The Problem With Being Too Body Focused In Eating Disorder Recovery

When I started recovering from anorexia nervosa, I was convinced that my eating disorder revolved solely around my body. I thought that if I just focused on body acceptance that my problems would be solved.

Early in my recovery, I became immersed in the eating disorder recovery and body acceptance communities on Instagram.

One trend I frequently saw was other people in recovery posting drastic side-by-side full body transformation photos. On one side, there would be a sad, emaciated person, and on the other side there would be the same person looking happy and more nourished. The photos would say something like “suffering” on one side and “thriving” on the other. The captions would explain how awful the person felt in the “emaciated” photo and how their life was completely changed now that they were weight restored.

Another trend that I saw regularly on my feed was individuals having accounts that pretty much solely focused on posting photos of their bodies in either underwear or bikinis. The captions would say things like how now that they’ve started sharing these kinds of photos, their lives have drastically changed and they’ve been able to find freedom.

The problem with both of these trends is that they reinforce the idea that eating disorders are solely about food and weight, when in actuality, they go much deeper than this. In fact, for some people, eating disorders aren’t about weight at all. In addition, some people’s bodies never change either during their eating disorder or during recovery. While weight restoration is a major accomplishment that should be celebrated, weight restoration doesn’t equal recovery and doesn’t equal mental progress.

Another issue is that due to the shock value of these photos, they often receive more attention and likes than posts that are just text or that aren’t a body photo. This creates a cycle of reinforcement where people can feel that they need to post these kinds of photos in order to reach an audience and make an impact. People who are struggling can feed off of this validation and convince themselves that they’re making these posts for the right reasons, even if deep down they’re only making the posts to fit in or to gain notoriety.

After seeing these trends, I decided to post similar photos of myself.

While being vulnerable by sharing photos of my natural recovery body did help me start to combat some of my eating disorder thought patterns, it also created another form of hyperfocus on my body. Even though this was a seemingly healthier form of obsession since it wasn’t focused on self-hate, obsession is obsession, and obsession isn’t healthy. I felt pressure to constantly post these kinds of photos as a way to convince others that I was doing well and to maintain an inspiring presence, even when I wasn’t doing so great mentally.

When I posted side-by-side full body recovery transformation photos, my captions would typically explain how on the one side, my life was always terrible, and on the other side, my life was always amazing. The reality is that while my life did drastically improve once I became weight restored, that was only a tiny fraction of the improvement that I’ve now found through full recovery. By posting these photos, I was also inadvertently ostracizing other people in recovery who didn’t have drastic body transformations. By saying that my life changed when my body changed, I was likely making some eating disorder sufferers feel like their struggles were invalid if their bodies didn’t change in recovery.

Plus, by placing such a focus on my body during my recovery, I was selling myself short. While body image and weight did play a significant role in the development of my eating disorder, other root causes such as trauma, anxiety, depression, and emotional dysregulation played a much larger role. When I focused solely on my body and finding body acceptance, I skirted over these deeper issues that were perpetuating my struggles and actually inhibited myself from finding full recovery sooner. I also convinced myself that since I had a deeper level of body acceptance than when I started recovery, I didn’t have much more work to do.

I was very wrong.

When my therapy sessions shifted from focusing on my body to focusing on the underlying issues, that’s when the true, deep healing began. I learned that while food and weight did contribute to creating my eating disorder thought patterns and urges, the underlying issues I was facing contributed even more. In addition, I realized that by constantly obsessing over my body under the guise of body positivity and body acceptance, I was actually doing myself a disservice. This hyperfocus made my urges even higher because instead of realizing that I’m more than a body, I was just reducing myself to aesthetics in a different way.

This isn’t to say that occasionally posting unretouched photos in undies or a bikini in the name of body positivity or body acceptance is inherently bad. I also think that occasionally posting face transformation photos, such as seeing how the light and color in someone’s face and eyes change in recovery, can be beneficial because it doesn’t focus on body size — it instead focuses on how much brighter someone can look when they’re focusing on nourishing their body mindfully instead of engaging in eating disorder behaviors. However, I do take issue with when an account’s soul focus is posting these kinds of photos. It reinforces the stereotype that eating disorders are about vanity and appearance, when in reality they are deadly mental illnesses that affect 20 million Americans in their lifetime. Plus, these kinds of photos innately spark comparison. Even if a body photo isn’t retouched or overly posed, it can still make someone feel like they aren’t enough or that they need to post the same kinds of photos in order to truly progress in recovery.

While I do occasionally post body acceptance photos, I’ve realized that I have so much more to offer to the world than just accepting my body. My body is only a small part of who I am, and my body simply houses my soul. There are so many more valuable things that I can offer to the world and myself than simply accepting my body.

There is nothing wrong with being proud of finding body acceptance and body positivity or achieving weight restoration. However, I challenge you to go beyond your appearance in eating disorder recovery. Instead of just focusing on body image and accepting how you look, focus on the deeper issues and on mental transformation.

Today, challenge yourself to be more than a body and to find new ways to define yourself instead of just trading one form of body obsession for another.

2018: A Year Defined By Resilience

2018 has easily been one of the most contradictory years of my life. It was filled with some of the highest highs and lowest lows that I’ve ever had. I’ve experienced immeasurable growth, and I honestly feel like an entirely different person than I did on January 1st, 2018.

My year started with one of the most amazing opportunities I’ve ever earned. I was selected as one of 50 Channel Kindness Reporters as part of Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation. I spent a weekend with my fellow reporters, the Born This Way team, and amazing industry professionals from The Moth, NBC, ABC, and more. By the end of the weekend, we all had a level of connection that was deeper than some of the friendships that I’ve had for several years. Being in a space with talented, brave, wise individuals who had similar goals to me sparked a fire in me to continue working even harder as a mental health advocate and writer.

However, this high moment was followed by some devastating losses. My great aunt passed away in the end of January, just days before my 21st birthday. A few days later, I severely sprained my ankle after falling down the stairs at the train station, leaving me unable to walk for a week and unable to dance for quite a bit longer. Just a week later, I lost one of the most important and influential women in my life — my Grandma Rita. She was a major part of my upbringing and the glue and comic relief of my family. The sudden loss of her beautiful soul shook me and the rest of my family to our cores.

These losses, combined with an already sky-high stress level, lead me into a relapse of my eating disorder. Luckily, I quickly realized what was going on and that it needed to stop. I made some major life changes that included leaving the dance company that I trained and performed with for two years, breaking off a two-year toxic relationship, changing therapists, starting to see a dietitian specialized in eating disorders, going on psychotropic medication, and starting group therapy. Through grueling work and an immense amount of support, I pulled myself out of the relapse and back into strong recovery much sooner than I thought was possible.

I spent my spring semester serving as Project HEAL’s Communities of HEALing intern. While I had already been involved with Project HEAL as a National Ambassador prior to my internship, getting to see the inner workings of the organization gave me an even greater love for their work. I helped recruit over 50 mentees for a randomized controlled trial in partnership with Columbia University, and I created a marketing plan for the program. Being able to see the professional end of the eating disorder treatment world made me even more excited for my future career as an eating disorder therapist.

After my internship ended in May, I had the privilege of becoming Project HEAL’s social media manager. Serving as a Project HEAL volunteer in this capacity has helped my recovery journey come full circle because Project HEAL’s Instagram account was one of the first reasons that I chose recovery years ago. While being a social media manager, especially for one of the nation’s largest eating disorder nonprofits, can be extremely stressful, it’s also incredibly rewarding because I know our work is saving lives every day.

In the beginning of May, I had the opportunity to speak at the 2018 Long Island, NY NEDA Walk. Being able to share my story of recovery while also helping to raise money and awareness for an organization so close to my heart was really special. Charlotte, one of my best friends, as well as my mom and dad came to support me. The energy and motivation that I felt after my speech was electric.

On June 16th, 2018, I achieved one of my biggest life goals — speaking at a national mental health conference. Cynthia Germanotta, Lady Gaga’s mom and co-founder of Born This Way Foundation, asked me to speak alongside her for the closing plenary of Mental Health America’s Annual Conference in Washington, DC. Back in February when I first received the email asking if I would speak at the conference with her, I immediately doubted myself. In my head, I said, “You’re really asking me to do this? You’re trusting me with this kind of responsibility?” After we finished our panel, I finally realized why Cynthia had asked me to speak with her. Wisdom came out of my mouth that I didn’t even know existed inside me. I had a line of people waiting to speak with me and telling me how inspiring they thought my story was, as well as how excited they were to see me as a future clinician. Speaking with Cynthia at this conference proved to me how much power I have to change lives and that this is what I’m meant to do.

However, shortly after the conference my mental health took a downward spiral again. After experiencing a sexual assault, I fell into a cycle of impulsive decisions followed by the darkest depressive episode I have ever lived through. After hard work in therapy, followed by a medication change, I eventually started feeling more like me again. During this span of time, I was lucky enough to meet an incredibly guy — my boyfriend, Sean. Despite the fact that I was in a pretty bad headspace when we started talking, he never judged me or thought poorly of me because of my struggles. In fact, it was the exact opposite. From the first days that we spoke, he told me how proud he was to know me, how much he believed in me, and how much he wanted to help me help myself. It was love at first sight, and I haven’t looked back.

In September, I started my senior year of undergrad, as well as my internship with NEDA’s Helpline. Since I was in the midst of a medication change, it was one of the rockiest starts to a semester that I’ve had. Thanks to the support of my incredible therapist, my loving boyfriend, and my caring family, I was able to make it through this challenging start and get back to my usual level of performance.

About two weeks into the semester, I achieved another one of my major life goals by signing my first book deal. I’m writing Brave Girl Healing, a book that’s part memoir, part self-help book, part workbook that will be published by Eliezer Tristan Publishing in 2019. Writing this book has given me a huge sense of purpose, as well as providing one of the biggest motivations for pulling myself out of my depressive episode.

In October, I made some big steps in “adulting” by taking on new social media clients and applying to graduate school. I’ve applied to Masters programs in Clinical Mental Health Counseling for Fall 2019 admission, and I took the leap of applying to programs in Nashville so that I can spread my wings and move out of New York, my home state.

I spent November traveling with my boyfriend Sean, meeting his lovely parents for the first time and spending Thanksgiving in his gorgeous hometown of San Diego. We ate amazing seafood and found plenty of gluten-free treats (including the best ice cream AND cone I’ve ever had) that made my little Celiac heart very happy. During November, I also worked on an independent study project for school that studied the effects of interning or volunteering at eating disorder organizations on individuals with lived experience of eating disorders. This work made me realize that as much as I was against doing research in the past, eating disorder research might actually be up my ally.

The beginning of December was dedicated to final papers and projects, as well as celebrating the holidays early with my family. I finished the semester strong, maintaining my 3.7 cumulative GPA, which made me incredibly proud given the rough start I faced. The day after my last class of the semester, I hopped on a plane to Nashville to spend my winter break and Christmas with Sean. It’s been freeing to spend so much time reading, making art, cooking, and having a break from being long-distance. While having my Christmas away from my family felt very different, staying with Sean feels so much more natural and fulfilling than just texting him all day and falling asleep on FaceTime with him at night. I’m absolutely loving Nashville, and I can’t wait to move here full-time in May.

As the year comes to a close, I’m excited for what 2019 has to offer, and I’m feeling grateful for what 2018 has taught me. While it was a year full of grief and struggle, it was also a year full of love and strength. While I still struggle with my depression, anxiety, and trauma, I have the best grasp on my mental health that I’ve had in my whole life, and I’m finally at a point where I consider myself to be fully recovered from my eating disorder. 2018 taught me how resilient I am and how no matter what comes my way, I will be able to overcome it.

2018, thank you for the lessons.

2019, I’m coming for you.