequent feelings of body dissatisfaction. For me, these feelings of body dissatisfaction were *extremely* anxiety-provoking, and the body/anxiety thoughts eventually touched basically every area of my life. I felt anxious for eating too much. I felt anxious about upcoming meal decisions. I felt anxious about the sensation of my pants hugging my hips or my shirt bunching at my waist. I felt anxious about the thought that others might notice I’d gained weight. I felt anxious giving presentations at school because I was afraid people would be staring at my body. So on and so forth.
Eventually, I started to transform anxiety about other things in life into anxiety about my body. Rather than just being anxious about giving a presentation, I’d zero in on my body, and my body-checking behaviors would intensify. Or, I’d distract myself by counting, re-counting, and triple-counting my calories that day (you know, to make sure I wasn’t forgetting anything) and that whole process would make me anxious, which would feed forward into further sensations of anxiety about my body. Eventually, I completely lost sight of the fact that feelings of anxiety about my body were directly correlating with issues in other areas of my life. It went something like this:
- Big test coming up—my body is wrong
- I miss my family—my body is wrong
- My checking account is getting low—my body is wrong
- I wonder if I seemed awkward yesterday—my body is wrong
- I really hope I get this internship—my body is wrong
I think a big reason I ended up transforming my anxiety like this was out of avoidance. As a kid, my go-to coping skill was to avoid thinking about situations that were uncomfortable or painful, and so I either blocked them out completely or distracted myself with other things. In adulthood, that didn’t serve me so well, and once food and body thoughts started taking over my mind, they became my #1 distraction. When anything else made me nervous or anxious, I defaulted to distracting myself with more thoughts about food and my body. The only problem was that those anxious thoughts weren’t serving me.
A big help in breaking free from that thought cycle was to stop accepting my thoughts as truth. If I found myself feeling, “—my body is wrong,” then I’d pause, reflect, and try to figure out what the deeper issue was, underneath. Nine times out of ten, I quickly realized all my worries were about something else. For the 10% of the time that I got hung up on my body, I’d dig deeper with “so what” type questions…
- My pants don’t fit—so what?
- I can’t wear them. I’ll either be uncomfortable or look bad—so what?
- I took pride in the fact that I was able to wear this size—so what?
- If I no longer wear this size, my identity as a thin person will be challenged—so what?
- I don’t know who I am, apart from how my body looks—oh…
The issue of identity is very different from the issue of needing to choose a different pair of pants. For me and my recovery, leaning into my faith was fundamental in being able to work through the real reasons I felt insecure about my body. Of course it’s anxiety-provoking to have our sense of identity challenged!!! But for me and my values, I want my personhood, my worth, and my purpose to be rooted in something deeper than my pant size. Finding my identity in the unchanging truth of Christ was (and still is) a game changer.
2. Salad is not a meal…for me
A huge problem I had to work through in terms of my recovery was reconciling myself with the idea that I actually needed to eat carbs and fat at every meal in order to prevent evening binges. (The reason for this is because my body needs the carbs/fat, and will do whatever it needs to do to get them, even if that means bingeing.) But even once I accepted that fact, and realized that the small amount of fear/discomfort involved in eating bread at lunchtime paled in comparison to the amount of fear/discomfort I felt after a binge, I still had a really elevated view of salads at lunch time. It was like I couldn’t get over this belief that salad was the ideal lunch food.
Eventually, I stopped worrying so much about whether or not I was eating in an “ideal way” period (because I realized that doesn’t exist). But even up until recently, I found myself feeling weird about the fact that I didn’t order salads when other people did. Or with meal prepping for the week, for example, my husband likes to pack salads as his lunch meal. Salads don’t work for me and my body, and I found myself feeling weird about the fact that I made separate lunch meals for myself. (I think this gave me flashbacks to when my eating disorder prevented me from being able to eat food prepared by other people.) Since my husband eats lunch salads, we don’t usually make them as a side dish for dinner, and I consequently rarely eat them. I’d basically developed this concept of “I don’t eat salads” even though I sometimes like salads. But I just don’t have a context for them in my life in a way that works.
Since quarantine started, though, I’d watch my husband eat salads for lunch and I found myself thinking about how tasty they sounded…especially once the weather warmed up. I eventually realized I was feeling deprived by not feeling comfortable eating salads, so on day I had one as an afternoon snack! I loved it, and have been doing that regularly ever since.
So…the reason I’m sharing this long-winded explanation about my up/down relationship with salads is because sometimes we have food rules about which foods are appropriate and when, and we don’t even realize it. It literally had never occurred to me to eat a salad as a snack before, but I’ve been loving it. Just like eating a cookie at breakfast is a totally acceptable thing to do, eating a salad as a snack is acceptable. Cultural food rules really make no sense.
3. Satisfying snacks
Sometimes salad is a satisfying snack, and sometimes it’s not. Lately I’ve been loving breakfast cereal, too. Cereal doesn’t need to be for breakfast, just like salad doesn’t need to be for lunch. Intuitive eating gives us the freedom to make food choices based on our internal cues and personal knowledge of satisfaction…not arbitrary food rules set up for us by diet culture and/or societal schemata.
In addition to salads and Froot Loops, some of my favorite snacks lately have been homemade granola with yogurt, green smoothies, frozen bananas with peanut butter, and animal crackers (thank you to my nephews for that one), and fruit salad.
4. You can’t eat intuitively if you’re over-exercising
In Foundations, my intuitive eating guidebook, principle four is all about exercise. Or, rather, it’s about taking a break from exercise. Too much exercise is a major driver of stress, which interrupts the HPATG axis, wreaking hormonal havoc on our bodies. Part of that hormonal havoc means our appetites become dysregulated because, yes, even appetite is controlled by hormones. This means that we either might be in a phase of appetite suppression or a phase of appetite overdrive (read: bingeing) which will change profoundly as we reintroduce forbidden foods and try to start exercising with attunement to our bodies.
In order to make progress, we need to first establish a foundation of rest, and build upwards from there. That means taking a break from exercise for a few months to give your hormones a chance to heal, your weight a chance to settle, and your body a chance to learn how to communicate with you again.
5. Sometimes I’m more productive, and sometimes I’m less productive, and all of that is okay
This past week has been one of those mega-productive weeks, and it came shortly after about a month of feeling completely unmotivated. Part of my new rise in energy is due to the glorious sun that has decided to grace the midwest with its presence and warmth, and part of that is because our bodies (especially women’s bodies) naturally go through hormonal changes when energy conservation is more important than others.
I’m generally the type of person who thrives when she is busy, and I really love the dopamine hit I get from crossing items off my lists. For a long time, energy lulls would make me feel frustrated and almost guilty, like there was something wrong with me (or I wasn’t living up to my potential) because I wasn’t accomplishing as much as I’d have preferred. But all this goes back to that faith concept I talked about in thought #1…that just like my identity isn’t found in my pant size, it also isn’t determined by my productivity.
Furthermore, some of my energy/productivity fluctuations are due to normal, healthy variations in my hormone levels. Estrogen and progesterone have very different effects on our energy levels, moods, etc. and those differences are good. I’ll be talking more about the effects of estrogen and progesterone in a future post, but for now I just want to share that things like low energy, increased appetite, or lessened interest in social activities don’t automatically mean something is wrong with us. Instead, these changes can even mean that things are working the right way. Humans are inherently dynamic, and this constant cyclic motion is part of what it means to be alive. Life is so much better when we stop shaming ourselves for being human and instead, embrace all that we were made to be!