This afternoon, as I was cooking lunch, I had a phone conversation with my sister about, among other things, weight gain and how it makes us feel.

My sister rowed crew in college, and as she only graduated in May, she still misses the daily exercise routine that defined her life as an undergraduate. Women's rowing -- like gymnastics, running, and dance -- is notorious for breeding eating disorders, especially among women who row in the "light-weight" category. If you row light-weight, you have to weigh at or under 135 pounds at every race, or you cannot race that day. Given the penalty for being overweight, you can expect that there are a lot of women who go to extreme efforts to shed a few extra pounds before weigh-in. I consider it somewhat miraculous that my sister did not develop an eating disorder in the course of her college career, given my (and our family's) history of eating problems. The misgivings that she has about food and her body fall into the "normal" realm more often than not, and she is a comforting source of reassurance that what I am going through, right now, is thoroughly normal.

I am referring, of course, to my recent weight gain. Although I am more bummed about the fact that my favorite jeans no longer fit me than upset by the notion of "gaining weight," it does disturb me in more ways than I would like to admit. As my sister pointed out, it is especially hard for me because, during recovery from bulimia, I actually lost weight -- which makes sense, as I stopped binging and developed some serious food sensitivities and digestive problems, which limited the amount and types of food that I could have. Thus I associate recovery and being healthy with having a lower weight than what I had when I was fully symptomatic, and now that I am creeping back towards the weight that I had as a bulimic, I am not sure what to make of it. I remember, when I realized that I was actually losing weight and not gaining weight in recovery, thinking that I must have been victim to a divine prank: as soon as I stopped hating my body, as soon as I stopped hurting myself, I lost weight! It seemed so contrary to what I had believed about needing to purge and exercise relentlessly to remain even moderately slim, and it ran counter to everything that I had heard about recovering from eating disorders (which mostly emphasized the fact that people with anorexia need to restore their weight in order to get better). At the time, my weight loss also seemed like a gift, in the sense that I really was much thinner than I had been during the eating disorder, and because I knew that I was thinner, I didn't worry about my weight for the first few years of recovery. It became a non-issue, because I was thin enough.

Which makes me wonder now: what would recovery have been like for me if I had gained 15 pounds instead of lost 15 pounds? Would it have taken me longer to feel better psychologically, or to develop normal eating habits, if I weighed more than I was comfortable with? Was this period of low weight a sort of "grace period," or did it set me up for unrealistic expectations of recovery? (As in -- "Things are hunky-dory: I am recovered from an eating disorder and thinner than I ever was!") I am not sure, but as my body is now undeniably changing in that direction, it has given me more to ponder about the nature of recovery, and the depth (or sincerity) of my love for my own (post-ED) body.

This I do know: my weight is fine right now. More than fine: completely within the realm of normal for a 26-year-old woman. If anything, as my sister was so kind as to remind me, this is just a normal fluctuation in weight accompanying the winter season, and might reverse itself as soon as the warm weather comes around. Or, as I think, it could be the fact that I am in my mid-twenties, and my body has finally decided to shape itself according to its evolutionary purpose (i.e. reproduction).

I also know that I am at a total loss to account for the recent weight gain -- I can't see any real changes in the amount or type of food that I have been eating in recent months, or in the quantity of exercise that I get. I think that this failure to pinpoint a cause to the weight gain is actually a good thing, because it means that I am not tempted to "fix" anything that I am doing. I eat healthily and abundantly, and I indulge in sweets and goodies almost every day. No change from this time last year. I don't get as much exercise as makes me happy (in the endorphin sense), but still, that's no change from last year.

My plans for dealing with this recent blip are to continue on the same path that I have been on: a combination of good home cooking, moderate exercise, and lots of self-love. These are the habits that steared me out of my eating disorders, and in these I place my trust as my body changes in unexpected ways. These are the things that I don't want to lose by gaining.


Kayla said...

This is very interesting for me to read. My eating disorder first started as anorexia and then developed into bulimia-type EDNOS. I gained a lot of weight over this time and my idea of recovery always included losing weight to get to my "ideal" weight. Your discovery that "as soon as I stopped hating my body, as soon as I stopped hurting myself, I lost weight" was something I had heard somewhere, and so I always hoped that it would work that way. And now that I am feeling well established in recovery, I have lost some weight without even trying. But I do worry that this will not make it any easier to let go of my focus on weight. I feel that I am doing really well, but am I only doing well because I am losing weight? I don't know. I think it's a catch-22: on one hand it reinforces the idea that recovery is the right path, because my body is responding to healthy eating and exercise in a way it never did to purging and disordered eating, but it also makes it hard for me to accept my body and let go of the preoccupation with weight, which I think is important for recovery.

kb said...

Ai Lu,

I have to admit that, although I haven't lost weight, I have remained stable as I've recovered from bulimia, and these days, I don't think or worry about my body in terms of "fat" and "thin" or "good" or "bad" but as to how it is functioning. My emotions are tied to things that happen to me or to relationships, not to whether I have a fat or a thin day.
I will say, however, that I keep a very close eye on the scale when it seems that I'm losing and I work to add in extra food because I don't want to have the "high" from losing weight (this summer, when I increased my exercise, I also significantly increased what I was eating).
For me, losing weight makes me more anxious than gaining weight, which may seem ironic, but that is how it affects me. And maybe that is something I need to examine.
Thanks for your provocative blog.
- Kristina

Rachel said...

My eating disorder began as purging disorder, escalated into anorexia and later, developed into bulimia. I gained 50 pounds during my one-year bout with bulimia, in part, because I was eating again and my low anorexic weight was not natural or sustainable for me, but also because of the nature of binging and the fact that I became afraid of the gym. I think that for me gaining weight was more beneficial for my recovery than had I lost weight. It made me confront my feelings about my body and weight gain, and showed me that my life would not cease to exist if the scale went above some predetermined goal weight.

I don't like the weight I am at, but I'm okay with it. I have still sustained a weight loss of more than 100 pounds (I was morbidly obese when I began the diet that led to my ED) in a healthy way and I try to remind myself of the real gains I've made, and not my shortcomings.

Ai Lu said...

So, your comments confirm what I have been figuring out for myself: that recovering from an eating disorder is a different experience if you become thinner over the course of your recovery, versus becoming larger than you previously were. I know this seems like an obvious observation (that there would be a difference), but given the field's insistence that "weight doesn't matter," it can be easy to overlook. For me, the struggle is to continue to feel happy about my body, even as it does different things now than it did at the beginning of my recovery. And it sounds like I am not alone!
Thanks for your comments.

Cammy said...

During each of my runs through recovery I have had to gain a substantial amount of weight, and for me it not just the gain but the change itself that is most disturbing, it just feels like being in a different, alien body. I would imagine the effect is similar whether you are gaining or losing, either way you are inhabiting a new form and it's easy to lose sight of the fact that your core identity, the part that matters, stays solid. It's hard to hold onto a stable self-image when society consistently extolls the virtues of diminishing ourselves physically, which can be diminishing emotionally as well.
You have a lot to be proud of, hang in there and keep doing what you know is best for you in the long run. Thanks for the thought-provoking post.

Lisa said...

Like Cammy, I struggled with the "alien body" feeling and a shaky body image. I would look in the mirror and not know if I could believe my eyes. It's even weirder now that I'm home for the holidays and no one recognizes me.

Gaining or losing are both potentially mind-boggling. It's a matter of getting comfortable, and that's rarely easy.

Anonymous said...

Another article you might be interested in, related to this topic: http://www.philadelphiaweekly.com/?inc=article&id=905&x=hey-oprah-youre-beautiful&_c=a-e--pop-tart