Sunday, September 18, 2022

How my Body Image Changed as I Gained Weight in ED Recovery

My body image changed during my eating disorder recovery, as I gained weight and I approached a healthy BMI. It changed even as I then maintained this new healthy weight. So did the body dysmorphia that characterised my eating disorder simply disappear with time? Did I magically start loving myself during this process of rediscovery? Well, not quite... 

You see, gaining weight is not the panacea. It did not solve all of my problems, nor all of my body image concerns. Sure, it definitely impacted my body image to some extent, but not necessarily and immediately in a way that made me love myself or even trust that I ever would.

While not all eating disorders are characterised by weight loss, mine was. I never felt 'too big' per se, but I never really liked my body either. As I then embarked on my recovery weight gain journey, I went from being skinny and not liking my body (societally a pretty acceptable place to be) to gaining weight and not liking my body (societally a very odd place to purposefully put myself in), and ultimately to being a 'normal' weight and still feeling, well, not madly in love with my appearance. 

Whilst I knew that the transition from ill to healthy would be a difficult one -- particularly with slow weight redistribution, water retention, and lots of change! -- I had always been convinced that once I'd reach my healthy weight everything would fall into place again. But then of course it didn't. I was now healthy, still struggling, and I feared that this all made my struggles invalid because I was no longer explicitly outwardly unwell. 

Initially, this drew me in completely. What could I do to 'fix' things? Why weren't things 'fixed' already? What steps did I need to take? I tried to challenge my thoughts and rewire my brain. I started gratefulness journalling and tracking my achievements and writing down the things I'd done that I was proud of. To some extent, this helped. But I still had bad days and bad weeks and bad times and I did everything in the book to try and 'fix' this. When I failed, I tried and tried again. Why didn't things improve? 

Some while later, I felt like it was all futile and I let it be. I moved on. Surprisingly, it is once I stopped putting in all of this effort and stopped caring -- once I let it be -- that things started to genuinely improve. It is once I let it be and got on with my life that my body image became a whole lot better than it had ever been. The exercises helped, but it is only once I let it be that my body image improved in leaps and bounds. 

The secret? I stopped giving a damn. It is only once other parts of my life started making up a bigger part of who I was that there was less and less space for the eating disorder and any of its remaining ailments. The eating disorder was, quite simply, crowded out by other more important things. 

  • When I realised that personality, generosity, and kindness were things I valued a whole lot more than a bloated tummy, this tummy no longer bothered me as much. 
  • When I realised that travelling, exercising, and socialising were things I enjoyed a whole lot more than hiding myself away, I distanced myself from  the old coping mechanisms that were no longer serving me (and replaced them with activities that actually benefit me). 
  • When I realised the body checking was pushing me down rather than appeasing my anxiety, I traded full-length mirrors for a tiny bathroom one and kept it at that. 
  • And when I acknowledged that this was the body I was stuck with (returning to the eating disorder had never crossed my mind as an option), I started living in it rather than living to change it. 

In simple terms, the eating disorder had made me unhappy about my body and had made me focus on this discontent excessively. Recovery did not magically make me unicorns-and-rainbows happy about every aspect of my weight and shape, but it took that focus and that pressure off

Ironically, by putting my recovery and my health first, focusing on it a great deal for chunk of time, I now barely spend a minute checking myself out in the mirror or considering what I’ll have for dinner or planning my exercise in advance (or anything else the eating disorder used to convince me were life or death decisions). The focus is now elsewhere, on things that I actually value and find important in my life. 

So, yes, you need to gain the weight. You need to do the work. You need to replace the old habits with new, healthier coping mechanisms. And then you need to keep this up, even if everything isn’t naturally ‘solved’, and even when it does feel uncomfortable. Find your passion, and you’ll find that one day your weight and body won’t hold the same ‘weight’ they did before. 

I definitely recommend journalling, and I recommend positive affirmations that shift your attention and your outlook (which, let's face it, may be quite negatively-biased right now). But once this is done, take the pressure off. 
  • Focus elsewhere.
  • Unfollow the social media accounts that are not serving you, and stop hanging out with the people who leave you feeling down in the dumps.
  • Importantly, STOP BODY CHECKING. 

Determine your priorities in life and then work towards them regardless of what your body looks like and regardless of how you feel about what your body looks like. 

To let go of the eating disorder, and everything it brought with it, I had to let go of control, to let go of one set weight ideal, and to allow my body to take me where it wanted (and wants) to take me. Without rigidly holding the reigns. I had to learn to listen to my body, both its needs and its wants. 

No one can promise happiness if you gain the required weight, but I can promise you that gaining this weight will lead to better health, and an improved chance at this happiness later on.

For me, that is enough.

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