I have struggled for many years- unable to combine a few sentences and break the silence on the emotional pain I deal with over food and obsessive exercise. Even writing this, I am questioning myself and dismissing myself, even though I know this has been heavy on my heart for far too long.
I would say it began around eighth grade- I got really really into exercise and healthy eating and so I became a super health nut and began to work out. I ran with friends, danced a lot, and basically did a ton of cardio but without purpose other than to maintain a healthy lifestyle. I quit everything unhealthy- anything with artificial colors or flavors, candy, soda, junk food like chips, etc. over night. Once I devoted myself to my health, I never looked back. I fell in love with the feeling I would get from working out, or the pride of having a strict code of foods I would and would not eat.
As the years went on, I became more and more obsessed with living a healthy lifestyle, especially because no one around me was the same. My family has never been that into health, nor my friends. Most of the people I know eat healthy on occasion and exercise in recreational ways, but I built my days upon a fitness regime. I started following workout plans and guides and ripping out the pages of Self and Shape with the little workout guides printed. I loved it, and as I continued to learn more and more about fitness, I pushed myself harder and harder. Around high school, I was working out with a more definitive goal in mind. It was also around this time I went vegan (senior year). By then, fitness was hardly just a part of my life- it was my life. It defined me. Going vegan is the best decision I have ever made, and it definitely helped boost my confidence in my healthy lifestyle, since a balanced vegan lifestyle is the healthiest way to live and eat. I could never look back on that decision, because I do feel that veganism helped my relationship with food.
By college, I was still in this mindset. I worked out almost every single day, often doing yoga plus a workout daily, after biking or walking to class, and sometimes running on the same day. Thankfully, we have free fitness classes in our residence halls at school, so I would attend those all the time, unless something legitimately important prevented me from going. I was definitely, definitely obsessed. I often skipped club meetings or other cool campus involvements just to go to fitness classes or work out on my own. I tracked all my food and activity on my Health app on my phone, and felt like I was in control of my life. I can definitely see now that there were some unhealthy aspects to my obsession. I still continue to struggle with this to date. There is an issue- I work so hard and I run my body like a machine, yet I still never feel like it is enough. I stopped loving my workouts and started simply doing them repetitively because my self-worth is directly correlated with how active and healthy my lifestyle is. It absolutely is. I was traveling for a week and a half recently, and I had no time to work out, although it was a very active trip in general, but I still felt so guilty and like my body was not fit enough. I have always struggled with this obsession to be the best and fittest I can possibly be, and it has left me scrambling to find time to work out on days it doesn’t even make sense and I end up making myself late for something, just so I don’t feel like a worthless human being later on.
I have dealt with this for so long. I decided I wanted to come clean, and tell my story to someone-anyone who would listen. Recently I was raw for two weeks. I was inspired to go raw by all the raw vegans I know. I felt great doing it and truly believed I had reached the pinnacle of perfect healthfulness. After doing some research though, I discovered that eating raw can be very dangerous, because it doesn’t include as many varieties of foods as it should. It is also very dangerous mentally, because the people who made the diet demonize ridiculous foods that no one should cut out from their life- like nuts, seeds, and avocado. While it may be right for some people, I don’t think it is for me. My mindset was out of control on a raw diet. I felt so incredibly healthy just eating raw fruits and veggies, and I will say my energy felt great and I was not bloated, but I do not believe I was getting adequate nutrition, and I too started demonizing anything that wasn’t a raw fruit or veggie. I didn’t eat bread for two weeks, and I wasn’t sure if I ever would again. (I have.) I do this a lot. I have been vegan a year and a half, and at this point, it’s almost too easy to find vegan treats anywhere. I got to the point where I felt I was consuming too many sweets, so I cut them out completely. I did a month without added sugar, and I have kept with it. While many of my behaviors are points of pride for me, I can also recognize that I am someone who can very, very easily fall into a trap with my healthy lifestyle- every time I think I have achieved perfection, but I somehow veer off that path, I lose my mind.
I love to talk about working out and healthy eating partly because I want people to admire my physique. I want all of my hard work to be noticed. I look in the mirror and I like what I see most of the time. I am notoriously obsessed with my abs, and when my stomach is bloated I get so distraught. I want to be toned and fit and trim, and I want to be known for being fit. I guess I have defined myself by my fitness for so long that I get offended when people are surprised I’m so into working out. Just because I don’t have giant guns doesn’t mean I am not incredibly strong and physically adept. I feel like when others (especially sexist jerks who think I can’t lift heavy objects) don’t notice my athleticism, it’s really a personal blow. I don’t know what I would do if I hadn’t worked hard to have a fit body. It really is a huge part of my life and my identity, and this is both a positive and a negative thing. It is positive because I know I will always be devoted to living a long, healthy, and happy life, but it is also negative because it has caused immense emotional pain when I feel I don’t live up to the standards I set for myself. Basically, fitness will always be a part of me, but I am just trying to not make it all of me.
After realizing I was dealing with emotional distress every time I felt I ate something I shouldn’t have or missed a chance to work out, I researched what I was going through. It turns out there is a name for it- orthorexia, obsession with healthy eating and exercise. I read the stories of many others who have struggled trying to balance the positive and negative sides to being obsessed with personal fitness, and I wanted to cry and shout from the rooftops. I felt like my pain was validated, like it was something real and tangible and mine to own. Now, I don’t like to go throwing around names of disorders just to gain sympathy; that is something I will never do, but I am so glad I was able to recognize within me something potentially dangerous. Orthorexia is closely linked to anorexia. I distinctly remember times in my life where I did purposefully starve myself, or feel so guilty from eating something that I so badly wanted to induce vomiting. My mother survived anorexia when she was around my age, and that is a treatment process I never want to have to go through. I probably do not have the worst case of orthorexia ever, but I am so glad I see the red flags now, which may have potentially saved me from a lifetime of even more pain and suffering.
Every day is different living with orthorexia. Typically, I keep a very strict eating schedule- one I have probably thought of the day before or hours earlier, and workout for up to two hours. Once I start working out, I don’t want to stop. I often do squats and ab exercises in the bathroom and shower just because any idle moment I have I feel obligated to use in my physical benefit. If I ever get fat, it will be my own fault. The saddest thing is I have allowed that to be my worst fear. Not starving, not throwing up, not fainting, not being infertile because my body has been in starvation mode for years. My worst fear has been getting fat. It is highly impossible to get fat with the way I eat and live, but I feel like even one day without working out is risking it. I often slap myself out of absurd ideas like this, but that doesn’t mean I still don’t feel guilty lying in bed at night. I constantly wrestle with my own mind- is it okay to not work out today? I need sleep- isn’t that important to my health too? I am trying so hard to not be superficially focused on the benefits to my outward appearance, and remember that my incredibly active lifestyle is keeping me alive longer. That should be the real goal. I want to meet my grandchildren. I want to be a thriving old woman, but this won’t happen if I don’t start treating my body like the temple it is.
I am not a machine. I cannot wake up and grind every single day without an ounce of passion. I need to bring the love and the fun back to my fitness regime. I need to be more proud of my ability to stick with something so crucial to life than my body. I need to stop becoming obsessed over gains in certain areas of the body, and I need to stop putting fitness first, meaning don’t turn down plans with someone just to work out. I need to love myself, truly, wholly, and unconditionally. No matter if I look in the mirror and my stomach is bloated because I ate some God forbid bread. I need to remember that healthy habits become unhealthy the second your mindset turns toxic. I can’t have this toxic mindset anymore. I need to cherish my life and my strong body and the blessing it is that I am a mobile person, and even have the ability to work out without abandon. I am unlearning bad behaviors and relearning new ones every day. I am learning not to beat myself up over eating a cookie or bread, or skipping a day of working out. I was incredibly tired today and did not work out. I went to work, I read, and I napped. I listened to what my body needed, and I fulfilled its wishes. And to me, that is worth a heck of a lot more than a workout I would have thrown only half of myself into. Whatever I do deserves the whole of me. I deserve the whole of me.