Everything & nothing: what food, body, and mental health really affects
December 13, 2017
Content Warning: Eating disorders, mental health
Contradicting. I know. Navigating food and body issues, eating disorders, and anxiety is a tough road. Talking and writing about that road can be equally challenging. It’s not just hard because it demands a strange level of public vulnerability (it does) but because each one of those topics as its own complicated individual subject with layers of overlap and intersection. Every time I sit down to write about eating disorders, recovery, mental health or body love, in one respect, I end up with two or three new drafts on similar-but-different topics. When I write about eating disorder myths, I find myself wanting to talk about intersectionality in food and body discussions and the way in which conversations around eating disorders often exclude folks who don’t check the boxes: straight, white, or woman. When I write about finding food freedom for non-E.D. folks, I’m reminded of the problems with how we treat and categorize eating disorders in general, and then suddenly I’m headed down the path of the inherent flaws in using BMI for, well, anything.
You might be thinking that I’m just distracted ...and that could be a little true. More than my ping-pong thought process, though, is the aforementioned complication and intersectionality of it all. Eating disorders, mental health, body love, shame, vulnerability, self-care… it’s all a lot. Kinds of like pretty much any topic that involves humans and the brain, huh? There’s a lot buried here that we haven’t been talking about for a long time and, because of that, it can be sensitive.
BUT WE’VE GOT TO KEEP TALKING ABOUT IT.
One point I always come back to when bemoaning this never-ending spiral is how food and body issues carry a strange duality in the way they affect our lives. My history with eating disorders often feels like it touches every aspect of my life and none of it, all the same.
My eating disorder and recovery feels ever-present, even when it’s not actively affecting me. Those of you who struggle with other mental health issues like anxiety or depression probably understand this as well. My path to coping with E.D. is responsible for so much of who I am and how I interact with the world yet it does not define me. Like I said: complicated.
Here are some things my food and body journey both does and does not affect, at the same time.
1. My Feminism
There’s this feeling that creeps up somewhere in the journey with eating disorders that you're a “bad feminist.” This is simply not true. Just as having anxiety or depression cannot make you a bad feminist, either can E.D.
I have learned that my experience with eating disorders and anxiety can actually make me a better feminist as it's pushed me to start some of the conversations I mentioned in the introduction. When talking and learning about the way eating disorders can affect all folks – regardless of their size, gender identification or sexuality – I’m reminded of how important these conversations are. And that’s feminism too.
2. My “9-5” Job
I’ve been asked if I fear that talking about these issues openly because of how it could hinder me in future job searches. The answer is a flat and unwavering no. First because anyone that wouldn’t hire me because I have struggled/struggle with anxiety or an eating disorder isn’t someone I would want to work for. I realize I am speaking with a certain level of privilege in that I’d get to choose to work for someone but this brings me to my second point: mental health is and should be unavoidable in the work place. That's why talking about it is to important. Mental health can also directly influence physical health. At the end of the day, people need to show up mentally and physically able to work.
Days where my anxiety is high or my old eating-disorder thoughts are loud make working in a creative field tough. It’s mentally and physically exhausting and just plain distracting. However, the more I learn about coping with and discussing these kinds of shame-ridden topics, the better I become at handling conflicts, failures, and complex challenges in my work. Learning to employ the same intention, openness and understanding I use in this realm in my work relationships has resulted in better communication with my boss and clients and, as a result, better work. Am I saying you need to develop an eating disorder, body-hate, anxiety, or depression to become a better person in the office? No. But odds are you’ve got something challenging you to be a little more open and a little more understanding. Work with it.
3. My Relationship
Do normal couples check in with each other’s mental health before the go to bed? I hope so... but maybe not? Do normal couples have to deal with one of the partners breaking into tears over a beautiful dinner of Beef Wellington? I really hope not. I do both of these things in my relationship (though I have to admit the crying over Beef Wellington thing was an isolated incident). I recently wrote a guest post about the early months of my relationship in which I said “I wanted to wear my heart – and my mental health, fears and insecurities – on my sleeve.” And that’s exactly what I've been doing. My current relationship is marked by an openness around eating disorder recovery, and my overall mental, physical, and spiritual well being, that I’d never have dared explore before. For every moment of vulnerability and weakness, I’m met with a twofold increase in the “normal” moments I used to miss out on. By paving a path to discuss my boundaries, food fears, and limitations, I’ve found myself agreeing to new experiences, enjoying dates, and being present in the moments both big and small. The best part? Once you breach the awkward borders of openness, you don't have to worry about letting yourself be seen.
4. My Day-to-Day Life
I once told my therapist that recovering from E.D. sometimes felt like more work than struggling with one because I couldn’t stop questioning all of my choices. Do I actually like sweet potatoes? Or am I just eating them because I became accustomed to them as safe? Do I actually enjoy walking the dog? Or am I just so accustomed to looking for opportunities to move? Do I even want to be blogging and taking photos? Or have all of my life choices been shaped by my eating disorder and mental health?
Well, the answer to the last question is kind of a yes. It has. And that’s okay. There’s a lot of great works on how to manifest the painful experiences you’ve gone through into something positive. I love the Recovery Warriors episode with Brandilyn Tebo’s take on this. Healing yourself doesn’t always mean rejecting everything form your so-called “past life.” Some times the path of least resistance is exactly what you need. When it comes to food, it’s still okay to eat what you like even if those items were present in your disordered or restricted eating days. The focus here should move to how and why you’re eating them. Are they serving you? This same mentality applies to your hobbies, habits or otherwise that might be attached to your different moments in your mental health journey.
You can question why you’re walking the dog but you can also just walk the dog, watch him play in the falling snow, and be washed by gratitude for all the everythings and nothings that you have to question.
Do you feel this duality in your journey with mental health or body-acceptance? Do you want to hear about a specific instance I've felt this? Are there topics related to anxiety, E.D., eating and self you'd like to tackle together? Leave a comment below!
(as always: when in doubt therapist-or-help-line it out)