On Finding Balance

In January, I tend to see a lot of posts on social media that fall into one of two categories: The first are the traditional new year’s resolutions about “New Year, New Me,” fad diets, and exercise goals. The second, increasingly common message is one of body positivity and self love.

Considering the fact that I am embarking on a wellness journey of my own, I’ve struggled with where to place myself in this dichotomy. Does changing my eating habits, trying to lose weight and get in shape mean that I don’t love myself? Does it mean that I’m telling others that they’re unworthy of being loved as they are? Unworthy of taking up space in this world?

Age 11, shortly after my struggle with body image began.

My relationship with food and with my body has always been a complicated one. When I was 11 years old, I developed an eating disorder that plagued me off-and-on for nearly seven years. I had long been teased about my weight by friends. I wasn’t fat by any stretch of the imagination– just in that awkward chubby phase kids hit before their puberty-aided growth spurt. One day, someone especially close to me teasingly pinched the excess skin on my stomach and said “You could stand to be more careful about what you eat.”

That was it. From then on, it was war with everything I put into my body. I’d go for weeks eating only a yogurt here, a granola bar there to help me avoid the worst of my cravings. I’d feel a sense of accomplishment for being “stronger” than my hunger. Not surprisingly, these behaviors coincided with especially stressful periods in my life. Stopping myself from eating became the control mechanism I defaulted to whenever life became too chaotic.

My dad was in the military and we’d recently moved to Wisconsin. I was told it would only be for a few months, and then we’d be stationed elsewhere. Like most military kids, I was resilient. I’d adjust, meet new friends, and my eating would return to normal. But a few weeks would pass, and then we’d get news about where our family was likely to be stationed next, and I’d start starving myself again. The cycle continued.

As I moved into high school, this method of control became my default coping mechanism. Get a bad grade on a test? Commit to losing five more pounds. Have an argument with a friend? Go without eating for three days. On and on.

My parents were fully aware of what was going on, and it pains me to think of what I put my mom through at that time. She’s a licensed clinical social worker and knew all the signs, all the textbook ways of treating someone with an eating disorder. But, I think things are different when it’s in your own family. We’d fight and I’d yell– refusing to eat what was on the plate in front of me. Insisting I “wasn’t hungry” and that she was making things a bigger deal than necessary.

At a friend’s birthday party in 2007 when I was at my lowest: physically and emotionally.

I was never dangerously underweight. Never “looked anorexic.” I only purged once. Therefore, I never fell into the classic definitions of an eating disorder that existed at the time. But still, this unhealthy pattern, this unhealthy relationship with food and my body and its worth formed the core of my identity for a long time.

Eventually, I got better. There were a lot of factors: my parents, maturing, finding my faith, reassurance from my then-boyfriend/now husband, learning to cook. It was gradual, and included several years of feeling guilt any time I indulged. Several years of feeling like food was a necessity rather than a pleasure.

When things finally “clicked,” I swung in the complete opposite direction. I’d tell myself, “I should be able to eat anything I want because it’s unhealthy to restrict myself.” That worked for a few years in college when my metabolism and limited budget kept my indulgences to a minimum. But eventually, things caught with to me.

In 2018 I gained 30 pounds. Some of it was age. Some of it was lifestyle changes. Some of it was medication. Some of it was learning to cook. But most of it was yet another unhealthy mindset of “all or nothing.” If restricting everything was bad, then so was restricting anything. I ignored my family history of heart disease, diabetes and obesity. I gave myself permission to ignore my body’s health and justified it by saying that “As long as I wasn’t resorting to one extreme, it was okay to do the other.”

This month, as I commit to adding healthy habits back into my life, I want to remind myself that “self love” doesn’t mean “self ignorance.” Rather, choosing to continually strive for the best in myself, to fuel my body with whole, nutritious foods, to build its strength through exercise, to balance my mental health with mindfulness and self care, is an equally valid way of loving myself, as long as I’m stopping to recognize the little victories on the way. (And celebrate will well-deserved bowls of ice cream, which taste that much sweeter!)

I am so glad to see that the narrative around body image is changing. I wish I’d had these messages and role models available to me as a teen. And I think it’s so important to continue reminding ourselves that beauty comes in all sizes.

Yes, my physical health is just one aspect of my worth as a human being. And I know that I have a lot of work to do in other areas of my life to conquer the inner monologue that brought me to these behaviors. But that’s why health is just one of the focus areas I’m committing to this year.

Everyone’s path toward self acceptance looks a little different. This is mine.