“Exercise is a celebration of what your body can do. Not a punishment for what you ate.”
The reality of just how many of us struggle with food and body image was reinforced for me last week when I shared this post by Women’s Health U.K.
Within moments of posting, the likes, comments, and shares began to roll in from friends and strangers alike. Most comments were cheers for the post’s message, as if finally someone somewhere granted us permission to celebrate rather than berate our bodies.
A few days later, I am still receiving feedback on it, which reiterates that 1. most of us are not at peace in our bodies, and 2. too many of us see nourishment as a just cause for punishment, be it through over-exercising, self-hatred, or self-deprecating comments, like being “bad” for eating a cookie.
Over the course of my 22-year battle to heal from anorexia, I’ve done most of my recovery work in treatment or groups with other individuals with eating disorders. I’ve benefited greatly from the deep connections community creates.
But my time in treatment or groups is minimal compared to the amount of time I spend in the real world, where the grit and hard work of participating in a body-focused culture takes place. Simply based on the response from the post I shared, I can tell that it’s not just hard for me and others who have been clinically diagnosed with an eating disorder; it’s difficult for many, if not most of us—diagnosis or not.
This fact is something I’ve always been aware of. (Who isn’t, really?) But until recently, I’ve tucked myself away in the eating disorder world and have not taken time to truly hear about others’ struggles and experiences.
Within my personal network of family, friends, colleagues, and acquaintances, I’ve observed a sort of imaginary line between those of us with clinical eating disorders and those who struggle with food and body image. I am aware of my part in creating that line.
For the longest time I was not able to hear about others’ food and body challenges, because it was too triggering (I hate that word). Likewise, I’ve sensed that some friends and acquaintances who deal with food and body image, but who don’t have a clinically diagnosed eating disorder, feel their struggle is less legitimate—that they are less entitled to suffer, and less worthy of attention around these issues. I worry that these people have intentionally distanced themselves from me.
Perhaps one of the many gifts of my restored health is my ability to see the benefit of connecting to and also stepping outside of the eating disorder community and joining a larger community. If so many individuals can connect to a single Facebook post around body and food, how much more we can truly learn from one another? How much more healing is possible by doing more than liking a post but actually talking?
It is my hope that somehow we can raise each other up by offering sincere listening, support, and hope. We all have experiences marked by resilience, courage, and perseverance as well as shame, self-doubt, and discomfort. We can benefit immensely from sharing our stories (versus secretly beating up our bodies). I have experienced significant healing from listening to others share what they have endured, conquered, or been crushed by.
Of course, we must be sensitive and take care to share with the intention of support rather than one of enabling or triggering (there’s that word again. Ugh!). Sharing with the intention of healing and empowering can unify us all as we search for and explore ways to accept our bodies and feed them appropriately without being haunted by punishing thoughts and behaviors.
Diagnosis or not, everyone’s body struggles matter.
A diagnosis doesn’t make the struggle, pain or torment more legitimate. That secret inner world of insecurity is a place we can all connect with on some level. We set rules, live by those rules, and punish ourselves for perceived failures. We hate mirrors, but can’t exist without them. We fear numbers, yet are also somewhat reliant on them.
When we give ourselves permission to offload these secret struggles, we open ourselves up to participate in each other’s arduous efforts to celebrate rather than punish our bodies.
Author: Jennifer Kreatsoulas
Image: The Home of Fixers on Flickr
Editors: Khara-Jade Warren; Katarina Tavčar