How Gratitude Can Help Improve Body Dissatisfaction

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The power of practicing gratitude has the potential to be something quite incredible. Culturally in the West we are conditioned almost to always want for more, or with our bodies ironically we want for less. Less waist, less weight, less is more when it comes to beauty and looking good, or so we are told. We are primed to be perpetually discontented, dissatisfied and looking to others who always seem to have more of whatever it is we want: friends, tech, clothing or, ticking more beauty standard ideals with their appearance.

Like any other skill in our tool box of tricks to get us through our days reasonably content and in one piece, it takes a bit of practice in order to change our thinking patterns. The good news is that it can be done and that it can be an effective tool to develop a healthier relationship with your body and body image.

In a study conducted by Armstrong State University, USA, gratitude and cognitive restructuring were compared for effectiveness in reducing body disatisfaction amongst college age females. The group studied had not sought clinical help for body disatisfaction and eating disordered related issues. The importance of body image and dissatisfaction is that the feelings we have towards ourselves often permeate other areas of our lives: body disatisfaction has been associated with depression (Jurasico, Perone & Timnko, 2011) and social anxiety (Cash, 2011) for example.

Cognitive restructuring is a CBT technique. CBT is an established treatment for many mental health and well-being complaints including: bulimia, anxiety, depression. SOURCE THIS. By comparing a gratitude based intervention to an established intervention such as cognitive restructuring, the effectiveness of each intervention on body dissatisfaction can be compared.

The strength of using gratitude based interventions for body dissatisfaction is that it increases appreciation for non-appearence based aspects of one’s self and life: gratitude interventions have been found to be causally related to improvements in intrapersonal and interpersonal aspects of well-being including: increased happiness, decreased depression, improved pro-social behaviour, decreased aggression, improved sleep and concentration (Watkins, 2014).

There does need to be more studies in order to confirm or dispute similar findings. However, with this in mind gratitude is a promising intervention for people experiencing body dissatisfaction without a clinical diagnosis of an eating disorder.

Gratitude works is by changing perspective on what is important in life and how and what we judge ourselves and ourl ives to be worthwile. This study illustrates the potential effectiveness that can be had from introducing and working on gratitude in order to improve well being and happiness.

With this. Line of thought fresh in my mind, and my own practicing of gratitude lately I will be exploring some personal experiences of gratitude and how practicing gratitude has helped me alter my automatic thought patterns over time. As a disclaimer I am not suggesting gratitude is a cure-all, but more of a handy tool to help contribute to a changing way of relating to the world around us.


References:

Cash, T. F. (2011). Cognitive behavioural perspectives on body image. In T. F. Cash, & L. Smolak (Eds.), Body Image, A Handbook of science, practice and prevention (2nd ed., pp. 39-47). New York, NY: Guilford Press

Juarasico, A. S., Perone, J., & Timko, C. A. (2011) Moderators of the relationship between body image dissatisfaction and disordered eating. Eating Disorders, 19, 346-354. doi: 10.1080/10640266.2011.584811

Watkins, P. C. (2014). Gratitude and the good life: Toward a psychology of appreciation. New York, NY: Springer Science

Wendy, L. Wolfe & Kaitlyn Patterson (2017) Cpmparison of a gratitude-based and cognitive restructuring intervention for body disatissfaction and dysfunctional eating behaviour in college women, Eating Disorders, 25:4, 330-334, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080.10640266.2017.1279908

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Getting Active: Becoming a Kinetic Energetic

In the final stage of starting to get active the focus is on actually starting to move. Feel free to move in any way which suits you and here are some lessons I’ve learned along the way when turning getting active into part of my permanent lifestyle.

This stage is called, Becoming the Kinetic Energetic.

Balance Ambition and Attainability

With running, it is tempting to go for straight for the big distances. A training plan says you can run a half marathon in 8 weeks, so why shouldn’t you? If you train hard you’ll get results quickly right?

Unfortunately, fitness isn’t always a direct correlative relationship of input vs results. We are human beings not machines: we can’t force out bodies to stick to a constant progressive plan as figured by an algorithm. Injuries happen. Overuse injuries and obtaining injuries from increasing your exercise load too quickly are very real – and are not something be ploughed on through in the name of ‘mind over matter’.

Our bodies do things that may not fall in line with our plans and ambitions. Being realistic with self expectations and self compassionate throughout your journey will harbour much greater results than literally beating your body up physically in order to run too far a distance in too short a time, or dead lift too many kilograms too quickly – and that’s OK.

I can however, make slow progress in line with how my body adapts. I can gain more than climbing higher grades and running faster miles from my journey. This way I maintain a level of ambition and sense of progress that becomes very enticing from exercising, whilst also respecting my body and capabilities. You can too.

Engage with Online Communities for your Activity

I don’t mean follow a bunch of Instagram models with chiseled muscle definition and a body shape that requires an unhealthy level of obsession to achieve. What I mean is, if you don’t know anyone who wants to get into your activity with you, go find your people.

One way of doing this is the web – Meet Up, and local clubs and Facebook groups are a great place to start. Engaging in an ongoing conversation with others like you about your journeys, encouraging one another is a great source or virtual community. Some members may be inspiring to you, and you never know, you may yourself inspire others.  You may meet up at an event and do it together – there are hundreds of people just like you who have done just that, and for as scary as that may initially seem – you’ll meet some bloody brilliant people.

Together we’re stronger.

Make it social

Working out alone can be a good time to clear your mind, focus on yourself and take time out from your day. For years, I ran solo, I went to the gym on my own, and I only climbed in a group because you kind of need someone to belay you – until I discovered bouldering could become a solitary activity also. I enjoy being alone, and know that not everyone likes being alone as much as I do.

For years I totally underestimated the value of working out with others, undervaluing the greater benefit of running with friends, and enjoying the company of other people in a positive space. Since this bomb has dropped, I regularly go to running crew each week.

It has become a place to forge friendships who share my passions. It has become a place to shake out the cobwebs of stagnation from a low mood in the company of others, a place to celebrate achievements of one another and a safe place of acceptance.

The benefit of human contact on a regular basis is something I never valued, until now. And as an awkward introvert who is usually immersed in swathes of social awkwardness I have found the fitness people, and the running crew to be a very non-judgmental and friendly bunch. It may not feel right with the first group you run, yogi or climb with, but keep trying – eventually a you’ll find yourself a you-shaped space to be the missing piece to a jigsaw of a crew you never even knew about before.

Embrace the Power of Post Exercise Mindfulness 

After a work out take time to sit, breathe and be mindful about how your body and mind are feeling. Just taking a moment to do so gives you time to reflect on where you’re at, how you’re feeling physically and emotionally. Is something bothering you? Is there something you want to work on? Is there a niggle in your knee that needs attention? Or are you just feeling totally zen and absorbing as much of that as possible for a moment? Stop to smell the flowers.

Don’t Focus on Weight or Size

Weight loss is a viable goal for many but I would definitely never advocate obtaining a certain clothes size or goal weight to be the main or only reason for incorporating physical activity into your life. It is claimed that weighing yourself regularly can help with weight loss in numerous research papers.

However, focusing on weight alone can become very disheartening and a very damaging relationship with yourself. There is no self compassion or love in weighing yourself every day. This gives the scales too much power.

Use the scales if you need to but don’t enslave yourself to them. They’re a tool and deserve no power in your life beyond that. Be real with the scales and let them be real with you – and leave it at that.

Pushing your physical boundaries can be an emotional journey. Let it.

Pushing yourself, breaking yourself down in order to build yourself up is so much more than a physical journey. ‘Your body is capable, it’s your mind you have to convince’ and this can be a very complicated and windy path of self realisation and discovery.

Sometimes it will be a struggle, other times you’ll smash your own expectations and it’ll feel emotional. You may want to shout or cheer, or even cry – this is entirely OK. Emotions are OK, and pushing yourself in order to break self-inflicted boundaries and  achieving your fitness goals can be an emotional journey. Let yourself own it.

Stop believing in tomorrow. Start today

Tomorrow I’ll start running. Ok, It’s Wednesday and I didn’t go – I’ll start over on Monday. Next week is definitely the day I’m going to start going to the gym. I’ve signed up now, there’s no excuse, other than the excuse you’ll give to yourself when Monday comes.

Sound familiar?

Stop giving tomorrow so much power. The day is today. What can you do today to prepare yourself and take a step in the right direction? It might not be lacing up right now, but maybe it’s thinking of how you could start. Something may be in the way at the moment: work, study or commitments, so tomorrow may be necessary sometimes but put a deadline on it.

After a month of tomorrow’s start switching to today thinking. Tomorrow will be better from the actions you make today. Get yourself out there. Show yourself what you’re made of – and have a bloody good time doing it!


Other Posts in The Getting Active Series:

1. The Preparation Position

2. Find Your Mind

Getting Active: Find Your Mind

Work On Your Mind

It is your biggest barrier and your biggest tool to self realisation and achieving fitness goals is your mind. I’ve said it a few times and I’ll say it again, physical activity and incorporating it into your life can be just as much an emotional and mental challenge as it is physical. Sometimes, you may find yourself stopping mid activity because you think you can’t push any further.

Practice pushing your own self limitations and step a little out of your comfort zone. I challenge you, and see what happens. You may shock yourself. I have certainly shocked myself a number of times.

Find Something You Enjoy


Don’t vow to run 4 times a week if the magic of running hasn’t struck you. I would encourage persevering for a month or two with any activity to see if it grows on  you, but if you’re really not feeling it, try something else. Try getting on your bike, or swimming a few lengths, or an exercise class – of which the variety just keeps on expanding.

Who knows what classes we’ll be attending in 5 years time like we’ve been needing it all our life. I don’t particularly like group exercise classes, so don’t really go or seek to go to them – but for others, they’re a staple to their weekly schedule. Dip your toes in many ponds before diving in completely, getting all the kit and making a plan that you won’t stick with because you’re not enjoying it.

Enjoy Yourself


I’ll tell you a secret – you’re allowed to have a bloody good time whilst working out. You’re allowed to laugh, smile and make friends. All of which help in keeping activity as part of your routine and daily life. Have fun – some of the best times I’ve had, and the best people I have met has been via exercising, and not getting wasted in a club or pub a few times a week: conversely to popular belief.

Do It For a Reason You Believe In


Sometimes we need a bit of external motivation. Getting up in the morning to run can be a challenge. Dragging your arse to your 6am gym class before a full work day can seem like the last thing you want to do when the alarm goes off at 5.30am, but people do it. Hundreds and thousands of people do it, and they do it regularly.

Maybe they have something that we snooze button pushers don’t have – and I think it is a purpose and belief in what they’re doing. It becomes a passion and something you couldn’t imagine not doing. Passing up a few more drinks past tipsy to get up in the morning and feel alive whilst doing sun salutations may seem a bit alien to you right now, but after a few months of reaping the benefit you may not be able to imagine starting your Monday mornings any other way.

Know Your Goals


Know what you want from you activity, and reflect on whether you’re getting it – and how to adapt your schedule and habits until you’re getting exactly what you want out of it. When you do this, you’re more likely to stick with it because it becomes important to you, as important as eating every day and sleeping every night.

In my journey I found focusing my why and purpose of exercising beyond achieving a certain body aesthetic, or fitting into a certain clothes size. With these goals, if you achieve them it can feel a bit like “what next?” or you stop once your goal has been achieved and it’s not really become a part of your lifestyle and if you don’t achieve these set goals within a time frame, it can be very disheartening.

Instead, or as well, have a goal that is immeasurable. Are you seeing your friends through your activity? Are you de-stressing from the day and your worries? Are you trying to replace less healthy coping mechanisms? Are you training for an event to raise money for a cause you care for? Take time to notice the benefit you’re gaining. This seems to cement the “I will feel much better after a run” as a solid memory to recall during times of stress or moments of lacking motivation when running feels like that last thing you want to do – or tennis, or gymnastics, or swimming: whatever your activity of choice is.


Other Posts in The Getting Active Series:

1. The Preparation Position

3. Becoming a Kinetic Energetic

Getting Active: The Preparation Position

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Getting active is and isn’t as simple as lacing up and getting out the door. Sure, to get out the door you just have to get dressed and lace up, turn the handle and put one foot in front of the other. It sounds simple right? Then why is it, that getting active is such an up hill struggle of a habit to establish into our every day lifestyles?

Excuses come up – often behind these excuses there is a reason that is stopping us from putting one foot in front of the other. Instead of inciting Nike and saying ‘Just Do It!’, which can be useful to a degree, it isn’t always an applicable attitude towards ourselves. Just Do It doesn’t harbour self compassion and reflection into why we can’t keep going out the door a few times a week on a regular basis to put one foot in front of the other.

This is a struggle I am well acquainted with. A year ago I swore I’d start running again and get active. It didn’t really happen on a regular basis and become part of my daily habit until February this year. So what was I doing for 10 months whilst I wasn’t exercising – I was engaging with a mental battle in order to get myself out the door to put one foot in front of the other – and I am 100% convinced that I’m not the only person to have undergone a journey just to establish the habit of movement.

I learned a lot during this period of time. I approached my hurdles with a problem solving mind-set, and trialled a number of solutions in order to conquer myself and the barriers that were holding me back from achieving my goal of running and climbing regularly. I have compiled a list of 15 steps that I took and learned of and from during this past year in getting active.


The Preparation Position

In order to decode the puzzle of movement, I have separated the list into 3 phases. In this phase, The Preparation Position, I address the pre-lace up hurdles that I’ve faced and how I’ve managed to push beyond them. Maybe you see yourself in here somewhere, or maybe someone you know.

The Preparation Position is as valid as any other position in our journeys to getting active – in the early days, these can be some of the most important hurdles to overcome in order to develop the habit of movement.

Despite best intentions, plans don’t work out for a reason: Find it

Over the years I have made numerous ‘fitness plans’, ‘exercise schedules’ and penned runs into my diary – which in my mind makes it an automatic commitment because y’know, pen! Until I close my Filo Fax and forget about all my plans, including those in pen.

What I came to realise this year, was that sometimes getting yourself into a routine of physical activity that you enjoy can be quite the process. At first, the excuses come along from every angle knocking you off your well-intentioned uni-cycle and underneath each excuse is a reason. You could opt to pick those excuses up and use them beat yourself up about making pathetic excuses to yourself – or you could take a step back and ask yourself ‘why?’ and therefore arming yourself with something much more powerful than self-defeating talk – you could arm yourself with an inquisitive mind of self-reflection.

Why is it always too hot, too cold, I’m too dehydrated, the roads are too narrow, it’s too dark, it’s too early? When I started asking myself these questions, I got down to the crux of what was holding me back. Most of the time it was anxiety.

I was anxious about being dehydrated and feeling awful.
I was anxious about not having enough energy to complete a run.
I was anxious about running in public and the attention that might attract, or the looks and judgements I might receive.
I was anxious about collapsing.
I was anxious about getting lost or stuck far away from home with no option to get home other than to run.
I was anxious about the discomfort of exercise.

The list could really go on and on and on. By acknowledging these anxieties and validating them I was able to think of solutions.

I began taking water with me for every run, even if it was just 2km around the block until I gained the confidence that I could handle my hydration more effectively. I started slow, and never set off running whilst hungry and realised that if I had more faith in my body it managed my energy availability and usage much more effectively than I gave it credit for. I chose to stop caring what others thought and felt about my body – I exercise for myself and no-one else.

So if you’re finding yourself reeling off excuses to yourself and others about why you don’t exercise despite wanting to get active – ask yourself why. The real why, and don’t be ashamed of the answer – by doing so you’re already a step ahead of where you were when you accepted your excuses.

Start Simple

When I first tried running and felt that god-awful burn in my lungs coughing up that metallic blood taste on my first try I decided running wasn’t for me. Instead I went to a big patch of grass and said I would just move vigorously and enjoyably for 30 minutes. I had music and I danced. I did some side steps and waved my arms around and just generally learned to enjoy movement of my body again. This is what I imagined discovering the idea of play for the first time would feel like – it was a freeing and liberating decision to just not care.

It’s perfectly fine to go gentle, it’s perfectly fine to not know which activity grabs you straight away. Embarking on a fitness lifestyle change can very much be a journey about discovering and learning about yourself in new ways that don’t occur otherwise. You learn to push your limits, make peace with your body and mind, and appreciate what your body can do.

Take it slow

Initially there was no purpose or method to my movement other than to move and enjoy it, which is purpose enough. I learned that I felt better for doing it, and I kept on until I felt a genuine urge to try running.

Don’t force yourself to do something you hate. Don’t listen to the media about how you should and shouldn’t exercise. You don’t need to go to the gym and lift or run Kms if you’re not ready. Boogieing around your house for 5-10 minutes is a perfectly good start place as any. Be flexible with yourself. Be kind to yourself.

Make it manageable and really put focus and energy on enjoyment, and the fact that you just did it was enough. No pressure for a distance. No pressure to get better. The focus became doing it for the fun of it, the good of it and essentially, the sake of it. Without trying, it will become easier.

Reframe Your Thinking

At 15 I started running because I thought I was fat. I felt like I needed to lose weight. My internal narrative during running at that time went something like,

“keep moving you fat bitch’

‘don’t stop, you’re pathetic’

‘youre so fat, that’s why you have to do this, youre disgusting, keep going you fat pig. you deserve this as punishment for eating’

In those 3 snippets of self-talk it is very evident that I wasn’t coming at myself from a place of compassion. This narrative enforced exercise as a punishment for just being. I did have an eating disorder at the time, so I’m not sure if this is actually an extreme example of negative self talk or if this is the average inner monologue if you’re dissatisfied with yourself.

Exercising as punishment isn’t healthy. Exercising to bring yourself into a constant energy deficit isn’t healthy. I managed to stick at it for a while – because I was unwell and the hatred was so ingrained. Unsurprisingly and much to my frustration, my running habit never lasted. I would never advocate anyone talks to themselves in this way, so why is it acceptable to talk to myself like this? It’s not, I deserved better and you deserve better.

It has taken a long time and may be a whole other journey to learn to love yourself, but through learning to love myself I have an entirely different narrative. It is one of self encouragement, self compassion, and self value.  Sometimes, I even hear my own voice as if it is a cheerleader, cheering myself on. So even if I’m running to that tree on the horizon with my face screwed up I will, somewhere within that creased up face, be smiling. I made it. I’m doing well.

Practicing self compassionate self talk in all areas of life helps build the habit of self-love, which can over-spill into when  you’re running up a hill that  isn’t even steep but is making a bloody big difference to the burn in your legs, the depths of your breath and getting up it is a challenge. Accept the challenge. Embrace the challenge. And congratulate yourself on even taking on the challenge. You’re allowed to feel good about yourself.

Address Health Barriers: Physical and Mental

Some barriers to engaging in an active lifestyle can be overcome with some motivation and positive self-talk and validation. There are some barriers that are physical, maybe you have a dodgy knee that needs specific attention to heal and function well? There is no use pushing through injury to strain your body further – although, maybe getting the medical and physical help you need to heal it would be a positive first step.

Maybe you’re nervous because you’re worried about the effect of exercise on you whilst  taking a medication – it is perfectly fine to seek advice on this. Pharmacists are great for this kind of thing, and massively underrated. They know their shit!

Currently, my meds can make me pretty thirsty, so I often drink a lot pre-workout and during if I can. Sometimes I feel like I’m a camel prepping to trek across the desert for 3 weeks but it helps and as a result it doesn’t stop me working out. If you’re feeling really depressed, then addressing that before you can exercise may be the way forward. Sometimes you need to improve your mood in order to exercise and improve your mood.  It seems odd, but when you contemplate sitting in your own urine because going to the toilet seems like too much of an ordeal, exercising is pretty much not going to happen. This is OK. You deserve help. We all need help in order to help ourselves sometimes. We can’t conquer ourselves on our own.

Most importantly, in this first stage of prepping to get active, you’ve taken the first step even if you haven’t laced up yet. That’s worth celebrating. Every little thing is worth celebrating and acknowledging. It’s not easy, and you can do it.


Other Posts in The Getting Active Series:

2.  Find Your Mind

3. Becoming a Kinetic Energetic

 

Dumping “Body Image” in Return for “Body Love”

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Diet culture is everywhere. It is pretty difficult to avoid, especially when dental adverts are colluding success rates with weight loss rates, and big influencers like Kim Kardashian are partnering with companies like Flat Tummy Co. to promote appetite suppressing products to their hoards of followers. It is difficult to believe that being in a body that doesn’t fit the beauty ideal of slim, toned and strong is OK. It’s hard to believe that you too are an acceptable body or that you can run a marathon.

Bryony Gordon and Jayda Seza ran the marathon this year in their underwear to show that runner’s bodies come in many different shapes and sizes. Being a different size to the bountifully pushed ideal does not mean you can’t enjoy physical activity, that you can’t be strong and most of all that you can’t be healthy. There are so many brilliant body positivity activists now showcasing that you can be “bigger” and healthy. There is a wave of activists fighting back against the body fascism and fat phobia in the name of “health”.

Since recovering from my eating disorder admittedly with a helping push from my meds increasing my weight in a way that was out of my control, I learned to relinquish any form of “control” over my body. I knew this time around on Quetiapine that it worked for me, but for it to keep on working for me I had to stay on it. Without it I relapse, plain and simple. A toss-up occurred between keeping a sense of control over my “recovered” weight and remaining mentally unwell, or relinquishing such control and giving the Quetiapine a real chance to work in the longer term. This was a very scary time for me. I have spent a decade of my life at war with my body, trying to control it and living in the safety confines of my eating disorder. Suddenly, recovery took a whole new turn – I wasn’t only maintaining a “healthy” weight, I was letting this medication cause havoc with my appetite and metabolism. If I had any hope of maintaining some stability with my moods though, this was it. Having tried most other medications suitable for my illness that this was the one that worked if I let it – and by let it I mean staying on it regardless of the weight gain. I made the only decision I could if I wanted to really start building any sort of future for myself. I stayed on the medication.

I learned a lot during this time. I learned that being well in a bigger body was definitely the right decision. My fitness journey into running, climbing and falling in love with movement, in addition to my studies in anatomy and physiology have caused a complete dimensional shift, and ultimately an entirely different view for me, on what body image is.

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Although I am no longer a skinny, my stomach has an extra padding of fat as opposed to the almost concave structure of previous years, and my thighs touch for the first time in my life. I have boobs, which are great although still slight, and it is easier to catch myself at an angle wherein which I have a double chin on show. I can shake my arms, and they wibble a little, and I have speckled cellulite over my thighs and bum when I tense. Speaking of which, I still have absolutely no bum. I need a larger size of clothes than I ever have previously yet still, no bum, and you know what? I am the most comfortable I have ever been with my body.

Yes, it looks a certain way in pictures and mirrors – but really, my body is not a picture. My body was not made solely to look a certain way. My body was made to function, to breathe, contract, relax, move, jump, run and skip for joy. My body lets me enjoy the senses of living be they the smell of fresh bread or dog shit on my shoe. My body brings me enjoyment in food, and digests it pretty well as energy in order to continue functioning as the amazing, complex piece of biological machinery that I am. Not only do I function, but my body allows for me to have a mind and a conscience. My body allows for emotions, and it fights diseases so I can still keep on enjoying experiences and living healthily. My body is not a picture. My body is so much more than that.

The sum of all this? I value my body more for what it can do, where it can take me, and the experiences it can give me. I’m no longer so hung up or concerned with looking a particular way, but more in doing particular things. Sure sometimes I have a momentary dip in confidence, sometimes I catch myself iterating diet culture messages of too much, need to lose weight, pain is gain and all that tom fuckery – but my choice in responding is to try to check in with myself when I notice these thoughts cropping up. I remind myself I am more than my mirror image and always will be.

I want to climb walls, and climb them better. I want to gain strength and resilience, and run all these races that I’ve signed up for. I want to dance, and move, and shake and enjoy what my body makes achievable for me every single day. I want to celebrate my strengths, and work on enjoying my body in more ways than I can possibly imagine. I can eat wonderful foods thanks to my body. I can conquer feats I never before thought would be possible for me like The London Marathon. I can have sex and enjoy all the sensations that brings. I can get myself around every day, and my legs do a fucking fantastic job of getting me around London on my bike. My arms do a great job at allowing me to do all the things I enjoy:  writing, reading, playing the ukulele really badly, climbing, eating, drinking, and in a hap hazardous way they contribute to my atrocious list of dance moves that I like to bust out when the party’s right. My eyes, they let me see all these beautiful sights that make me thankful to see everything I can: nature, skylines, sunrises and tropical storms. I can smell the warmth of the rain, and the freshness of cut grass and fresh coffee. The complexity of these joys cannot be captured in a photo or a mirror. Life is richer than that and so am I, and so are you.

My awkward smile may hint at the joys I have been experiencing, and my over excited crazy photos may capture a moment, but how my body looks, fuck that. It’s not important. I am healthy. I am capable, and I am taking advantage of those biological wonders that nature has blessed me with. So it no longer matters that I don’t fit into my skinny jeans, and it no longer matters that my arms aren’t spindly spaghetti features. My face is no longer structured by emaciation and malnourishment, and my waist is no longer so tiny it’s to die for, quite literally. My body is giving me life, and it is up to me to capture and cherish that fact.

So for as far as my body image goes, it’s not about image; it’s about sensations, feelings, experiences and love. Instead I will say that my body image is largely irrelevant but my body love is engaging with a pattern of exponential growth.

So there it is. I fucking love my body – and I bet yours is pretty darn fabulous too regardless of how it looks.

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What Is ‘Health’? And How Do We Define It?

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What is health and how do we define it? It’s a pretty complex topic and our interpretations will vary as much as our personalities. In 1946 the World Health Organisation defined health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity” (1) at the International Health Conference. This definition was put in place as of 1948. I don’t know about you but aiming for complete health in each of these areas feels like quite the daunting task, much like asking your crush out face to face in year 8 it isn’t going to happen.

“It is health that is real wealth and not pieces of gold and silver”
– Mahatma Gandhi (2)

Well-being focus and all the buzz around it is booming. Gone are the days when it’s a popular idea to starve yourself to nothingness in order to achieve a fashionable “look”. The greater the engagement from each of us with our health can only be a good thing. With all this focus on healthy living, healthy eating and “living my best life” what happens when the foundations of understanding what health is and is not are poorly understood? In this sense, striving for health can be like navigating the maze in a Triwizard tournament with an extra catch, you’re blindfolded and there is no cup to be found. Bah ha! You’ve been Tango’d. Except when health is concerned, the consequences can be a bit more dire than a double happy slap. 

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Being aware of and taking responsibility for our health can help us in many ways, whether it’s feeling able and capable, happy and content, experiencing sadness in proportionate bouts and even saving us money on health visits and prescription charges. With the age of the internet however, the health messages we receive can be combobulated and skewed – identifying fact from fiction is a bit of a tough cookie to crack.

So how does the evidence for what is and isn’t healthy translate into simpler ideas? Is it being a certain “ideal” weight? Having the “right” body fat percentages? Is it healthy to living in one emotional state? Is avoiding the GP unless you think you might be legitimately dying mean you’re healthier than everyone sat in the waiting room for said GP? The waters become murky very quickly and it’s easy to lose sight elusive Goblet of Health whilst sashaying amongst the currents and tides of fads, shock factor headlines and public health campaigns that are somewhat not accurate anyway – think Weight Watchers in American schools and the Ob_s__y campaign by Cancer Research UK earlier this year. 

The crux in relation to nutrition and our relationship status with food doesn’t boil down to one measurement, or one aspect of health. What we eat and how we do or don’t eat affects countless aspects of our bodies and functioning. Some very real questions in relation to health and nutrition is currently in an antler head bashing contest amongst those in the field, whether accredited and qualified or not. Is it healthy to marginalise a population group because of a pattern of association without identifying causation? Is it healthy to drill diet culture into young minds, and thus setting them up for a lifetime of living “healthily” on diet culture? Is that even possible? I’m not convinced. I’m also not convinced that everything stocked in Whole Foods is automatically healthy – sorry not sorry. I’m also not convinced about the healthiness of many modern day normalities, such as our phones becoming an extra part of the human anatomy, using social media to gain self worth and validation, or extreme approaches to anything much at all. 

With health food shops donning more supplements than we can possibly afford or swallow, and health influencers donning skimpy clothing to show off abs, glutes that can crush walnuts and who can do more chin ups than an excitable dog can tail wags, does being healthy have to be so extreme? I’m going to go out on a whim here and speculate that there’s no extremes in being healthy. It’s actually more about a balance and happy medium as boring and unexciting as that may sound.

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A little secret not pushed by those cashing in on the trend, you don’t need an extreme diet to eat healthily. You don’t need an extreme exercise regimen to be healthy. You don’t need to always be happy and content to be healthy. Nor do you need to spend crazy dollar on fancy ingredients and farfetched meal plans. Health isn’t even a number on a scale. The BMI is a tool for guidance and definitely not definitive – many athletes have a BMI considered obese and I’ve never seen someone typically considered to be ‘obese’ competing at the Olympics.

Each of us will define health differently drawn from our lived experiences. The most important point to be made though is that health is not a destination but a tool for living. It isn’t the be all and end all, merely a snazzy individualised car for scooting through your days with. Yeah, you want to keep the gear box in check but you don’t want to be obsessing over whether your gears are always sliding perfectly. You also need to keep your oil and waters tanks topped up, but you don’t want to be watching them furtively whilst missing out on the enjoyment of your drive. It would be a shame to not enjoy and take in the views.

Sources:
1. http://www.who.int/about/mission/en/
2. 
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3705649/

To The Bone Behind The Mask: Inside Anorexia

*Trigger Warning* – If you are experiencing or have experienced an eating disorder this post may be triggering for you.

The song of the morning birds has just begun, she can see through the crack in the curtain that the morning dawn is about to break. Her partner remains still as the night, unaware of the creeping day ahead. Pushing and kicking the duvet between her legs she rolls over to try and grasp at another few moments of peaceful slumber, “why is it that she can’t stay awake during the day and can’t sleep at night?” Tucking her extra pillow between her jarring knees for padding she twists her body so the least of her jutting angles are bruised from the mattress.

The tranquillity of peace is unbeknownst to her. Her only peace is found when calorie limits are adhered to, when pounds drop or measurements shrink; and despite the constant battle with herself and others, these moments are few. The human body can only lose at such a rate, she can only muster the strength to push herself to such a limit, and below nothing, there is no less to eat. Of course, she does eat, just not every day, but what more can she do to please this need?

The ruminations never desist, they merely quieten in a moment of victory, a moment when she has “done well”; she has adhered to the strict regime set by her demon of X calories, less calories, less calories. The congratulatory prize is small, a minor victory – and after a while does not extend to the praise of those around her as it had done when she began losing weight. No longer is she cooed with, “oh you look so beautiful”, “oh don’t you look marvelous, look at her cheek bones and toned stomach” or, “I’m so jealous, how do you do it?” There is a fundamental issue with society here; she was never overweight in the first place and she was never fat despite repetitious hollers. Her stomach isn’t toned, it’s bordering concave; her legs aren’t sculpted; they’re weak, aching and bruised; her arms possess no strength, they’re minute and painfully angular; her face isn’t chiselled like a catwalk model, but gaunt, lifeless and exhausted.

Her complexion pales whilst she walks through town smelling the foods she can’t have, staring in the windows of restaurant chains and eyeing up menus that she can’t even dream of ordering from. The thought fills her with a fantastical excitement at how good it must taste, but the engulfing fear and dread of actually eating it is too much. She had once felt empowered by her ability to say ‘no’, to deny herself and to not need but now she needed, and she wanted so desperately to say ‘yes’. She had become powerless to her disorder.

Wandering into the supermarket she’d stalk the aisles. Picking up foods she felt intrigued by and looking at it closely through the packaging. Turning it over and looking at the calories and fat grams, 90% of what she picked up had been a far cry from what she was now “allowed”, but with each package the fascination grew: if only she could taste, feel and enjoy food: longing to let herself need, to find true enjoyment and to just eat. Each packet was sat back on the shelf for someone else, someone less greedy, and someone who deserved to eat it. Aisle after aisle: dairy, confectionery, foreign food, it all amazed her. To just read the labels and ingredients engaged every morsel of her obsession until the anxiety and pressure to actually buy something began to creep in and ruin her fun. Leaving with nothing, she tried to sneak out without raising suspicion with security. She hadn’t stolen anything, but didn’t want to be pulled over because who spends two hours in a supermarket looking at food to walk out seemingly empty handed? She was painfully aware that her behaviour would be deemed as unusual.

When she got home, her cupboards were filled with foods she could eat. Feigning enjoyment of these choices to herself she was convinced that water on cereal was delicious and how could anyone not like a bowl of lettuce and mustard? Her demon had tricked her, fooled her into thinking in new ways and instilling relentless rules of survival: cutting up food into the smallest pieces possible, chewing x amount of times each time, no eating after 7pm but no eating before 5pm either, always eat alone, measure everything, weigh ten times daily. It went on. It went on and on. She was governed by barking orders from this voice within.

She had to keep it a secret. She had to lie. She had to remember everything she ate for the last fortnight. She had to count how many items she had consumed. She had to count calories or every bite, medications and vitamins included. She had to walk here, there and everywhere that she could. She had to exercise. She had to listen, she had to comply, because if she didn’t she would be berated to a withering heap. “You’re a fat bitch!”, “You greedy cow”, “You’re a failure and disappointment.”

Once immersed within the health services she has only more people to hide from, to lie to, to fight against. She is a slave to her own game. It’s not working out so well now; she has lost her autonomy, her independence, and her freedom. Caged in a cell of constant torture she is a shell of who she used to be: no longer laughing, no longer energetic, sociable, fun or fulfilling her potential.

What started as a diet to save her from “fat” hollers, what had started as a method of ‘self-improvement’ is gradually destroying everything she was. What started as a means to control her inner turmoil and world has grasped at her every molecule and refuses to let go. Entrenched, she is obsessed and caught up in the relentless need to abscond from greed, to not need and to be less. The “oh you look so beautiful”, has turned into, ‘Is she OK?”, “She looks so unwell.”, “I don’t know why anyone would want to be that thin. It looks disgusting” but the truth is, in her eyes for as long as she is alive, she will always be fat. She will never be thin and never has been thin and that really, ‘thin’ has become irrelevant. All she ever wanted was a bit of control, and to feel a bit better.

– If you want more information or are affected by this story, something-fishy.org and B-eat are good organisations for help, support and more information.