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Learning My Body Is Capable in Eating Disorder Recovery

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My only goal was to avoid finishing last. My family and I visited Greece in July of 2021, to celebrate my sister Emma’s graduation from Bishop Manogue Catholic High School in Reno, Nevada the year before. She had already completed her freshman year at UCLA, but the COVID-19 pandemic had necessitated a belated trip. As I strapped on my bike helmet in the small town of Elounda, Crete, I feared I would embarrass myself by a lack of physical fitness and an inability to sufficiently push my body.

You may well proclaim your utter weakness from the domed Greek roof tops
, I told myself. I filled my two water bottles, and hopped on the bike. I pedaled on through the lush olive groves. I will not be last.

In March of 2017, my family and I enjoyed a similar active trip in Argentina’s Lake District. We hiked and biked around Bariloche, San Martín de los Andes, and Villa La Angostura, all the while enjoying the breathtaking views of the jagged Andean peaks dotted with deep blue lakes. In the months leading up to that trip, my nutritionist had prohibited me from exercising in an attempt to calm my body and hopefully regain my period, which had been missing for about two years. Jumping directly into so much activity after so little physical movement was incredibly difficult, and at times defeating. But I tried my best to enjoy the scenery and the family picnic lunches, to which I always showed up last. My dad, an avid mountain bike rider who charges up trails most people struggle to walk up, kindly stayed back with me. Everyone knew these paths were laughably easy for him. He didn’t care. “This trip is about enjoying time with family,” he told me. Still, I hated holding him back. I hated the feeling of incompetence that resulted from my inability to keep up.

It was this same feeling that had driven me to pursue an identity as a “fit” and “healthy” person since my freshman year of high school at Manogue. This obsessive urge was largely the result of an eating disorder. Counting calories, chewing each bite of food many times, and exercising every day to achieve a slim and lean physique, I believed, would indoctrinate me into the realm of the fit. I yearned to be associated with the epitome of health. But my health was in fact suffering. My emaciated body could not support a normal menstrual cycle. Homework assignments and studying required an excruciating amount of time and focus. The hours I would spend every Saturday and Sunday locked in my room studying alerted me more to the disconcerting amount of difficulty I had concentrating and retaining information than it did to any feeling of preparedness for an upcoming test.

Despite all the time spent buried in textbooks and notecards, I still forced myself to get some exercise. This consisted largely of barre and Pilates, low-impact workouts that burned few calories but which promised “long lines and lean muscles.” I did the exercises solely to say that I did them. Sometimes I worked out in my jeans, too lazy—or exhausted—to fully commit to an outfit designed for movement. Exercise, for me, was not an investment in my future health but was instead a superficial way to obtain a “good” body and a gold star for my “fit girl” identity. This behavior lasted for years.

When I moved to New York in 2018 to attend NYU, I started to adopt new habits. I hated how I looked. My doughy stomach haunted me every time I looked in the mirror. I decided something had to change. The health podcasts I was listening to—and still listen to—championed strength training as an integral part to one’s exercise routine. I bought a 15-pound kettlebell weight and used a pair of 15-pound iron dumbbells when I moved back home to Nevada in the summer of 2019. I told myself I would thin out and build muscle. But I noticed how empowered I felt after lifting heavy weights. My workouts left me feeling confident, sweaty, and strong rather than skinny and bored.

Over the next few years, my kettlebell size gradually increased and my dumbbells grew in weight. Exercise became a celebration of what my body could do. It morphed into a form of insurance for my 80-year-old self. It was no longer solely a maniacal grasp for external validation. My workouts grew sweatier and more intense. I ended each session breathless and happy, ready to take on the rest of the day.

But that old question still lingered in the back of my mind: Was I actually fit enough? This intrusive thought pattern was indeed present when I began the bike ride in Crete. I took a wrong turn early on. Great, I thought. I‘m already behind. But I kept pushing forward. A challenging steady incline early on left everyone breathing heavily. My sister vomited. We stopped for a quick drink of water. Our guide Otis checked in to see how we were all doing. “You guys are almost to the main climb!” he cheerily told us.

My family looked at each other with a sense of pain and amusement. Didn’t we just complete the climb? The next leg of the ride took us up an impossibly steep, winding road with hairpin turns. Each pedal stroke felt like I was trudging through mud. I will not be last. The mid-summer Mediterranean sun made my body feel like an oven. My thighs felt ready to explode. But I kept going. I will not be last. I repeated this mantra to myself, each word corresponding to a push of the pedal. I. Will. Not. Be. Last. I didn’t stop.

Relief flooded my body when I arrived at the top of the hill. My muscles pulsed with tingling electricity. Endorphins started to release. My thighs and glutes buzzed. Look at what your body just did, I thought, startled at the change in tone. Your body is capable. I beamed. I biked onward. The ride was far from over, but the most challenging part certainly was. The rest consisted of flat roads, downhill cruisers, and some leisurely gradual inclines. Warm aromas of wild thyme and rosemary wafted through the afternoon air. Bells dangling from the necks of goats clanked as the animals grazed on the unruly island grasses. The brilliant blue of the Aegean Sea came into view as I embarked on the route’s final descent. I stared at the scene with awe. My insecurities surrounding fitness faded with each inhale of the smell of sage, with each salty Mediterranean breeze. I witnessed what my body could do, and I was content—proud, even. This was why I trained. This was why I had pushed through muscle failure and pain and huffing and puffing. The idea of a flat stomach or toned thighs paled in comparison to riding through the Cretan hills, gazing out over the olive groves and the Aegean. My pedal strokes no longer corresponded to my internal chant of I will not be last. I just rode. I took it all in. And that day, I was first.

Originally published: October 24, 2022
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