Devouring Myself To Devouring Space

BY HANNAH G SHELL

 

“Are you counting calories?”

What my doctor meant by this question was, “Are you restricting calories?” He was looking at an MRI of my left hip, where the femoral neck had fractured almost completely through.  “One millimeter more breakage and we would be talking hip replacement… this isn’t standard for a 22 year old.” My doctor went on to explain that he suspected I had an eating disorder. A possible combination of anorexia, orthorexia (when I did eat), and excessive exercising. I never stopped eating, but I obsessively ate low calorie “healthy” food and over-exercised.  Consistent and extreme calorie deficits had caused my bones to weaken—my body was eating itself. Stress fractures are somewhat standard for endurance athletes, but this break was worse than a standard stress fracture.  I wouldn’t admit it at the time, but my mental body image distortion had manifested in a very scary and very physical way.

It took about six months for what the doctor said to set in: I have an eating disorder.  I’ve always had a slender body type, but in college I started seeing myself differently.  Instead of feeling beautiful and confident, I saw myself as out of shape and big in all the wrong places.  I became obsessed with exercise and what I called “healthy eating.”  I was running 15-20 miles a week with two gym workouts and three yoga classes. I ate salad for lunch and dinner—no meat just walnuts, avocado, and homemade vinaigrette.  When I was so hungry I felt faint, I would eat a piece of peanut butter toast.  Sometimes on the weekend I would binge eat only to run 14 miles the next day to make up for it. (The photo here shows me after a run, about two months before my injury).

Eating gave me anxiety. Concerns about gaining weight impaired my ability to focus on anything besides controlling calorie intake and maximizing calorie burn. On the occasions when I was traveling or in a social setting and required to eat actual food, I would compulsively pinch the skin on my stomach to feel if the one actual meal I ate had somehow already turned to fat (even with all the progress I’ve made, I still catch myself doing this sometimes). The physical manifestations of anxiety after eating like sweating, elevated heart rate, and nausea rewired my brain into thinking that feeling full was bad and that being hungry was healthy.

I withdrew socially. Relationships with even my closest friends were strained. I was so obsessed with controlling my diet and ensuring that nothing interfered with my exercise that I couldn’t maintain regular relationships. I was completely oblivious to the idea that I might have an eating disorder. Convinced that I was just being healthy, I thought other people ate too much and indulged too often. They weren’t as driven as I was to achieve physical perfection. Even when my hip fractured and my doctor told me the fracture was a result of malnourishment, I didn’t believe that I had a problem. It wasn’t even on my radar. That’s the scariest part about disordered eating surrounding serious endurance athletes— it doesn’t feel like a problem. It feels healthy, acceptable, worthy of praise.

When my hip fractured, I weighed 118 pounds at six feet tall [the black and white photo shows me the week of my injury, compared to today (color)]. The first three months after the injury were the hardest.  I still felt a need to earn everything that I ate, but I was limited to non-weight bearing crutches for 6 weeks; exercise was completely out of the question. I had to move back in with my parents and confront my dark fears about my body image. I still didn’t think I had a problem. The first week after my injury was mentally crippling as the truth about my anxiety surrounding food started to come fully to the surface. I couldn’t focus. I could no longer earn food through exercise. Eating felt forced and I was living with my parents so starvation was not an option. My mental deterioration forced me to have a tough conversation with the person closest to me at the time, who urged me to consider whether the doctor was correct about my eating disorder. He showed me a picture of us from dinner the month prior. My hair was pulled back and I had on a tank top, he said that his first thought on seeing that photo was that I looked like a skeleton. He told me I had to stop obsessing over eating; that he sensed my anxiety about consuming calories. Hearing someone I knew so intimately validate the doctor’s concerns began to unveil the severity of my situation.

I started to accept that I had an eating disorder and a distorted image of myself, and began the process of trying to get better. I had to learn how to separate my body image from my self-worth and retrain my brain to find joy in eating—to think of it as providing my body with healthy sustenance instead of trying to minimize the necessary evil of calorie consumption. I started slowly by recognizing that to get back to running, which I missed terribly, I had to give my body the nourishment it needed to repair. When I was cleared to start upper body exercises, I hired a personal trainer and confided in him that I had a history of disordered eating. He would text me regularly after my workouts to ask what I ate and to make sure it included good portions of protein and carbohydrates. He celebrated my strength gains and boosted my self esteem by talking about how impressed his other clients were with my progress. Whether he realized it or not, he helped me to see beauty in growth instead of beauty in frailty.

It took years of therapy, anger, tears, and slow progress after my injury to get to a point where I’m ready to talk about my eating disorder openly. This post is the first time I have shared my history broadly. Coming forward about it is scary; it means I have to make the decision that I want to get better. The longer I wait to tell people, the longer I hold onto a twisted safe haven where I know I can regress at any point. Coming forward makes me accountable, not only to you but to myself. Today I am proud to say that I weigh 145 pounds and feel healthy, confident, unashamed, and unwilling to let my weight fall again.

Why do I put so much value on my physical exterior? Why do I feel less whole as a person if I have a small layer of fat on my tummy? I used to think I was unique in this struggle.  But now I know I am not.  I used to be embarrassed by my eating disorder.  But now I want to share it without shame.  My disordered eating manifested partially as a need for control, something I had to work through individually.  But it also came from an extreme distorted image of the ideal body and of women’s worth as portrayed by our society.  Women are celebrated for unattainable physical features.  For perfectly sculpted abs, for thigh gaps, for minimizing our physical presence.  There is no such thing as more of us to love in the media.  In fact, this world too often celebrates when women are less.  When women silently abide by the status quo, are seen and not heard. Don’t come forward about abuses or mistreatment.

I said above that I worked past the anger, the tears, and the pain. On an individual level, that’s true, but I’ve held onto my anger about the way our society portrays women.  I am angry that I know many, many women who struggle daily trying to minimize their bodies to fit into social standards.  Women who think that less of them will lead to more happiness, to more acceptance.  I’m angry that for the first 20 years of my life I didn’t know there was something wrong with people complimenting my “skinniness” and not my intellect.  I’m angry that when my eating disorder was at its worst and I was almost 20 pounds underweight, the people surrounding me told me I looked amazing.  I’m angry that they didn’t know any better because they’ve been conditioned to idealize unhealthy body images the same as I have.  I’m angry that I was told not to lift weights because it’s not attractive when women are bulky.  I’m angry that diets involving putting your body into a state of starvation or eliminating entire food groups (or even solid food all together) are not only popular, but celebrated.  I’m angry that this world is hard to navigate as a survivor of an eating disorder, and that I need to be constantly aware of the impact my surroundings are having on my image of myself.

Some might say it’s unhealthy to hold onto this anger, but I’ve channeled it to good use.  I focused my anger into getting as strong as I can.  To celebrating every pound of muscle I gain.  I want to prove that women are not inherently weak. I won’t lie and say that I’ve retrained my brain to not worry about gaining weight.  Every day is still a struggle—my brain tends to default to a distorted image of myself.  I don’t know if that will ever go away, but I do know that every day instead of trying to minimize my body, I’m asking myself how I can build it up.  I’m focusing on eating to gain muscle instead of eating to lose fat.  My gains have paid off through my success in cycling, and the sport itself actually helps me stay motivated to eat because I know unhealthy behavior will take away my competitive edge. Im sharing this with you because I want to promise that I will do my best every day to celebrate healthy bodies. I will celebrate my physical prowess instead of wasting it away.  I refuse to derive self-worth from starving myself to achieve an unhealthy and unrealistic standard.

My body is beautiful when my body is strong.

My body is my own.

Author: sprytly

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