It’s only in the past year that I’ve really been open about my struggles with disordered eating, my extremely warped perception of my own body and my toxic relationship with exercising. It was around age 18-19 when I hit my low point, not in my weight (though probably in my weight too — I only weigh myself at the doctor’s so I rarely know my “actual” weight) but in terms of my bad habits. I’d binge in small doses and then exercise and deprive myself in huge doses (I never starved myself, which is why I was able to deny having an eating disorder for so long) by restricting my calorie intake. I became almost competitive with myself to see how little I could get by on on days when I “felt fat.”
It’s a hard cycle to break out of, but I managed to do it. A lot of people remember their “wake up” or “aha” moment. I don’t. It wasn’t really a single moment, but a year of becoming more honest with myself and starting to love myself without actively trying to “love myself” because some magazine told me to.
I actually accepted long ago that I would never be fully free of the demons that plagued my mind when it came to food and body image. And I still believe that. But in my third year of university, I became really happy. It’s funny because early that school year, a good friend of mine passed away only a few weeks after her 21st birthday. I’d never known a person who died so young before, and I was very sad about losing her. But she had a beautiful spirit and fought her battle with cancer with the biggest smile, even when her mouth was too swollen to do so. She was a huge inspiration for me.
Her death came at a time when my life was met with the right set of consequences — I was made a senior staffer for a really successful campus newspaper. I was kicking ass at my job and at school. I lived in a great house with great roommates, and yet I was actually working out the least I’d ever been. I still took dance classes and rode my bike and did yoga, but the long gym sessions panting away on the cardio equipment disappeared to almost nothing. I was in a real mindset of “If you don’t love what you’re doing, why do it?” Which was exactly how Dee lived her life. As a side-note, I probably should have posted this yesterday, which was four years since her passing.
That was also the year that I had a huge kitchen and started cooking a lot. I started forming my own recipe book and experimenting in the kitchen. I felt proud of the food I was eating, even if it was sometimes covered in sauce and cheese. It was something I made myself — of course I was proud! At the same time, I became adamant about only being active — not “working out” — if it was something that brought me joy. Working out had always been something of a penance for me, so I decided that I would only do it because I truly felt energetic and like I wanted to be doing it. I actually started dancing more than ever, in class, on my own, in my yard, in the hallways at my campus. I rode my bike long and far. I bought a longboard.
I’ve since gotten back into going to the gym, but it took more than a year of staying away to fully understand how to not treat it as a punishment. I work out totally differently now — hardly any cardio, a lot of lifting, and deep stretching. Flexibility has always been important to me as a dancer, and going about it slowly and deliberately is not only good for my muscles, it’s good for my soul.
Here are the five things I make sure to do every day which has helped me not only live a healthy life, but feel healthy in my heart and mind.
- Water. Water. All the time. Now, please remember that it is entirely possible to over-hydrate and consequences of that can actually be dire. But my way of getting enough water has simply been having water every time I eat food, and using getting a glass of water as an excuse to stretch from my desk.
- Keeping healthy snacks on me at all times. My drawer has a container of trail mix. My purse has a baggie of celery sticks. Crackers are a must. And of course, I always have hummus or nut butter nearby.
- Stop overthinking food. I realize this is ironic coming from a strict vegan, but I really can’t believe how restrictive some people are with their foods. I know a few people who are dieting right now, and when they tell me what they cannot have — not only any sugar, but no sources of sugar (so that includes even a sweet potato!) — I am baffled. I am baffled that this means they can have pre-made, artificial, processed foods that happen to be sweetened with artificial sweeteners, but can’t have a darn apple. Keep it simple with food: does it grow in the ground? Has it not been processed to the point of being unrecognizable? Sounds like you’ve got a winner there.
- If you work out because you feel like you “have to,” don’t. Working out is not a penance or an apology. Whatever gets your heart pumping should be something that also makes you grin and jump for joy. If you associate working out with punishment, you may need to speak to someone and find a way of sorting out these feelings — because no one should have to feel that way.
- Make food you can be proud of. The best thing about cooking is that anyone can do it and you don’t have to please anyone but yourself. If you’re on a tight budget, use that as a way of challenging yourself (and there are great web sites out there about eating healthily or eating vegan on a budget). It’s easy to just run to Quiznos when the food you could have brought from home is merely some nut butter and jam slapped between two pieces of bread (even if they are whole wheat). Think of food as a project, an experiment. Enjoy the time you spend with it. It’s so much more satisfying to eat food you’re invested in.
If you find you’re suffering from an ill relationship with food, your body or exercising, you are not alone. And do not feel like your problem is “not important” because you don’t happen to suffer from a classified eating disorder such as anorexia or bulimia. Disordered eating comes in all forms and affects people of all shapes and sizes. Do not be afraid to seek help, and be fully aware that you have a powerful and important body which deserves to be loved — especially by you.