Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Day 341: Two Truths and a BIG Truth, Part 2

This week (February 26th - March 3rd) is National Eating Disorders Awareness Week.  According to NEDA, "The aim of NEDAwareness Week is to ultimately prevent eating disorders and body image issues while reducing the stigma surrounding eating disorders and improving access to treatment."  As someone who recovered from an eating disorder, and who is friends with numerous women who have also struggled with body image disturbances, I try to align myself with these goals, both on my blog and in my research and teaching.  (For more info, get thee to NEDAwareness, stat!)

Amazing essays by other Body Image Warriors can be found here.
A group of us body-image bloggers have decided to participate in a blog roundup, called "Body Image Warrior Week," organized by Sally McGraw of the inspiring blog, Already Pretty.   I chose this week's "Two Truths and a BIG Truth, Part 2" as my contribution.  These are things I've learned in my own path of recovery (and staying recovered).  Recall, my "Truths" are things I knew before I went for 365 days without mirrors (even if I didn't always live in line with these truths!), and my "BIG Truths" are things I've learned along the way.  You can read my first set of "Two Truths and a BIG Truth" on my post from Day 334.

Truth 3: Nourishment + Activity + Rest = Health At Every Size = Happy and Healthy.
The Health At Every Size movement fights to disentangle body size from health.  It argues (with a TON of supportive scientific evidence) that all bodies are naturally different, and that behaviors are more indicative of health than being a certain size or shape.  It also points out that being stigmatized, or being self-hating, are bad for health (not to mention miserable!). The tenets of HAES (according to the official website) are:
1) accepting and respecting the natural diversity of body sizes and shapes,
2) eating in a flexible manner that values pleasure and honors internal cues of hunger, satiety, and appetite, and
3) finding the joy in moving one's body and becoming more physically vital.  
When I follow these HAES principles, I am healthier and happier.  That (finally) matters more to me than being "skinnier."

When I finally decided to enter a recovery program to "deal with" my eating disorder I was in poor health.  My bones were slowly disintegrating (I was diagnosed with osteopenia and am thisclose to full-blown osteoporosis), and my kidneys were showing signs of irreparable damage (in addition to getting 5 kidney stones in 4 years, my blood tests for kidney function were about 85% of where they should have been.  I was told that this would be permanent.)  Yet, my BMI was in the "normal" category.  I remember thinking "Okay, well I'll go to treatment so I'm not so obsessed and miserable, but I won't gain weight.  I'm at a healthy weight!"  My body disagreed.

While in treatment, and in the still-recovering years after, I slowly learned to eat a variety of nourishing foods in response to feeling hungry, and to stop when I felt full.  I learned to exercise for the joy of being active, or for the pride of finishing a race, rather than as punishment for "eating too much" (or as a get-out-of-jail-free card for a planned binge).  I discovered that sleep is medicine, and that sleep deprivation makes me feel really negative and bitchy.  I gained a little weight when I stopped restricting food, and then I gained a little more when I finally found an anti-depressant that helps me feel like myself.   I learned that there's no such thing as "perfect" eating, and that I still need to be more mindful about food than most people, both to insure that I don't fall back into old habits, and also because my meds make me ravenously hungry for foods that aren't particularly healthy.  Today my BMI is a smidge over the official line between "normal" and "overweight,"which is a fuzzy way of saying that, at 159 pounds, I'm technically overweight.  Yet I am in much better health.

I am just one story of HAES.  Everybody - ahem every body - is different.  But that's the whole point, isn't it? :)

Truth 4: "My body is perfect, my mind could use improvement."
Even though I've been happier and healthier at my HAES size, I've still struggled with body image.  (That's why I started this blog project, remember?)  I remember, several years ago, feeling incredibly proud of my hard-earned health and balanced life, but sobbing in my therapist's office because I was scared I'd never find a loving life-partner if I wasn't very thin.  (Living in L.A. didn't really help - that town does NOT celebrate chub!).  Anyway, I KNEW I was objectively lovable (indeed, probably more lovable without my rigid obsessions), and I also KNEW I was in good health, but I still wasn't comfortable in my body.  I wished for my exact life, but thinner.  And that's where Truth #4 showed up.  It became my survival mantra. I still repeat it to myself during moments of weakness and frustration, (i.e., if I ever feel tempted to go on a crash diet, or want to spend 3 hours at the gym).  And, slowly but surely, my mind IS improving.

BIG Truth 2: Feeling beautiful is more important than looking "beautiful." If you feel beautiful, you are.
It's been 11 months without mirrors.  I've had an ongoing and vague idea of what I look like this whole time, but I've developed an increasingly acute sense of how I feel.  Sometimes I'm happy, sometimes sad.  Sometimes full, sometimes hungry.  Sometimes hot, sometimes cold.  Sometimes healthy, sometimes (like now) less-than-healthy (cough, cough!).  But what does beautiful feel like?  I've felt it, so I can tell you.  Feeling beautiful, for me, involves calmness, confidence, pride, happiness, and peacefulness, with a side of creativity.  Beautiful isn't a hyper or frantic feeling, though can be energizing.  It's more likely to be tied to an accomplishment at work, or a belly-laugh with a friend, or a snuggle with a cat or puppy, than to extra time spent in front of my mirror curtain.  Feeling beautiful isn't completely disconnected from my outer appearance, but when they are tied together it's usually because I've creatively thrown together a new colorful outfit, or because someone has told me that I look like my mom or my sister.  I've been thinking about this beautiful feeling thing for several days, and it's definitely not the same as simply feeling happy or joyous.  I mean, those are beautiful feelings, don't get me wrong, but not the same as feeling beautiful.  The difference: happiness and joy can be about almost anything, but to feel beautiful I must feel special and unique (that's where the confidence and pride come in!), and also content (hence, calm and peaceful).  I suppose there's a bit of vanity in feeling beautiful, but it's a generous vanity - the kind that leaves space for every other person I meet to also be and feel beautiful.

Why is this better than looking "beautiful"? (I put this version in "scare quotes" to signal that it's a different matter entirely!)?  In it's most obvious sense, looking beautiful is on the outside, and feeling beautiful is on the inside.   Looking beautiful is something most people want, but it doesn't actually guarantee happiness (indeed, research suggests that - despite the many perks that beauty bestows upon those who have it - there is ZERO correlation between attractiveness and overall happiness!).   Besides, striving to look beautiful can actually cause a lot of misery.   Even if we reach a point where we are, somehow, objectively beautiful, it can't possibly last.  (How many of us have one or two old photographs we hang on to because we're convinced that at that moment - and perhaps never since - we were stunningly beautiful?  I do.  I was 14.)  But we age.  We go out of style.  We burp and fart and catch hacking coughs that make us pee ourselves just a little.  

Before I gave up mirrors, I'd never imagined I could feel beautiful without knowing what I looked like. I assumed that the hyper confidence I sometimes felt during special occasions (especially after a glass of wine!) was me, feeling beautiful.  But that was just what it feels like when you conflate your looks with your self-esteem, on a good day.  On a bad day, conflating looks with self-esteem is disastrous.  I've probably been less "beautiful" since starting this project, but in doing so I've managed to better separate my looks from my self-esteem.   THIS is probably the most powerful  secret to feeling beautiful.

Most of us are never "beautiful" by movie-star standards, anyway.  Yet, we live rich and full lives.  We find love.  We give love.  We make friends.  We make things.  We make babies.  We burp and fart and catch hacking coughs that make us pee ourselves just a little, and yet we still get to feel beautiful.  Because if we feel beautiful, we are.

I just HAVE to share additional news on my HAES life!  Yesterday, after 3 weeks of horrible coughing (okay, I'm obviously not in perfect health!) I finally went to see my doctor.  In addition to a grumpy list of cold/cough symptoms, I brought along the 6-page print-out of my complete results from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey I participated in last November (I received the full NHANES results over the weekend).  If you recall, I wrote posts on Day 241 and Day 257 about my reaction to being labeled "overweight" by the "initial report of findings."  Anyhoo, my doctor looked over the myriad report findings, which included:
- body measurements of my height, weight, BMI, and body fat %- blood pressure and heart rate- oral health- hearing- muscle strength- lung function testing- urine tests- STD tests, and - a complete blood count, and - blood tests for measuring over 50 substances/enzymes/whatever.  
Guess what?  Other than the measures of my body size (and an oddly high level of mercury in my blood - damn that sushi habit!), EVERY SINGLE TEST CAME BACK NORMAL OR EXCELLENT.  Even my kidney function was decent (just a teeny smidge below normal, but better than it was years ago!). My doctor complimented me on my excellent health.  I asked her about my BMI, waist circumference, and body fat %, since these were identified as issues to talk to my doctor about.  She responded that I was obviously healthy, and that I shouldn't worry about this stuff as long as I continue to eat well and exercise regularly.  Will do!

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  1. I have never needed this inspiration and reassurance more than now. Thank you so much for sharing your insights with the world...

  2. Aside from the fact that your outward appearance (according to your gorgeous wedding photos in a previous blog post) would be considered beautiful by anyone, your intelligence, insight, and honesty indicate that you are even more beautiful on the inside. Thank you for this blog - it is SO unique and inspiring!

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