My Beef with “Fitspo” and the World of Exercise in General

As someone who has recovered (or is still recovering?) from an eating disorder, it’s infuriating for me to see these accounts on Instagram (under “Explore,” which suggests accounts for you) that sometimes showcase inspirational, transformative people who have overcome anorexia and/or bulimia and have become these really fit, healthy people.  They went from restrictive eating and/or binging and purging and intense cardio to lifting weights and increased calories, gaining twenty or thirty pounds in the process.  Sure, that’s great and I’m glad they no longer deprive themselves of food, but it’s also still problematic.  Here’s why:

Eating disorders do not only come in the form of restrictive eating.  Yes, it may be called an eating disorder, but eating disorders don’t only affect a person’s eating; an eating disorder is something that may affect every aspect of the person’s life.  An eating disorder doesn’t stop at the dinner table — it’s an entire lifestyle.  As someone who was bulimic for over five years, it is a lifestyle.  Mine started off as purging only what I deemed unhealthy (i.e., french fries, chips, baked goods, ice cream, etc.) and slowly progressed to purging anything that made me feel “overly full,” even if it was something like salad.  Eventually this escalated to purging almost anything, and I was purging about three times a day, at the least.  Family lunches and dinners around the holidays were especially stressful, coming from a Japanese family in Hawaii where almost everything is eaten with rice, and I couldn’t dismiss myself from our traditional New Year’s whole roasted pig, so I had to eat my fill and run off to the restroom immediately after.  Going out to eat at restaurants was a whole different monster as I would either need to make a meal out of an appetizer or force myself to only eat a quarter of my dish as to avoid needing to purge in public.  Sometimes I failed, and there were many times I had to try to hide the fact that I was indeed throwing up in the stall next to someone just trying to use the restroom like a normal person.  I got very good at being quiet, but it’s obvious you aren’t using the restroom when your feet are facing the toilet.  It becomes a lifestyle.  An eating disorder disallows you from freely enjoying food anywhere — work, school, home, out in public.  And as someone who loves to eat and who loves the culinary artistry, what is life without food?

I thought exercise would be something to cure my eating disorder.  “Okay, if I just exercise regularly, it’ll counteract the food I eat.”  Well, I was still restrictive and I wouldn’t allow myself to eat rice, noodles, chips, french fries, bread, peanut butter, etc.  Basically, all of my favorite foods.  On the days I did eat those things, I would either purge or force myself to go for a run.  I was running a minimum of four times a week and if I missed a morning run before school, I was fighting tears.  I also started a regiment of obsessively-counted squats, sit-ups, reverse crunches, leg lifts, etc.  I was sometimes late for school because of these.  The thing I thought would off-set my eating disorder and make me better was only a new addition to it which further complicated my relationship with myself.

I graduated college in 2016 and that was a very intense semester for me.  I was working 25 hours a week while taking fifteen credits, including my Senior Thesis and a non-introductory foreign language (Hindi).  The research for my thesis took up a lot of my time in addition to that professor’s regularly weekly readings of a minimum of 60 – 70 pages of really dry (yet interesting) court and other legal documents regarding the Nuremberg Trials and the International Military Tribunal for the Far East and related war crimes.  I had very little time for exercise but I was also determined to not fall off the wagon again (by this time I had gone about two or three months without purging).  I had also just completed my second marathon, so I was still in relatively good shape since I had spent the last six months of my life training.  By the time I graduated in May, I had gained almost fifteen pounds.  I was terrified of gaining more weight when I went to India in the Fall, but I managed to keep my purging to a bare minimum (maybe two or three times a month, down from three times a day) and I started running again during the summer.

As I prepared to leave for India, I needed a few medical clearances.  One form asked if I had received mental health counseling in the last two years, which I had.  I had to disclose to my University and academic advisor (who also happened to be the Resident Director for the particular Study Abroad Program) that I had multiple anxiety disorders.  No big deal, besides it being a little embarrassing.  Another form asked if I had ever been treated for an eating disorder.  My PCP was the person filling this form out, so he checked “no” because he didn’t know I had also been talking to my psychiatrist about an eating disorder.  I kept mum and went to India.

I lost about seven pounds within my first month there, which I’m attributing to the food there being way fresher than the food I eat at home, and most of it being vegetarian.  About a month after I arrived, my host family’s son took me to his gym and I signed up for a three-month term.  I started going twice or thrice a week, and eventually I would do my laundry accordingly, so I could go as often as possible.  Around October, I began going to the gym for up to three, almost four hours at a time.  I wouldn’t leave before I had hit two hours.  Even the gym personnel would suggest it was time for me to go home, but I would insist that I was fine and had the time and energy for two, three more rounds of circuit training, plus exercise classes (kick boxing, aerobic dance, power yoga).  This was then paired with re-introduced restrictive eating, and eventually, purging.  If I  felt I had overindulged at dinner and eaten one too many one-cup bowls of daal, I would run upstairs to purge, because in my head, one extra cup of daal undid three hours at the gym.  My friend, with whom I had all of my classes and  would catch the metro daily, would also tell me I was looking thinner and thinner and that I should probably cut back on the gym.  I said I was fine, but he said, “I exercise just as much as you in the morning, but I also eat more than you.  You’re looking thin and pale, please eat more.”  I don’t think eating disorders are as big of a problem in India, or that is not the impression I got.  I realized I was getting sick again, but I loved how I was starting to look after picking up almost fifteen pounds over five months.  By the end of my gym membership, I was back down to about one-hundred and six pounds and I loved how my body looked.  My three-month term was up and I didn’t want to pay for another three-month term when I would leave in a month, so my restrictive eating came back full force and if I had a roti at school for lunch, I couldn’t have any at home for dinner; if I did, I needed to purge it.  I was like this up until I  left.

When I came home, I was determined to stop.  I would exercise more and just let my body take its course.  My second semester of graduate school was even more stressful than my last semester as an undergraduate; the work load wasn’t as bad, but I wasn’t comprehending my work.  I spent just as much time just reading, re-reading, re-reading, and re-reading, and I took a break from exercising for pretty much the entire semester.  Miraculously, I was able to stick to my guns and I just told myself, repeatedly, and sometimes it was unfathomably difficult, that the anxiety about eating, the pain of throwing up when there’s nothing left in my stomach, burning my throat, depriving myself of nutrients, stressing myself out over something so trivial, was not worth it.  Whenever I would get the urge to purge, I would remind myself that I always wanted to cry while I was doing it.  When I wanted to binge, I would remind myself that the feeling of not “doing it well enough” felt worse than not eating to begin with.  I slipped up a couple times, but since I came back, I would say I’ve purged less than five times over almost seven months.  That’s impressive.  I still combat with the “need” to run.  I registered for the Honolulu Marathon again, so I do need to train, but I try not to be motivated by the need to burn calories.

I never got proper treatment for my eating disorder.  I tried, but the program I found here, even with insurance, would cost me almost three hundred dollars a week.  I couldn’t handle that financially, and I could not ask my parents as I had never told them I had an eating disorder to begin with (I come from a very mentally strong family of mostly women, so this would be mind-blowing to them).  I would have to attend every single day, and to be quite honest, I was put-off by what I perceived as force feeding (though I understand): each meal would include protein, starch/carbs, a caloric drink like soda or juice, and a dessert.  I couldn’t stand the thought of carbs, sugary drinks, and dessert, in addition to paying three hundred a week for it.  I knew it would help despite how uncomfortable it would make me, but I never followed up with the woman I spoke to.  My psychiatrist also said he was not qualified to treat eating disorders but that he would do his best.  I was extremely lucky and between the two of us, we were able to figure this out.  Very few people around me know about this.  I told my two best friends I had an eating disorder, and that was back in 2012.  I told my fiance the same thing, so they all think it stopped years ago, not a few months ago. I don’t think I’ve purged in about four months, which is probably a record for me.

Now I don’t know how much I weigh because I don’t check every day like I used to.  Sometimes I gasp at the doctor’s office and think the scale must be wrong, but there are things much worse than weighing almost one-hundred and fifteen pounds.  I still fit most of my clothes, save a few pairs of needlessly tight jeans.  I still feel guilt pangs when I eat a bagel or when I miss a run to watch something on Netflix, but it doesn’t drive me to the toilet, throwing up a scoop of rice and an egg.  I just tell myself, “Oh well, you won’t gain five pounds overnight.”  I still stress out about eating out too many times in a week, but I can control it.

In short, exercise and “gains” are not immediate cures for eating disorders in my eyes.  To me, exercise can serve as a new mask for an eating disorder.  All it is is a more active form of an eating disorder, one that parades around with the facade of healthiness and fitness, but underneath is fueled by the fear of gaining weight or gaining back weight.  Whenever I see those types of Instagram accounts, I question if the person can miss workouts during the week without feeling that really disgusting, turning feeling in their stomach telling them they’ve done something terrible, that missing a workout said something about their character and worthiness as a person.  I would not say I’ve completely recovered.  As I said, I still experience feelings of fear and guilt, just to a far, far, far lesser extent.  I don’t think someone ever really fully recovers from an eating disorder, but that may just be my opinion.  I think it’s extremely difficult to un-do that kind of thinking.  As I had also mentioned earlier, an eating disorder is an entire lifestyle, so it cannot be easily undone, or even with much difficultly.  Feelings that a person experienced during the eating disorder may still linger, just not as strongly.  I pity anyone who has ever gone through this.  There is a lot of strength in overcoming it, but that strength had to come from a bad place to begin with.  Nothing is worth the suffering an eating disorder brings.  I thought it was worth it because I was constantly complimented on my looks, and  I relished when it came from people who called me fat in high school.  It was a false ego boost and  I was far more insecure when I was a hundred pounds than I am now at probably one-fifteen.  An eating disorder needs to be treated with therapy, in my opinion.  An ED-affected person needs to have the workings of their mind changed, not their eating and exercise habits — a change in eating and exercising don’t come close enough.