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.

 

Progress…

Initially I started this Word Press as a way to talk about very personal things, like the anxiety, depression, and eating disorder I had been dealing with.  I tried to avoid using names of places or people, or showing my face, in order to avoid being identified should any of my friends – by some miracle – stumble upon this.

For the most part, I am doing a lot better.  My anxiety and depression are minimal now because: 1) my stressor is gone and 2) two and a half years of psychotherapy has really helped me.  I was taking Lexapro for about a year and a half (off and on, mostly because I’d forget).  There were times I did the bad thing that patients shouldn’t do and I’d take myself off because I thought I was doing better.  I’ve started taking it again just as a precaution by my therapist because I was really struggling here in India. A major stressor for me is lack of control, which, obviously, was something I needed to deal with here upon my arrival.  He and my fiance coordinated with each other to send my Lexapro and Xanax here.

I used to shut off completely sometimes because I couldn’t stop thinking.  It’s so tiring.  It nearly ruined my relationship on countless occasions.  I thought I was crazy and a terrible significant other but my therapist would tell me that because I recognized that what I was doing was wrong and felt remorse and shame (dumb things like going through my SO’s phone and computer, though for good reason, which I will not discuss here…), I wasn’t a bad person.  I was just trapped.  There were times I would need to bring myself back from the brink of crying at my desk at work.  At the time I was a receptionist at my work place so if I cried, someone would notice.  The worst time was probably 2014 – 2015 when I went through a really bad cutting phase.  Not all of them scarred, but there are 17 on my legs alone and three more on my arm.  One of the cuts on my arm, near my shoulder, badly keloided and I’ve just people that I cut my arm on a fence (somewhat believable since Hawaii has a lot of chainlink fences).  One episode was particularly bad that I called my therapist on the phone crying.  He said to come in and I said, “No I can’t today – I have to go to work in an hour.  I can’t call in now” and I went the next day.  My anxiety and depression kept me from going to India when I first decided I wanted to – and look, now I’m here, near thriving.

My fiance deserves a lot of praise for sticking with me.  I was very difficult to be with.  I was either really sweet or really terrible.  I accused him left and right of things and whenever I did propose that we end our relationship (whether I was sad, upset, or just apathetic) he would say, “Why?  Because you think you’re crazy?  Because you go through my things?  I don’t care.  I know how much you love me, I just know you get scared.  I don’t know how to fix it and I don’t know how to make you happy, but I’ll keep trying until you’re happy.”  On some occasions he’d sprinkle in, “I don’t understand your anxiety or depression and I don’t know how to make it better, but I’ll keep trying.  I know you think you’re making life harder for me but you aren’t, and I don’t want you to be alone during this.”  Every time we fought, even if it was my fault and even if he would muster up some sharp retorts for me, in the end, he would always motion for me to snuggle into his chest and he would say those kinds of things to me.  He’s the crazy one for wanting to marry me after all of that.

I look at old pictures of us sometimes (we’ve been together for 5+ years) and the photos that I like the most of myself are from the times I was the sickest, roughly 2012 – 2014.  During that time I was probably purging about 3 – 5 times a day no matter what I had eaten.  Pizza, doughnuts, chips, etc are the obvious ones.  But then I’d even purge salad, cereal, and yogurt.  But I was so thin and even now, it makes me sad that I don’t look like that anymore.  I’m not much heavier, but I just looked very different.  But I constantly remind myself that I wasn’t happy during that time and I could barely eat without feeling the need to throw up shortly after, and that is no way to live.  My mother had asked me about it once and I lied profusely.  She said I was too skinny and that my arms and shoulders looked like bones; I had dark circles under my eyes.  My biggest slip up was that I wouldn’t wait long enough before running to the restroom after eating.  She doesn’t think that I’d be weak enough for an eating disorder so she took my word.  My mom is a strong person, as are her sisters and my cousins, so she even had a hard time coming to grips with the fact that I am seeing a shrink.  But to be fair, I hid it from her for almost a year and a half and she only found out because she was nice and paid one of my bills, but under treatment was listed “psychotherapy.”  Of course she had questions.  My mother does not know I had an eating disorder for 5+ years.  My boyfriend knows, but I told him I was better in 2012 (only a year after it started).  The only other people who know are my therapist and best friend.

Before coming to India, I of course needed to submit paperwork for my health.  My records indicated that I had been seeing a psychiatrist, and I was a bit unnerved about that because my advisor would see those records and I hadn’t divulged to him that I had any mental health issues, despite how close we were.  One question asked, “Has the patient ever suffered from an eating disorder?”  The thing is, my general practitioner filled out these forms because he was the one who had to conduct the physical.  He didn’t know I had been seeking treatment for an eating disorder in addition to the anxiety and depression, so he just quickly checked “No.”  Up until the day of my physical, I had been thinking really hard about what I would do with that box.  I knew the eating disorder would challenge me here.  I don’t run to the bathroom to purge after every meal anymore and I haven’t since about May or June, but it’s so difficult.  I’m terrified of gaining weight.  I joined a gym near my home but this isn’t helping much either because although it is off-setting the desire to purge, I work out a lot more than I used to.  I go at least four times a week and stay for at least two hours each time, and for the rest of the day try to eat very little.  This obviously has repercussions the next day because I am tired during my workout and need to work harder.  I tell myself, “if you work out now you can eat whatever you want” but once I’m done, I don’t want to un-do the work I did so I try to stick only to eggs, fruits, and vegetables.  At dinner I always only allot myself one roti, maybe a tablespoon of rice, and the rest, I fill up on some dal but mostly veggies.  I recognize what is happening, because it happened before.  When I was my thinnest, between 2013 – 2014, it was because I was exercising a lot (I’d be on the verge of tears if I missed a run or work out) and on a very strict diet (i.e., barely eating and still purging).  But I miss that body so much, and I have to constantly remind myself that I was not happy.  I was thinner, but I was not happy.

I feel my body getting stronger, though.  Like I said, I’m barely heavier than I was at my thinnest, but it’s showing in different ways.  My arms aren’t as skinny, but they’re more toned.  The same goes for my legs.  Before, I just used to run and do some strength training.  Now I mostly do strength training with anywhere from 20 – 40 minutes of running.

My point is, despite all the trials I needed to go through to get here, I am happy where I am.  I try to avoid looking at old pictures of myself.  I’m usually able to make jokes about myself gaining weight.  I gained a lot of weight last semester — 10lbs! — because it was my last semester of undergraduate study and I was writing my senior thesis (27 pages on wartime Japan, “ultra-nationalism,” censorship, and oral histories from World War II) and applying for scholarships for India.  It was a fair trade though – I traded a lot of my workout time for my first ever 4.0 (it had always eluded me, and I usually ended semesters with a 3.7 or 3.8 or so).

Anyway…I doubt anyone reading this is also dealing with similar issues but if you are, don’t be afraid to seek help.  I put it off for five years.  And even a year into therapy, I would often lie to my therapist or stop talking just because I no longer felt like talking.  That’s obviously quite detrimental to psychotherapy.  It’s nothing to be embarrassed about and if people around you make you feel bad about it, those aren’t people you should be around.

 

Me Vs. Food

It’s been about a month since my last bulimic episode.  That’s a long time considering I suffered from it for about two and a half years.

This time last year was awful because of it.  Everyone everywhere knows how much eating takes place during the holidays.  First it’s Thanksgiving, a few weeks later it’s Christmas, and one week later, it’s New Years.  And favorite foods in Hawaii are so unhealthy, but just as delicious.  My dad’s family always has a full roast pork on New Years Day and the skin is so unhealthy but so, so, so tasty and crispy freshly cut.

Surprisingly, though, the thought of gaining weight hasn’t been weighing too heavily on my mind.  I can tell that I have gained weight (or lost muscle mass), but it isn’t bothering me nearly as much as I had imagined.  We ran the marathon on the 8th and since then, we haven’t really run.  I started doing pilates but I don’t have as much time for it now that I work full-time until I start school again.  I need to find time for it; I really enjoyed it and since I went off of Cassey Ho’s Blogilates videos, it’s easier because she talks during all of her videos.

But anyway, I think I’m doing well.  I don’t count calories anymore and I’m a lot happier eating whatever I want.  I still stay away from fast food meals (not the fries though!) and greasy foods in general.  Last week my friends, boyfriend, and I went to Hooter’s for our early Christmas dinner and I felt so sick for days after that.  I ate a plate of tater tots and one and a half parmesan garlic chicken sliders.  So.  Much.  Oil.  But, I love tater tots way too much and I still don’t really regret it.

I don’t know what clicked in my head.  This time last year, my eating disorder did get a little better because on Christmas Eve, I came down with the stomach flu and spent the entire night tossing and turning with body aches, and if not that, then in the bathroom throwing up or, you know.  And that entire night being spent throwing up until my stomach hurt because nothing else would come out made me realize that I did that on a daily basis.  I made myself throw up vital food intake on a daily basis because I had been made fun of for being fat in high school.  I weighed 98lbs around that time.  It got worse again, and got a little better after I got back from Washington in July.  And since mid-November or so, I haven’t made myself do it.  I threw up once last Sunday, but that was because I tried so hard to eat $62 worth of crab at Hoku’s breakfast brunch that my body just couldn’t take it.  As much as I love king crab legs, there’s only so much I can eat comfortably.

But, I am a lot happier.  Counting calories is a waste of time.  Two and a half years of bulimia naturally did make my appetite smaller, so it’s easier for me to control how much I eat now.  Bread and pasta were my deadly enemies before but since then, I’ve learned that eating them in small portions is fine, and I’ve even learned how to make no-knead bread (it’s pretty good if I do say so myself).  I can’t even explain how much I love bread.  I love the smell of freshly-baked bread, I love making it, I love the texture, I love its versatility.  Pasta, eh.  I can do without it.  I also used to eat A LOT of rice, as most Hawaii residents do.  I’ve learned to substitute rice for vegetables in most cases; however, spam, eggs, and rice or eggs, vienna sausage, and rice CANNOT be subbed for anything.  They need to be eaten with rice, I’m sorry.  It’s a breakfast staple here!  I also love waffles and I’ve learned that one waffle won’t kill me.  In fact, I ate a Belgian waffle for breakfast today.  I woke up craving one, so I drove to Aiea to get a strawberries & whip waffle from Koa Pancake House and I ate it in less than ten minutes.  Like the tater tots, I love waffles way too much and I don’t regret it one bit.

I think, though, I’ve learned that being stick-thin doesn’t make me pretty, and being a little thicker doesn’t make me ugly.  My boyfriend knew about my eating disorder a year in, but at the time, I had told him that I had gotten better.  So for a year and a half, I just hid it better.  Deceitful, yes, but I thought he’d be happier if I became thinner.  Let me say, he is not like that at all.  From the day we met, he’s constantly told me how beautiful, pretty, cute, sexy, adorable, witty, funny, intelligent, and kind I am (or that he thinks I am, anyway!).  He tells me on a daily basis that I’m pretty and he has for the two and a half years we’ve been together.  I just never believed him.  Maybe now I do.  We wake up in the morning and he’ll roll over, look at me, and tell me that he feels lucky to wake up next to me every morning.  This has happened for two and a half years, and I still thought I was fat and ugly.  How could I think that, right?  I’m not sure.

I’m not scared of gaining weight anymore and it feels so wonderful.  I don’t eat whatever I want, whenever I want, but I’ve just learned to eat in a smarter way and that sometimes, I’m not hungry, but simply bored.  I’ve learned to love running and exercising in general, and I’ve grown to love fruits (I’ve always loved veggies).  A chocolate cake is a chocolate cake, I don’t need to try one from five different restaurants.

The hardest part about my eating habits these days is being at work.  My work place is full of closet chefs and bakers.  In fact, my coworker is the one who gave me the recipe for the no-knead bread.  He’s a wonderful cook and makes fresh bread at work weekly.  I work in an office and there are always snacks, especially in my department.  There’s a desk designated solely for snacks.  One of the loan officer’s wives makes brownies all the time and gives us the brownie edges.  BROWNIE EDGES, the BEST part of the brownie!  He knows I like brownie edges so he’ll always give me the first pick.  Members are always bringing us malasadas, coco puffs, manapua, cake, pie, etc.  Not to mention staff just baking and bringing things to work.  Sometimes I’ll flat out say “No, I do not want cake” and I’ll get up to grab something and ONE minute later, there will be two slices of cake on my desk.  It’s my fault, everyone there knows I have a sweet tooth. 😛

I also really love cotton candy.  This is the one food my mom told me I cannot eat.  I’m 20 and she tells me I CANNOT eat cotton candy.  I’m 20, I can eat whatever I want!  Including tons and tons and tons of cotton candy.