I hear a murmur as I approach the room. Then giggling. I come upon the doorway, my coworker looks up at me and in a mimicking voice whispers “#eatclean, #cleaneats, #strongnotskinny.” My other coworker explodes in laughter. They are making fun of the hashtags I use on my Instagram. At first I try to laugh with them, but that’s something I’m worst at. I’m too awkward to pull off being in on the joke. Then I’m frozen as I hear in my head how silly I’ll sound defending my hashtags. Who defends hashtags? I think to myself, hashtags are not real life, you will sound ridiculous. I manage a dry chuckle, an eye roll, and clumsily back out of the room. Although my coworkers are completely unaware, I’m embarrassed that they have actually hurt my feelings.
I, like everyone else, use hashtags to connect with like-minded Instagram users. I don’t have many followers but these words allow what I’m sharing to be seen by people all across the world who are interested in similar things: clean eating and cooking, exercise, travel, whatever. I didn’t realize till getting butt-hurt over the incident with my coworkers that one of these hashtags actually meant something to me.
A few weeks ago I pulled a muscle in my stomach from coughing so hard. A stuffy nose proved prohibitive for breathing and forced intermittent gulps of dry air down my raw scratchy throat. My body ached — my sickbed like a foam roller, relentlessly kneading each muscle at every toss and turn. Every thirty minutes I would switch — blankets on/blankets off, body freezing/body burning up.
I get sick two or three times a year and when it happens, it’s a full-fledged knockout. This time was no different. One thing was different though. On that Friday, as I began another exhausting journey from the living room to the bathroom, I noticed my bulging quadriceps muscle as I lifted myself from the sofa. I suddenly recognized this incredible juxtaposition — I felt weak from my illness but it was clear my body was strong. Like really strong.
I glanced over at my sustenance for the past two days — bone broth and gummy bears, it was all I could keep down. Almost immediately a great fear came over me, was I going to lose all my muscle? I had been banging out 4 sets of 12 reps of push-ups 3 times a week for months, suddenly one seemed impossible. I was even getting closer to being able to do more than one unassisted pull-up. Was I going to lose everything I had gained? Luckily my husband was home to invalidate my irrational sick-brain. He quickly squashed my anxiety and reminded me that I just needed to rest for a few days and then I’d be back at it. As I laid down again on the couch to continue my Barbra Streisand marathon it struck me, this was the first time I had ever been sick and not wanted to LOSE.
During my teens and pretty much all of my twenties, I had a secret love affair with getting sick. While I dreaded the painful and exhausting symptoms, I also coveted what I knew to be the end result…weight loss. Three to five days of vomiting, sweats, and nothing but chicken soup and I would emerge svelte and sort of confident. Jeans that were snug would become loose, I’d finally let go of that five to ten pounds that had been holding me back from everything I had ever wanted. Getting sick was like teaming up with an ally, the flu and I would join forces to starve my body into something less than it was.
Disordered eating was hard. There was an irony to it that ate away at my soul. When I was in it, I felt so physically weak, but there was a will inside of me that was stronger than a bull. Not eating was difficult. I would get very hungry. Anorexia didn’t take away my need or desire for food, it just denied it. And it wasn’t a one time denial. I didn’t wake up and declare ok, less than 400 calories today, and that was it. I had to deny 400 times a day; I had to fight. When I lost the fight, I purged. Purging represented failure. When I went to treatment I noticed there was almost a hierarchy among the diseases, not many people wanted to be seen as just bulimic. Everybody purged, but it seemed the more you did it, the more you were seen as out of control and weak. But then again, this could have all just been in my head.
Purging, as you can imagine, was awful. Some foods were more difficult to refund than others, some were painful. I had to be sure to always carry gum with me to cover up the vomit smell. More than once I popped a blood vessel in my eye from straining so hard to bring food back up — my body begged and brawled to leave the nourishment there.
For more than a decade I denied my body of everything it asked for, I went to war against it. I was sure if I could force it into the shape I wanted it to be on the outside, any problems on the inside would go away or at least be much improved. I was sure thin meant happy. A few years back I decided to try a sort of mental exercise that I came up with on my own — one that would have been useful during the hours and hours of therapy I had gone through throughout my life. I searched my memory to come up with the times in my life where I felt the most happy. I laid in my bed with the warm sun shining over me through the window, I closed my eyes, and I recaptured these moments. I remembered the smallest, sweetest details — like my first date with my husband, where we went to Target to run errands and he carried my huge pack of toilet paper back for me on the subway. My heart danced as I let myself relive the joy in each scene. Then suddenly, I’d call a Zack Morris time-out. I would freeze the frame and ask myself, how much did you weigh at that moment? Then I’d press, what size jeans were you wearing when that happened? Shockingly, I couldn’t really remember. There was not one single happy memory I had that was enhanced because I was in a thin phase or blemished because I had put on a few pounds. Without photos to aid me, I honestly couldn’t recall what my body looked like those times when I was especially joyful.
This information was so useful to me because it showed me empirically that my happiness was not actually contingent on my weight. But, my experiment also brought some confusion. Since I had learned that my happiness was not dependent on how my body looked, how come I was still so unhappy with my body? Shouldn’t I be able to be fat and happy? Wasn’t that true mental and spiritual health to have such confidence in all my other attributes that my outward appearance didn’t matter? My whole life I had been putting both of these eggs in one basket — the state of my body and my happiness. Separating the two was only the first step towards health, I still had to learn and get honest about what I wanted my body to look like and how I wanted to feel.
For a long time I used my eating disorder as an excuse not to shape up my eating. Exercise had always been a huge part of my life and that remained consistent, but I resisted restricting anything I ate under the supposition that things would snowball. I thought, if I don’t let myself have a piece of toast then I’m marking that food as bad and I’m going to mark all foods as bad, and I’m going to stop eating again. Then one day I called bullshit. I wasn’t going back to that life. I knew too much. You see as I told you before, eating disorders are HARD. When I see a girl who is suffering and looks weak and frail on the outside, so much of me wants to go whisper to her, I know how strong you are. Believe it or not, it takes double that strength to get out of that hell, to break the patterns and quiet the voices that have accompanied you for so long. Once I recognized what I had actually accomplished I began to see just how powerful I was on the inside. That’s when I knew to truly be happy, I had to make my outsides match those insides. And thus a true desire to be STRONG, not skinny, was born.
Over the past year my appreciation for what my body can do has skyrocketed. Before I was always focused on losing, now I am always looking forward to what I have to gain. I love Instagram because I get to follow people that motivate and inspire me. I see a girl rocking out pull-ups and I can’t wait to get to the gym and try them myself. The progress is slow and incremental, but even those small gains get me out of bed in the morning at 5AM. Losing never did that. It never gave me pep. It never gave me any real joy.
I’m in awe of how good I can feel when I am giving my body what it asks for. I eat veggies at all three meals of the day — yes, even breakfast. While my coworkers don’t always appreciate the smell of broccoli or cauliflower at 9am, my colon certainly does — three BMs a day baby…TMI? In all seriousness though, the mutual love between my body and I is something I never plan on letting go of again. I abused it for so long, and it stuck with me. I tried to tear it down, and it kept on. I can feel it trusts me now that it knows I am going to give it what it needs and allow it to rest when necessary. I’m so grateful for this trust even though at times it can still feel unearned. It’s not abnormal for me to be moved to tears in the middle of a run or immediately after a difficult yoga posture. I am so amazed by what my body can do; I’m inspired by it’s perseverance each and every day.
Those who know me know I am obsessed with sports; the reasons why are abundant. There’s one reason though I mostly keep secret, but I’m gonna share it with you here just this once. Ready? The truth is, I’ve always thought of myself as an athlete. I’m not sure I ever had the talent to compete in anything in college. Even if I did, there were too many other things I let get in the way. And I am certainly not winning any of the races I participate in nowadays. So I have always reserved the term “athlete” for those who have achieved something that I have not. But lately I’ve been thinking differently. You see because I have this thing inside me, that’s always been there, whether I was sick or healthy. It’s a lion in my heart. When I feel like I can’t possibly run one more mile — when I feel like I can’t hold a pose for any longer — when I feel like there’s no way I can lift the bar above my head one more time — I ROAR. The lion inside me is fierce, so I run and I hold and I lift. I push myself like an athlete, because that’s who I feel like I am on the inside. The cool thing is, looking in the mirror nowadays, I see my outsides starting to match. Happiness is powerful.