Learning to live with the body you’re in

I didn’t expect the amount (and sort) of private feedback in response to this piece for the Citizen, but it’s encouraging to know people feel comfortable in reaching out and asking questions. While unfortunate so many hesitate to address these matters openly, I understand that apprehension. It’s an incredibly personal thing.

I, however, feel a duty to help where I can. Over the years, I’ve spoken at athletic conferences and provided feedback to coaching organizations on how to effectively push a vulnerable athlete without damaging them, and how to address things like body insecurity without coddling. I really don’t mind being candid, I’ve just never really had cause, to now, to write specifically on the issue.

My own background on this, for those unfamiliar and who asked for a bit of a recap on where I come from on the matter, can be found beneath the main points addressed.

First, the Carleton scale controversy:

I come at this specific issue with an understanding of the mindset which drives eating disorders and the experience of what feeds and perpetuates insecurities. I was both a coach and a mentor to young female athletes – developmental (pre-competitive) stream – and served as a conditioning specialist for the younger high-performance competitors. In that capacity, when issues around body image or weight arose, I tried to act as the sort of figure I wish I had available to me early on.

To be clear, though: Eating disorders are quite individual and unique to sufferers, and are a mental illness. That requires professional help. While you can’t prevent someone from developing an eating disorder if that’s destiny, you can avoid playing a role in it.

So, to answer a number of questions about Carleton’s initial decision to remove its scale, and the broader question of how the fitness industry fails people – whether they’re overweight and struggling with body image or dealing with some sort of disordered thinking around food – on the weight issue:

The scale can be a problem in gyms when it comes to forced weighing. Many athletic centres require an ‘assessment’ (weight, body composition profile using sham devices and questionable methods) if a client signs up for personal training. That’s a problem. If someone does not want to be weighed or measured, they should absolutely not be pressured into doing so.

The best measure of progress in the gym is performance. Be it cardiovascular gains, strength gains, improved flexibility, agility, balance — all are trackable without a scale or tape measure.

In my view, scales are important. The gym scale, however, is largely useless for precise monitoring. For a true weight, you must step on a scale in a fasted state (first thing in the morning, for instance) in the nude. That’s your body weight. When you’re weighed (or weigh yourself) at the gym, what you’ve eaten during the day, how well hydrated you are at that moment, the brand of shoes you’re wearing, your workout attire, will all affect what the scale displays.

That’s not reliable.

If people choose to monitor themselves that way, fine. It’s a quick and relatable measure. But it should not be forced on anyone. And as I mention in the piece, the scale is of limited value, as the numbers provide zero insight into fitness.

If someone, over the span of a month at the gym, loses 5 pounds, great. But — what have they lost? Weight loss is not fat loss. If the weight lost was primarily lean body mass, they’re no better off, no healthier or fitter, than they were 5 pounds heavier.

So it’s not wrong for Carleton to have encouraged a shift from focus on weight. The problem is they didn’t offer any legitimate reason for yanking the scale, and didn’t seem to understand the danger of suggesting girth measurements – which change much slower than weight does and often causes greater anxiety – as an alternative.

Even with the decision reversal, those who use Carleton’s athletic facility are no better informed, or better off, than they were before the whole mess.

Next:  What’s better than “body positive” in addressing body image and insecurities? And how can you help someone lose weight or improve fitness without seeming to body shame or feed an eating disorder?

It’s a fine line to walk, but it can be done. What’s key is to not compare any one body to any other.

Ever. Ever ever ever. Got that? Don’t do it.

Each person is built differently, and their genetic code will determine how quickly (or not) they respond to a given exercise or training regimen. And so many factors, right down to bone mass, play into what one’s body will ultimately achieve.

Whether it’s someone who’s overweight in the gym hoping to slim down or an athlete training for a specific cause — each person has a baseline in performance and body composition, and improves from there. The only comparison should be from the individual’s previous day, or week, or month, etc. If there’s been an honest,  sustained effort and change doesn’t happen, then you tweak the program. You don’t compare to someone else’s results.

And it can’t be stressed enough: the gym is where health and fitness are gained. The kitchen is where weight will be lost or gained. You can’t outrun a bad diet, nor can you improve athletically on a paltry one.  Food is not an enemy, it’s necessary fuel. Understanding proper nutrition – which means not demonizing any specific food or nutrient (see: carbs, sugar, gluten, etc) – matters.

As far as body image is concerned, what’s better than some never-ending quest to achieve Full Body Positivity is developing a sort of body literacy. No one has to love their body, and not everyone will, but it’s important they learn to live with it. And understanding what one can and cannot control helps alleviate some of the self-hate, and sometimes guilt, over not being able to be or achieve what they think they should.

Of course in direct athletic competition one person will come out ahead of another. But in the gym, and in training, the focus should always be on achieving, and surpassing, one’s own best.

Knowledge really is power in so many areas here. Education is key. The problem is, those doing the teaching are often terribly uninformed themselves on these issues, as evidenced by the athletic department’s move.


My own history: 

I was very young (onset, age 11) when I developed a severe eating disorder (anorexia) which was compounded by a sort (not one most associate with the term) of OCD. The two played off one another, and it’s that specific OCD – a personally unkind and unforgiving brain – which fuelled a sort of relapse, albeit brief, at age 14. I needed to get a better handle on that, and with further guidance, I did.

Full recovery, for me, was only possible because of the relationship and trust between myself and my dietician. It required brutal honesty from both sides, as well as ongoing dialogue to address things as they arose.

For me, directly challenging what my young, frightened mind insisted was so, trusting the guidance from my dietician and, with her, working though the anxiety of the treatment and recovery process until the results disproved those fears, was the answer.

During that period, I often wished that I could just eat anything without ever gaining weight. How wonderful that would be! And apparently, would somehow resolve the relentless hate I always, from my earliest recollection, had for myself and my body.

It’s a shitty irony that so many years later that nonsensical wish would become a reality for a time, and almost kill me.

Why do I care so much about fighting stigma around mental illness?

Because it’s the stigma from having had an eating disorder early in life that prevented my then-doctor from taking it seriously when, heading into my 20s – a time I was entirely healthy, excelling athletically, and so very happy – my intestines began to fail, and the first symptom, weight loss, was assumed to be something else.

That intestinal disease had nothing to do with my childhood, but was a genetic inevitability. It was only a matter of time before it fully manifested, but if treated promptly and properly when it did, it would have been entirely manageable. And my life, for the most part, would have been completely normal, and continued along its intended track.

Instead, medical malpractice allowed the disease to progress and destroy a good part of my intestines which, after proper diagnosis and a second-to-none team of experts, resulted in years of treatments and surgeries and intestinal rehabilitation, including the removal of a good chunk of my gut, piece by piece. (Gut being intestine, not stomach, as most associate that word.)

Then, after rebuilding physically and athletically from absolute emaciation, what was to be a final (and quite major) intestinal operation in 2013 ended in disaster, and almost killed me — again.

And I had to do the intestinal rehab again, and rebuild the body again (made more difficult with a number of medical setbacks relating to various organs, as well as further intestinal surgery) and learn how to live with an even lesser-functioning, ever shorter gut.

That’s the recovery I’m nearing the end of.

Life to this point hasn’t been easy or gentle, but it had no obligation to be. I do try to make the best of things, though, and that includes using my experience to provide insight or knowledge on different matters when asked.

I hope I’ve been helpful to someone here.

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