Diet, exercise and why I'm no longer trying to stay ‘small’
Updated: Sep 23, 2021
It's hard for me to realize the full extent of time, effort, pain and stress that I’ve exerted over the years trying to stay thin. I cannot believe how long I have tried to control and micromanage my body. But then, like any other pattern in my life that I examine closely, when I look deeper, it makes perfect sense. This awareness has been gradually unfolding for me over the past few years as I’ve begun to slowly uncover and heal from decades of controlled eating, exercise fixation and an overall obsession with weight and body image.
Beginning to peel back the curtain on the underlying beliefs about my body has felt challenging to say the least, as well as shocking, frustrating and confusing and disorienting. For most of my life I genuinely had no idea that they were even there. They were such an accepted and normal part of my every day existance that I wasn't even aware I had them. I am not trying to guilt or shame myself for this. I understand now why they existed, and that helps. It helps to recognize the narratives that have run so deeply through my psyche for so long. After all, you can't free yourself from a prison that you're not even aware that you are in. If I could go back twenty years and tell my 14 year old self one thing it would be this:
'always question the things that society tells you will get you the love you so desperately crave'.
For most of my life, I thought I was doing things so right. I have always considered myself to be a very healthy person - and on the surface I was. I exercised regularly, I ate low fat, nutrient dense food, I took pride in making sure I was following public health guidelines around exercise and weight management. But underneath all of that, was a deep suffering and a pain that no one, not even myself could truly see.
You see, I grew up in the 90s, when diet culture, fat phobia and ideas around health were hugely attributed to BMI. I absorbed that information and those belief systems like a sponge, soaking them in from a young age through the shows I watched, the magazines and I read, and the subtle and not to subtle conversations that were everywhere I went - at school, from teachers and peers, at home from family members and throughout the media I was consuming. The message: thin = healthy, good, worthy of love, ‘fat’ = unhealthy, bad, unlovable.
Looking back on it now, it blows my mind how ingrained and normalized these messages were. When you look at it objectively, you realize how insane it truly is. I didn't know that there was anything wrong about my eighth grade teacher announcing to the class that she was going to get running pants that would increase her sweat outtake so that she would lose weight, or with my aunt making a pig face when I prepared Mac and Cheese as a child, suggesting that this food would ultimately 'make me fat', or my middle school friends pinching the thin layer of skin on their bellies, renouncing bread for the foreseeable future. The messages ran deep - deep to the point that I would find myself, as a thirteen year old, stick thin girl, staring into the freezer as I reached for the ice-cream and thinking to myself 'I will eat this now, but the moment I begin gaining any weight I will stop...'
I thought what I was doing was noble, and it was celebrated as such. I took pride in my daily runs and visits to the gym. Peers and family members would salute my exercise regimen and I was praised by coaches and teachers for 'taking care of my body'. I wanted to be healthy. I wanted to be strong. I wanted to be fit. The problem was, emotionally, not much about what I was doing was healthy for me. Sure, exercise is important, but rather than doing it out of care and love for myself, I was approaching it from a place of control, dominance and numbing. Intention is everything.
I didn’t think that there was any harm in my behaviour. I have always been very small in stature (the 'correct' body type by society's standards) with a large amount of thin privelege. I had muscle tone, appeared fit and was encouraged to continue to 'take care' of that. What I didn't see was how completely consumed my life had become with how much I exercised and ate - so much of my thinking and energy wrapped around ensuring that my body achieved a specific beauty standard. There was just no space for entering into a dialogue or a healthy relationship with my body. I was too dissociated from it, numb, angry and forcing it to do what I wanted it to do - stay thin, stay worthy, stay lovable.
Looking back now, I can see that exercise was the first addiction that I ever developed in my life. I feel slightly proud of this as it was an extremely adaptive behaviour that was highly praised by those around me. I wanted to be good, after all. You wouldn’t know that what I was doing was actually a version of self harm because of the way that it appeared and how it mirrored so many normalized, cultural belief systems around 'health and wellness'. Almost everything that I did was fixated on how/where I could get a workout in and how I would be able to force and maintain my 'thinness'. Hours and hours spent staring into a mirror, pulling my gut in, ensuring that I had that perfectly flat stomach, not a centimetre of fat in sight. I avoided 'fattening' foods like butter, cheese and anything deep fried - believing the social myth that 'fat' foods made you fat. It is hard for me to acknowledge that I did this to myself, even now. But beginning to explore these thoughts and behaviours has led me down a path of understanding about myself that goes back. Like, way back. Early childhood back.
What I’ve come to see for myself is that in order to truly understand behaviours around food and exercise (the compulsive types) I have had to move beyond surface level thinking around diet and body image and use a Trauma Informed perspective. I have had to understand how early relational patterns, developmental needs and nervous system responses all tie in to the decisions I am currently making, the behaviours I exhibit and the coping tools I so brilliantly and adaptively choose.
For me, restricting and controlling my body and diet was a survival strategy that allowed me to hold some semblance of safety in my life. Those behaviours gave me the sense that I had some form of control over what was happening around me, over making sure my needs for connection were met. Where I felt like I couldn’t control anything else, I could control what was and was not going into my mouth. As my exploration of developmental/attachment psychology has progressed, I've begun to understand at a deeper level just how adaptive these behaviours truly were. Through studying the work of Dr. Gabor Mate I've learned that, as children, if we are not getting our emotional needs for safety, recognition and acknowledgement as our true, authentic selves met, the safest way for us to continue on is not to realize that our caretakers can't or won't meet those needs, it is to adopt the belief that there is something inherently wrong with us. We are dependent on our caregivers for our very survival. To understand that they can't meet our needs is too terrifying, too unbelievable, too destabilizing. If it is us that is the problem, well then, that is something that we can actually do something about. We can make our selves better. We can try harder. We can continuously change our behaviour in order to make ourselves more worthy of love. What better and more acceptable way to do so than to try to achieve a perfect body - though I can think of many other approaches that I tried, too. (*See perfectionism, in general).
In my own experiences, I have also been able to link my eating behaviours to nervous system function. I started to notice that I would use eating behaviours in order to either up-regulate or down-regulate my stress response as needed. Having grown up in a deeply stressful and unpredictable home environment, it was rare for my system to find a sense of safety and regulation. My stress response was groomed and primed for easy activation, making it difficult for me to achieve a sense of peace and stillness inside myself. After all, we learn how to regulate our stress response through our early relationships with our primary caregivers. In fact, one of the first ways that our nervous system becomes programmed towards regulation is while we are being breast fed by our mothers. Think about the soothing effect of the feeding on the baby, the oxytocin and dopamine flooding through its system, the gentle gaze/eye contact with the mother, the calm, warmth and safety. This early connection/attachment is what allows the 'rest and digest' branch of our nervous system to develop. Without this developmental requirement, we are stuck in a chronic stress response that we struggle to soothe. As Alanis Morissette sings in her recently released song 'Rest', 'We are a country desperate for the embryonic', and we will go about achieving this in any way that we find available to us.
Enter 'disordered' eating behaviours.
In my case, I believe that it was also my sensitivity and empathic nature that played a role. I have always felt things deeply and intensely - a superpower often viewed as a massive inconvenience by our production and consumption based culture. As a child, my big emotions were too much for the adults who hadn’t sat with their own. In order to get my attachment needs met I had to shut them off. I got the message, in order to be loved, you have to stay small, controlled, managed, suppressed. There was a protective voice inside my head reminding me that I had to stay ‘safe’ at all costs. I did that by:
Holding in. Suppressing. Perfecting. Containing. Controlling. Not having big, inconvenient feelings. Stuffing them down. Blocking them off. Keeping myself small and acceptable. Not rocking the boat. Not expressing emotions. Not showing my anger. Not being ‘too much’. Not being ‘too loud’. Adapting. Adopting. Being ‘good’. Being ‘nice’. Being ‘pretty’, ’delicate’, ‘fragile’. Doing the ‘right’ thing.
The list goes on and on. As I developed, I learned that if I could control my eating and my body shape I could block the flow of my emotions that I have been so afraid of and not risk rejection from the people who I needed the most to survive - my caregivers, my peers, my culture. AND, like any other coping strategy, it worked brilliantly, until it didn't.
Gradually, my nervous system became overtaxed and the obsessive exercise proved to be too much. The stress hormones that I had been running on for so long by overworking, perfectionism and controlling my internal experience began to take their toll. My body began to collapse, my adrenals burnt out, I became overwhelmed, stressed, and autoimmune ridden. All of the years of self suppression had caught up with me. A survival strategy gone awry, as they often do.
Now, in order to get well, I am having to reprogram my system and change my belief systems around what it means to be 'healthy'. I am having to do everything that I was always told not to do - eat more, exercise less. I am having to begin to actually listen to my body, which for now, really just wants a fucking rest. I am having to process the emotions that I have been running away from through compulsive exercise, food control and other numbing, dissociative behaviours. AND, I am having to question and deeply examine toxic diet culture and cultural belief systems around beauty and 'wellness'. The takeaway:
If something serves to disconnect you from yourself, your power, your wholeness and your inherent, existential beauty that is not 'health', that is brainwashing.
Cognitively, I know now that it doesn't make sense that these new actions of mine will mean rejection, but emotionally, that is something else altogether. How hard it is to release of one of the things that allowed me to feel in control of my safety and connection needs. In order to tolerate it, I'm having to explore it slowly, in a way that my nervous system and inner child can handle. If I push myself too far, it won't work. I have to listen to those protective, survival mechanisms that worked so well for so long. I have to ask them what they need and find other ways to give that to them that doesn't involve pushing myself to the brink of exhaustion. Even as I write this blog I am having to pause and ask myself if I'm going too hard and overdoing it. Retraining the brain and nervous system takes time. So I breathe, I ground and I cut myself some fucking slack.
I want to live a healthy life now, more than ever. I've just realized that my idea of health has changed. Now, I understand it as paramount to the degree of relationship and compassion I have towards my myself, my inner child, and all of my various inner parts that have been working overtime to help me, even if they have gone about it in ways that have appeared harmful in the long run. It's not easy, it’s a process and I'll be working on it for the rest of my life. But, it's a start and we have to begin somewhere on this path of remembering who we truly are. I have no intention of no longer taking care of myself or of neglecting my health needs. Quite the opposite. I desire to take care of myself in a much more holistic and all encompassing way and that involves flexibility, openness and consideration towards my emotional and spiritual bodies as well as my physical one.
When I look at my body now I'm starting to see a vessel brilliant in its intelligence and love for me. A being that always wants to keep me safe, whatever the cost. An entity that is ever changing, ever evolving, that holds the sacred potential to grow a human life. How amazing is that? Mainstream diet culture would have me view it as something to control and ‘monitor’, to restrict and to shove into a box of social and cultural idealism. It would have me use up all of my energy, money and other resources trying to achieve a beauty standard that it has intentionally created in order to maintain its grasp over my entire life. But I’m no longer buying that bullshit. The curtain has lifted. I have much bigger, better, interesting and more important things to do with my life, thank you very much. Number one being to enjoy it.
For now, I will continue to adapt my diet in ways that make me feel good in my own skin, give me energy, vitality and allow me to live my life to the fullest (with a side of fries and coconut ice-cream because dairy gives me a stomach ache). My appearance will continue to change and evolve naturally with time and age, I'm sure. And as it does I will continue to remember and honour that young girl examining her belly in the mirror and will never forget how brilliant and brave she is - because that's all she ever really wanted in the first place anyways, to be fully seen and loved by me.
Reilly Scott is a singer/songwriter, blogger, yoga teacher and facilitator residing in Kenora, Ontario. She is passionate about combining trauma informed practice and body based healing modalities with the arts to support psycho-education, health and wellbeing.
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