Each year in my 20s has been a roller coaster of perspectives toward my body. And I didn't realize it until now, at 29, that whenever I had the thought "this body is okay," I was really thinking "this body is okay... for now." I was really telling myself that it wasn't okay. That it needed to change. There was acceptance of the fact that it looked how it did in that moment, but not acceptance that it would be okay for it to look that way a month from now.
Truth be told, I've been in eating disorder recovery - meaning any period in time after the disorder pops up - for 10 years now. I haven't had what you would call a "relapse" in the sense that I returned to binge eating or obsessive exercising or my weight dropping to unhealthily low numbers, yet... there has been a part of the disorder that has stuck around and that I have been feeding in some way. It's what I'll call the "self-improvement complex."
I define it as such: the idea that there is always something to improve, always some thing from which we must be moving away. What we're doing isn't quite good enough. We need this extra service or to lose a few more inches or to tweak our diets because what we're doing now just isn't quite good enough.
It's obvious how body image issues and disorders can grow out of this idea and, for me, this still sticks with me today. Since completing the therapy chapter of my recovery I've joined gyms, taken on phone-app running challenges, downloaded calendars with daily home workouts, and participated in "transformation contests" at my CrossFit box. Hell, I even came in top ten in the contest I joined earlier this year. For what? Losing body fat, commitment to workouts, dedication to meal planning... it all blurs together after a while and each of those seem to be symptoms of my self-improvement complex.
Me, second from left, after 8 weeks of hard work - but still subject to the complex.
I'm definitely not suggesting that seeking self-improvement is a negative thing or that men and women can't find genuine joy and accomplishment in modifying the way they eat or going after workout goals. What I am suggesting is that the motivation behind each of these actions can come from a more sensitive and damaged view of oneself - as I believe it has, for me.
This became apparent this spring and summer, after I finished the contest. My trip to Austin for Vida Vegan Con was coming up and I would tell myself "okay, you've had your fun eating your favorite restaurant and processed foods, it's time to do a round of carb cycling before going on this trip." That didn't happen. We moved into an apartment complex with a pool and I wanted to be trim enough to be comfortable in my suit - "alright, buckle down and eat ridiculously healthy." That didn't happen.
What in the hell was I so worried about? My body had become more "fluffy" than it had been after a January - March 8 week period of strict meal planning and exercising. No shit, Sherlock. I still had the cellulite on my legs that I've had as long as I remember. No shit, again. My thighs and hips still carried most of my body's fat and width. No shit, dummy, you can't change genetics - as much as you may want to.
But, guess what? I went to Vida Vegan Con and had a fucking blast, ate delicious food, and spent time with the most wonderful friends. I also visited our pool multiple times during the week, got oodles of Vitamin D, and caught up on A Song of Ice and Fire reading. And I survived. No, let's scratch that word, because it makes it sound like I was facing something that was actually dangerous - life went on as usual. I still enjoyed things, laughed, stressed, de-stressed, grew spiritually, planned, etc... even in a "fluffy" state.
My dog has actually taught me a lot about body image. That may sound strange AF, but hang in there. You see, she's a miniature dachshund and a little fireball of energy and sass. There's nothing she loves more than an extended hike through the woods, playing with her favorite toys, or snuggling up in the tightest space between me and the back of the couch. She also has acquired a hanging pooch of skin on her lower belly in her older age - just hanging there, NBD. I remember catching myself thinking "if she were human, she'd be sucking that in." Whoa. Why? WHY??? It's a ridiculous thought, but a true one. She would be conditioned to think that this is unacceptable, but you know what? Doggie don't give a fuck. She just stands there with her saggy pooch, only thinking about her next snack or when we're going to go on a walk. And isn't that just a beautiful way of living?
I want to be extra sure that this post doesn't come of as shaming anyone who is super-jazzed about making changes for their body or their lives. I'm still a loyal member of my CrossFit box and see more and more people do the contests, sharing how they've learned a lot about themselves and how to become their own version of healthy. At this very time in my life, it's just not for me. But each person has to do themselves.
What I am focused on now is doing whatever feels right for my body and staying in touch with what is realistic. Sometimes the term "realistic" can seem like a bummer - something holding us back from our dreams, but I disagree. Reality is here and now, and I'm pretty tired of fighting it and chasing after something that is outside my grasp and, when it comes down to it, is pretty damn meaningless in the larger scheme of things. I will continue to lift weights because it feels good and I feel like a stronger person, overall. I will shift my focus from healthy eating for the purpose of being trim to healthy eating for the purpose of having fewer GI issues. And I will remind myself that wherever my body is or whatever it looks like when it is feeling physically, emotionally, and spiritually "healthy" is exactly where it needs to be and what it needs to look like. End of story.