The other day, someone asked me what has been most helpful for me in my journey toward making peace with weight gain in recovery. It wasn’t an easy question to answer at first. A lot of things have contributed to where I am today.
As I thought more about it, one number kept popping into my mind: 80%. I remembered something I heard early in recovery as I started learning more about the concepts of Health at Every Size and weight set-point.
Approximately 80% of our body size is determined by genetics.
So what did this mean for me?
Like many women, I’ve struggled with my body image for as long as I can remember. I’ve always had a tendency to compare myself to others, and it can be hard not to compare when we are constantly surrounded by images of stick-thin women with D-cups and told that this is what “beauty” looks like. Most of us don’t look like the women we see on TV, Instagram, or in magazines, and most of us never will. But that’s not what diet culture (driven by the multi-billion dollar diet industry) wants us to believe. Instead, we are told that we can make our bodies look however we want; we just have to want it badly enough. “Try this new diet or workout, and you will finally get the body of your dreams!” “Lose 10lbs and finally find the confidence and happiness you’ve been searching for!” (cue eyeroll)
Not only are we told that we CAN control our body size, we are told that we SHOULD. We live in a fat-phobic world where we are taught that thin=happy, healthy and fit, and fat=sad, lazy and undisciplined. If your weight is above a certain range that society has decided is “okay,” you must be doing something wrong.
This is why diet culture is so toxic. On top of promoting unrealistic standards of beauty, we are taught that it’s our fault if we aren’t able to measure up to these standards. We are made to believe that failing to achieve our dream body is the result of some character flaw – a lack of commitment or willpower rather than biological or genetic factors. It creates the perfect breeding ground for feelings of guilt, shame, and self-hatred. And there is nothing an eating disorder loves more than guilt, shame, and self-hatred.
I still remember the exact day that I first decided to start tracking my weight. I was in eighth grade, and with the onset of puberty came a few extra pounds that took me by surprise. Instead of being reassured that gaining weight during puberty is normal and healthy, I was given a scale and encouraged to start keeping an eye on the number. (After all, watching our weight is what women are supposed to do, right?) I wasn’t overweight, and nobody explicitly told me to go on a diet, but I was smart enough to know that weight gain was bad, and something had to be done about it.
I started counting calories in an attempt to lose a few pounds. When my diet failed (as 95% of them do), I felt like a total failure. My weight continued to fluctuate throughout high school, and I shamed myself for not being better at reaching my goals. What was wrong with me? I was constantly starving; why couldn’t I keep the weight off?! With each subsequent attempt at weight loss, the guilt, shame and embarrassment that I felt continued to increase. Not only was my body not good enough, it was my FAULT that my body wasn’t good enough. I was failing at accomplishing the one thing I wanted more than anything. “It’s because you are lazy, slack, and have no willpower” my burgeoning eating disorder would whisper. “It’s not that hard; YOU just aren’t good enough.” Eventually, I began to believe it. What other explanation could there be?
When I first learned about the idea of Health at Every Size, it totally blew my mind. HAES went against everything I had always believed about bodies and weight. And much to my surprise, it made so much sense. Our bodies are all different in so many ways – hair color, skin tone, height, bone structure… How can we expect that being healthy or fit is going to look the same for everybody? I never had any problem accepting that some bodies are just naturally thinner, but it never really occurred to me that the opposite is also true. Some people’s bodies are just naturally larger. Period. And it has nothing to do with who they are.
So what did all this mean for my recovery? It meant that controlling my weight wasn’t quite as simple as I’d always believed. Your body knows what weight it needs to be at to function optimally, and it is going to fight as hard as it can to stay at that weight. For the first time, I realized that all of my failed attempts at weight loss in the past maybe weren’t actually my fault. Maybe it didn’t actually have anything to do with my strength, willpower, or what kind of person I am.
My eating disorder developed out of an attempt to prove to myself that I was good enough, strong enough, and worthy. Accepting the truth about weight set-point helped free me from the belief that my weight had anything to do with these things. It gave me permission to start nourishing my body properly without guilt or shame, and it allowed me the space to start healing from years of self-abuse. I don’t blame myself for my easily-sunburnt complexion or short stature, and I no longer had to blame myself for my body size.
Repairing body image is a long process, and it’s important to note that accepting my body is not the same as loving my body. I still don’t always love what I see when I look in the mirror. If I’m being honest, there are lots of things that I would probably change about my body if I had a magic wand. That may not sound very “body positive,” but it’s honest. 15 years of hating my body isn’t going to heal overnight.
But even though I don’t always love the way I look, the way my body looks no longer holds the same meaning that it used to. Reaching my low weight in the depths of my eating disorder didn’t make me a more worthy person, and gaining weight in recovery didn’t make me a less worthy person. My body is just a body. It’s a vessel that allows me to move through life and do things that I enjoy. It’s size has absolutely nothing to do with who I am. I am thankful for having a body that allows me to do all the things I love, and I plan to continue to nourish it so that it can help me live my best life. And hopefully I will eventually reach a place where I CAN look in the mirror and love what I see :).
Anyone else also working to shed false beliefs about weight that you’ve held onto over the years?? Would love to hear about your experiences in the comments below!
Thank you for reading!