The Dark Side of Healthy

 

CN: anorexia, disordered thoughts, diets, exercise.

 

I recently read an article by activist and writer Virgie Tovar called “(Re)Discovering My Love of Food After Dieting” (link), it’s short and emotive and captures the importance of unlearning diet culture and embracing bodies, food and pleasure in radical and liberating way.

 

I saw much of my own experience and that of my peers in Tover’s journey to find pleasure in food and eating. My research involves food (agriculture), I worked in food justice and the food service industry, I have a foodie instagram. I find baking relaxing and believe in the connective power of food and community. I just don’t enjoy eating. This is not a natural part of my personality (despite my insistence to myself and others for too many years). My thoughts around my own consumption of food are nothing but disordered:

 

How many calories is this?”

“When can I leave this dinner to go work out?”

 

“If I had X yesterday can I have X again today?”

 

“Is this healthy?”

 

I have cycled through many eating disorder behaviours but they have all been based on restriction. Whether that meant eliminating an entire food group, only choosing foods I considered “healthy” or under the banner of  “clean eating”, fad diets or excessive exercise, denying myself food and pleasure in that food has been ceaseless component of my eating disorder since I was around 12 years old.

 

This is not say that I have never enjoyed food or eating, I have had moments of enjoyment that are mere seconds or might last a day or two where I can enjoy the experience of eating, but those moments still exist within a rigid set of rules that define what is of “good” and “bad”. What is good or bad has changed and evolved throughout my disorder. These changes have been influenced by personal experience, diet culture, friends, family, and different treatment programs. When I am very sick, what is considered good is a short and sad looking list, when I’m better, it grows along with my capacity to experience other joys of life.  Yet, I have not be able to move beyond the boundaries that my disorder has built. This is not health. I may not be as sick as I once was, however, the insidiousness of anorexia still lurks in my thoughts and actions.

 

Being healthy is great, but it is not a possibility for everyone. Chronic illness, socioeconomic status, environmental factors and genetics all play a role in health. Unfortunately, we tend to moralize health and bodies in ways that are incredibly harmful. Health is associated with thinness, whiteness, being able-bodied, wealthy (comparatively) and cis. Health is seen as something to be achieved through hard work, but it is often not something we can control, and being healthy is so much more than what fits into these narrow binaries.

 

Fat people are healthy. Disabled people are healthy. People of colour are healthy. Queer and trans people are healthy. How we define health beyond survival is shaped by social relations of power and how we validate knowledge of bodies, health and care. The dominant narrative of what is healthy and what bodies should look like has been shaped by white supremacy. Our medical system has made the advancements it has through horrific levels of dehumanization and cruelty towards black people. This legacy still affects how bodies of colour are treated (and not treated) in the healthcare system.

 

Health is important and  the resources to be as healthy as we can be should be accessible to everyone, however,  none of this should translate to one’s health does not defining their worth. Unhealthy people – whether they have made choices that led to health problems or not – are just as valuable as healthy individuals. The idea that health = worth is something we first have to challenge in ourselves and then recognize that our positionality and experience may have benefited us in ways that others have not been excluded from. I am a thin, able-bodied, cis woman. This gives me greater access to resources. This means that I am not charged extra when flying and strangers generally don’t express their “concern” about my health. We must recognize that we live in a fat-phobic society and those of us who are not fat (even if we feel fat!) need to be in solidarity with fats folks who bear the brunt of body shaming.

 

There is nothing wrong with wanting to be healthy, but it is important to ask ourselves where this motivation comes from and how we define what health is. Does health = thinness? That is not only inaccurate, but can lead to other, perhaps more severe , health issues.

 

The obsessive drive I feel to be fit into a eurocentric version of healthy, has contribute to serious health effects of anorexia, both mentally and physically. As it has for many others who suffer from anorexia, bulimia and other forms of disordered eating. Healthy is different for everyone and changes as we move through life. Rigidity around health and bodies is not in line with nature. Nature is complex and does not suit the binaries we place on ourselves and each other. In order to be truly healthy, we must accept the complexities of bodies and experiences.

 

Tover closes her article by saying, “I can’t opt out of this culture, but each time that I choose what I want I know I’m one step closer to the freedom I crave.” I am in the process of unlearning the ideas on health and bodies that have kept me from moving closer freedom and liberation. To learn to feel joy and pleasure when we – especially as people of colour – are told that we are undeserving of this or that denying this pleasure will lead to a greater pay off, is not a simple task. It takes time, commitment and all the gentleness that we denied ourselves for so long.

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Week 32//Feeling Feelings

 

On Monday, May 22nd 2017, I will have completed 32 weeks of eating disorder treatment.

**Content note: Eating disorders, Anorexia, restriction, mental illness.**

 

I’m having trouble writing because each line fills my eyes with tears. My brain’s reaction to crying is still, “ew, stop that” but now I cry, instead of engaging in behaviours that are y’know, deadly.

 

My struggle with Anorexia is no secret, but I have felt more protective of my time in this treatment program. I still say that I am in ‘recovery’ with an air of hesitancy; it feels new and fragile. Like a small, sometimes angry, baby. I reluctantly went to a psychologist last summer after “episode” that made the non-disordered part of me wonder if I should do something. I told the psychologist that I “didn’t really eat but was fine. Really.” I honestly believed this. I believed this at Week 13, I believed this at Christmas when I sat in my Grandmother’s kitchen while everyone else ate breakfast, feeling the same terror that I did 14 years ago. I stared at my black coffee, I talked to my Grandma about her life in Trinidad. I did not have some sort of epiphany that here I was, with so many of the people that I love, who were all eating and laughing and growing and healing, I did not think, “Maybe I should eat something.” Families, partners and friends often try to love the sufferer out of their eating disorder. Maybe, it works for some people, but I needed to make the choice myself. Love and concern is no match for an eating disorder. I wish I could tell you that’s what pushed me. I wish I could say that I wanted to get better for a specific reason. I don’t know. I’m only on Week 32. I just know that I know I now make choices that lead to recovery, instead of choices that keep me on the endless and terrible loop of anorexia.

 

It takes an average of 7 years to recover from an eating disorder. I first dabbled in recovery in 2012 and did well for about a year. A breakup, the loss of a dear friend and poor coping skills, lead me back to my eating disorder. Going back to anorexia is like that feeling of relief you get when you take off your pants after work and put on your comfies. It feels comfortable and safe. Except instead of being on your couch watching netflix, you’re in a toxic waste dump, drinking a cocktail of poison. I was not safe, I was killing myself, all the while, smiling and saying I’m fine™ (Code word for “I’m actually dying, but have been socially conditioned to see my needs as unimportant and my emotions as inherently irrational.”)

 

My discomfort with the label of recovery has held me back from blogging my way through treatment as I did the last time. I was eager to recover in 2012. I saw my future: bright, shiny, full of promise. I have had an eating disorder for just under half my life. Living without it sounds great, there is no doubt in my mind that it’s better to not have an eating disorder. I just don’t know what that feels or looks like, and for someone with anorexia (see related attributes: perfectionism, obsessiveness, anxiety), that is terrifying. The clinic I attend has a list “non-negotiables” that you have to have in place by Week 20 if you want to continue in the program. I did not meet them by Week 20. I had just decided I kind of wanted to be there like 6 weeks before, so in my mind, I was just starting. I was given a 2 weeks to meet the goals, an ultimatum, put gently. Long story short, I work well with a deadline. When I was told that I was allowed to stay in the program, I realized I had been holding my breath for 2 weeks/the last decade. I wanted to try. I wasn’t ready to fully let go, but I was willing to work towards something that was better than the eating disorder that I had been controlling my life for so long.

 

If you’re still reading, thank you. I don’t know if you will get anything out of this, but I already feel lighter. I wish I could tell you that at Week 32, I am fully recovered and feel Great™ (a totally subjective term). Unfortunately, recovery takes time, a lot of time and hardwork. Unlearning takes time. Healing is a winding path, and I’m learning that it’s ok to not know the destination.

Back to my baby analogy, I feel like I am learning things for the first time, like how expensive groceries are (despite having all the data for this, it’s still shocking irl), or that crying about something does not make you weak or a failure. Or that it’s ok to be happy. Even over something small. I wake up and my first thought isn’t dread. Coffee tastes a lot better with milk in it. I have enough energy to hang out with friends for more than 1 hour. Little good things are beginning to replace the pull of my eating disorder. I am slowly building a life that does not focus on my eating disorder. I don’t know if I will ever be fully rid of it, and at this point, I am ok with that. 32 weeks ago, I never would have thought that I would be able to complete this program. I planned to quit and run back to the relative safety of my eating disorder. I don’t want to think where I would be if I did quit and continue in my eating disorder. I am not sure what I will be like in another 32 weeks and for the first time, that’s ok. I am no longer standing still. I am healing, growing, creating, blooming.

 

Thank you to all those who have supported me in these last few months, particularly to those of you who have been there for the whole 32 weeks.

New Year, Same Shame

 

Content Warning: diet-talk, weight-loss, eating disorders

 

The New Year should be a celebration of new beginnings, to remember our accomplishments and to drink enough Champagne so we forget that it is January and absolutely freezing. Unfortunately, there is so much focus on our cultural obsession with perfection that it makes this time of year challenging for many. Each year, the same tired tropes about creating a “New Year, New You!” are recycled through unhealthy diets, shaming tactics and other aspects of diet culture. Diet culture can be seen in shaming of those who are viewed as overweight, encouraging unhealthy weight loss, the 20 billion dollar (USD) weight-loss industry, prioritization of certain body types, and fad diets.

 

Most people who diet regularly (often called yo-yo dieting) will not lose weight, and if they do, they will most likely gain it back. Yo-yo dieting is also extremely dangerous, but is often overlooked. Yo-yo dieters may be suffering from low self esteem, be overwhelmed with cultural messages about dieting or may in fact be suffering from an eating disorder. The majority of those suffering with eating disorders fall under the category of “Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified” or EDNOS, which can include those who practice yo-yo dieting. Regardless of an official diagnoses, engaging in unhealthy dieting habits (such as pills, over exercising or depravation) is dangerous, both mentally and physically.

 

One of the challenges at this time of year is that if you are dealing with an ED, either in recovery or currently engaging in behaviours, or you are close to someone who has an ED, you will probably be hyper-aware of how triggering this time of year is. However, I find the majority of people are entirely unaware. Our culture is steeped in really fucked up ideas about bodies, health and food, so unhealthy messages about diets and bodies seem normal.

 

I dread conversations, advertisements and media about New Year resolutions. Most resolutions rely on shaming tactics and unrealistic expectations. Four months ago, I was trying to figure out how to deal with this, because each year is different. The messages are basically the same, but of course, we as people change. We might be in a very positive mental space or may be experiencing a relapse. Each year has new challenges and new accomplishments. However, New Year’s resolutions that focus on changing our bodies and engaging in damaging behaviours don’t recognize how unique, fascinating, strong and beautiful each person is. They rely on shame and guilt, not empowerment and self-care.

 

We all know most resolutions fail, yet many people continue to make unsustainable and sometimes dangerous resolutions. Mass media – from advertisements on Instagram, to magazines articles and programming on news media – presents the New Year as a chance to find all your supposed flaws and force yourself to change. Most of the content is aimed at women/femme folks and is based on physical appearance. Each year, media outlets, acquaintances, and family members talk endlessly about how much weight should be lost, how to eat “Healthier” and how to “get fit.” All this makes the week after Christmas and January hell for many people, especially if they struggle with an eating disorder/disordered eating.

 

The semester I returned to university after treatment, I was sitting in a class and a few women were chatting a couple of chairs over from me. I wasn’t really paying attention, but then the conversation turned to how much weight they had apparently gained over Christmas break and how their New Years resolutions were all about weight-loss and diets. I felt trapped. Class was about to start and I didn’t want to miss it. My coping skills were better than they were before treatment, but I was still at the beginning stages and didn’t know how to handle this. Over the last few years, I have found some ways to cope and want to share in hopes that it will make this time of year slightly more bearable.

 

  1. If you use Tumblr, download the Tumblr Saviour extension. You can block triggering words and topics. It’s a lifesaver.
  2. Word Blocker and other similar extensions are available for Chrome (I find the ones I have tried don’t work very well, but it might be worth a try)
  3. Un-follow (even temporarily) certain lifestyle blogs and accounts. Many cooking, vegan and fitness blogs will be overrun with triggering content these days. If you like what they post at other times, you can always re-follow them later.
  4. Be ok with walking away from conversations. If someone begins talking about diets or weight-loss, it is ok to walk away. Self-care is always important, but at this time of year it is imperative to care for your mental well-being and that sometimes means walking away.
  5. If you are comfortable, ask friends and family to avoid diet talk. This can be challenging, especially if they do not know about your ED/disordered eating. You are not obligated to tell anyone who you are not comfortable with, but saying something along the lines of “I’m not comfortable talking about diets, etc. could we change the subject?” Many people who are not personally affected by EDs do not want to talk about diets or weight-loss.
  6. Accept support. If you have a friend who wants to listen to you vent or an option to see a therapist, take it! You may not think you need it, especially if you have been doing well in recovery, but a little support goes a long way. We all need support; it doesn’t make you weak to ask for some extra help.
  7. If you have no one in your immediate circle to confide in, look up support groups in your community and check if your insurance or schools offers support for counseling.
  8. Do something that makes you happy each day. Sometimes we can’t avoid being triggered, and some days are just harder than others. Take a nice bath or create some art. Do something that is positive for you.

 

If you are reading this, and are not personally affected by disordered eating/eating disorder, I hope you will take into consideration how damaging diet talk can be and how important it is to support a culture that accepts all bodies. Shame and guilt have no place in our relationships with food and our bodies. Food does not hold moral value and dieting/not dieting does not make you a better or worse person. Our bodies are magical, resilient and unique. We should celebrate diversity of bodies, “flaws” included. While there is more diversity of bodies seen in media, it is still dreadfully insufficient. Representation in media will not eliminate eating disorders and related issues, but it could help create a more positive, and realistic, culture.

 

I will end this post on a thought that has been crossing my mind lately had a therapist tell me once, “Imagine if losing weight was the only thing you ever accomplished, how would you feel?” At the time, weight loss was the only thing I cared about, but as I went through treatment, and accomplished other things that we not related to my body, I started to come around to the idea that my body is not my only worth. My body is not the sole indicator of who I am as a person. I hope we, as individuals and as a society, can begin to focus more on each others accomplishments and strength, instead focusing on a very specific, and unattainable, image of perfection.

You Don’t Look Like A…

“You don’t look like a feminist”

“You don’t look like an activist”

These are phrases I have heard quite often, more so in the last year when I began working more seriously in women’s rights and social justice.

In my first year of university, a few friends and I were sitting in our Meal Hall and chatting about our beliefs relating to religion and Atheism. I mentioned that I believe in a higher power, but don’t consider myself religious (despite attending church at the time). The conversation shifted from philosophy to sciences and back to religion. I made some comment to which a male student at our table responded, “You wouldn’t understand cause you believe in God and are really girly, like you wear a lot of flower patterns.” I don’t remember what I said in response, but it wasn’t much because I was so shocked. What did my personal faith have to do with my ability to understand? Even worse, when did floral clothing become an indicator for lack of intelligence?

Despite my apparent stupidity and love of floral dresses, I continued my education (You can pause reading to congratulate me on my perseverance). Over the next few years, I heard much of the same: I was too pretty to be a feminist, I was too into fashion to care about social justice issues, and I was too girly to be smart.

If you’re still with me and haven’t zoned out due to my gender or reported appearance, please listen to why all of those claims are complete bullshit.

“You’re too pretty to be a feminist.”

 

This statement has absolutely no merit. First of all, there is not required level of unattractiveness to be a feminist. Secondly, the assumption that attractiveness is limited to certain features is archaic and rooted in patriarchal, hetero-normative values – something that feminism aims to deconstruct.

As misogynist/TV personality/all-around asshole Pat Robinson said in 1992,

“The feminist agenda is not about equal rights for women. It is about a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians.”

Well, Pat, I give you credit for zeroing in on our agenda, but you misspoke on a couple of things: Feminists will only leave their husbands if they are assholes like you. And no one “becomes a lesbian.” Being a lesbian is not like becoming a member of Costco.

I’m sure if pressed Pat, and his modern-day counterparts like Men’s Rights Activist and advocator of all things terrible, Paul Elam and rape advocate and “Pick-up artist” Roosh V, would all tell you how ugly and gross feminist are. It must be very disconcerting when women who are considered conventionally attractive by millions of people, like Beyoncé, Emma Watson, Nikki Minaj and Taylor Swift all call themselves feminist.

You see, dear readers, feminism is not based upon how you look, because it’s a human rights movement, not a fucking modeling agency.

I have been a feminist my whole life. I was raised by a feminist (my mother, who by the way has never tried to kill any children and is not a lesbian or a witch – not that there’s anything wrong with either), and at least by some people, I’m considered attractive. My looks and being a feminist are not related at all. I could not shower for three months or I could spend 2 hours on my hair every morning; I could never wear a bra or spend half my paycheck at Victoria’s Secret, and I would still be a feminist.

One of the many wonderful things about feminism is that you don’t have to look a certain way, hold a certain job, be a particular age or gender or race. Feminism is for everyone.

 

It seems like no matter how a woman dress, she will be criticized. Are you wearing a cute dress? You’re probably a bimbo. Baggy jeans? You’re a slob. Crop top? A slut. All covered up? You’re a prude.

So what do we do when it seems like no matter what we can’t please anyone? Wear whatever the fuck you want. Your clothing choices can express part of who you are, but they don’t accurately reflect beliefs, intelligence, or personality.

At various times in my life, people have not taken my seriously, whether due to my gender or race. This used to upset me a lot when I was younger. I tried to change my dress, the way I spoke and at one point even tried to bleach my skin or wear makeup to appear more “white”. As I got older and became more educated, I realized I would never please everyone and the only person who I have to please is myself. I know that I have worked hard to get where I am, I know I’m intelligent. I know I will always have to work harder than my white, cis-male counterparts, but that’s not going to stop me. If someone thinks I’m stupid because of how I dress or my gender, that’s their problem. I will not change how I look to please someone else, and neither should anyone else.

I was running some errands a few weeks ago and was wearing a crop top. An older woman look at my and made some kind of noise in disgust while looking at me. Even last year, this would have made me want to run home and change. Now I can laugh about it. If you are so upset by how another person is dressed, you are the one that needs to change, not them. My midriff caused this woman emotional distress, so I must be pretty fucking powerful if I can do that with two inches of stomach. Imagine if I was wearing a bikini, she probably would have had an anger-induced aneurysm right there.

My point with this whole post is that people suck and will judge. BUT there is a silver lining: when you stop giving a fuck what other people think of you, you can accomplish more and are generally a happier person. The more you speak out, the more judgment you will notice, but you will also notice that you feel more free and authentic. When you are an activist and a feminist, you are going to encounter opposition and judgment, but try to meet that hate with love. You certainly don’t have to love homophobic, sexist assholes, but love yourself, love your world, love what you do, and you will surpass all those fuckboys who ever made you feel insecure.

Are Eating Disorders a Feminist Issue?

 

 

I decided to ask around online if people agreed that Eating Disorders (EDs) were a feminist issue, I received some really great answers, which I will discuss later on, but mostly I got negative feedback, personally insulting me. People responded by saying that I didn’t understand eating disorders (despite me explaining that I have had various EDs for the past 12 years), that “men don’t give women eating disorders” and that I am stupid for even asking. The common denominator in these responses was that because I mentioned feminism, I must be unintelligent and a man-hater.  Basically, I found most people didn’t understand eating disorders or feminism.

 

Through my recover journey, I have found that people – medical professionals included – often do not take EDs seriously. I was struggling with Bulimic tendencies a few years ago and it was taking a toll on my health. I was describing some ways I had been feeling and discussing my abysmal blood work with my then family doctor when she said that I “wasn’t one of those dumb, vain girls with eating disorders.” I was dumbfounded and didn’t even consider seeking help for another year. There is a stereotype of people with EDs that is false and dangerous; many people think that the only people who are suffering are young, white, women with certain personalities. In reality, eating disorders do not discriminate. I know people of all ages, races, genders and socio-economic classes that suffer from eating disorders.

 

The comment made doctor made about women with eating disorders being vain and dumb is sexist and incredibly untrue. First off she was assuming that EDs are about looks and that there is choice in getting this illness and that EDs are a problem only for women. The women and men I know that are suffering or having recovered from EDs are some of the most intelligent, kind and compassionate people I know. They are not vain or stupid.

 

Over 24 million men and women in America have eating disorders. Most suffers are women, with 5-15% of sufferers being men. Anorexia Nervosa has the highest rate of mortality in all mental illness. Bulimia and EDNOS (eating disorder not otherwise specified) have incredibly high rates as well. Yet, we still see pro-anorexia shirts being sold at Hudson’s Bay Company and weight-loss ads everywhere we go. Women are constantly told to look a certain way; that we shouldn’t be hungry, that being on a diet is normal and anything about a size 4 is fat, or that there is something wrong with having fat. Women are expected to starve; from the time I was a child I remember hearing conversations about growing teenage boys and how much they should eat, but it seemed like every woman I knew was on a diet. Why must be always shrink away?

 

Men are affected by patriarchal standards as well. They are told that being weak is not manly; that they have to be ripped or work out six days a week or no one will love them. I have known men who have engaged in disordered behaviour on the advice of coaches or their fathers.

Women are the main target of body criticism and outdated standards, however it affects our entire culture. We are teaching children that their looks are more important than their character and that a number can define them as a person.

 

Mental health is stigmatized throughout society and part of that is influenced by patriarchy. Equality of treatment and access to services is vital in the fight against eating disorders. Many women, myself included, have been told that it is “normal” to hate our bodies, to starve ourselves, to exercise to the point of danger. These are not normal behaviours. The idea that it is normal for women to hate themselves is disgusting! We must challenge the idea of low self-esteem and disordered behaviour is the norm for women and girls. When we create a environment for positive body image and healthy eating, we can better fight the root causes of the messages we see in society.  

*Statistics from NEDIC