“The truth was, I was a food addict. My relationship with food was unhealthy and unsafe, regardless of how it looked on my frame. This was not an issue of size.”
I am super honored to bring you a guest post this morning, from the extremely awesome, Jessica DeMarra of Sprouts and Chocolate. I had the pleasure of meeting Jessica at the very last Vida Vegan Con (single tear) after the talk I gave on body image, self-esteem, veganism, and blogging. When I spoke to Jessica, she told me about her struggles with food, and talked to me about how she’d always wanted to share her story, but wasn’t sure where it would fit in on her recipe blog. I was struck by Jessica’s vulnerability and honesty, and decided right then and there that if I didn’t see something on S+C within six months, I would invite her to share here.
It is such an honor and a gift every time someone talks about eating disorders and recovery without shame. I invite you to grab a cup of coffee or tea, get cozy, and sink into Jessica’s tale. This is a story of working through the mental bullshit that eating disorders bring, finding a glimmer of hope, and going at self-respect like it’s a full time job. Let’s get to it!
Hello! My name is Jessica DeMarra, and I run the plant-based blog, Sprouts and Chocolate.
I had the pleasure of meeting Lacy at Vida Vegan Con, where she did a seminar on positive self-image. After we met, she emailed me about doing a guest post discussing my story and my struggles with food. I replied to her email with excitement and then I realized I would have to be honest about my eating, which was frightening. I have never shared my story in such detail before and I was concerned people would take it the wrong way.
But then I reminded myself: this is my story and some people will relate and others won’t. It is honest, real, and yes, actually happened. No bullshit here.
Before VVC, I had never met Lacy, but her story stirred something inside of me that I had been repressing for years- my own troubles with food. For most of my life, I was compulsively overeating, emotionally dependent on food, and a food addict. After Lacy’s seminar, she welcomed the audience to introduce themselves and I headed for the back of the line, holding in my tears in hopes that no one would see me. I said hello to her, she shook my hand, and then I broke down sobbing; we are not talking about a glistening tear or two slowly rolling down my cheek- it was an open mouthed, gut-wrenching, couldn’t speak, couldn’t breathe, full on weeping. She was kind about it, let me catch my breath, and listened to my story between sobs. I told her that I was a food blogger that was so addicted to food that I barely thought of anything else. I told her that worst of all, people around me didn’t believe me about my anxieties. They had just summed it up to me being self-critical or worse, humble about my size. After pulling myself together, I left the seminar room feeling exhausted, yet energized at the same time.
Finally, someone heard my voice and understood my words.
Previously, when I confided in someone about my struggles with food, they would respond with “You are not fat, Jess,” or an eye roll perhaps, thinking I read one too many Cosmo magazines. Funny thing, I never said I was fat. I always said I was having a hard time with food and anxiety. They were looking at my body instead of hearing my words, like someone’s body is an accurate reflection of their thoughts.
I didn’t tell people that I thought I was fat, because that was not the issue. The truth was, I was a food addict. My relationship with food was unhealthy and unsafe, regardless of how it looked on my frame. This was not an issue of size.
I realized I was addicted to food when I went to college, where I had a fully loaded meal card and the privacy of my own dorm room. After my classes, I would prepare for my nightly ritual of heading down to the local shawarma place, getting a lamb shish kabob plate and a Diet Coke, and popping into the store for two king sized chocolate bars, one for eating on the walk back to my dorm and one for having after dinner. Each night I could feel the excitement of my indulgence- my skin literally buzzed. I could not walk fast enough back to my dorm room to get started. When I arrived to my dorm, I immediately changed into sweats, got my marathon of television ready to go, and ate in bed, consuming everything as fast as I could. I always discarded the evidence of my binge right away. I was never full and never satisfied.
I didn’t do these things because I wanted to- I did them because I needed to. If something disturbed my binge, I would be in an awful mood until I could do it again the next night. I said no to plans and outings to keep this ritual ongoing.
There was a time when I glamorized anorexia over compulsively overeating from food addiction. I assumed that it meant that I could at least be skinny even if I was still self- destructive. I even tried on the eating disorder, lasting no more than a day of eating as little as possible. I realize now that that is insensitive to those who are struggling with this disease but feelings about eating disorders are never rational. I was so in my fog that I couldn’t see actual recovery as a way out.
Since not eating at all wasn’t an option for me, I decided to do the next “best” thing and took up diet pills and cigarettes. All my smoker friends were skinny! I did this for a few years and yeah, I, too, was skinny. The unfortunate reality is that people complimented me. It seemed that people found me more attractive. Clothes shopping was easier. This was all the motivation I needed to continue the destructive behavior.
On the surface I seemed happy. Meanwhile, I was suffering insomnia, obsessive eating + exercise, heart palpations, cold sweats, blurred vision, chronic fatigue, and digestive problems from the mixture of nicotine, over the counter diet pills, and a very restrictive diet. I would run my hands over my body, feeling my hipbones protruding out, my flat stomach, and the deep caves I had created around my collarbone. I assumed that, despite all terrible symptoms I had, this is what happiness felt like. That is, until I went to the doctor’s office and he told me my resting heart rate was abnormally high for a person at the age of 20. This was the wake up call that I needed to change.
I had to dig deep and shift my focus from self-destruction masquerading as self care to truly caring about my body and soul. I started adding good things, mostly plants, to my diet- instead of buying a donut at my favourite coffee place, I bought some fruit at the neighbouring grocer stand, I carried a bottle of water with me everywhere I went since I was chronically dehydrated and never realized it. Instead of going out to drink all night only to wake up to a hangover, I stayed in with friends to watch a movie. I started thinking good things about myself instead of thinking that I was an all-consuming piece of garbage. I would tell myself out loud in the mirror everyday what I liked about myself. I stopped taking diet pills, stopped drinking a pot of coffee a day, and stopped pinching my sides while I ate. I still felt that itch, the tingle of pain and pleasure that was giving in to the overconsumption of foods. I had been so extreme and so harmful to myself; I thought I would never feel better. I didn’t even know who I was without these things in my life. I defined myself by my eating habits- they governed my thoughts, my body, my soul, and without them, would I even like who I was? But I realized the truth, which was that I didn’t like myself while restricting my diet, either. There had to be more to life than my rituals around food and body.
This is where I decided to turn my addiction to food into something healthy and positive. I had always been a pretty good cook, and I had a camera so why not start a plant-based recipe blog? Sprouts & Chocolate was born out of my desire to see food differently, to not be emotionally dependent on it. I knew nothing about blogging, how social media, or even the Internet worked but I wanted to take my negative feelings about food and turn them into something with passion and positivity. Working on my food blog has taught me that food can shamelessly pleasure the body and the soul. I could enjoy what I was eating, decadent or not, without the guilt of feeling disobedient. Though I have never discussed my disordered eating on my site, it has transformed the way I see food, turning it from a shameful secret to public sharing. No food is inherently dirty or clean and when I bake up some awesome cookies or a crazy healthy salad, I can now eat it without mentally running through a calorie count.
Before, it was perfection or destruction and nothing in between. Finding balance is a practice, and one that I continue to aim for every day. Some days are awesome and I feel great about myself, my body, and my life. Other days, I look in the mirror and ask myself, “Who the fuck are you?”
My recovery has taught me that I do not have to feel great every single day. Having moments of imperfection is- dare I say- normal! Shitty days happen but it is what you do with yourself on your bad days that is important. Over and underrating were tactics I used to temporarily make myself feel better, but of course the satisfaction never lasted. Now my behaviour has changed to actually take care of myself and my emotions instead of stuffing or starving them. I don’t turn to consuming as much as I can in a short time to feel better- I curl up in bed and read a book, turn off my phone and take a bath, go for a short run or literally just lay on the floor and do nothing. My behaviour now takes care of my body and my soul, because it is kind as opposed to punishing. My weight has stopped effecting my happiness and I give a big ol’ mental “fuck you” to those who question the confidence I have in myself, like how dare I feel good about my body*.
*Lacy said those exact words in her seminar and I will never forget them.
I may be at my heaviest, but I also at my happiest and that is worth something.
If you are feeling down about yourself, have anxiety around food, and don’t know where to start or how to start, reach out! Meeting Lacy for those 10 minutes at the end of a seminar has been the most soul stirring, cathartic, and healing moments in my disordered eating journey to recovery. It took just one person to listen to what I was saying and respond thoughtfully with no judgments for me to feel understood and worthy of my feelings.
Are you crying?! I am totally fucking crying. Jessica, you are amazing and brave and I am SO honored to host you!
For more from Jessica, visit her in the following places:
Have an amazing weekend!
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.
Today I have a very special guest poster, my friend Molly Merson. She is here to talk to you a bit more about her personal experience with the power of rest days (in her case, three weeks of rest days post surgery.) She is wonderful, articulate, and clearly strong as hell. Here is her demonstrating that statement with a 200 lb. backsquat:
If that doesn’t get you pumped up, I don’t know what will. Without further ado, here’s Molly!
On Saturday, I finally hit that PR (personal record, in case you’re not as obsessed with CrossFit as I am) I’d been training for over the last four months: a 200 lb. back squat. It took a while that morning– I cried, I hyperventilated, I felt the familiar butterflies of a panic attack tickle my chest and the bottom of my throat . I knew could do 185 lbs., but 200?? That was insane and huge and I’d never get it. My usual mantra of “just go down, then go up!” didn’t seem to be soothing me anymore.
After pacing in circles and a lot of encouragement from my coach, and figuring that even if I broke my back I was going to be in the hospital on Monday anyway, I went for it. And I made it. It was fucking awesome.
Two days later, at 8:15am, the anesthesiologist placed a mask over my face, and I went under for surgery.
Three hours passed before I woke up one hairy, toothy, ovarian cyst lighter- and was thrilled about my skilled and beautiful doctor having been able to keep both of my ovaries intact. (My back was fine, by the way.) She had warned me a month before the procedure that she might have to remove the ovary, and she might have to incise my abdominal muscles, rendering me unable to lift for six months. The anesthetic process (including the steroids they gave me to wake me) plus the good news—I have my ovary! I can lift again!—made me uncharacteristically ecstatic, even as I was knowingly staring down three weeks of very limited movement.
Leading up to the surgery, I did CrossFit three times a week, and was working on my second Hatch squat program twice a week. I was also offering personal training sessions to help make some extra cash and to help me gain skills and experience in what it was like to train someone. My gym had invited me to participate in their coaching intern program, and I was starting to build a second life out of movement. I considered this to be a “healthy” relationship with exercise, because I had learned to base my identity in part on what my body could do instead of how much it weighed or whether I had a belly pooch (I did) or whether my arms and shoulders could fit inside standard shirtsleeves (they couldn’t). It became ok for my body to just exist as it was, because I knew my pull-up numbers and how much I could power clean. I was using CrossFit as a way to regulate my punitive and disordered eating patterns, and it was fucking beautiful. I’d never been happier and more peaceful in my body.
The cyst was discovered in April, diagnosed as a dermoid (thankfully not cancerous- I have a family history of ovarian cancer, and that’s why I asked for the ultrasound in the first place) in May, and I went in for the surgery the last day of June. I had a month and a half to think about all of this, and what it could do to my life to suddenly not be able to lift heavy weights. That’s when I started realizing that I’ve still been actively dancing with my self-destruction around food and exercise.
Even though I thought we’d broken the relationship off, apparently we’d been Facebook-stalking each other, because here I was right back in the mindset of: “If I don’t work out, everything I eat is going to hurt me and make me feel bad. Other people will see I am bad. I won’t be able to do any of the things I want to do in my life and everyone will see what a shitty, lazy, horrible person I am.” As soon as I could identify that voice in my head, I realized I needed more than what I’d been giving myself. I’d simply assumed that because it was working for me to pay attention to my workouts and my body: taking real rest days where I lazed about in bed and barely even walked the dog; never ever pushing myself into the “red” zone in my workouts, always noticing my heart rate and breathing as a place to come back to mindfully; eating what I wanted when I wanted to (because food is fuel! And delicious! And not a punitive thing anymore!!); focusing more on getting strong than on metcons—all of this made me believe that I was Recovered from my disordered eating and body punishment. But what happens when what I do does not involve remarkable feats of strength? What if what I do is RECOVER from INVASIVE SURGERY? Isn’t that what this all is, anyway? Recovering from invasive and destructive messages about my self-worth, what belongs and what doesn’t belong, who I am and who I’m not?
Staring down three weeks of zero-to-limited movement reminded me that eating disorder and self/body-hatred recovery is a process, one that is very much life-long. While these parts of me may be lying dormant, they’re still very much living parts of me. They are of course here to protect me in their fucked up and toxic ways (for example, this part of me—so young!—still believes that I need to be small and easily overlooked in order to survive). But these messages are hurtful to the part of me that is learning to love myself. And yet, there is information here. When this internalized shame and oppression rears its head and starts to attack me, I know it’s time to dive into the parts of me that are feeling scared, lost, alone, and overwhelmed. Those parts are easy to overlook because they’re uncomfortable, and they can feel so expansive and make me feel so small and powerless. Like the child I used to be—small and powerless. Except that I wasn’t wrong to believe that all the work I’ve been doing—years of therapy, CrossFit, self-love and forgiveness work, and becoming a psychotherapist myself—is actually helping me. It is. It’s just that sometimes the things I used to do aren’t soothing in the same way anymore, and I need to pay a little more attention than usual to loving myself.
While I was in the first week of my surgery recovery, my sweet dog stayed close by my side, showing her fuzzy belly and reminding me to relax. I was surrounded with people who love me and want me to heal. People brought food, stayed overnight with me, cooked me meals and attended to me when I needed my pillows adjusted. They helped me pick things up and put them down again. They became my feats of strength.
I also picked up the book The Artist’s Way. It’s something I’d been meaning to read for years, and never found “the right time” to do it. Sitting on my bum in bed all day long seemed like as good a time as any. I started the practices outlined in the book, and already can feel my intuition and self-love growing. I also continued to process all of my feelings in my own personal therapy. And it hit me, again, this power I have: To touch the part of myself that feels powerless, and remind myself: I’m not alone.
That’s better than any PR, any day of the week: To know even while feeling deep into my fear, my sadness, my anxiety, and my shame: I am right here with me, able and capable of bringing love into the anger, and vulnerability—like my little dog’s belly—into the fire of self-hatred.
Molly Merson, MA, MFT is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist with a private practice in Berkeley, CA. She provides compassionate and thoughtful psychotherapy for people who are struggling with learning how to love themselves. You can find more about her at www.mollymerson.com. She is also an avid CrossFitter and is learning how to be a CrossFit coach. She loves movement, nature, gardening, walking meditation, her community, her puppy, and writing. She thinks Lacy is the bee’s knees, and that her blog and business provides a much-needed service to the world.