“You’re looking really good, have you lost weight?”
With a societal fixation on health and exercise, the media plagues us daily with the latest diet or fitness craze, emulated in so called ‘fitspirational’ messages. This is especially apparent at the start of the new year – “new year, new you” as they say.
We keep being promised new ways to re-build ourselves in order for us to be ‘accepted’. Despite being branded as a healthy alternative to body ideals of past, the messages still encourage comparison and promotes strict conformity in our appearance – whether achievable or not.
There are many benefits of following a healthy lifestyle, and it can be seen as a good opportunity to gain social approval. However, this commitment to healthy eating and exercise can be blindly praised without considering the associated risks.
In sport and exercise, the ability to push beyond physical and psychological limits is almost seen as an essential ingredient for success. Yet, at what point does our ‘health kick’ become a cause of concern?
Through my teary eyes all I could see was my mum rushing towards me, calling in a panic for my dad. I felt so scared I didn’t know what had happened, I couldn’t move, I couldn’t feel anything. I remember my dad pausing over me, trying to understand what had just happened.
6 years ago I collapsed on my parent’s bedroom floor. I was taken to my local hospital, and later transferred to St Thomas’ London. My ‘health’ obsession had become my crutch of control, a way to manage – if not simply to avoid - my anxieties and fears.
Over a period of 9 months I had lost nearly 4 stone. I gradually banned more and more types of food, to the point of limiting my intake to just 500 calories a day. In addition to food restriction, I also increased my exercise routine to ensure I burned at least 1000 calories per day – all ‘helpfully’ recorded on my fitness app!
Ultimately, I adopted this behaviour out of obligation rather than for enjoyment, even using threats to myself as a way to keep on task – “you must run on the treadmill for at least an hour otherwise X will not speak to you anymore.” We know from the best available research that exercise fixation is strongly related to the development of eating disorders. The obsessive tendencies of both endeavours began a cycle of destruction, which trapped me in a state of ambivalence.
By then, my level of concern over my weight and exercise routine had crossed the boundary between a healthy commitment and obsession. Even with a blood glucose level of 1.1 and a recorded heart rate of 21 bpm (for a healthy adult, the normal blood glucose level is 3.9 - 5.5 and normal heart rate ranges between 60-100 bmp), in hospital I was most fearful of being trapped without opportunity to exercise and eat ‘approved’ foods. To me going to the toilet became on opportunity to escape concerned eyes, and a chance to at least do squats!
The levels of expectation of what people can achieve with their bodies has uncontrollably pervaded all aspects of life. It becomes incredibly difficult to remove yourself from the panoptic gaze of societal expectation.
As I stand here today, I do not pretend to be completely recovered – far from it! However, through time and therapy, I have come to appreciate that you can relieve the weight of expectation. Taking a step back, reframing and focusing on my own goals and expectations, means each day is an opportunity to be my best self – but for me!
As humans, we are conditioned to continuously seek more, expect more. There is no end goal, no perfect weight, no perfect life. Perfection does not exist. Our life is marked by continuous points of learning, with our choices determining our course.
Today I still bear the scars, but to me they are reminders of how far I have come and the strength I continue to develop.
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