As I sat in my nutritionist’s living room, starving, shivering and talking seriously about my aversion to incorporating dairy into my diet- I remember feeling like I was watching myself, huddled in a chair in the corner, wanting to disappear. I was unrecognizable with brittle hair, vacant eyes, ridged nails, and weighing in at a scant 130 pounds- an alien number for my 6ft frame.
I had just finished my second workout of the day, an hour and a half of high intensity interval training (HIIT) and plyometrics; an exercise involving jumping on and off of a wooden box quickly to improve foot speed. By all accounts, I looked like an athlete, I trained like an athlete, and I preached the importance of being dedicated to fitness and health… yet I felt trapped, and worked out in fear of gaining weight and losing my identity as the “fitness girl.”
This was 2008, before “doing a fitness competition” was as common as running a marathon. At this moment, I had finished my first one four months prior. Unlike a lot of competitors, I didn’t binge after the competition- I had barely taken a “cheat meal” during the entire training period. For me, a fitness competition was a goal along a journey to “be the best version of myself,” which according to my trainers, was reducing my body fat to less than 10% by eating 1200 calories a day and doing an hour of cardio before breakfast, and another before bed. Despite taking an almost religious approach to training, I didn’t place at the competition. However, failing only gave me more incentive to keep on training. I couldn’t beat out my competition on stage, but I would “prove” my commitment to fitness by succeeding in maintaining my physique. I had no goal, no show, and no trainers- yet, my workouts took precedent over everything, and I stuck to my self-imposed diet of tuna, Edamame beans and protein pancakes without fail. With no trainers to tell me how to eat, I had spiralled down the rabbit hole and had made up my own list of “safe” and “bad” foods, the latter of which included nearly everything in my cupboard/refrigerator. By the time I decided I wanted to try and get onto a healthier path by hiring a nutritionist, I was dizzy, incapable of doing any complex brain activity, slowly flunking university classes, exhausted, grumpy 24/7, and suffered from stomach pains. But- I was constantly complimented on my weight.
That day, I asked myself: “how did I get here?”
According to a 2002 survey, 1.5% of Canadian women aged 15 – 24 years have an eating disorder. As this is a statistic from nearly 11 years ago, I can only imagine how this number has grown with the prevalence and growth of fitness competitions in recent years. I know that I contributed to it with what I only now recognize as being Anorexia Athletica; an eating disorder that (according to the National Eating Disorder Information Centre) is: “a condition where people over-exercise because they believe this will control their bodies and give them a sense of power, control and self-respect.”
Like others, I justified my Anorexia Athletica by talking about the health benefits of working out, and attributing any interventions by concerned friends as jealousy- becoming more reclusive as the disorder progressed, as social situations usually meant food, and food meant I had to talk about why I couldn’t eat any of it.
I’m sure some of you are wondering why I just couldn’t “stop,” and at the time, I wondered the same. I can assure you that those of us who have experienced something like this didn’t set out to develop this type of obsession over something that’s supposed to nourish us… It’s a vicious and devastating circle that sneaks up on you before you realize what’s happening. I counted calories on everything I ate in my head, having memorized nearly every food’s makeup- and began to binge on my once a week “cheat days” to the point of making myself ill. Once, I left a cheat-dinner with my ex-boyfriend early under the ruse of “forgetting my cell phone,” to (specifically) go home and eat cookies alone, meeting up with him only after finishing an entire bag of Dad’s Oatmeal Cookies. On the post-cheat day, the guilt would be so incomprehensible that I would usually hibernate in the gym for several hours, leaving only when I felt hungry and exhausted again.
I was petrified of gaining weight, but more importantly- I was scared of losing my newfound identity of the fit chick, the girl who gained respect from her peers by being committed to fitness. I found control that I was lacking in the rest of my life; where a relationship was failing, school was suffering, and where I experienced an overall lack of direction.
This is an incredibly unsustainable way of life, and after an intervention from my nutritionist; I began to slowly relax my eating habits. This confused friends and family, who would confront me if they saw me eating a cookie: “But it’s not your cheat day…?” (Yes, this really happened). I got sick of feeling like my eating habits were under a microscope, and (long story short), I gained almost 50 pounds within one year, bouncing onto the other end of the spectrum with a fried metabolism and disordered eating habits. I was equally as miserable and even more stressed, and dealt with my feelings by eating them.
Though my story is extreme, it’s not a foreign concept. Women have had a tough history with food and body image, and the term “disordered eating” applies to anyone who eats to feel better, to feel worse, to distract themselves from bigger issues in their lives, who feels guilty after eating certain foods, who’s obsessed with dieting and weight, or who feels out of control in regards to eating and food. Not only do we experience these nuances of disordered eating, but we also bond over it. How often do you and your girlfriends discuss what you’ve eaten in a self-deprecating way, or have heard: “I feel so fat today” in a conversation? We soothe one another and reassure each other that we “look great, have nothing to worry about, or look soooo skinny;” forming closer bonds to one another as a result of the “we’re in it together” mindset. In my experience, it’s far more rare to encounter a confidant woman who is totally at ease with her physical appearance (large, small, or other), who has a healthy relationship with eating and who refrains from joining these conversations. To other women, they seem full of themselves- when in reality; they have a much healthier sense of wellbeing than most. I feel fortunate to have met a few of these women (two being Rachelle & Monique), who are constant reminders of true beauty, inside and out.
So how do we stop this?
For me, stopping the cycle meant changing my focus from my aesthetic appearance, to building my much-neglected intellect, and seeking out fulfilling outlets for my creativity. I stopped working out (yes, really!), began experimenting with DJing & music production, and instantly felt a whole new world of creativity open up. A few months later, I began studying in the Creative Communications program at Red River College, and though it took some growing pains to adjust to college from university atmosphere, I finally felt like I found a place to which I belonged. As my DJing “career” grew and school became more challenging, I was slowly building confidence and (for the most part) was being judged on my abilities in both worlds, not my aesthetic appearance. Not surprisingly, I met a wonderful man who appreciated my confidence and newfound zest for life, and loved me (as cliché as it sounds) for “me,” never taking my weight into consideration (and in fact balking when I began to lose weight). One day I decided to weigh myself just to see what I was at, and lo-and-behold, I had shed almost 20 pounds. Flash-forward a year later, and my weight had shrunk even more after I began to take fun fitness classes like spinning and yoga (the latter of which has been the most humbling workout yet!!!). My weight is now at a place where I feel healthy, happy and strong.
To achieve this balance and avoid getting sucked back into the vicious circle, I only worked out when I felt enthusiastic about it, ate only when I was hungry, and refused to beat myself up for eating what I would previously call “cheat” foods. In fact, I stopped using the word “cheat” altogether, a suggestion from my nutritionist who insisted that foods were not bad or good; some were just more of a “treat” than others. I only weigh myself when I feel great, not to beat myself or to confirm how “fat I feel.” Finally, I’ve stopped engaging in conversations about what I’ve eaten with other women. Surprisingly, this has been difficult- I don’t like to seem stuck-up or full of myself, but I refuse to validate other women’s (or men’s, for that matter) concerns about food, and refuse to open myself up to criticism. Seeking validation from others will never fill you up as much as your own self-respect.
Though I’m no Madonna (or even a Rachelle/Monique!), I consider myself to be a baby-yogi who has discovered a love for “dancer’s pose” enough to bust one out in the middle of the street, if it happens to be that kinda day. Yoga has challenged me to build my humility and patience. As a former competitive volleyball player, cross-fitter and fitness competitor, you could say that I’ve had an unhealthy amount of confidence in my athletic abilities… Something that was deflated REAL quick after my first Bikram class. Through my practice, I’ve been challenged to quiet my thoughts, be mindful and present in each moment, and be patient with my journey to become more flexible, strong and balanced. I still marvel at how humbling it can be to fall out of Warrior 3, while women and men twice my age are as steady as rocks, eyes closed as I fumble around my mat. I’ve made it my goal to incorporate yoga into my weekly routine, and am excited to tackle a few poses that have been (at the time of writing this article), elusive. I hope to continue my growth with my practice, becoming more self-aware and connected with my thoughts- a goal for 2014.
I challenge you, my fellow prairie yogis, to disengage from unhealthy conversations about food, to compliment the women in your life on their brains, not their beauty, to talk to your daughters and young girls about what universities they want to attend, to eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re not. To Google women like Jean Kilbourne and Gloria Steinem. To be mindful of your emotional state, and to deal with it instead of transferring it into another area of your life. To stop giving a toss about what people think of you, and to start making yourself proud. I challenge you to find workouts that are fun, mentally invigorating, and that leave you feeling balanced.
I challenge you to love yourself with everything you have, and for Pete’s sake; have the piece of pie.