health

“An Insistent Optimism”: Dealing with Depression and Anxiety in Springtime

N.B: This post was written as I noticed that spring seemed to be hard for so many people that I love. Grief, trauma, depression. I’ve been there myself, even though it has been many years since my struggle with depression. I still struggle with heightened anxiety of this time of year, and it’s important for me not to forget, even though I am content, and even though spring and summer now give me more joy than sorrow, that this time of year is still difficult for so many.

As winter starts to fade away, as the daylight hours increase, as everything seems to start blooming and thriving, depression and anxiety are suddenly thrown into much starker relief than during the cold, dark, wintry, stormy days and nights of late autumn and winter.

At first, I couldn’t quite place why spring always felt so very awful. It was absolutely incongruent: wasn’t I supposed to be as cheery as a floral-print dress, as refreshed as a cool pint of lemonade? The seasons, indeed, seem to have odd emotional mandates: the thoughtfulness and reflection of autumn; the melancholy and mutedness of winter, the serenity and sensuality of summer, and, yes, the insistent optimism of spring.

It was this optimism that made spring so terribly painful: it was the feeling of the world coming suddenly alive again, everything thawing much too quickly, and all I desperately wanted to do to stay under the covers. Winter had been slow, you see, there was time to be quiet, reserved; the pathetic fallacy of melancholy weather. Huddling and waiting for the bus on a rainy winter morning inspired a grumpy sort of solidarity. Nobody begrudged us our groans or our grim, sleepy stares. A tear or two would go unnoticed as the rain or snow besieged our faces. Snow was a blanket, a hush.

Spring sunlight, in contrast, is glaring, insistent, demanding – do now, grow now, be now, happiness now, futurity now! Vibrant greens, out with the dank, damp, grey! Sunshine and smiles – aren’t you happy that it’s so gorgeous out? Have you started in on your garden yet? Are you just about finished school? Are you working out? Have you got summer plans yet? Isn’t it wonderful to be alive? Aren’t you simply grateful for this gorgeous, divine season that is upon us?

“It’s time to turn a new leaf,” they say, as if somehow, springtime ought to cut short the allotted seasons for grief, for sorrow, for exhaustion, for longing.

After so many months of darkness, this gnawing, insistent, intolerable inertia can compel one to slam the blinds closed, shutting out the sunshine streaming through the window.

And so, for those for whom the spring thaw is painful, know this: you are not alone.

“Don’t Let the Haters Get You Down”: My Past Life in the Pro-Anorexia Community

As regular readers of my blog will know, I often write about my history of eating disorders. I do so because I know that eating disorders are incredibly common, albeit very misunderstood, and I believe that it’s important to offer an insider’s viewpoint on their complex nature. I’m fortunate, in that it’s not something that I find particularly difficult to write about anymore. After years of therapy, I have come to a place where I have a relatively amicable relationship with my body and with food. This June marks the 5-year anniversary of my lowest point suffering from anorexia nervosa, and I’m glad to be able to do so, free from the tyrannies of the scale, counting calories, or of endless self-scrutiny in the mirror. I’m lucky to have a loving family and community of friends who understand that I still have lingering vulnerabilities when it comes to food and body image, and if I ever find myself having intrusive thoughts, I can speak to them openly about it.

One of the curious things that I’ve noticed, as I’ve emerged from the depths of my eating disorder, is that so many individuals and communities, who I once perceived as having normal attitudes about food—because they weren’t starving themselves outright, or purging after every meal—were entrenched in various degrees of disordered thoughts and behaviours about food. As I was trying to learn to develop a healthy and balanced diet and relationship to exercise, I realized that the diet and weight-loss industries were raking in more money than ever, that websites such as Tumblr, Pinterest, and YouTube were full of “thinspiration” and “fitspiration,” and that it seemed that almost every woman I knew was somehow dissatisfied with her body. This isn’t an unusual realization for those who are in recovery. Indeed, it’s one of the things that can make recovery so difficult, and I hear it often from friends and from the clients that I volunteer with. When we live in a society that encourages thinness at any cost, and that rewards obsessionally “clean” eating and marathon sessions in the gym, why would there be any incentive to recover?

As an English scholar, what’s struck me most about the disordered nature of many popular weight-loss communities, gurus, or companies that promote diet or health supplements are the eerie rhetorical similarities to some of the most hard-core pro-anorexia websites. Now, I’m certain that most people would disavow any similarities to pro-anorexia communities, since pro-ana argues that eating disorders aren’t illnesses but lifestyle choices. Most weight-loss communities are really, earnestly devoted to helping people and promoting health. I’m also fairly certain that most of those people haven’t been members of these types of communities either, and so would have little way of knowing that their slogans, their mantras, and some of their ways of creating a community of isolation are perfectly in line with the ways that underground, pro-eating disorder groups work.

But I DO know. From 2004-2007, I was a heavy user of pro-anorexia websites. I created collages of “thinspiration,” searched for ways to suppress my appetite and hide my eating disorder, and was a regular member on a number of forums. I logged on every single day, described how much or how little I had eaten, talked about my goal weights, and exchanged tips on how to hide my disordered behaviours from my family. To be truthful, it was only after I decided to leave the pro-ana communities that my eating disorder really spiraled out of control, behaviour-wise. However, the cult-like attitudes that the pro-ana movement had instilled in me made it that much more difficult to shake off the increasing power that my eating disorder had over me.

I want to explain some of those attitudes and techniques, and use them to demonstrate why I have serious concerns about how some weight-loss communities/companies/gurus work. I am not, of course, suggesting that these types of people are out to cause poor health in others, or that they are interested in merely profiteering off of the vulnerabilities of others; however, I want to show that there is a very fine line between solidarity in the achievement of health and the type of manipulation and isolation that creates unhealthy communities, and distances people from their families and loved ones and from a truly healthy relationship with food and body image.

 “Thinspiration,” Clean Eating, and Ideal Bodies

One of the hallmarks of the pro-ana movement (one that has become surprisingly mainstream) is that of “thinspiration.” A portmanteau of “thin” and “inspiration,” thinspiration photographs run the gamut from models to ordinary girls, from photoshopped emaciation to real-life beach bodies. You can find it in every flavour you choose: abs, legs, butt, stomach, arms, collarbones, visible spines. Before and after shots. Whatever you want to inspire you to get the body beautiful: it’s out there.

fitspiration-hate

Lately, especially online, I’ve noticed that the trend has moved from thin bodies to athletic bodies (although most are still thin, in any case). “Fitspiration” is well and alive on websites such as Tumblr, Pinterest, and Twitter, including the circulation of bullshit slogans that “strong is the new skinny,” and that “thin girls look good in clothes, but fit girls look good naked.” The cult of the body beautiful has simply appropriated the techniques of the underground pro-ana movement, packaged it into a more palatable and supposedly-healthy box, and served it anew, not only to millions of teenage girls, but to teenage boys and grown women and men.

Do not kid yourself: fitspiration is the same shit in a different pile. While I am most certainly all for fitness and exercise in moderation (including a focus on healthy eating and less processed foods over all), slogans and photographs of ripped abs and toned thighs are not necessarily representative of health. It’s important to recognize that a desire to be fit and look good can easily devolve into a denigration for individuals who are not (or do not appear to be) fit, a practice of shaming others for food choices that are not exclusively “clean,” a fear of non-clean foods, and an obsession with reps of weights completed and miles run. What scares me most about this aspect of our current focus on health and wellness is that like the pro-ana community, many people begin to believe they’re not harming themselves, and that what they’re doing can’t possibly be disordered. Believe me: it can when it’s taken too far. I’ve been there too.

Motivational Quotations and Success-Speak

During my time in the pro-ana community, I learned the value of “success-speak.” Inspirational quotations were plentiful, whether featured in forum members’ signatures, photoshopped onto images of thin models, or simply listed in abundance on websites as  a way to motivate us in our quest to be beautiful, perfect, and weightless. While the mantras of “a moment on the lips, forever on the hips” were popular, so too, were ones from Oprah Winfrey, Tony Robbins, and any other speaker, “guru,” or public figure you could imagine. Even the words of spiritual figures and civil rights activists were not off-limits in being appropriated for our cause.

fitspiration_24The proliferation of mantras in excess, especially those which focus on individual success as simply a means of trying hard enough, never giving up, and not wanting to give in to “failure,” were certainly excellent ways of putting a positive spin on a means of self-destruction. This is also the same phenomenon that I have observed at work in Multi-Level Marketing companies, many of which are currently cornering the health/diet/fitness market. The more positivity that can be used, the less the unhealthy aspects of the community is revealed, and the more people want to engage in it so as not to let the community down. Skeptics and naysayers need not apply, and are quickly ousted from the community in order to preserve it.

“Don’t Let The Haters Get You Down”

Skeptics and naysayers in the pro-ana community were generally those on the outside: concerned friends, families, and physicians. They were the people who told us that starvation and purging were dangerous habits, who expressed concern when we fainted or were lightheaded, who reminded us that the price of these behaviours was serious illness, if not death. I can’t tell you how many times I not only shrugged off that concern, but began to perceive any outside criticism as a serious threat to the integrity of my illness. Fellow pro-ana community members reminded me that I can’t let “the haters get me down,” that outsiders didn’t understand me, that everyone else would just be jealous of me when I lost weight, and that efforts to intervene were just ways of them sabotaging my weight-loss out of that place of jealousy.

I hear that a lot from people who are involved in weight-loss communities. And while I do not deny that the threat of sabotage is real in many cases, I don’t think that the people who suggest that people are merely out to “ruin their success” is accurate; in any case, it’s certainly not nuanced. Whenever a member of a community (a family member, a friend, a co-worker) begins to undertake a drastic change, whether it be in changing eating habits, exercise habits, or making the decision to stop drinking, smoking, or using drugs, the routines and identities of the other community members are challenged. When you’re used to eating take-out and watching television with your partner, and they all of a sudden start eating differently and being more active, not only is your relationship altered, but you may start to feel pressure to also change your habits (whether you’re ready or not). Given the scrutiny that our society already places on people who are overweight, obese, less active, or who eat “junk” food, it’s reasonable to fear that the person who is changing may start to harbour the same types of attitudes and beliefs against their loved one. Nobody wants to be left behind, and certainly, nobody wants to start to be shamed or looked down upon by the person they once shared a certain activity, behaviour, or food with.

imagesAt its best, the suggestion that we can’t “let the haters get us down” is a caution against the precarious nature of changing, and the impact it may have (or the residual issues it may bring out) in our communities. At its worst, it is a tactic that isolates individuals and risks severing their ties with anyone who is not involved in a similar pursuit, especially when the potential profit involved (weight loss, money, etc) is perceived as being worth more than love or friendship. Need I remind anyone that the “with us or against us” tactic is exactly the same one that George W. Bush used after 9/11, in order to justify and secure support for the “War On Terror”? This isn’t a benign statement in any community. There is, after all, a big difference between becoming assertive and confident to react less strongly to others’ criticisms and starting to view outsiders as weak or malicious, to treat them with paranoia or suspicion.

As I’ve stated before, I do not want to suggest that all weight-loss communities are unhealthy, that all weight-loss/fitness gurus are disordered (although Jillian Michaels once admitted to pouring salt or candle wax on half her food at restaurants so she wouldn’t get tempted…), or that Multi-Level Marketing health/diet companies are all bogus. It’s a lot more nuanced than that, and that’s why I’ve tried to point out some of the areas where the discourses overlap. It’s important to become informed, and be careful of the initial rose-goggle phase of any sudden jump into a community. It’s okay to disagree with certain tactics and agree with others, so long as your disagreement can be articulated, and you’re not afraid of speaking up about it. No weight-loss program, form of diet and exercise, or community is perfect. Certain things may trigger some and motivate others; other things might convince someone to try something and follow it reasonably and yet turn others into devoted radicals.

Food, health, our bodies: they’re sensitive issues. They can play on our vulnerabilities, bring out our strengths. I constantly remind my clients that we do live a world where food is not a black and white issue, and we all need to know where our comfort levels lie.

I have been out of the pro-anorexia community since December 2006. I found healthier online support. Some of my best friends are from recovery sites and outpatient treatment. I am so incredibly grateful for their love and support.

All I can say, as a piece of final advice, is to just be careful out there; take care of yourselves. Get informed. Learn your triggers and your boundaries. Keep open communication. I certainly wish I had.

Bodies That Shatter: A Spoken Word Piece on the Politics of the Body

I need to talk about the body. About my body. About the bodies of others.

I need to talk about how the body frightens us.

But we don’t really want to talk about that, do we? We would rather embrace the veneer of slogans about how we must want it enough, try hard enough, visualize our beach-perfect bodies enough, instead of sitting with the discomfort of what leads us to the kitchen to swallow the feelings we’ve been taught how to hide. And the shame that bubbles up in our chests when the messages that our bodies are failures are crammed down our throats, not only by the magazines that confront us at the check-out stand but by the well-meaning friends who check-in to ask how we’re doing and if we’ve lost weight yet.

But we don’t really want to talk about that, do we? We would rather contend that “strong is the new skinny” when strength is not only about the number of reps you complete at the gym or the visibility of your abdominal muscles but the strength of sharing your deepest traumas, of surviving the rape or the miscarriage, the abuse or the disappointment, the heartbreak or the nightmares, of living with cancer or lupus, AIDS or chronic pain, or getting through the day when it would be easier to just give up.

But we don’t really want to talk about that, do we? We would rather make claims that all illnesses and disabilities and emotional blocks can be cured by intensive exercise, by gluten-free, soy-free, dairy-free, meat-free, sugar-free, green smoothies and whole foods and dubious, unscientifically proven weight-loss supplements because the terror of being confronted with our own misery, morbidity, and mortality, is too much to bear for a society that thinks they can purchase happiness, health, or the ability to live forever.

 

But we don’t really want to talk about that, do we? We would rather say that the weight-loss industry is a means of empowerment, a means to combat the crises of obesity and poor health without dismantling the capitalism that enables industrialized food systems and weight-loss industries alike to flourish. We would rather hide the bodies that are not perfect, capitalist drones, the bodies that unsettle the neoliberal idea that individualism and hard work are enough, the bodies that remind us that we are flesh and blood rather than well-oiled machines.

But we don’t really want to talk about that, do we? We’d rather pretend that conformity is key, and that biodiversity is a myth. We’d rather believe that there is one model of health, one model of beauty, one model of the able body, the able mind. We’d rather pretend that the promotion of fitspiration can change the health of a generation without realizing that we are repeating the same message over and over. And the most frightening thing is the well-meaning tokens, the well-meaning slogans that act like Trojan horses for a eugenics of body-based shame.

But we have to talk about that. 

We need to understand the body as a place of intersectionality, that among the tangles of neurons and veins and tendons are the influences of economics, politics, cultures, and society.

We need to talk about the thoughts that we harbour about what constitutes health and wellness are based on deeply-rooted systems of oppression. We need to talk about the fact that working hard in the gym for hours is a different kind of labour than the backbreaking work carried out by the bodies of many, and that despite the complaints we articulate about the laziness we hate, we would rather our laborious physical activity be a personal choice than an economic necessity.

We need to talk about the isms, the ableism, the racism, the sizeism, the sexism, and the biggest ism of all, the capitalism that underlies the profit that preys on the pursuit of perfection. That the gurus of health are the gurus of wealth and that we inevitably pay the price of profit.

We need to know that Monsanto’s genetic modification of crops is not disconnected from the attempts to genetically re-structure the shape of our society by cultural genocide. Think about what it means to put a patent on a plant, to isolate and regulate genetics under the rule of law.

I know it’s hard to talk about.

I know it’s hard to change a lifetime of indoctrination about the politics of the body.

I know it’s hard to acknowledge that the well-meaning words we say can slay the spirit of another, and that the bruises we leave in others’ bodies run so deep; I know this might make it hard to sleep.

But the bodies that shatter are the bodies that matter.

And that’s worth talking about.

Thoughts on Vancouver Eco Fashion Week

When I first imagined blogging about fashion or being involved in the modeling business, I was a teenager with somewhat naïve thoughts about what the industry was really about. I had grown up doing ballet and theatre, and to me, the catwalk and the photography studio were just extensions of the same type of performance, the same types of artistic expression. Beautiful fabrics, stunning makeup, gorgeous hair. In my late teens and early twenties, I studied technical theatre, and the intricacies of lighting design, sound production, stage management, and costume design only solidified my beliefs that despite the problems of the fashion industry – from the overuse of thin, white, young, tall models, to the ridiculousness of overpriced garments – there was really a space for creativity.

   As I’ve gotten older, however, and learned to be a more careful critic of the industry, the more I find myself needing to position myself not as a fashion aficionado, but as someone who calls the industry out for the various forms of hypocrisy that it espouses.

I have previously written about some of these inconsistencies in an open letter to Vancouver Fashion Week.. In that letter, I suggested that VFW’s alleged commitment to diversity was not as noble as it seemed, given that the element of racial diversity still came at the expense of diversity in body types. The answer I was given, somewhat predictably, was that designers simply offer certain sample sizes in order to be able to present their work consistently to the public in a multitude of venues. There was no mention, of course, that the preferred aesthetic of tall and slim is also endorsed by the agencies who only choose to represent this particular type of model, or that there is an inherent laziness in not having the time to at least present a few select pieces in each collection on different types of bodies, and to put calls out for models who fit these proportions. Having walked the catwalk for Brilliant!, a charity fashion show that took place in Vancouver in fall of 2012, I know first-hand that a serious effort was put into selecting models of a variety of shapes and sizes (and ages!) from the pool of volunteer models (most of whom were just regular people) that auditioned for the show. And surprise, surprise, the participating designers were able to find clothing for all of us.

This week in Vancouver, another fashion week is taking the stage: Vancouver Eco-Fashion Week. On first glance, the event’s commitment to addressing the wastes of resources in the fashion industry, and the need for a more sustainable form of clothing production is admirable. Certainly, as we know from recent reports about companies such as Zara, whose products were exposed by Greenpeace as having hazardous chemicals in them, it is important to talk about how what we wear can affect our health, and the health of our planet. It’s key to address, as VEFW does through its use of collections that are assembled from pieces sourced from thrift shops like Value Village, that the creative use of second-hand clothing can offer just as many options for fashionable self-expression as buying items new. The depreciation in value for clothing is just as real as the depreciation of cars that are driven off the lot: we’re being gouged at the register, and many of us are willing to buy into the lure of name-brands and 800$ pairs of jeans.

However, there are a few things about VEFW that I take issue with, and I would caution anyone reading this not to simply take the view that because a “eco-friendly” standpoint is being promoted, that this event is not depoliticizing or ignoring other equally important issues.

  • VEFW, as opposed to VFW, only uses agency-represented models for its shows. Thus, not only are freelance models being excluded, but the types of models that are featured in these shows are representative of the narrow standards of beauty that most agencies feature in their fashion/runway rosters: tall, thin, young, conventionally beautiful. Emphasis on the tall and thin.
  • By having a very narrow body type on which to feature collections of clothing from thrift shops, a strange message is being sent out, namely that consumers are encouraged to have greater economic access to fashion by buying stylish clothing at second-hand clothing stores, or greater ecologically responsibility by buying from eco-conscious designers, but the aesthetic, the bodies on which they are featured at VEFW (and, indeed, the experience of walking the runway at VEFW) is something that only a select few can have access to. Exclusivity in the fashion industry is huge – it’s what the glamour of modeling and of haute couture thrives on, and VEFW is no exception in promoting this principle by its exclusive use of agency models.
  • VEFW has a large affiliation with Value Village. Unlike a local, independent, non-profit thrift shops, Value Village is a highly-successful, for-profit corporation. The prices at Value Village are, often, still inaccessible for many, because they are priced in such a way that the company stands to make a multi-million dollar profit in sales each year. I’ve been a thrift-shopper since it was uncool and deemed as the lot of the poor or the unfashionable, and I’m still shocked that when I visit, I see items at prices that are still relatively unaffordable. While Value Village does have some fantastic finds (hello, I bought my favourite cowboy boots there for 7$, and my favourite jeans for 9$), it certainly is primarily interested in the accrual of profit, not necessarily only in providing a way of taking care of the environment by re-using clothing.
  • The economic realities that have long-governed thrift shopping – i.e. that many individuals and families simply cannot afford to purchase new clothing items – are being completely erased. Thrifting or vintage shopping is super-trendy now, unlike when I grew up. VEFW’s Value Village collections seem to suggest that despite certain clothes being previously worn and less expensive, ensembles are still supposed to appear as though it could be an ensemble that rivals the most expensive designer clothing. Don’t look poor. Don’t look as though you have to shop at these stores by necessity. Erase the economic inequities that the fashion and clothing industries fundamentally revolve around.
  • Essentially, my issue with Vancouver Eco-Fashion Week, as with all corporate or profitable initiatives that take up the ecological cause, is that I find it increasingly harder and harder to separate our interest in justice and care for our planet without justice, equality, and care for the people living on it. While VEFW is doing some amazing work around providing information about sustainability, starting conversations and offering workshops about the true environmental cost of producing clothing (i.e. the amount of fertilizer and pesticides involved in making clothing from non-organic cotton), I think there is always room for improvement.

And here’s why.

  • I find it hard to accept that we can talk about fashion without talking about economic access and financial privilege. “Hobo-chic” is a politicized issue, because homelessness is not a fashion trend. Second-hand clothing is a politicized issue.
  • I find it hard to accept that we can show eco-friendly clothing on models whose body types are representative of those that our culture values most, and those that our culture still holds up as a way to shame those who do not fit a particular brand of beauty or embodiment. The ecology of our planet and our biosphere is inherently dependent on diversity. How can we attempt to break down the monocultures of things like food production and energy production when we can’t even break down our monocultures of beauty in magazines, advertisements, and on runways?
  • I find it hard to accept that we can talk about ecological waste without talking about the ways in which the fashion industry itself constantly promotes the quarterly purchasing of new clothing and accessories and accrues billions of dollars by brainwashing us into thinking we need new things, more things, prettier things, fashionable things. If we can’t admit that we’re selling “eco” as a product, and that we don’t want to stop making more things instead of using and wearing what we already have, how can we ever break the hold that rampant capitalism has on most of us? Aren’t our closets full enough already?  How can we encourage people to participate ecologically in other ways, like planting gardens and taking care of our waterways, in ways that don’t require buying something, but rather involve giving something back?

I am not suggesting that we bring the fashion industry to a screeching halt, nor that VEFW should not be a fixture of the local fashion scene. I am friends and acquaintances with many models, makeup artists, hairstylists, fashion designers, and photographers. I love the beautiful things my friends create. I am in awe of how people are able to create clothing out of recycled items, out of earth-friendly materials. Upcycling things, rather than producing completely new things: totally awesome. And people need to make a living, and should make a living out of providing things that people desire (and possibly need). But there needs to be a balance.

By thinking critically about these issues, and acknowledging the ways in which certain parts of the fashion industry operate, I hope that I am able to spark a discussion how how we might approach an ethical, holistic fashion industry. Is it possible to combine social justice efforts with fashion in more than a tokenistic manner? I’m not sure. I don’t think it’s entirely possible to take out all the “isms” (racism, sizeism, ableism, ageism, and, obviously capitalism) that converge in this industry, but I know that we can do even better than we’re currently doing.

“It’s About The Food,” Part One: Struggling with Negative Feelings about Food in the Face of Physical/Digestive Illness

Dear readers, welcome to a two-part series of articles about food. As many of my friends and family know, I am personally and professional interested a lot of topics that surround food, from my great love for the Food Network and my deep hatred of “fitspiration.” I thought that I’d take some time to articulate some thoughts about food that I’ve been mulling over recently. In this blog post, Part 1, I’ll be debunking one of the pervasive myths that “it’s not about the food,” namely that physical illnesses and aversions to food cannot lead to having distorted thoughts about eating or body image. Disclaimer: I am not a health professional, or a therapist. I am simply speaking from my own personal experience, and am not attempting to make broad claims about others’ experiences.

In the past couple of months, I’ve been struggling with a number of physical health issues, all of which center around my old nemesis: food. In addition to struggling with increased food sensitivities, which means that I can no longer process ANY alcohol, artificial sweeteners, caffeine, or artificial flavourings, I also struggle with reactive hypoglycemia, and a flare-up of the digestive issues that plagued my mid-teens after I was diagnosed with H. pylori.

In theory, this isn’t the worst situation in the world. I don’t drink anyway, so not being able to consume alcohol doesn’t change my life in any significant way, and since artificial substances aren’t necessarily wonderful for our bodies anyway, it’s very easy to give those things up. I haven’t had a Diet Coke for nearly 5 years, and don’t miss it at all. Dealing with reactive hypoglycemia, too, is also relatively simple: it can be controlled with a regular intake of small meals, with an emphasis on good proteins, fats, and complex carbohydrates. Rehabilitating one’s digestive system is also not easy, but it IS manageable, especially with the right medications for temporary relief, and the right foods for long-term relief. These are common conditions, and certainly not acutely life-threatening ones. Some days are good ones, but the bad ones can certainly be awful ones. I’m hoping that within a few months, I’ll be feeling back to my old, irritatingly-chipper, active self.

In practice, however, having to once again be hyper-conscious about food (and knowing the severe discomfort and illness that can result when I am lax about it) is a painful reminder of the times in my life when food consumed my every waking moment: my years of anorexia. I’ve started to worry recently: would my increased attention to and scrutiny of food send me spiraling back into a relapse? Why was I starting to have negative body image again? Was I just imagining that food was starting to make me sick again, or was I dreaming it up as a way to lose a few pounds? Why, after coming to terms with the fact that I actually prefer my body as it is now (35 pounds heavier than when I was at my sickest) was I starting to worry about “feeling” fat?

But when I stopped to really reflect on my relationship to food, I realized that many of my thoughts now, and even parts of my prior eating disorder, were actually a reaction to physical illness. In complete opposition to everything that I had been told in my experiences of eating disorder treatment, some of it was and is about the food. It’s about the fact that when food feels unsafe to eat, it’s hard to trust our bodies to treat us well. It’s about the fact that when I am feeling physically well, when I’m having a good day, that my body-image is perfectly healthy. Anyone who’s even struggled with a case of food poisoning, the flu, or a hangover will know how intrinsically connected our physical well-being is connected to a healthy self-image and sense of our bodies: it’s completely logical. I began fearing food after developing severe stomach problems at the age of 15, and needing to control my food was a reaction to the fact that I felt that food was controlling (and hurting) me. It did eventually spiral into a whole host of other issues, including my strange preoccupation with modelling and fashion, but was most certainly triggered by, in my case, fearing food for quite rational reasons.

What I’m frustrated with now, as much as I was when I was in treatment, is dealing with the common presumption that aversions to or negative experiences of food are necessarily derived from a psychological problem, rather than the possibility of it being able to be the other way around. It’s the stigma I face when I say that I don’t drink, and I get accused of being morally opposed to alcohol or not wanting to “drink my calories,” or the pressure that I encounter when I am asked to “just try” something that I know will not sit well with my stomach. It’s the attitudes I get from doctors who assume, especially because I am a young woman, that I’m just concerned with how I look, not with how I feel. It’s the flush of embarrassment and the feeling of being forced to explain why I’m not ordering certain items at a restaurant, and the misconception that I must be constantly dieting or trying to lose weight. I’m tired of worrying that people will still think I’m screwed up about food because I want to look like a supermodel, or trying to make people understand that I’m feeling unattractive or uncomfortable with my body because of how it feels on the inside.

To be perfectly honest, I would find it easier to say that I wasn’t eating certain foods because I wanted to lose weight or because I thought they’d make me fat, rather than the truth, which is that I’d rather not be doubled up in pain in the bathroom or feeling unbearably nauseous. Many people do not want to hear about or talk about digestive issues, even though they are incredibly common, and even though colorectal cancer “is the second leading cause of death from cancer in men and women combined” (Colon Cancer Canada).

I think that societally and medically speaking, we have been making significant progress in realizing that we have to take a holistic approach to health. We are slowly dispensing with the old Cartesian approach that it’s “all in the mind,” and realizing that issues such as Celiac disease, lactose intolerance, diabetes, and hypersensitivities to food can not only cause physical discomfort, but can lead to depression, brain fog, fatigue, and a strained relationship with one’s body. We are starting to recognize that paying attention to physiological causes of distress, and not making the assumption of psychosomatic illness, can lead to earlier diagnoses of a number of debilitating conditions, including cancer. With regards to eating disorder treatment proper, we’re also starting to learn that alongside emotional and psychological skills, we can teach ways to have a healthy relationship with food, to appreciate the power of nutrition, and that we can’t recover from an eating disorder without coming to terms with what and why we eat.

I’ll be very, very clear: I do not believe that eating disorders or a disordered relationship to food are completely disconnected from psychological issues, such as responses to trauma, as a symptom of anxiety, depression, or stress, or as part of the increasing and pervasive sociocultural pressure to look healthy, fit, and thin. Nor am I suggesting that everyone who has digestive issues or physical illnesses will have screwed up relationships to food or body image. People can certainly experience both at the same time, or experience them as distinct processes. It’s all extremely individual.

In my case, there definitely was an overlap between food sensitivities and an unhealthy psychological relationship to food. I’ve had moments where I’ve felt that I deserved to be punished because I’d not done well on an assignment, and thus have deliberately eaten foods that made me feel desperately ill. Like many women, I struggled with – and continue to fight against – the media messages which equate the size of my waist with my worth as a person. It’s complex. The line between body and mind is a very blurry one. Are there people with eating disorders who also who use their physical illnesses or digestive issues as excuses to eliminate more foods than are necessary? Of course: I’ve been there, and done that, and am certainly not proud of once having exploited my physical illness to serve my desire to be thin. The knowledge that I’ve done that in my past shames me to this day, and this is one of the major reasons that I often force myself to push through discomfort and illness, because I never, ever want to be accused of using this as an excuse to get out of anything, especially eating.

What I am aiming for, by being open and honest about these issues, is a way for those who struggle with physical illness and strained feelings about food that they aren’t alone, that they’re not crazy, and that it’s not just all in their head. It’s also okay if they struggle with the psychological elements of body image and food issues, too. Many of us do. It’s also okay to have had/have an eating disorder and still struggle with food for other reasons.

Most importantly, what I want people to hear, especially who have been told that it’s all in their head and not in their bodies, or that it’s a remnant of their past/current history of eating disorders: I believe you, and I support you in your efforts to be heard as you keep advocating for your own treatment and health. You’re not alone.

Stay tuned next week for Part Two of “It’s About the Food,” in which I’ll take a look at how the pressures to eat healthily and exercise to achieve a certain body shape are perceived as mere matters of individual choice and willpower, rather than as part of a larger discussion of the economics and politics of food and fitness.

breathlessness – thinking of eva markvoort.

I find myself breathless today. My lungs are still recovering from a vicious cold, and every half-hour, I am doubled over as violent coughs that shake my ribcage expel the remnants of this viral infection from my body.

And yet, in spite of it all, I feel more alive than ever.

I take my lungs and my throat for granted, poor things. I always assume that when I wake up, and go about my day, that I can sing and yell and scream if I choose. I always assume that I will be able to run for the bus without my chest feeling tight.

My singing voice is nonexistent, my speaking voice raspy and hoarse. My energy is sapped. And yet, my body is currently fulfilling its destiny, doing its violent work of healing with the determination of troops at war. It is an exquisite piece of machinery.

I am grateful for my breathlessness, because I know it is transitory: and I know we are not all so lucky.

Two years ago today, a beautifully inspiring young woman named Eva Markvoort passed away when her breath ran out. Eva suffered from a genetic disease called cystic fibrosis. Although Eva successfully underwent a double lung transplant in 2007, she suffered from transplant rejection, and she died before she was able to receive another set of lungs. I think of Eva often, not only because her compelling journey and her brilliant spirit were so beautifully captured in Philip Lyall and Nimisha Mukerji’s 2009 documentary 65_RedRoses, but because she made me so exquisitely aware of that simple, unconscious act – breathing – which I have, and still do, take so brutally for granted.

The practice of mindfulness, which I learned from Zen Buddhism, places highest emphasis on the breath. In, out. In, out. The flow of air as it passes through our nostrils and rushes into our throats, the rise and the fall of our chests, or our torsos, as we breathe deeply into our diaphragms. Breath is the comfort and the security that we have immediate access to, the source that we can attend to in our moments of despair as in our moments of joy. It is not a matter to be taken lightly.

After I saw Eva’s documentary, I realized that my therapists weren’t kidding when they told me that there is great power in the breath: it is life itself. It is a gift. It is one which we who are so lucky to live with unimpeded lungs should savour each day, and in each moment.

So, though I am breathless today, though I am coughing and inclined, if only a little, to feel rather sorry for myself, I am truly filled with such gratitude for my little lungs, these powerful organs of life.

I regret not writing to Eva – I left it too late – but I am infinitely grateful to her for giving me a massive reality check, and for reminding me (especially on a day like today) that I am so, so, lucky to be able to just breathe.

For more information on Eva’s remarkable life, visit: http://www.65redroses.com

To become an organ donor in British Columbia (if you aren’t already), go to: https://transplant.bc.ca/OnlineReg/bcts.asp