When dealing with chronic illness or autoimmune disease, body image frequently comes into play as these diseases can impact our self esteem and have multiple physical manifestations. Below describes my struggle with body image over the years, and how, while I’m not 100% there yet, I’m learning to trust my body and be grateful for what it can do, rather than what it can’t.
Sometimes, I feel like I’ve spent my entire life trying to lose 5 pounds. I was on the heavier side when I was young and got teased for it often, and even when I finally thinned out in middle school, I still never felt confident. Once I figured out that weight could be controlled with diet and exercise I started counting calories, eliminating fat, and working out in the name of being skinny. Even after being diagnosed with Celiac disease and finding Paleo, I was still eating with a diet mindset, restricting carbs, doing intense HIIT workouts about 6 times a week, scheduling “cheat days,” and gaining weight.
It wasn’t until I was diagnosed with Lupus that I started seriously looking at food as a tool to healing instead of a way of losing weight, rewarding, or punishing myself. This was also when I began to slowly realize that I had to work with my body, instead of against it. In other words, I had to actually learn how to love my body. For me, my journey with Lupus hasn’t just been about having a disease, but also about learning to accept myself for who I am, both inside and out.
I really like plans. I love to know what is going to happen next, so I can prepare for it. If I’m going on vacation, I research for weeks and make an itinerary. In my professional life, I’ve always liked having a road map with goals that I have to hit to get to the next level. I’m that person with a five year plan. So, when things get off track for me, I look for control. In the past this often meant renewing my commitment to lose weight with a new diet, new workout routine, or more restriction. Because what is easier to control than that?
But, then Lupus happened. If you are also diagnosed with autoimmune disease, you probably understand that your body often doesn’t feel like your own, and it often feels out of your control. For me, my diagnosis meant accepting that intense workout routines were a not for me for the moment. It meant that I needed to learn to listen to my body to find what foods were most healing and nourishing for it, instead of which foods to restrict to lose weight. About a year after my diagnosis I pretty rapidly lost about 35 pounds due to the illness. This was a welcome change at first, but once I was well below the lowest weight I’d been at in my adult life and my bones were jutting out, it no longer felt good. I almost didn’t feel like a woman anymore, because all of my curves were gone. To make things worse, my hair was falling out, my stomach was still bloated all the time despite my small size because my digestion was so bad, I was dealing with awful joint pain and fatigue, I had recurring rashes, facial flushing, and I couldn’t tan anymore, because it aggravated the rashes and caused me to flare. I was only 24, and I felt 80.
If I hadn’t hated my body before, I absolutely did now. I mean, here I was working so hard to get better, and this was how it was repaying me? I felt helpless. At the time, I was taking tons of supplements, seeing a lot of doctors, and piling on multiple healing diets to try to fix myself. Finally, I stumbled on The Loving Diet by Jessica Flanigan and the light bulb went off. Maybe, just maybe, if I worked toward learning to love my body as is, and listened to its needs instead of fighting against it, I could heal.
Hey, I totally understand if you think this sounds a little too “woo woo” for you. It did for me too, but it made a serious difference. So, I did some totally non-health related things that helped a lot. I bought clothes that actually fit (up until this point I was still wearing jeans 3 sizes to big waiting for the weight to come back) and made me feel good about myself. I bought a flattering big hat and sunglasses that I could wear to the pool or beach to protect myself from the sun. I cut off my hair in a style that looked good and no longer made it evident that half of it was missing. I actually accepted complements from my then-boyfriend (now, husband) when he told me I looked good, instead of telling him the 40 reasons I actually looked awful.
That, along with listening to my body more and abandoning super restrictive diets and a robust supplement routine helped me get back on track. And then, part two of the challenge came! After about two years of trying to gain weight, about half of it finally came back, just as quickly as it left. Just like when I lost the weight, the weight gain was welcome at first, and then it wasn’t anymore. Of course the weight didn’t decide to come back at any old time, it instead came back just a few months before our wedding! If you’ve gotten married, you know that you have to purchase your dress about a year in advance, and commit to a size. You also know that brides are targeted with weight loss ads from the second they get engaged because they absolutely must lose weight so that they can look perfect on the big day. You are going to be looking at the photos for the rest of your life, you know.
My thoughts on the wedding diet industry could be a whole other post, but gaining the weight back was psychologically hard on me in a way I didn’t expect. I thought that I was over all of the insecurity and body image issues, after all I had worked so hard to start loving my body, but as the scale continued going up, up, up they all came rushing back. I went in for my wedding dress fitting, got the dress taken out, went back a week later, and it wouldn’t zip. After being taken out! So I stood there trying not to cry as my (super awesome) seamstress ripped into the gown to let it out as far as it would go while my mom tried to talk me down. It wasn’t easy. Of course, now, I look at our wedding photos and wonder what the heck I was so upset about, because all I see is that I am happy, and I am healthy.
Once the weight gain finally stopped, and I quit battling my body, I realized I was at the exact weight that I’d been the majority of my adult life. I had spent so many years at this exact weight trying desperately to lose more that I hadn’t realized that this was exactly where my body wanted to be. Your body has a certain weight where it likes to live. A weight that can be maintained by eating well, exercising, and yes, partaking in the occasional indulgence. I’ve asked myself, “could I lose more weight if I cut out carbs, got really restrictive about my dieting, or started an intense workout routine again?” The answer is absolutely yes, but what would having that do for me? Not much, because for me the reason I want to lose weight even though I’m at a healthy weight goes much deeper than my appearance. Instead it goes back to my struggle with perfectionism, something that I’m constantly working on.
Not only that, but doing any of the things necessary to lose those five pounds right now could jeopardize my health, and that is absolutely not worth it. So, while I’m still learning to be 100% confident in my body image, I’m making progress each day. Instead of focusing on what is wrong, I make a conscious effort to appreciate my body for what it can do, and I make a conscious effort to do good things for my body. Can I run 4 miles? No. But I can go for a walk, hike, do yoga, lift weights to whatever my capacity is that day, and do a multitude of other things that were off the table for me two years ago.
I also make sure I listen to my body, and give it what it is asking for. If I’m in a flare and I feel like I need to rest, then I will maybe go for a walk, and skip my workout that day. And I don’t feel guilty about it, because I trust my body to guide me to what it needs. Will I occasionally indulge in a gluten free pizza or Chinese food? Absolutely! That is just part of life. But, I stop to make sure I’m feeling good enough to eat those things first, make sure it is worth it, and I don’t feel the least bit guilty afterward.
For me, if I’m nourishing my body with the right foods, making sure that I move as much as I can each day, reducing my stress, keeping up with the right supplement and medication routine, and making sure I have room to really just enjoy life, there’s no need to change anything, because my body is exactly the weight it wants to be, and I trust it to tell me when it needs to change.