Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Jenny Craig's No Friend of Mine

It's Thursday morning, and my nap-resistant son is babbling in bed. It's still a wonder to me that my body grew that little boy, and his big sister. I try to remember that whenever I look in the mirror and see that I've changed physically since having two kids and turning 40. Abs of steel? More like pot of Play-Doh.

I may not always love my looks, but I can accept with good humor what would have horrified me 20 years ago. Being middle-aged is liberating that way. I've had time to learn that looks aren't all that important. I certainly want to be healthy, but exercising and eating well for health is different than doing it to reach some arbitrary "goal weight." One carries more positive feelings, the other more anxious ones.

I know a lot about those anxious feelings. In college, I suffered first from binge-eating disorder, then anorexia, then bulimia. (Hey, I believe in diversity.) I've always sensed that the disordered eating was triggered by an underlying depression, but that at some point it took on a life of its own. I lost five years of my life to binging, starvation, laxative abuse, and over-exercising. It's really stunning how much of my energy was wrapped up in it. I was isolated, lonely, and obsessed: Was there oil in that pasta? How do I get out of this dinner invitation? What do I weigh now? How about now? The fragile "high" I got from fasting and exercise cycled with the profound shame of day-long binges. My self-esteem was on shaky ground. It all hinged on what I'd eaten that day, and what I weighed.

Although I was very thin at certain times, I was never happy. In fact, I was crushed when I discovered that being thin did not magically fill my life with love affairs and glamour. Still, I couldn't stop my insane behavior, because at that point, my body seemed like the only thing I could control.

Thankfully, I did find my way to recovery, first through a 12-step program, then through a course on intuitive eating. Recovery was a slow process, mostly because I was so scared to relinquish control. I feared that under my stringent self-imposed rules, I was an insatiable monster. Eventually, by facing one fear after the next, I learned that I could trust myself, with food and with life. Happily ever after? Not always. But at least my world opened up and my life moved forward.

This fall, 15 years into recovery, I learned that I have impaired kidney function. My doc thinks it's likely from taking lithium for over a decade. (Luckily, I stopped six years ago.) That's scary news, but not life-threatening. In fact, if I take care of myself, the condition may not worsen. So I've cut down on meat and salt, and I'm improving my sleep and exercise routines. In many ways, having a physical impairment that's invisible to others has kept me focused on the big picture. My body is so much more than its exterior—and it, like life, isn't completely under my control.

At times in my life, I've been overweight, skinny, and in between—and I'm sure others have noticed. Maybe they even drew conclusions about me that varied with my shape: "She needs to diet" or "She must have great willpower" or "She couldn't possibly have an eating disorder." But in every case, they were wrong. I was sicker and more obsessed when I was model-thin than at any other time. It was a worsening of the same illness that had initially caused weight gain. In fact, though other people may have been envying my thighs, I was envying their normal relationship with food. Even now, though I look average and unremarkable, I still struggle at times with old bugaboos like night eating and calorie-counting.

It's worth noting here that the fastest-growing type of eating disorder in America is "Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified." That's a catch-all for people who don't fully meet criteria for any one eating disorder, but who often have symptoms of many. (A common reason for this diagnosis is that someone's weight is normal, but their behavior isn't.) Our culture is so messed up about food and weight, it's no wonder eating disorders have become so complicated! And, tragically, so often invisible. Mine was.

This is why I don't get too excited by someone's weight gain or loss, whether it's Jennifer Hudson or a close friend. I know better than to believe a change in body size means a change in identity—despite what the diet ads imply with their frowning "befores" and beaming "afters." I know better than to think weight loss can fix self-hatred, or make someone more lovable. In fact, since dieting causes people to lose touch with their own body wisdom, it usually backfires at some point. The friends I most admire are those who've challenged the empty fantasy of the "perfect body" by living generous and joyful lives free from self-consciousness...and free from diets. I'm not entirely there, but I'm getting closer every day.

But the question looms large in our culture: How can we trust our own bodies? In the absence of artificial controls on our eating, wouldn't we just binge ourselves to an early grave? I struggled mightily with this question while I was recovering. What I found, through some truly difficult work, is that dieting and compulsive eating go hand in hand. My desire to reach an unrealistic "goal weight" different from my natural weight was what created the conditions for overeating. The only way out was to remove all the rules around food and start from scratch. I felt like a newborn, just learning what it meant to be full and satisfied, and how to gauge hunger.

Even harder, I had to untangle the emotional circuits that connected anger, stress, and fatigue with comfort eating. I had to practice real assertiveness, set real limits. I had to displease people sometimes, and survive that. No diet could possibly have helped me with this emotional rewiring. In fact, I'm still not done with this work, but somewhere along the way I realized I was over the hump. Trusting my body has become second nature. I've weighed about the same for five years, without even trying. And my body is my friend—it lets me know I've had enough pizza, or when I need more vegetables. Sure, Marie Claire isn't ever going to call me for a cover shoot, but I'm so grateful these days for the freedom I've gained.

While cultural influences alone don't create eating disorders, they sure can set the stage. As part of my recovery, I've formed some convictions about how weight and food issues should be handled on the cultural level. With that in mind, I thought I'd end this post with a "wish list" of body-positive changes I'd like to see in our society. A girl can dream...

1) Stop using the term "obesity epidemic," accompanied by footage of random obese people walking down the street. This is stigmatizing and dehumanizing. Body size is not a disease; it's not contagious. Nor is body size always an indication of health.

2) Stop making weight a moral issue. It isn't. Eating diet yogurt isn't "being good," and eating pie isn't "being bad." Let's reserve that terminology for stuff that matters, like how people treat each other.

3) Stop marketing diet foods—many of which aren't even healthful—to women. This reinforces the idea that it's best to eat as little as possible, and to deny yourself what you really want.

4) No more airbrushing and photoshopping celebrities! What do you think you're hiding—their humanity?

5) Stop relying on tired fat-people jokes on TV shows. Portray people of various shapes and sizes falling in love, falling out of love, succeeding at some things and failing at others—a.k.a. "reality."

6) Stop shaming people about their weight "for their own good." As I've discussed in previous posts, feeling bad about oneself often results in an initial burst of desperation, but is not a good motivator in the long term. However, self-acceptance is an excellent basis for change.

7) While not everyone can be conventionally beautiful or handsome, everyone can reach their potential as human beings. Stop making appearance the be-all, end-all of young people's lives.

Aaand, soapbox (or is that cookie box?) over. Here's wishing you appreciation for, and peace with, your body. I'm off to cook some delicious pierogi!


Lisa Sniderman, LCSW received her M.S.W. from the University of Chicago in 2003 and has been a licensed clinical social worker since 2005. She is a past member of ETD's Mental Health Advisory Board and one of our storytellers. Click here to check out Lisa's previous posts.

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