Shame Doesn’t Survive in the Light

It’s mid-afternoon on Friday, I am facilitating a workshop this evening and planned to get coffee with a friend beforehand. Instead, I’m propped up at my kitchen table writing this as a distraction from the some intense pain and discomfort. For a few moments, I was confused as to why I felt like this. I then realized I ate a meal without restriction portion or food groups for the first time in  weeks. I got myself together and went grocery shopping, made a meal and ate it before I got too overwhelmed. I’m still proud of myself, but despite years of experience, totally forgot I would had some side effects due to my body not being used to eating regular portions.

This is a less-talked about aspect of recovery from restrictive eating. It’s not inspiring or doesn’t have that trauma-porn style of intrigue that many “recovery” stories hold. I didn’t struggle as much through this meal or any other recent meals than I did a year and a half ago when I was in treatment, or a year before than in the rare time I would attempt to eat a full meal. That was a whole different kind of terrible, which often involved a lot of crying and anxiety. Today, I cooked and ate and felt guilty and enjoyed it and texted some friends and listened to The Internet. I sent an email afterwards and did my laundry. 20 minutes later, as my body tried to digest this meal, I was struck with intense pain, I feel like the wind has been knocked out of me. I’m hot and exhausted. My body is currently working overtime to handle the amount and type of food that it is not used to. This part of recovery is not the hardest, it’s not inspiring. It just is. It’s an after effect of the years of deprivation and damage, my body has experienced. This has happened to me before and will happen again. Each time it gets a little worse – so if you don’t suffer from an eating disorder you may wonder, well why don’t you just keep eating normal amounts and avoid this?

I used to be really hurt by these questions, but for one, not many people ask anymore, I’m weight restored and am better at strategically using highlighter. Secondly, I have a bit of distance from the depth of my disorder and I kinda understand it now. Why can’t I just eat? I am fully aware that this happens. I am rational, intelligent and has work and academic experience in food and food security. None of this matters. It doesn’t matter how smart or experienced I am, anorexia [as well as other restrictive eating disorders] has an powerful hold on those of us that suffer. Most of the time, I don’t even want to be extremely thin anymore, but the desire to achieve some sort of celestial ideal of deprivation and thinness captures me. I feel trapped by this whether or not I am acting on these desires. I have learned to go through the motions to keep myself relatively well but not to the point where my body and mind has been able to rest and heal.

A couple of years ago when I was posting more regularly, someone asked me if I was uncomfortable with people knowing my vulnerabilities. I hadn’t thought too much about it at the time so the question made me deeply uncomfortable, however, over the last few years, I have come to understand that allowing myself to be vulnerable and open is an integral part of my healing process. Shame doesn’t survive in the light and writing my experiences exposes them to light, it gives me a feeling of validity and I hope, raises the consciousness of others. I hope those who love someone with an eating disorder can learn how to better support them. I hope that if someone reading this is struggling, especially, if they are at the beginning stages, that they will seek help. I imagine sometimes how different my life would be if I accessed treatment 10 years ago. I know my body would have been through the things I have dragged it [us] through. Perhaps, recovery would be less of daunting task if I knew what it was like to be an adult and to be well [for more than a couple of months]. I do experience embarrassment and shame at being almost 28 years old and struggling to feed myself, however, in order to dissipate that shame, I have to bring it to the light. So here I am. Writing this three days before my 28th birthday, having cried once over my thesis and twice over my body. I am not where I want to be, but I can feel the light blessing me.

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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.

Nothing tastes as good as [whiteness] feels

I haven’t written in a long time, mostly because being in grad school has turned any part of my brain not used for course and thesis work into a foggy mush. The other, smaller, but perhaps more meaningful reason, is that the things I want to write about are hard to discuss. This mirrors most of my life right now and that is not necessarily a bad thing. Discomfort can be motivating, it tells us that we need to take action or risk sinking deeper into this discomfort. It is also ok to be a little uncomfortable, it forces us to ask why this discomfort is present.

“Nothing Tastes as Good as Skinny Feels” and this became a mantra of self-hate for myself  and many others. I repeated this for years as my identity became wrapped in my eating disorder. After my first stint in treatment/recovery, I began to move beyond an outward obsession with thinness but still remained desperate for all it represented.

Five years later, I am more comfortable in my identity as a multiracial women of colour. I’m more comfortable in my own skin and know how to speak with my body and soul in ways I was unable to before. The work I have put into myself in the last year and a half has never been simple or easy, yet it has allowed me to see more clearly how my own trauma manifests as well as how systemic racism and sexism serve to harm people of colour on a broader scale.

Yet, here I am: losing my centre on my yoga mat, distracted by the thin white bodies that surround me. Thinness – and whiteness – represented all the things I have wanted and could never have. Acceptance, stability, success. I am loved, I have achieved things, my life is pretty chill overall. But I will never achieve whiteness. No matter how little I eat or how much I exercise, I will never reach whiteness.

I spent ten months in an eating disorder clinic and will be forever grateful that I was able to access healthcare in the ways i have been. However, with an all white staff and all the other clients being white, I felt alone in both my illness and efforts for healing. One of the programs at the clinic is to eat meals in a group, and after breakfast one day we were checking in and it came to be my turn. I shared that I was having rough morning because a man on the bus kept asking me where I was from and told me how much he liked exotic women. The women at the table easily understood the fear and discomfort that comes with a strange man approaching you on the bus, however, they (all but two) became to assure me that my “exotic” looks were actually a plus, that this was a compliment, albeit from a creepy source. As good as their intentions were, I felt utterly alone. How could I heal from the subtle racism that permeated my life when I was attempting this recovering in a place the recreating similar experiences?

So where do we go from here? The majority of my non-school work revolves around creating spaces of healing and care and I am still unsure what that looks like in the context of eating disorder recovery. I know that attempting to recover from this eating disorder on my own is not only pointless, but often dangerous. How then, do we improve mental health care for POC? What does healing from the trauma of colonialism and racism look like?

I don’t have these answers and I don’t know if I will find the ones I am looking for. I do know that working towards releasing myself from the trappings of whiteness will lead towards something that is better, something that brings more wholeness and acceptance.

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.

On Yoga, Resistance and Letting Go

Content Note: Eating disorders, racism, harassment, objectification 

I don’t want to write this post. I have been turning the words over in my mind for two months, I have been holding these message deep in my body. I Sharing my struggles with anorexia, sharing my anger and frustration at social oppressions and whatever else I feel a pull to write about has helped me explore my own thoughts and reduce the self-imposed isolation that my eating disorder brings. I am writing a workshop on yoga and decolonial healing for a conference by and for women of colour, I’m also facilitating this workshop in a week at another event, so I should probably finish it, but before I can do that, I need to need to write these words.

 

I started casually practicing yoga midway through my undergrad, mostly through home practice and the occasional free class. As someone living with chronic pain, yoga was the go-to suggestion of health practitioners, and as annoying as that is, it has been a great coping mechanism for me. Yoga hasn’t taken away my chronic pain, but offers arguably more significant healing.

 

I was trying to remember a time where my body felt like it was consistently mine. Sure, I have had moments: making the decision to move out east, and 1,421km away from toxic relationships, the first time I went more than a month without purging or restricting, breaking up with a long-term love. My body has been exoticfied, objectified, controlled, shamed for being, but when has it been mine? My experiences are unique to me, but in no way unusual. Countless women will tell you how their first experience of a man objectifying and harassing them was when they were around 11 or 12. Thousands of people, of all genders, struggle with eating disorders, and pretty much every person of colour has felt othered and often exotified.

 

I recently realized how tired I am of explaining the colonial histories and diasporas that allow for my existence. I don’t feel like my body belongs to me in those moments. I don’t feel like my body belongs to me when men stand too close on the bus or a professional meeting ends when a hand on my lower back. I don’t feel like my body belongs to me because we live in a world that has consistently confirms this.

 

Since I was 13 years old, I have attempted to take control of my body back by destroying it, by trying to become invisible enough to fend off unwanted words and touch, to erase myself into whiteness. My eating disorder became a safe haven. My mother wanted me to eat pasta during the same time I was being told my anger was unwarranted (and unattractive), refusing dinner became my resistance. I destroyed myself as a form of misguided resistance. Women refusing to eat dates back centuries and is often connected religious sacrifice – the woman who is free from needs and wants is the most holy. My resistance was just what our patriarchal and white supremacist society demands of women. I detach from my body as a mode of survival. I stopped having desires because my desires to be heard were too much ™ I am still figuring out how to accept that being too much ™ is exactly what I should be.

 

Almost a decade after my eating disorder began, I started doing yoga. However, it wasn’t until my roommate invited me to try hot yoga with her that I truly began to connect with yoga, my inner self and finally my body. I lay on my mat after my first class feeling sweaty and giddy. I survived an hour long class in a hot room surrounded by strangers while wearing half the amount of clothes I normally do. I was thrilled, I was proud. I felt a little high. I joined the studio the next day and began a journey towards my body.

 

Eventually, as my body got stronger, I could move through asanas with ease and have fun trying (and falling out of) new poses. I lie on my mat before class and wait as the anxieties of my day slip away. I take a few cleansing breaths and take back my body and mind. I am not thinking of the dissatisfaction with my body (ok,sometimes I still am, but that’s why I’m doing all of this), I’m not thinking of body as the exoctic other, or as on inconvience,I am not thinking of my career or debt or anything but keeping my breath and settling into my body – as a whole, as mine.

 

Some of my teachers read a quote or tell a story at the end of the class, as their words float through the now quiet room, I lay on my mat and let them wash over me. I chose to come to my mat, I made choices in my body that felt right, I let myself breathe, and began to connect my body and mind. I have found the concept of decolonization confusing; I understand it on a political level, but when I would hear activists talk about decolonizing the self, I felt lost. It wasn’t until I surrendered myself to my practice that I began to understand. As I write this workshop, I realize that my work to decolonize my self will be ongoing, because the act of colonization is ongoing.
We speak of colonization, racism, and even sexism as things of the past. We’re colourblind now. The Canadian government pretends that their colonization of Indigenous peoples has ended. Women have jobs or something so we don’t need feminism. We speak of our body and mind in similarly disconnected terms. We were asked to write a letter to our body as part of my treatment program, I was viscerally uncomfortable for many reasons, but when I moved from “You” (my body) and “I” (my mind) to “We” (body/mind/soul), I felt as if I could breathe again, the lump in my throat grew smaller and I began to write. This is what we do when we practice yoga, this is what happens when we listen to the wisdom of our ancestors. This is where the healing begins.

Existence as Resistance: A Three Part Series on Race and Eating Disorders

CW: discussion of eating disorders, ed-related thoughts, mild mention of behaviours.

I am writing this series of posts on race and eating disorders for a few of reasons:

  1. The National Eating Disorder Information Centre (Canada) just put on Eating Disorder Awareness week and the National Eating Disorder Association’s (USA) ED awareness week is at the end of the month; this year’s theme is “It’s Time to Talk About It”.
  2. I’m the only person of colour in my treatment program (to my knowledge) and have been noticing that the medical system is lacking in critical analysis of eating disorders.
  3. I hope women of colour who are reading this and may be struggling feel less alone.

 

Part I: Compare and despair

I watched all the thin, white women lined up in rows, partially covered in spandex, sweating, breathing – with each other, with me. I long to be like them. I am at the point where I know I can never starve myself to be 5’9”, blonde and an entirely different race. I know this, but it doesn’t stop the compulsive jealousy. I study them, I envy them. I stop breathing. What does my envy and my hunger accomplish? I shrink, literally, but more importantly, I shrink on the inside. My ex-boyfriend used to tell me he was watching my soul fade away. I often think of a summer day in 2012, I was just waking up from a nap and he told me I’d become bones and nothing else. I took it as a compliment in my fucked up state of mind. I had never seen anyone look so sad as he did at that moment. He told me I was fading in a way that he knew he couldn’t stop it and I didn’t want to. I remember losing myself that year, in search of something that I will never be. I am still searching, but I am finding direction. I move toward something nourish me, something that will create a live worth living.

 

For the majority of my life, I have attempted to shrink, to tone myself down, to fit into the image of femininity that is deeply rooted in misogyny. I aimed to be quiet, docile, weak, small, chill. The perfect woman is free from want. Therefore, I stopped wanting. I turned off my desire. I gave everything in myself, and whenI ran empty, I scooped out every bit of myself and offered it to anyone and anything that I thought may fill the void.

 

Part II: Not so black and white

The world is not made for us. When I say world, I do not mean the natural world, I don’t mean our human bodies. Those do belong to us, we are the stars and earth and water. We are also fire. Birth and death and rebirth. The world that doesn’t belong to us has been created with our destruction in mind. My ancestral roots and deep and vast; the span the globe and exist in ancient texts and slave trade routes, in agrarian societies and plantations, The society we live in – from its economic structures, to academia and institutions, has been created to serve certain groups at the detriment to the rest. These systems are also detrimental to the majority of those they are supposed to serve. Toxic masculinity, capitalism, and white supremacy also hurt those that they appear to benefit.

 

There is radical sense of relief that comes from realizing, accepting and possibly embracing this truth. Yes, the world is not made for me, but here I am. I exist in spite of it. I may even be able to thrive in spite of it.

 

Indulge my slightly bitter nostalgia for a moment: I was 15 and with a new group of classmates. The topic of mixed race people came up but I had not not mentioned that I was mixed. A girl in my class stated that she found interracial relationships “disgusting” because you “never know what you’re going to get” and “black (men) are gross.” Obviously, this girl was a budding young racist and I felt terrified to speak up. One of the other white kids in the class made some comment about how people can do what they want and the conversation moved on. This was one of the instances that lead to years of me wanting to change my last name, dye my hair, bleach my skin and deny my heritage. Up until recently, this memory along with countless others of white folks either condemning PoC or exoticfying us  would cause my stomach to drop and my chest to tighten. However, I have recently turned a corner. It could be slowly entering recovery again after a relapse into anorexia, it could be that I have dated one too many white dudes who found my horror at the rise in racism and xenophobia inconvenient, or maybe it’s part of growing older and learning. Whatever it is, I am quietly learning to celebrate myself and my browness. I will never be a white girl. I will never fall neatly into any racial category. A mixed race pal in high school used to say, “We’ll never be white enough and we’ll never be brown enough”, she had insight that I am only just learning. She was amazing and mature for 16 and refused to “pick a side”. She would call out our dance teacher for her eurocentric (and frankly, racist) style of teaching, she refused to identify as one race and she proudly embrace her multi-ethnic identity. These are the women I hold in my heart long after we lose touch. These are the women I carry with me every time someone asks “what are you?” These are the women I allow to lift me up when I want to starve myself into whiteness. I am thousands of years of women – strong and vulnerable, hard and soft. I cannot erase or shrink that unless I am willing to dishonour them.

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.

Body betrayal

What do you do when your body betrays you? It happens to all of us at one point. It might be something minor, but embarrassing like tripping in front of a room of people after your leg falls asleep, or it might happen as you grow older, your eyesight worsens or your blood pressure rises. But what do you do when your body betrays you in considerable ways at a young age? I have been trying to figure this out for the past few years, and I’ve found some answers, as imperfect as they are.

I have been experiencing chronic illness/pain for over five years and an eating disorder for about twelve years. I don’t have a clear diagnosis for my chronic pain, but right now I do know that it affects every aspect of my life. I have days where I can’t get out of bed or where I double over in pain, I have days where my body just seems to stop working. I don’t want this post to be me complaining about being chronically ill, but just to set the scene; I will say that my body often does not act in the way I would like it to. I was a pretty healthy kid/young person, besides the occasional cold, I was never sick. Even for the first few years of my ED, physically I was “ok”. Of course, my body (and mind) was being severely damaged; I just didn’t realize it yet. When I first started to experience chronic pain, it was something I could push through, but as the years went on, I had more trouble dealing with it. I am very blessed to have lots of people, professionals and loved ones, to support me. However, most of the time it’s just me dealing with my health problems.

On the bright side, I have found a few things that help: reality shows that are too embarrassing to list but great for distraction, breathing exercises (everyone hates it when professionals suggest this, but they work) and probably the most beneficial, making sure I really embrace every single moment I don’t feel like shit. I try appreciate everything my body can do. I may hate my body 99% of the time, but I am also fascinated by it. A friend of mine recently invited me to yoga, and I’m amazed, that after all the terrible things I have done to myself, and regardless of how much pain I am, my body can do amazing things.

I was a little frustrated leaving yoga class today. I felt ill and off balanced, but with some assistance from the teacher and modifying poses, I completed an hour-long class. This may not seem like a big deal to most people, but each day I can get up and go to work, or have a conversation or go for a walk, it’s an accomplishment. Every day will not be a good day, and that is ok.

Another very important lesson I have learned from being ill is that it is ok to have shitty days. Whether it’s a bad day due to a physical or mental illness or you are just feeling “off”, it’s ok to have a rough day. I have learned that sometimes I should not try to push through, I have found that stopping and just sitting with whatever I am feeling can be the best solution. Yes, it is not fun to explain why I can’t do something or have to sit something out, but it helps me survive.

Maybe I will never know what is wrong with me. Maybe I will find some treatment that will help me get rid of the chronic pain. Maybe I will recover or maybe I won’t, but at least I know I can survive a bad day.

Being young and chronically ill has taught me a lot, I wouldn’t wish this on anyone, but I often wonder how different of a person I would be if I didn’t have these illnesses. My GPA would be higher and I probably would have been overseas by this point. I like to think being ill has made me more self-aware, more compassionate and less selfish. I like to think that all of this has a deeper meaning. I know I appreciate my life more, little things bother me less and I am more driven to embrace all the seemingly inconsequential things in life. I don’t claim to have any special understanding, I still get frustrated and sad. I just know that I – my body and mind – can accomplish more than I thought I could, even if it takes me twice as long. The hardest things to learn is there is no time limit on healing or growing. I am still working to accept this, but at least I have time.

Media, Mental Illness and Race

In recent years, the media has focused more on mental illness. That should be a good thing right? Not always. In the past few years, we have been hearing about mental illness in relation to violent acts. Cases like Elliot Rodgers, the 2012 Aurora shooting, and Sandy Hook have drawn mass media attention and many pointed to the perpetrators supposed mental illness as a reason as to why these men committed mass murder. People with mental illness are more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators but because stories like this, many people think that mental illness equals violence tendencies.

There were different motives in each case, however they all have something in common: young, middle or upper class white men committed the murders. Each time a white man commits mass murder, the media points to mental illness as the cause. This excuses the behaviour of murders and vilifies those with mental illness. Compare this media attention to that of Trayvon Martin or Michael Brown or John Crawford (a young man murdered in a Wal-mart because he was holding a BB gun, which was sold in store); when these men where brutally murder while unarmed, there was very little sympathy for them in the media. Martin was branded a thug and Crawford seemed to be blamed for simply picking up an item on the shelf. Let’s say these men were armed, let’s say they shot first – how would the media react? Would they defend these young men, say they were mentally ill, not in control of their actions? I highly doubt it.

There is another aspect of this; the media portrays mental illness as something that only affects white, middle class people. When I was younger, I thought I couldn’t have an eating disorder because I wasn’t tall, blonde and rich. I saw girls with EDs portrayed in the media in a very certain light. Honest and diverse portrayal of mental illness in the media is really important. While the media does discriminate, mental illness does not discriminate.

One in Four will be affected by mental illness. Take a look around; at least one person you know is currently dealing with mental illness. It could be depression, an eating disorder, PTSD, Bipolar, anxiety, etc. Mental illness can manifest in many ways; it does not matter what socioeconomic class you are, what your race is, religion, sex, mental illness can affect you or someone you.

Mental illness is not a white, middle/upper class issue. Mental illness is also not an excuse. I will admit I was an awful person at times when I was deep in my ED. I was mean, rude and a liar. My illness was a reason, but not an excuse. I am in charge of my own recovery. There are things we cannot control when we are mentally ill, especially when we are not getting treatment, but once we are aware of our illness and getting the help we need, we must take responsibility for our actions.

*1 in 4 source: http://www.who.int/whr/2001/media_centre/press_release/en/

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