Before I even start this post, I just want to say something to all of you who are going to get offended/upset by what I’m about to write: this post isn’t about you, the end user, and your choices. I’m … Continue reading
So, I don’t know if you’ve heard, or even if you care, but a few weeks ago, Oxygen Magazine declared bankruptcy. For those of you who never bought into the message that Oxygen and its sister magazine Clean Eating was … Continue reading
Hard to believe it, but it’s already Wednesday. I know it’s sort of out-of-character to post three days in a row, but Monday was International No Diet Day, and I’m feeling like extending the “Day” into a whole “Week.” Therefore, … Continue reading
Before you read today’s post, go download Finding Our Hunger Un-Podcast Episode 006: UN-Lived and leave us a review in iTunes! I’ve been having difficulty sitting down to write this post, probably because my day job involves sitting down to … Continue reading
So let’s bring this sexuality thing home: If I’m not mistaken (and I’m pretty sure I’m not), part of the reason that fitspo has gained so much traction is the concept that we’re all looking for motivation to help us … Continue reading
*Just a note for those of you who know my father, no, this has nothing to do with him or the Elektra complex. I’m talking about Eating Disorders, or ED for short, thankyouverymuch. During my very expensive mistake … Continue reading
Today, I just wanted to say a few words on the “strong is the new skinny” phenomenon, since it seems to have popped up in my life multiple times over the last few days.
And I know that the following is out of context if you don’t know the rest of the ankle-and-ED story, but bear with me, since it’s what I’m dealing with right now:
Right now, I am not strong. Right now, I can barely stand on my own two feet. Right now, I literally have no balance.
The infection in my ankle, the synovial inflammation, the atrophy of the muscles, the months of poor, compensating movement patterns–all of these things have kept me from pursuing my “strength” and “health” goals.
I am not fat, but I am not muscular. I am not large, but I no longer wear my “skinny jeans.” I am not unhealthy, but I am not fit.
HOWEVER: I am deconditioned, but not decommissioned.
I am no longer able to do what I used to do, but I have been given a new agency: the power of acceptance. I have let my ankle be an excuse for why I couldn’t achieve the aesthetic goals I thought were so important, but in the end, it became an excuse for me to tell ED “no.” I can’t do hours of cardio. I can’t even go swimming. There is no outlet for my obsession, and so I have had to learn instead how to cope.
And in learning how to cope, I opened my eyes to the Monster in the Mirror who was terrorizing me with images of fitness models and unrealistic goals. I opened my eyes and looked at some of the women who are competing and realized how thin and sickly they look. They are “strong” and they are “skinny,” but I know all too well that somewhere, gestating inside of them, are the seeds of malnutrition, adrenal fatigue and hormonal imbalance, and mental/emotional disorders such as BDD and ED.
I know, because even though I never had the chance to compete, I was there with them. I have all of those problems because I allowed myself to believe that I had to fit an ideal–not of the waif-like skinny models of the 90s, but of the 0% body fat fitness models of the millennium.
Yes, strong is important. But strength has nothing to do with an aesthetic ideal. Strength–and health–can happen even without fasted cardio and tupperwares full of boiled chicken and steamed broccoli. And, yes, I still think muscles are sexy; however at this point, I’ve been forced to accept that it’s not about body fat levels or lack of cellulite, it’s about nourishing my body enough to survive until tomorrow, and as many tomorrows as I can after that one.
I also opened my eyes to the “regular” women (and men) I know, who post and tweet and talk about eating less and exercising more and how fat they think they look. All of the negative self-talk, all of the unnecessary worrying…wouldn’t life be so much better if they could learn to appreciate, nourish, and augment the strength they are already capable of?
Yes, being strong is an admirable goal, but what is strength without balance?* What is weight loss/gain without confidence? What is life without happiness? Where is the strength in a world dedicated to ED?**
I spoke to a woman the other day who couldn’t understand why I was against the fitspo images of “strong is the new skinny.” She is strong, and she is proud of her muscles. And she has every right to be. But for her, muscles are a means to improving athletic performance, not augmenting the clothes she wears. She is concerned with how many pounds she can lift in so much time, not by how much her triceps “pop” in a sleeveless shirt. She uses her abs instead of looking at them. Every person should be so lucky to have that kind of relationship with his or her body. “Strong is the new skinny” makes us want to get fit because we want to look a certain way; the athletic/muscular performance is considered only a side effect.*** But right now, “strong is the new skinny” is something I am not and cannot be–and I am not alone in this.
Letting go of the look and striving for the be is the only cure. And that means letting go of the have to and the should. It means investing in a strength other than the one that ED offers–call it a spiritual strength, call it an emotional strength, but call it anything but “strong is the new skinny.”
With my injury, I have lost the ability to train the way I used to. Even the basics are less available to me as I try to keep the inflammation in my body down (and let the antibiotics do their work). It has been a long time since I have been able to devote hours to the gym, but I have made do. And I am still strong.
No, I can’t do a pull up, but I am still strong enough to chin. No, I can’t run a mile, but I can hold a plank for 2 minutes. I will celebrate whatever strength my body will let me have while I heal, and I will be gentle with myself until I can get my ankle strong again.
That’s the kind of strength I can believe in–and skinny be damned.
*And I’m not just talking about being able to do an overhead press while standing on a bosu ball…
**Even if you don’t have a clinically diagnosed ED, by continuing, spreading, and promoting the negative self-talk, the abnormal and unattainable body ideals, and transmutation of health and wellness into aesthetic goals, you’re helping keep ED alive–even in your own life.
***I’m sure if personal trainers+ had a dollar for every client who came to them seeking to look better and then complained about having to work out, training would be a much better paid profession. If you go to the gym because you want to look a certain way but hate every second of it, there’s something wrong. Find a way to be active that makes you happy, and the aesthetics will follow.
+To clarify, I’m talking about general population trainers, not specialized trainers like strength coaches, athletic coaches, physical therapists, etc.
Before I get started with the (red) meat of today’s post, I just wanted to thank those of you who have reached out to me about your own struggles with ED, food, and body image. I know how difficult it can be to tell others about your struggles or to ask for help, and, frankly, I’m amazed by how many of us are out there.
It’s funny: when we suffer from ED, we see ourselves imprisoned in this horrible, dark, windowless tower, hidden from rescue, alone and miserable. But in reality, those metaphorical towers are all lined up, one next to the other–windowless, perhaps, but not impervious to sound.
So if you find yourself alone, allowing your jailor ED to make you waste–your body, your life–away, call out. Chances are, someone else–someone just one tower to the right or left–will hear you. And you will know that you are not alone. Together, you have hope.
(And please, if you ever need to call out, my tower isn’t that far away. In fact, I’ve started carving windows into it, and I can see that there is light outside. Don’t hesitate to call, text, facebook message, comment, tweet…just reach out. I’m here.)
Ask any truly knowledgable fitness professional about lifting your one rep max, and they’ll probably advise that you don’t attempt it too often. It’s something you aim to increase and improve, sure, but not a feat you seek to pull off every day. It’s an extreme act, meant to be performed in moderation.
In a way, my life had become a poorly executed one rep max: extreme and ultimately unsustainable in the long term.
My nightly excursions to hear the MT’s band play or to sing karaoke with my coworkers–often followed by all nighters and a nine-hour shift at work–were beginning to take their toll on me. Moreover, I had been promoted to full time at work (and given a semi-promotion that involved the same amount of pay for more responsibilities and a ton of extra stress), and I was no longer working out. My diet consisted mainly of apples, egg whites and protein powders laced with acesulfame-K. (Okay, I also ate a lot of peanut and almond butter and deliberately turned a blind eye while I over-measured the 2 tbsp portions).
I started putting on weight. My pants were getting tighter and tighter, and I felt uncomfortable in my own body. I needed new motivation to get back into the gym and get skinny again.
ED suggested that I revisit my bikini-body dreams. So I hired an IFBB pro to train me.
Darrem Charles was one of the trainers at my gym. He had worked with amazing competitors like Erin Stern, and we had struck up conversation after he noticed me doing my daily squats/deadlifts/plyos before my back injury.
My first training session left me with DOMS* like I will never forget: I was in so much pain that I spent both of my fifteens at work and my hour-long lunch in the service hallway, attempting to loosen my knotted muscles with a tennis ball. I didn’t let that faze me though. I was thrilled to be working with Darrem, eagerly anticipating the body that we were going to build together. ED was nearly jumping out of my skin with excitement.
And then my mother moved to California.
Mind you, I was living with her rent-free while I tried to rebuild my life with retail, so when she moved, it forced me to go back into the real world and start to fend for myself like an adult.
Fortunately (or so I thought), I had become incredibly close with two of the guys at work. I considered them my best friends, and they were both also in need of a new place to live. We three found what can only be described as a dream house, and decided to move in together.
The only downside that I could see was that I had to give up my training sessions if I wanted to pay the rent.
I signed up at a new gym close to the dream house, and I prepared to take matters into my own hands. I was going to shape myself into a bikini competitor if it killed me.
Things were looking up, and I was going to hit a new PR. What I didn’t realize was that I had already passed my one rep max, and things were about to change drastically.
*Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness
It’s difficult to adequately describe the absolute physiological and mental agony of anxiety if you’ve never experienced an attack; however, suffice it to say that I suffered from the throat-closing, chest-crushing, dizzy/nauseous symptoms* from the moment I got the email inviting me to interview for my retail job to the moment I met the store leader.
I was fortunate to, for whatever reason, completely circumvent the entire hiring process and just meet with the store leader at the mall directly. (Normally, the company makes you go through several rounds of group interviews over several days at a hiring event.) I spoke with her for about half an hour, and, rather than invite me back to meet with a second manager another day, she pulled a manager and had me interview with him right then and there. Two days later, I came back to meet with the head of our market, and by the following day had an invitation to come in and fill out my paperwork.
I was both delighted and devastated.
Here I was, technological know-nothing with no sales experience and an eating disorder keeping me prisoner in my own house. How was I going to function as a high-volume sales rep–and, more importantly, how was I going to continue my eating habits while working retail hours?** (Not to mention the fact that I had gone from 21-year-old high school teaching rock star to 23-year-old part-time retail employee who had completely failed to live up to her prep school’s Ivy League expectations.)
I wanted to die.
The good news (?) was, if I continued on my “health” trajectory, I was going to.
A visit to the physician brought me some disturbing news: I was 112 lbs and severly underweight. I had dropped below 15% body fat (somewhere around 12%), and was testing positive for osteopenia, bradycardia, and secondary amenorrhea. That meant I was at risk and on track for osteoporosis, heart failure, and an early menopause. In other words, I had turned myself into an old woman. Death couldn’t be that far away.
I’ll admit that scared me.
Unfulfilled threats of suicide are one thing, but complete and impending physical failure are quite another.
I didn’t know what to do, so I did the only thing I could: go to work.
And work, my friends, is what saved me.
On the morning that I left for the first of my three days of corporate employee training, I told my mom to kill me if I came home having drunk the “Kool-Aid.” She didn’t kill me, but I drank that metaphorical Kool-Aid with the fervor of a three-year-old on a sugar binge. There was something absolutely compelling–a sense of purpose and a company culture of openness and forward-motion, perhaps–that made me feel almost high every time I clocked in.
It turns out, I was very good at retail. And being good at something was fun. Although I was still freaked out about downing my whey-protein-cottage-cheese-and-spinach shakes on time, the very act of working at my new job calmed some of the anxiety. I felt needed. I felt useful. I felt okay for the first time in months.
And though I had the opportunity to train to become a staff personal trainer at the gym where I still worked three days per week, I quit. I wanted to commit to my new Kool-Aid job and work my way toward a full time position as quickly as I could. I never wanted to leave.***
*These are the same symptoms that led my pediatrician to misdiagnose me with asthma in the 6th grade. I’ll touch on the issue with anxiety in another post, I’m sure.
**I tweeted about my concerns (as whimsically Millennial as that sounds), and I was answered by one of the fitness models and pro figure competitors who I followed. Apparently she had done the retail/fitness thing, and had lived to tell the tale. While her answer wasn’t a complete panacea, it certainly did a little to alleviate my immediate concerns. I mean, if she could do it, then why couldn’t I?
*** On the days I worked, I hated sitting at home and waiting to put on my uniform, so I’d leave early and wait outside of the store until I could go in. In fact, I used to show up at the mall on my days off just so I could say, “hi,” and make sure that the store was still functioning without me. After a few months of this, one of my managers actually yelled at me to go home when I showed up unscheduled on a Saturday.
Imagine that you were afraid of spiders. Not just “get-your-roommate-to-squash-it-with-a-shoe-because-you’re-too-scared-to-do-it-yourself,” but also “too-scared-to-venture-out-of-the-house-without-a-can-of-RAID-just-in-case.” The kind of afraid that leaves you physically unable to function at the very thought of leaving the house and entering a world where spiders could potentially jump out at you from any corner or fall on your head as you walked through your front door. Sounds like a pretty miserable existence, right?
Well, by mid-summer 2010, life outside of my kitchen had become a giant effing spider.
By late July, ED and I had taken up residence in the corner of the kitchen. We two spent nearly all of our waking hours standing at the counter and surfing bodybuilding and fitness meal plan blogs.* Even when I wanted to leave, I had nowhere to go–the other areas of my house were filled with mirrors (from which ED would leer at my not-yet-perfect body), and to leave the kitchen meant that I was separated from my food. To go anywhere but the gym would send me into a panic that left me nearly incapacitated and suicidal.
At the suggestion of my poor, beleaguered psychologist in NYC (and much encouraged by my parents), I found a therapist who practiced “Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.” I figured I would try it, since CBT is intended to help lessen anxiety through exposure.
To give you an idea of how CBT works, we can use our fear-of-spiders example: In the first few sessions, you might talk about spiders. Eventually your therapist might bring in a picture of a spider. Soon, you’d have your sessions with an actual spider in a cage on the other side of the room. Perhaps one day you’d be able to go up to the cage, or even touch the spider.
For me, CBT meant leaving my house for something other than a trip to the gym or Publix. CBT meant attending group sessions and building relationships with the other women who attended. CBT meant being okay with leaving the house without a cooler filled with snacks just in case. CBT also meant letting go of my obsession with becoming a bikini competitor.
The problem with therapy was that, while I wanted help, I was still in love with the ideas that ED had planted in my head. Why couldn’t I be healthy and also a Bikini competitor? If the way I was behaving was keeping me thin, what would happen to me if I gave up those behaviors? Though I wanted help, I wasn’t ready for it.**
I argued with my therapist in every session. I attended the group CBT classes grudgingly, and I refused my therapist’s repeated assertions that I should come to her weekend eating disorder meetings. I had no faith in her methods; she was beautiful but overweight, and therefore a repulsive example of what I could become if I listened to her. She and I disagreed on what foods could be considered “carbs” (she said that vegetables weren’t carbohydrates, and her ignorance made me hate her). She wanted me to go out and make friends. I wanted to stay in and build muscle.
She wanted me to go to a physician so that she could have tests run to prove that I was an anorexic. But first, I needed insurance. And that meant I needed a job.
I had been putting my resume out various places, and was finally hired by a gym to work the front desk. This was a part-time, no benefits position, but at least if I had to go out I was going somewhere I felt comfortable. At the gym, people understood me. There were bodybuilders who ate every three hours like me, men who brought in tupperwares of tuna and steamed broccoli or downed their whey protein during their 15 minute post-exercise window for optimal protein uptake by the muscles. There were the spin and boot camp devotees who were as addicted to their post-cardio endorphin highs as any druggie. There were the women who would stop me in the locker room and beg me to tell them my “secret” for looking “so fit.” (And I would smirk, because I knew that no one else had the dedication to do what I was doing, so they would never be as thin as I was.)
I would wake up at 4 am, get to the gym by 4:30, have the coffee brewing and the doors open by 5, make small talk with the old men who came to “work out” (read: do a couple of pec-deck flyes and then socialize for a few hours before going home), and then exercise as soon as my shift ended at 10. It was an almost perfect arrangement. I just needed that insurance.
As August drew to a close, I got an email inviting me to interview for a part time retail position. This wasn’t just any retail position, however; this was a position with a Very Important Technology Company. One that doesn’t just grant interviews willy-nilly, and one that even more rarely grants the interviewee a job. Since I had no background in either sales or technology, I was ready to write this one off.
But I went to the interview anyway. Just in case.
*So many of these blogs were just thinspo/pro-ana in disguise–often unbeknownst to the women who where writing them. Looking back at my bookmarked and most-visited pages now, I realize just how sick so many of these women actually are. It’s one thing to have a healthy interest in food and its effects on the body/body composition, and it’s another to spend one’s entire day obsessing about manipulating macronutrients and photographing tupperwares filled with protein powder pudding.
**If you’re in the same place I was–where you can acknowledge that you have a problem but aren’t yet ready to change–don’t despair! If you can, try to find a therapist or a person who you can talk to. Sometimes, just talking helps. Eventually, you will be ready to accept change, progress, and hope for your future.