I had a lovely reader, Claire, email me a few weeks ago about my recovery, especially my recovery after getting back from Peru. We talked of our travels to foreign countries and how simply traveling helped us release our control of our eating habits and just…live in peace with them. I was so inspired by her story, much like mine, that I asked her to write a guest post for you all. I know how much my recovery posts mean to some of you and I believe her story is another way for those who are struggling to see that recovery is possible and can be accomplished! Enjoy, and please visit her blog!!!
Travel Taught Me a Thing or Two About Body Image
If you had asked me before I boarded the plane to China if I had an eating disorder, I would have vehemently denied it.
- After all, I had never been diagnosed.
- My body was fitter than ever.
- I followed the same patterns that so many other girls followed.
- I was actively striving for balance, and wasn’t that a good thing?
Today, I would give a very different answer. The reasons above were only PC ways I justified the fact that my thoughts had become so incredibly single-tracked that I couldn’t think of anything besides how I could eat less, and weigh less. I checked menus before going out to restaurants. I ordered healthiest thing, and still only ate half. Before working an 8 hour shift on my feet, I drank a single smoothie made from a half banana, almond milk and a tablespoon of peanut butter. If I felt I had deviated from my pattern, I would berate myself. If I did I felt like I had spoiled my body, both literally and figuratively. I was leading a mean, lean life, and the worst part was, I had no idea.
The truth behind my excuses:
- People were concerned; I was in denial.
- My body was thinner, and weaker than ever.
- I was obsessed with the eating habits of girls who were also obsessed with disordered eating habits.
- I thought that I was actively striving for balance but it’s so clear to me now that my ‘balanced life’ tilted so far towards my warped idea of health, that it threatened to topple all the other elements of my life.
For years I struggled with these internal battles, trying to form the perfect (and skinny) external barricades. It was miserable, and stressful and truthfully the most dreary and un-fun stretch of my life. I was anything but the vibrant girl I tried so hard to be. My life was made of rules, and can’ts and won’ts and a murky fear that followed me navigated my relationship with food.
It might have continued like that, even as I started to slip into the more dangerous territory of disordered eating, even as I knew that something was very wrong, that something needed to change. And then, almost on a whim, as if I knew the trick, I traveled to China. Where noodles, white rice, oil and fatty meat ruled supreme. Where I couldn’t read the nutritional labels, if they had any to begin with. Where it was rude to refuse food, no matter how many organs were in the soup. Where I encountered things like jellyfish and gelatinized pork skin, and enough MSG to wake me up in the middle of the night – and I had no choice but to eat it all.
Where I reconnected with food, and lost my fear. Because none of those foods, none of them, killed me. In fact, far from it – they were delicious, and they were real. The dishes weren’t diet; they weren’t made with alternatives or substitutes. Covered in sauces and flavor, they didn’t have to be – those meals were the real deal. To avoid them would be to avoid an essential part of my travels. I would have missed out on more than meals, I would have missed out on culture and tradition
I bought freshly pressed sesame paste from a local vendor, and experimented with new-to-me vegetables. I ate fruit and discovered delicious desserts. I began to crave what I had feared, and dumplings quickly became my favorite, filled with cilantro and pork, or corn and lamb. I allowed myself to do what I hadn’t done for years – eat with intent to enjoy, with intent to connect authentically with my food.
Most importantly – I let go.
At communal tables, I was slowly able to see food as a thing to be appreciated, to be understood, and most importantly, to be shared and enjoyed. Meals were based on community and gratitude, and it smacked me quicker than I would have ever guessed – the realization that my fixation on food and weight had been so solitary, so individual, and so self-involved.
Simply to eat real food again, and to shed the food guilt I so often carried around before was a huge relief. But with each new lesson learned from the culture and the traditions, I was slowly able to see that being healthy extended far beyond nutritional breakdowns, or even the size of clothing.
I still remember trying to buy shorts one afternoon in Beijing. Standing in the dressing room, ankles bound together by a pair of shorts I could only presume as being mislabeled, I was rifling through the possibilities.
Maybe I had mistakenly wandered into a child’s clothing store and was trying to tug one of the hottest toddler trends up to my waist.
MSG, it had to be the work of monosodium glutamate.
This is what they’re supposed to look like. It’s fashion forward.
And in the face of a fact that would have been so defeating before, I did the most magical thing – I started laughing. I was trying to squeeze into their largest size, one that would have been labeled a medium in the States, and I couldn’t even get them to my knees. I was a size they didn’t even stock – and I realized the impossibility of fitting into a mold. That no matter what, size was arbitrary, that we were all unique and beautiful because of it. And that feeling of happiness and acceptance, of simply being different was far preferable to the feelings of disappointment in and of cruelty towards my body that I had been so quick to think before.
As I traversed a part of the world previously unknown to me, I simultaneously traversed a part of my mind I hadn’t encountered in years – the part that was peaceful and relinquished control rather than fighting for it. Whereas before, I wanted to fit into the best version of myself physically, living abroad, I wanted to fit into the best version of myself mentally – there was no other choice, I was so distracted by other more interesting and valid struggles. Like how to communicate with a new culture, and how to navigate a world where I couldn’t even read the street signs. My struggles with eating quieted, little by little, though there were better days than others. But day to day, I became more and more comfortable in my own skin and day by day too, I was illuminated to how far I had strayed from the truly healthy kinds of thoughts. Ones based on kindness, and appreciation and pride in my individuality. The ones that thanked my legs for taking me to the top of the mountain, rather than wishing they were smaller.
I began to worry less, and appreciate more. I felt like I was finally experiencing the life I had been pursuing before, the one where I loved the way I looked, and felt confident and comfortable with myself. It took my time in China to see that those things had been attainable all along; my aims had just been too narrow and specialized. Opening up my perspective, widening my gaze, I realized how much I had been missing out on before.
I’ve been reading Melissa’s blog for a while now, and was so thrilled when she asked if I might want to guest post. Almost immediately, I sat down, ready to write about the positive and optimistic experiences that had been fueling my happiness, ready to put to type all the wonderful things I had learned while traveling China, how it had been the single most important catalyst to my recovery only to realize – I was stuck.
I wrote a sentence, a paragraph, a page and then deleted it all. Again, and then deleted. I put it off, kept writing it on my calendar, but eventually, I realized that I wasn’t struggling so much with what I wanted to say, but rather, how I wanted to say it.
My time in China taught me so much about body image and helped me to acknowledge all the ways I had previously been so unkind to myself and my physique. But as much as I wanted to write a purely motivational piece, based on my positive experiences, I wouldn’t be truthful without admitting, just as anyone else who has suffered from disordered eating, that it’s a really, really difficult topic – not only to broach, but also to articulate.
My experience matched up so well with Melissa’s, her posts have mirrored so many of the same feelings, sentiments and realizations that I had made during my travels – down to the new wardrobe, the glow, the pure and genuine happiness. It was inspiring to feel so connected by experience, and to recognize how far we’d come. Now, at a place where I feel confident and far enough removed to know just how far I’ve come, I am so excited to share my experiences. But, that’s not to say that traveling is the end all, that I have the solution, that recovery isn’t hard and full of ups and downs and daily struggles. In fact, it’s really only in retrospect that I was able to understand my disorder, and that’s a tough thing to look back on. But what I can say with confidence and genuine honesty – nobody is alone in the struggle, and it can be overcome.
Now, I maintain a blog at rhymeswithclaire.wordpress.com that doesn’t focus on how to healthify recipes. It doesn’t write about food, and the things I’d like to eat, and how to make them up of the least amount of calories. It’s based on my weird thoughts, and books and the things I find to be more important – optimism, and humor and recipes with more than one stick of butter. And my gosh y’all, it’s much more fun.
It’s not the balance of calories anymore; it’s the balance of happiness, the balance of satisfaction in my life and my experiences. In fact, while writing this post, I got up for lunch – leftover pizza. But instead of thoughts centering on whether I could have it, should have it, deserved it, I was plagued by the much preferable struggle – whether to eat it cold, or to warm it up.
As simple or silly as that seems, it says a lot. I’m happy to have ended up at that intersection in my journey.
Now, I choose to cheers (or gan bei) to happiness.