Body Image Series: My Rock Bottom Moment and the Tools that Helped me Climb Out
I want to paint a little picture for you. It was right after Christmas, and although I would happily leave my decorations and my Christmas Tree up until September, I quickly had to take it down because Carlos's birthday (which is on January 14th) was coming up, and with that, his birthday party. Since I go overboard on Christmas and I have a tree that is suitable for a house twice this size, it occupies way too much space that needs to be cleared for all the party people. There I was, taking all the ornaments down, wrapping the fragile ones in newspaper, untangling lights, ornament glitter all over the place and boxes everywhere. My wooden dining room table covered in ornaments and decorations. My headphones are on, and a podcast episode is coming through. I listened, having to sit down once or twice. A couple of tears falling down my cheek, Carlos unaware that any of this was happening, sitting at his computer working away in the other room. Those little tears that were part sadness, part anger, part desperation, with a very tiny but present feeling of relief. It was too minuscule to notice everything was going to be ok, but present enough to give me a glimpse of hope. All I could think at that moment was to take the phone out of my pocket, and take a picture.
I took a picture because I knew things had never been as bad, but they would never be that way again. We have the idea that a rock bottom moment looks like total and complete despair, but to me, this rock bottom looked like a dining room table full of all my pretty Christmas ornaments. What we don't realize when we're deep in the rock bottom moment hole we sometimes dig for ourselves when it comes to our bodies and our body image, is that that moment is also the second you notice that it's time to start climbing up. Not such a bad thing to hit rock bottom actually. You know what they say, there's no where else to go but up.
What I haven't told you yet, is what happened the months and weeks before, that lead me to that very moment.
I also haven't told you that at my rock bottom moment when it came to my body and body image, I was at the slimmest, trimmest, strongest and fittest I have ever been.
You see after months of training, restricting my food, having rule after rule when it came to my eating, and having food, portions, minutes of exercise and grams of this or that invading my thought at every moment of the day, and after seeing my body changing, I still didn't feel it was enough. I found myself gobbling up all sorts of information from experts, wondering what I was doing wrong, because what I had achieved was becoming harder and harder to maintain with every passing day. I thought that I had to do more and more each time and it was overwhelming.
It was the day before taking down my Christmas Tree that I did an abnormally long session of weight training. I followed all the steps, X amount of reps, X amount of series of reps, X number of exercises per muscle group. The thing took me hours but the book I was reading told me that was the way so I did it. When I finished the last rep I felt exhausted. Then I felt I had to follow it with a run because the expert du-jour (of the many I was following at the time) gave me some exercise physiology science behind that idea. I put on my gloves and hat, turned on my Runkeeper app and headed out. Halfway through my run, and I remember exactly at what street corner this happened in, I was gasping for air, hands on my knees, and a voice that I will be eternally grateful for said: "Why?"
"Why are you putting yourself through this?".
Then she said something even better:
"I don't want my life to be like this".
"I don't want my life to be like this".
I cut my run short, something I could have never done before and went back home, feeling the guilt pangs of the "incomplete" workout come up to my throat. I ate my breakfast realizing I had just spent half a day in this whole process when there is so much more to life (no one is lying on their deathbed saying "I'm so glad I completed all those workouts", no one!). I was sipping my coffee and thinking of that little voice that had suddenly appeared. It was that voice that the following day, made me pick a particular podcast I had never heard before, and a particular episode that I would listen to while I took twinkle lights down from my tree.
After writing this I can't help but wonder, was my rock bottom moment that second of gasping for air, hands on my knees, winter chill hurting my ears when I could have just as easily been cuddling on the couch with the dogs reading a book? Was it the second I heard the dietitian coming through my headphones talking about the moment she, a person who is supposed to be well versed in what it means to eat healthily, found herself in the throes of an eating disorder? Either way, I was there, unwilling to go further down the dieting and "body perfecting" rabbit hole, and scared but more than ready to come out.
I remembered all the wasted time in my family vacation a few weeks earlier when everyone was talking and relaxing in the pool and I was swimming laps, I remembered the hours upon hours of measuring out portions and ingredients, I remembered the hours of researching things like fasted cardio, cardio to weight training ratio, and I thought of how in the past few weeks, while on a beach, everyone was praising my new body and I wondered if they knew, that I was making myself crazy to get it. I thought of the fear of losing the new body that I had, and realized that it was that fear that fuelled the endless workouts and made me "power through" a midnight craving (which I now know was simply hunger). It was not a life, and I wanted a life.
This is a long way of beginning our body image series which I introduced to you all last week. I felt I had to start it in this way for two reasons, the first is to show you that I'm not immune to our beauty obsessed culture, nor to the comments of others. I have struggled with my body image when I've been over my normal weight range, but nothing ever came close to the struggle when I had reached "the body of my dreams". The standards of beauty that we have today are the biggest trap there is, and we've all been duped. Men and women alike. We've been duped to think they're possible, because unrealistic beauty ideals take us on a quest to get to the tip of the mountain wishing to see bliss once we look down the other side, and that sells products. It also keeps us down, and down is good for the ones on top.
I also tell you this story because it has the most joyous of endings. It also includes the tools that helped me climb out of my hole and get my life back.
When I say the most joyous of endings, this is what I mean:
A life I love to live, where food went back to being simple, delicious, fun, with no rules as to which foods were good and which were bad, a life in which I got to trust my body again and re-learn how to listen to it. A life that had some exercise in it, but only the type I loved and without relying on its outcome, viewing it now as a source of fun and energy. A body that changed, meaning it restored to the weight it was always supposed to have, I no longer had that almost perfect six pack, but I had my life back. I would never in a million years go back to that life or that body, but sadly I had to go through a lot of pain to learn that lesson. I really hope my story saves you from having to go there yourself.
You see I not only had this addiction to control (weighing my food and counting my miles was fun and addicting until it turned painful), but I had a fear of getting fat. There... I said the F word. I felt that if I let go of the rules I was "letting myself go". Don't worry... keep reading, this gets good!
If this series in our blog and podcast is meant to teach you anything, it's that nothing is further from the truth that we will "let ourselves go" if we let go. If there's another lesson I want you to learn is that there's nothing wrong with being in a larger body no matter what society tells you. Looking after yourself, having health, being kind to your body and mind, and having proper self care is all well and good, and it can happen, regardless of the size of the body you were born into. It's not me who is saying all this, it's the actual experts! It's the actual science that the diet industry doesn't want you to see, because it teaches us that we have the power to care for and love our bodies by learning some tools and reaching radical self acceptance. Yes, appreciating your body for what it is and loving it or accepting it as it is, is a form of radicalism, it takes bravery and it can feel lonely when the other voices that tell us to tweak, clip, cut, trim, and remove (or hide) are so much louder. If it was hard for me, and I'm well aware I'm in a position of having white, thin, privilege, imagine what it's like for men and women who have been stigmatized and alienated because of being in larger bodies, for having a different skin color, or for being disabled?
What I didn't know back then when I was going through all of this, was that after I removed the rules, the restricting, the overexercising for the sole purpose of burning calories, and I stopped fearing what might happen to my body, I would find freedom. What I also didn't know, is that freedom from dieting while finding a new relationship with food, and loving my body were two separate things. I had to face the first huge adversary (what I called part 1 in last week's post and episode), and then came the second dragon I had to slay: the thoughts, comments and voices that popped back up in my head when I saw my body changing.
The good news for me, was that when I arrived at this second point (needing to improve my body image) my quality of life was now so much better, I knew it was worth it. I was looking after my body in new ways, keeping it fed, rested, safe, active and healthy, and the layer of belly fat that came back on after the severe restriction ended, was SO worth it. Still, the negative perfectionistic voices and the comments in my head still appeared from time to time, so it was time to face them.
I get it, it's hard, especially with today's body ideals. So here's what I tell that voice or those comments, those eyes that zoom into even the smallest imperfections when we look in the mirror. I tell it: "it's ok, just as society has spent 35 years telling you that roll of fat is bad, we're going to spend the next few decades teaching ourselves that it isn't.
It's why when Emma told me that in spite of feeling finally free of the rules of dieting and finding more peace with food, she felt horrible when those voices came up and put her down, this is the first thing of many I wanted to tell her (and you):
Positive body image can be yours no matter what body you have, but we have to learn the tools that will get us there, and we have to practice, practice, and then practice some more.
These are just some of the tools that helped me climb out of the hole. It was a SLOW process, it had ups and downs, steps forward and steps back, it's a normal part of the process. It especially took repetition, it took a lot of practice, and slowly but surely, the new tools raise that little voice in your head that is there to keep you sane and safe, I call it the guardian (it's that voice that spoke to me during my run and that you also have inside of you). Slowly but surely, the other many voices we hear every day (from the media, our friends, family, films, TV and ourselves), start quieting down.
It takes time, but it will never begin until your work on it:
2) I read the book Body Kindness by Rebecca Scritchfield, and went through the exercises in my journal (you know me, I hash stuff out by writing, I just can't help it!).
3) I unfollowed all fitspo / fitspiration / fitness accounts, people and boards all across social media and filled the empty spaces with things I loved: design, home decor, home organization, natural spaces, nature and of course animals! I also followed body positive and body image activists, some ideas of who you can follow are in part 3 of our bikini revolution series! This step is important, because we need to counteract the thousands of images we can't choose to see, the ones that are everywhere and that tell us constantly that our bodies "aren't there yet", with a "you're enough now" message. Change what you see. We DO have some control when it comes to our social media so take full advantage of that.
4) Start journaling. Here I go again with the writing stuff, but I wouldn't recommend it if it hadn't been crucial for improving my body image. We're all going to have moments and days that are bad body image days, whether they come from the inner commentary, something a loved one said, and just because of being in a beauty obsessed world. When I had one of these days I would journal it away, I would take out those negative feelings I had about my body and put them on the page. What would always happen a few paragraphs in, is that the negative voices would now be on print, leaving the guardian voice to come out to play. Words went from upsetting to empowering, I would "talk" myself out of that space and come out feeling relief, knowing that I was a bit closer to a better body image.
5) Move in a way that brings you joy. For years I was a runner, until I started realizing that although running and I go way back and it was a wonderful part of my story with my body, I was tired, I no longer found joy in it, so I found exercises that made me happy (for me that's dancing or walking and sometimes yoga!). I ignored the calorie burn or the effect it could or couldn't have on my body shape, I started moving for joy, and each time I was able to move, I felt waves of gratitude for having a body that could do that when the bodies of so many people don't have this privilege (more on this further into the series). Since I was now moving for joy, it also became an instant mood booster, and it's one of my favorite forms of self-care, but it never again became obsessive or extreme, it was now purely a source of pleasure and a body love boost.
6) I started practicing mindfulness, you can get started with the only course that made meditation stick for me and which is totally free! You can start today here.
7) The podcast that started it all: Listen to the Food Psych Podcast by Christy Harrison, it's what I call my Christmas Ornament rock bottom moment saviour. It changed my life and gave me the tools I'm teaching you about today.
8) Listen to the "Love, Food" podcast by Julie Duffy Dillon.
9) Listen to the "Body Kindness" podcast by Rebecca Scritchfield.
10) Listen to our podcast "The Brownble Podcast", and our many episodes on body kindness and body image, mindful eating and beyond.
12) I made self care a priority, this meant something as silly as painting my nails a bright pink color so ridiculous it made me laugh every time I looked down, to getting enough sleep, staying hydrated, taking long baths, taking a nap when I was tired, eating to fuel my body and eating for pleasure, spending more time with friends, moving my body, enjoying quiet time, not exercising when I was tired, spending more time in nature and especially, dedicating the time to get to know myself better (and many of the tools I've just recommended will help you do just that).
For all my fellow vegans out there, many of these resources aren't about veganism, you can still find healing and help through them even if you've made an ethical choice when it comes to your food choices. It's what happened to me! I think these topics are important to look into, especially if you eat in a way that includes some inherent restriction, as is the case of vegetarianism and veganism. You can still make choices based on your beliefs, but this will give you a new perspective on food, our eating and our bodies and what they need (spoiler alert: the opposite of perfectionism, flexibility and caring!).
Remember, it's a practice, not an on-off switch. We're of course going to practice together, in this series and beyond. Just like we learn brushing our teeth is healthy, the only reason we don't know how to talk in beautiful ways to our own bodies or be kind and caring to them is it's never been taught. I'm going to do my best to teach you what I've learned, through my experiences, and the countless experts and body image geniuses out there. Remember that finding help when things have become overwhelming can also be THE VERY BEST THING you can do for yourself, either with a qualified therapist, an eating disorder support group like EDA, calling a help line or finding help and support here.
Today's Ted Talk
I promised a TED talk and an exercise for each of these episodes and posts and I always keep my promises!
Here's the wonderful body image rockstar Sarah Doyle and her TED talk on How to Love your Body.
You'll get to hear some little gems like:
"On my journey towards self acceptance and self love I've learned a couple of things… the most important thing I've learned about self acceptance is to remember that it's not about trying to eliminate the parts of our body that we don't like, it's about embracing the good with the bad. It's an unrealistic standard to set ourselves that we must fall in love with every atom of our being or else. Self-acceptance teaches us to embrace the good with the bad".
"Nothing and I mean nothing has been more hurtful, painful or degrading as the comments that I've used to describe myself…. my body, my meat suit, my home, my friend."
My meat suit
Let's become friends with our own bodies again. It just takes practice, and it matters not one bit what size it is to begin with or if it never changes at all.
This week I want you to do one thing every time you're in front of the mirror and your mind or your eyes go to the part of the body you don't like. Don't try to make that thought go away, I want you to take a step back and just observe it, and then challenge it. Let's stop seeing the mirror as a battleground and start seeing it as a chance to challenge what we believe to be true but is just a social construct. Go from saying: "My thighs are too big", and then ask yourself "why?", and "says who?". Carry on that conversation, answer everything that pops up with a "why?" and a "says who?". Then take one last look in the mirror before going about your day and ask yourself "who am I?". Are you kind, energetic, thoughtful, helpful, courageous, spontaneous, a good planner, a great parent, a great son or daughter, a good friend, a great listener, an all-star at making coffee or mac and cheese, a professional donut eater and proud of it? Who are you? What if we could re-train ourselves to see beyond the image and what we think it has to mean? That's the purpose of today's exercise. Come back here after you do it and let me know how it went in the comments. This last paragraph will also help:
Remember, we're doing this for Emma, and by Emma I mean you can swap your name in for hers in every single one of these episodes and posts, because yes, I'm speaking to you.
Well, Emma is a fan of Harry Potter, she in fact has a Christmas tradition of re-watching the films every year. So I found this little gem just for her, and for you. Nothing like the wise words of Dumbledore as he speaks to Harry in the first Harry Potter book The Sorcerer's Stone:
"The happiest man alive would look in the mirror and see himself exactly as he is"
- Dumbledore to Harry Potter in The Sorcerer's Stone by J.K.Rowling
What if when we saw ourselves in the mirror we saw not the social constructs of body image (aka cellulite is bad, fat in your stomach is bad, scars and stretch marks are bad, no muscle is bad, etc), but our true selves, the people that we are. I think we have been taught to hate mirrors because we've been looking into them the wrong way.