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'Healthy' Is in the Body of the Beholder

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As a society, we talk about food. A lot. It may just be hyperawareness, given I am in recovery from anorexia, but I have noticed wherever I go, the people I am surrounded by, regardless of their age, nationality, or gender, are talking about food, specifically, their diet, weight goals, and/or exercise regimen. Most of the time, I hear complaints, often made jokingly, that they’re not doing it enough – “it” being the “right” thing, the “healthy” thing, for their bodies. But is it really for their body, or for their body to fit in with other bodies? A new kind of human bonding, via the collective societal struggle to reach an unattainable ideal? Anyway, that is not really the point of this article.

I often hear people say things like, “I was really good today, I went to the gym” or “I only had a salad for lunch, so I can treat myself for dinner.” Associating exercise or eating healthy (which often refers to something low-calorie and vegetable-filled) with moral behavior has become a staple feature of society and media discourse. I think this has had negative and possibly dangerous effects. We have completely distorted the notion of what is really healthy. We have established a new norm for health that has pushed most of society into the realms of the abnormal, the bad, the “unhealthy.”

Nowadays, appearance and health have become inextricably linked with lifestyle and habits, to measure self-discipline, an admired quality. Eating less sugar, fewer carbohydrates, foods without any fat, and going to juice bars and detox cleanse retreats are deemed “the” socially-accepted ways to be healthy, and thus attractive. To obtain the desired, the ideal, the perfect.

I have been wanting to write about this subject for some time because every time I am in a situation where I am feeling uncomfortable because someone has mentioned that they should lose weight or should be eating healthier, I stop, pause, and breathe. I have to remind myself not to take it personally. I tell myself “they’re not talking about you. They are not saying you need to be doing that.” I hate that it affects me because I so want to be a “normal” person. I don’t want to confront, to be that person who has to ask for the conversation topic to change. So this is my attempt to explain my discomfort, and hopefully also a cathartic way to release myself from it.

When recovering from an eating disorder, “healthy” takes on a very different meaning, and requires a completely different mindset to achieve. Let’s rewind. When I was in the depths of my disorder (read: starving and taxing my body beyond its physical limits) up until less than a year ago, I had myself totally convinced I was just being really healthy, by putting only clean, green things in my body, free of sugar, carbs and fat, just like everyone seemed to talk about trying to do to be “better”
people. Although I actually loved food, sweets in particular, and had previously always been in good health, as my disorder got worse, I started viewing food as poisonous, contaminating and dangerous to my health, and a majorly inconvenient, seductive temptation that only the weak and immoral succumbed to. I was strong enough and powerful enough to do without it and needed to keep proving this to myself by continuing to eat less. My only source of validation for my efforts was my weight, since my visual perception of myself was very much distorted.

Personally, it was not about how I looked, as much as it was about feeling good about myself for achieving something that was difficult to do. At the same time, eating “clean” was code for self-deprivation, self-punishment, keeping myself in line, and fueling the guilt I felt for having good things I didn’t think I deserved. Subconsciously, I was ashamed of myself, didn’t think I was enough and didn’t feel worthy. So, I felt even worse if I gave myself something I actually wanted or liked. I felt that because I had so much in life, I had to make up for this somehow by lacking something else. In a twisted way, I subconsciously made things really hard for myself so I’d feel even more accomplished and deserving – which is when I would allow myself to eat: my version of indulgence, my treat.

To fully recover from my disorder, my brain needs constant rewiring. Basically, the way I think about food and meals, even now, after months of treatment, is probably very different from most other people – at least, I hope, for their sake. So I don’t take part in those conversations because the beliefs about food, exercise and the body I need to adopt to get better tend to come into conflict with the average person I meet. I’m not on a diet in the commonly used sense of the word – but I eat a healthy, balanced diet — all food groups in their appropriate amounts. I am not trying to lose weight. I don’t have a weight loss goal – the last time I did, I would have become a speck of dust had I continued with that plan. When I exercise, I am not aware of the calories I am burning, nor do I care. I am just happy my body is strong. It’s a little strange and oftentimes difficult to have a completely different mindset from the norm. And at the same time, it’s a relief, especially when I remind myself of what I’ve learned in nutrition groups and treatment centers about being genuinely healthy. I am sharing these ideas because I think they can help people whether or not they have experienced an eating disorder.

woman with kale shirt on baking brownies

1. There are no “good” or “bad” foods. All foods are absolutely fine, when consumed in balance and moderation.

2. We need all food groups in our diet to be truly healthy (allergies aside, of course). That means we need carbs. We need bread and pasta and rice. We also need protein and fats – sugar too, alongside our veggies and fruit.

3. The body knows how to take care of itself. The body tells us when it is hungry and full and when it is craving something specific. We just need to listen to our innate signals. More importantly, the body balances itself out. One meal that is “excessive” won’t make a difference to our body or weight.

4. We do not need to exercise to justify eating. It is not a compensatory system. We do not need to exercise for any other reason except to stay healthy – physically,
and mentally.

5. We need to do what is right by us, not what we see other people doing. At the same time, we need to not judge others’ choices, nor worry about them judging ours. Everyone is going to have their opinions, their perceptions of what is right and what is normal and what is good.

This last one is especially significant because I want to emphasize that I am not against people’s attempts to be healthy – the opposite, in fact. I completely respect them, in whichever way they deem suitable for their body. I am writing this to say that all people have their own healthy, which may or may not fit society’s constructed version of normal and right.

I have a vision of the “healthy” that I aspire to be. It is a little unconventional. It is not what you would see in a typical magazine, but nevertheless, it is what is right for me. For some, healthy looks like eating a smaller slice of cake. For me, the vision looks like me being proud of myself for taking the bigger slice when that little voice says I “should” be having the smaller one, or for buying myself a jar of Nutella, when before, I just used to stare at it on the shelf for 10 minutes. My “healthy” is me ordering the pasta I want at a restaurant, and for picking the mocha latte I’m craving instead of changing my mind to plain coffee by the time I reach the cashier. I feel so happy and secure when I am with people who are my healthy food role models. These are the people who eat what they want – whether it is a salad or a pizza. They enjoy their food for what it is; they do not fear it, restrict themselves from it, or think negatively about it. They have the relationship with food that I aspire to have. We sit, we take pleasure in our meals, and we talk. We don’t think or talk about the worry of “eating too much” dessert, nor needing to go to the gym the next day to “burn it off.” I am lucky to have people like this in my life. I am not in the business of changing people to suit my needs or telling them how to eat or live their life. But I also know
I am in the business of taking care of myself and surrounding myself with the appropriate tools and support to recover faster. Sometimes these tools are people, and sometimes they are just simple reminders to be kind and be thankful.

I have found that it is not constructive, not accurate, nor truly healthy, to beat myself up or tell myself I am bad because of an extra bite or two that I ate, or a mile or two that I did not run. It may get the job done for my “work-harder” mindset, but my body functions better when it is treated with kindness. It works hard to keep me alive and deserves my gratitude. Food is not only enjoyment but also nourishment for the body and soul. It is not an inconvenience, and it is not something to be messed with. Food is just food, but it offers so much more.

A final note to myself, and everyone reading this: Every day is a day to treat yourself. You are worthy because you are human. You know the compassion and care that you need for yourself better than anyone else does, and you are capable of providing it. Accept what you need, give it to yourself, and your body will thank you.

Originally published: October 4, 2016
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