U.S. Thanksgiving is tomorrow, and I want to say a few things to my non-gender specific siblings out there in eating disorder recovery:
- It’s okay to eat. You don’t have to do anything to justify your eating. It is okay to be a person amongst people, enjoying the food.
- It’s also okay to have limits. From pushy relatives who make comments about your body, to pushy friends who goad you to eat more pumpkin pie than your stomach has room for, you can draw a line. “Here is my boundary” you can say. You can stick to your boundary with love. Anyone you disappoint by having boundaries is likely not worth keeping around.
- You don’t have to let what other people are doing, eating, and saying touch you. Draw up an emotional shield if this is a triggering time for you. You are safe, you are protected, and I know what it’s like to be afraid on a day that is supposed to be about gratitude and I know what it’s like to overcome it. You’ve got this. I am here for you.
- Exercise shan’t be punishment for what you consume on this day, or any day. Think of your food as nourishment, and fuel and on this day, acknowledgement for this stolen land we are partying on. Don’t think of it in terms of burpees and deadlifts and sprints. Exercise is for the exaltation of release. It is for the celebration of being in your body and seeing what your body can do. Don’t make exercise something you do to be a dick to yourself. Long term, you will appreciate yourself from refraining from that mindset, I promise.
It is my sincere hope, that you are with friends and family that make you feel loved and excited to be alive. It is my wish that you can find the perfect amount of full, and that guilt and shame won’t be prominent emotions around your meals. As I’ve said a million times, recovery is about progress- not perfection. Pat yourself on the back for successes and take note of the hard moments and use them as information.
I believe in you.
So U.S. Thanksgiving is around the corner, and with it comes a potential litany of worries. Some may worry there won’t be much of the kind of food they eat(vegan, gluten-free, etc.) at family celebrations. Some worry about travel, and lost sleep, and being forced to take time off of work (Everyone is stressed out about an extra day off, right? Oh- so just me? DAMN).
I feel like the unspoken thing *so many* folks (especially female bodied folks) come up against when they see people that they haven’t seen in awhile is body talk. It can be negative body talk that throws you off your awesome-mental game, but sometimes it can be positive body talk too. In this article, Nichole, (whom I truly admire!) drops a little food for thought on the damaging nature of compliment culture. I think it is perfectly timed before Holiday family gatherings, and I hope you will, too. Enjoy!
The Dangers of Compliment Culture
Written by Nichole Dinato of Vegan Warrior Princesses Attack!
In the U.S., most successful college-aged women say they’d rather be hot than smart. It’s easy to see why. We all, regardless of gender, receive messages from a young age that our looks are important and remarkable, a lesson which is reinforced throughout adulthood.
Compliments and Disordered Eating
We have a strange compulsion in our culture to constantly comment on each other’s looks, to the point where it’s considered rude if we don’t mention a friend’s recent haircut or weight loss. But at what cost? In reading eating disorder recovery stories, and in living through EDs and body image issues of my own, I’m always struck by how many people mention that compliments were the trigger for their EDs.
Lacy mentioned recently that compliments on her weightloss after a difficult breakup were a driving force behind her restrictive eating morphing from a symptom of her grieving to an eating disorder.
I started dieting in 8th grade after noticing that I seemed “bigger” than other girls. I was more developed than them, with large breasts and curvy hips, which was especially difficult to process because I was a year younger than everyone else. I remember the feeling of my self-image warping, distorting my view of myself in the world, which persists to this day.
When I began losing weight, instead of asking me how I was achieving this all my own, or why I was choosing to diet at such a young age, my mother, my teachers and other students all told me how great I looked. As a kid who preferred to be invisible but who also had been neglected for most of her life, I started to crave this external validation. No one noticed that something had changed in me, something I desperately needed help with. I started to believe if I hit my goal weight, I would achieve happiness and ultimate control. I would be worthy of love and attention. What started out as a diet became a monster that still lives under my bed.
Compliment culture shows us that people mistake how you look with how you feel, which is an extremely dangerous lesson for someone who may be self-harming. It teaches us it’s easy to hide the dysfunction by putting on makeup or nice clothes. We learn that people will only look at the surface and not see the uncomfortable truths underneath, allowing us to escape detection and get further into our dark places than we may have otherwise.
I think most of us in the Super Strength Health community understand the potential dangers of complimenting someone on their weight loss, especially if we don’t know their mindset, and of representing weight loss as the end-all-be-all achievement.
Remarks on our weight can trigger eating disorders or body image issues, but constant remarks on our appearance, even in a positive light, can also create weird fixations that we wouldn’t necessarily have had otherwise.
I’ve developed a fear of looking old because I receive so many compliments on looking younger than my age. Counterintuitive? Not when you think about it. I never cared how old I looked, until I hit my late 20s, early 30s, when (apparently) I crossed a threshhold where looking young became the ultimate goal. Now I have dreams where gray hair grows in pairs on my head overnight, and plucking them just makes them grow back stronger. It’s shameful to me that I care, but I do, because I have been taught that my youthful appearance is an asset in the public eye.
When we receive a repeated compliment on our looks, we learn our value, and we fear losing it.
For those of us who have struggled with EDs, body image issues, and body dysmorphic disorder, there is a real danger in receiving physical compliments when trying to discuss our disorders.
Obsessing over your weight, looks or a physical feature is unhealthy. Hard work has to be done to escape from that snake pit. One thing that is very hard for me, and was impossible up until recently, is talking openly about my dysmorphic demons. To my disappointment, those hard won steps have been met with well-meaning but intensely dangerous compliments about my appearance.
I’m sure I’m not alone in this. If you have an ED and you try to speak about your struggle, loved ones probably are quick to let you know that you don’t need to lose weight, that you look great, or that it “isn’t that bad.” If you have body dysmorphic disorder, you probably often hear that the physical feature you hate is distinctive, attractive or, again, not as bad as you think.
With this, everyone is reinforcing that your obsession is, in fact, every bit as important as you think it is. It implies that pain only belongs to those who don’t look good enough to opt out. It demeans the very real nightmare that these conditions can become, reducing them down to something that can be cured with a simple compliment and not something that requires courage, possible therapy and gobs of self-care to conquer. It undermines our struggles, dismisses them with the wave of a hand, instead of validating our experience and teaching us to move beyond obsession with the physical to address the underlying emotional and/or mental root cause.
Changing the Culture
As the holidays roll around and a lot of us will be seeing friends and family, keep in mind how you interact with your loved ones. Praise little ones for kind gestures, offers of help, and perseverance in problem solving. Encourage interests. Ask them questions and then thank them for talking with you. When they ask you questions, compliment them on their curiousity. Tell them that you love them, that you miss them, that you enjoy spending time with them.
Instead of telling the adults in your life that they look good, say you love their expressive sense of style, that their faces feel like home, or that they have always been a beacon of strength for you. Simply saying, “I’ve missed you” can be more than enough.
If you are on the receiving end of compliment culture woes, don’t be afraid to start having conversations with people around you. It will take a long time, but I’m hoping together we can start to change the world by creating safe spaces around us. It’s ok to let someone know you are trying a new thing, where you don’t talk about people’s looks and they don’t talk about yours. You can be honest and say comments on your body are scary and triggering, and ask them to help you feel safe by refraining.
That’s not to say we can’t ever give each other compliments on our looks, but I think we need to be much more careful about when, where and what value those compliments have.
Let people know their value in your life. Let them know that you are looking past the physical, to truly see them, and ask them to see you back.
Nichole Dinato is one-half of the Vegan Warrior Princesses Attack! podcast, a show she creates with her business partner, Callie Coker.
VWPA publishes one podcast episode every week that takes an in-depth, unflinching look at difficult vegan issues, and a weekly advice column that answers questions from vegans and the veg-curious alike. Dedicated to creating a welcoming community and being as intersectional as possible, the girls tackle tough issues with love, humor, brutal honesty and an open door policy to everyone.
The crunches. 200, 300, 400 crunches every morning. On a cold floor in a dark room. I knew that I wouldn’t stand for even one less rep.
I remember the morning dedication to the elliptical, the calorie number goal I would not stop until I reached. The way my quads burned, and the rest of my body went essentially unused. I remember hunching over, exhausted. Promising myself that if I just torched through a bit more of my body, I wouldn’t have to move for the rest of the day. Unless I ate too much, that was. Then I’d have to go through the whole process again in the afternoon.
I remember food phobias, so many food phobias. Fear of beans, fear of quinoa or avocados or sweets or nuts. Fear of oils. Fear of eating too much, and alternately, fear of not eating enough. I remember being afraid to have too much food with me, so packing very lightly and then I remember the gripping, panicked fear of a creeping hunger with nothing to sate it.
I remember, at some point, my body separating itself from the trauma that was occurring and sealing itself off. Shutting down connection with my physical form and pressing forward with whatever plan I had NO. MATTER. WHAT. I remember the day I started checking out completely whenever I stepped into the gym or the kitchen, and I remember how I was happy to be leaving my body at those times because I didn’t feel safe in it anymore.
Then, I remember that I stopped checking out on purpose, and it became a reflex.
It has been years since I participated in the above mentioned eating disorder behaviors, but disassociation lingered. Sometimes I would overeat (as most people do) and panic, hating the feeling in my stomach so much that I would leave my body completely. Sometimes I would reach to write about the specifics of certain moments and I would excavate my brain for information and find a resounding pile of nothing. Sometimes I gave talks to huge rooms of people about positive body image and self-esteem and how to get more of both. After, my partner would ask me how my talk went, and I will reply with a furtive “…okay, I think?”.
I simply couldn’t remember. Every time things got a little too real, I peaced the fuck out of my body as preservation, even when whatever was going on was, objectively, not that big of a deal. I knew this was leftover from the trauma of my ED, that I didn’t need the tool anymore, but I also didn’t know how to stop doing it.
So I searched. I asked friends who were survivors of trauma how the re-associated with themselves, and I experimented. Here are the tactics I used that actually seemed to work:
1. Try one mindful breath. When I asked people how to re-associate with my body after years of actively checking out of it, almost everyone said mindfulness was the key. I know meditation is great for me, but I consistently set myself up for failure with a 20-minutes-a-day-seven-days-a-week goal. Meditation (and mindfulness) are really challenging for me with such a background of trauma and- just like with lifting!- I needed to work up to the heavy stuff.
By giving myself permission to take one mindful breath, multiple times a day, I set myself up for constant success. My one-mindful-breath-a-day challenge added up quickly, and became the fastest way to check back in with my body. One mindful breath acknowledges that I am indeed *here*, standing in the middle of the world, and taking in air. One mindful breath is a perfect set up for building self-satisfaction and self-esteem, too, because I usually remember to do it at least once a day, and often more.
2. Wake yourself up with something you love. You know what brings me back to my body? Listening to queer fronted punk bands. Knitting tiny stitches to make up whole hats and scarves and sweaters. Writing letters. Singing in my own punk bands. Masturbating. Taking a long shower. Getting a massage. Wrapping myself in a blanket like a burrito.
Incidentally, these are all things that I think of as safe, warm, comfortable, or just plain nice. Different sorts of trauma will cause disassociation around different things, and what you do to feel good and get back to yourself will undoubtedly be different than what I do. That’s okay! You do you, I’ll just be over here with my records and my knitting needles and my vibrator.
3. Go outside in the cold. This works particularly well if you’re in a place that is experiencing the dawn of winter.
So, little known fact, my best friend, Koji, is my first love and also a buddhist monk. Him and his partner, Michaela, own Mid-City Zen of New Orleans, and are wonderful incredible people, that are literally chock full of wisdom and good vibez. Once, in the very early moments of my recovery, I was talking to Koji about my depression and how it made recovering from my eating disorder feel almost impossible. I felt a complex and pervasive sadness no matter what the fuck I did, and it was hard to find the point of getting physically healthy when my brain just didn’t feel well. In response, he suggested I try to get cold.
When one is outside, cold, a host of physical things happen. Our fingers and toes go numb. Our eyes tear. Our skin changes color, A simple warm hand on the back of a neck suddenly feels amazing. Essentially, the physical reminder that one is alive snaps us to, brings us out of our feelings and into our bodies.
I use this tactic constantly, even though it has been nearly TEN YEARS since the conversation (Koji, do you even remember suggesting this?). Point is, it works. There is even an extra bonus in the ecstacy of warming up after the cold.
4. Practice. When the mind disassociates it is protecting us from some shit that is almost certainly completely terrible. I am grateful that I don’t remember all the details of my various traumas. What I *do* recall is just plain sad and I honestly don’t like to focus on it too much. BUT! I am aware that I got very, very good at disassociation with practice, and now I will need to practice staying right here in my body to get good at not doing it.
When I find myself disassociating, I practice trying to stay put instead. I say nice things to myself. I thank my body and I thank my mind for serving me as they have and I challenge myself to stay present, just a little bit longer. I practice being present all throughout the day, so that in moments when I feel triggered I am well versed in the art of sitting with it. I give myself props, daily, for all the times when I stay right there with myself.
I go for progress, not perfection. Because I think it is worthwhile to be awake for my life, and I trust that doing the best I can do is bound to be good enough.