Your favourite pair of jeans are slowly becoming uncomfortably snug. Clothes you think will fit are too tight. Parts of your body are getting softer. Sound familiar? Yes, this is weight gain. An awkward and stress-inducing part of 21st century life. Before you begin to worry, I'm not here to talk about how we're all getting fat, and obesity is a modern-day epidemic; you have all heard that too often. What I want to talk about is something that I feel doesn't get talked about enough: what it's like to recover from an eating disorder.
We've all heard of people getting too thin, burning out, and reaching a place where they need to change their eating habits. But what about what happens after? Has anyone ever talked about the gruelling recovery? The battle to find the healthy medium between too thin and too fat? The impact of weight gain on a person's mind, even if it is for the better?
Well, that's what I want to discuss. For years I have struggled with body issues, beginning in my teenage years where I became convinced that I was fat. I constantly compared myself to celebrities and my peers and became convinced that if I were slim and toned, that I would like myself and people would like me. Most, if not all of my self-worth was based on my appearance, and because I didn't like what I saw in the mirror, I felt worthless. Instead of dealing with these feelings though, I ate them. I was an emotional eater. I'd eat to feel. I'd eat to not feel. I'd eat to justify my feelings of self-hatred. When I inevitably gained weight, the feeling of worthlessness deepened.
Then I discovered exercise and I began to feel better. I felt stronger, fitter, healthier, and I noticed I started to lose weight. It was exactly what I wanted. For once, a slim, toned body was in sight. All I needed to do was continue exercising. So I did. For a while, it was great; I was steadily losing weight and becoming more happy with what I saw in the mirror. But as time went on it became an addiction, I became obsessed with exercise. I neglected to monitor how much I was exercising, I rarely rested and I constantly pushed myself. Then, I turned my sights on my diet. I restricted everything I ate. I'd eat small meals, with only 'healthy' foods and would berate myself if I even so much as licked a muffin. I was a drill sergeant with my body. Merciless in my approach to weight loss, I viewed my body as a project and pushed myself to the very edge. Needless to say, this was not a healthy way to lose weight. I exercised too much and didn't eat enough. My hair thinned, my periods stopped and I was constantly bloated and exhausted. Not at all what I had imagined it would be like to be slim.
Sadly, what I saw in the mirror though was not what everyone else saw. To others I was skinny and underweight, but from my perspective I still had weight to lose. My stomach wasn't flat enough. My arms needed more muscle. My face was too round. My project wasn't complete. At this time, it didn't occur to me that maybe the problem wasn't with my body but with my mind. I was changing externally, but internally I still saw myself as a chubby, insecure teenager. I was a mess of low self-esteem, poor self-worth and clinical depression. This was around the time that I developed IBS and my relationship with food became even more toxic. Food didn't just have the power to make me fat, it had the power to cause me pain. I became scared of food. As a result, I ate less and became obsessed with reading labels to find out what was safe for me and what was harmful. I steadily kept losing weight, but couldn't see that I was dangerously thin.
As time went on, I became concerned over my lack of a menstrual cycle. I went to the doctor to see why it could be happening, and she told me that I didn't have enough body fat to support my period. My BMI was 18.1, which classified me as underweight for my height. She told me to gain a few kilos and see if that helped. This was the wake up call I needed. Yes, the BMI system is flawed, but if even a flawed system told me that I was underweight, then something needed to change. I took a step back, looked at what I was doing and realised what I thought was healthy was in fact damaging my body. It was shocking to discover that I was hurting my body, not helping it. I struggled to accept it at first, thinking that people were just jealous because I was slim, but after a lot of introspective thinking, I knew they were right and I was wrong. So I started investigating ways to get my health back. I began replacing a few of my workouts with yoga, I allowed myself to eat a bit more, and started to listen to what my body was saying, not what the media said.
Over time, my mind began to heal, and I was able to see myself for what I really was; underweight and exhausted. This scared me, as for so long I was under the impression that if I was slim I would automatically be healthy. I assumed that I was doing everything right, when in fact my body was suffering. So, I began to focus on healing my body through taking care of my mind and finding ways to ease the symptoms of my IBS. I changed my perspective from losing weight to gaining back my health, which meant I needed to gain weight.
Easier said than done.
Yes physically it can be simple to gain weight; just increase the amount of food you eat. But I didn't want to radically change my diet, I didn't want to undo all the steps I had taken to health. I needed to find a healthy way to gain weight. It took time but I managed to find a solution; eat more of what I was eating before but allow myself a treat everyday. Remove the guilt and shame and let myself enjoy food again. Again, this took time. No one tells you how hard it is to pull yourself out of the mindset of losing weight. I had to catch myself as I would berate myself for eating that extra piece of dark chocolate. I had to monitor my thoughts and actions which exhausted me. Basically, I had to change my entire thought process when it came to exercise and food.
I began to notice thin people more and became jealous that they were a 'healthy skinny', but I was considered unhealthily thin. Truthfully, I had no idea whether they were healthy either, but somehow I convinced myself that everyone except me was healthy. Watching TV and movies and reading magazines became harder for me, as no longer did I look like those who I aspired to. Maybe subconsciously I felt like I let them down. I found that I had to limit how much I exposed myself to TV, movies and magazines as they would affect my perception of myself, even if I was having a good day. I had to stop buying women's fitness magazines and unfollow a few fitspo accounts on Instagram, as I found that I would feel guilty because I wasn't exercising as furiously as they suggested I should.
The hardest part of the recovery for me was watching the weight come back on. Consciously I knew this was good for me, but subconsciously I was terrified that I would end up where I started; a chubby teenager with low self-worth and a body she hated. I had to battle with the desire to be healthy and the desire to be skinny. Some days it was easy, but most days it was horrible. I was so stuck in my head that I couldn't acknowledge encouragement from friends and family, I was convinced that if I didn't monitor my food intake I would become overweight. My stomach began to get softer, my thighs jiggled more, and my arms gained circumference. It was terrifying. I had thought that I had gained control over my body by losing weight, but seeing all my hard work begin to reverse stressed me out. This kept going for a long time, the back and forth between acceptance of how I looked now and desperation to be slim again.
Before and After: 54kg to a much healthier 63kg
Fast forward to now; 1 year later and in a much better place. I have gained a healthy 9 kilos (most of which is muscle) and have learnt to take care of myself holistically. I am learning to balance my life between, exercise, rest, a healthy diet and treating myself. I still struggle sometimes to accept my body the way it is now, especially when I am tired and stressed and still have to remind myself that I am healthy the way I am. It is a hard slog, and not enough people talk about it, or even think about it. I had to change almost every part of my life to get back my health. I had to change my perception of food, exercise and a healthy weight. I had to adjust my expectations on how my body is meant to look. I had to learn to be nice to myself, even when I could only see the negatives.
If I'm honest, I still don't completely like what I see in the mirror. It's hard to admit, but I don't know when I'll be able to be fully satisfied with my body. It is a battle, and while it is easier now, and I feel a lot healthier, I'm not fully adjusted yet. But I'm not worried about it. I have every confidence that as time goes on I will find a healthy balance in my mind and body. My journey is not over yet, and I still have much to learn.
The battle to be healthy has become harder than ever in the age of extremes. It seems as though people are either overweight or underweight. The media constantly bombards us with images of the perfect body and their interpretation of health (some of which is incorrect). The pressure to be thin and perfect is now more prevalent than ever and many young women - myself included - get dragged into this perverted worldview, believing that being slim makes you attractive and desirable. It took an eating disorder, and the equally as hard recovery, to show me that happiness and self-worth is not found in the number on the scales; it is all in the mind. If you are reading this and are considering going on a diet, or desperately wanting to be thin, please hear me when I say it doesn't solve anything! The contentment, self-worth, self-esteem, acceptance and beauty you are searching for can only be found when you learn to love yourself the way you are. Yes, this sounds like a tampon commercial, but if it weren't completely true I wouldn't say it. You have to change your perception of yourself and accept your body the way it is to truly find satisfaction. As Dr Phil says: "You can change the wrapper, but that doesn't change what is underneath".