So I’m Eating Meat Again: A Cautionary Tale of the Rules We Place on Ourselves

Jail-Bars-and-Hands

So I was vegetarian for a while. And for a while it worked…until it didn’t, or rather, I didn’t. This isn’t going to be one of those posts that tries to debunk the value of a vegetarian diet (sorry, carnivores, I know you love to find those stories online). I think they’re great and work quite well. I was the issue, not the tenets of a vegetarian diet.

My problem wasn’t that I suddenly became anemic or suddenly found myself spending inordinate amounts of time in my city’s hipster neighborhood. Rather, putting myself on a vegetarian diet triggered me back into restrictive/disordered eating patterns that I’ve had off and on since my teens. I’ve hinted at disordered eating and body image problems in other blog posts. I understand why those behaviors manifested in that way, I’m satisfied with my self-analysis, and I choose not to share it here.  Maybe in my book. 😉

Anyway, once I cut out meat, it was just too tempting to see where I could cut back further if not food types then at least the overall amount of food I was eating. I’d already lost a few pounds at the beginning of this year, mostly due to some still-unexplained gastrointestinal problems (Yes, I’m finally seeking treatment, which makes my mom happy). I was also struggling with some personal situations, and I chose to cope with that by restriction and controlling my weight.

O my brothers, you have no idea how the dopamine coursed through my little brain when I saw the numbers drop with the flattening of my waist and the growing looseness of my trousers. (I pretended not to notice the loss of muscle tone). Why, this was working even better than I imagined! I used my newly found vegetarianism to restrict even further. I’d found the perfect cover. Besides, I’ve never looked like someone with an eating disorder. No one would ever know.

This wasn’t a case of orthorexia, though. I wasn’t focused on “eating clean” or raw or only fresh produce or whatever. I just liked rules around eating. I’m a very organized person, which has served me quite well in the workplace, but rules and restriction and control taken to an extreme can be damaging. And since I made the rules I could carry them out in any way I saw fit.

By the end of my vegetarian experiment I was subsisting on junk food and very carefully counted out Saltines, which the latter, in my defense, were the only things my irritable stomach could tolerate sometimes. (In fact, today I had to settle on Saltines and plain Ramen noodles for dinner because my stomach decided once again to ruin my day.) My weight dropped to 110 pounds and occasionally below, which delighted that still lingering ED part of my brain, but the rational part figured I needed to nip that problem in the bud and go back to letting me eat pretty much whatever I wanted.

I realized I had a problem around April when I noticed that I was perfectly fine eating mashed potatoes and cake served at a commemorative banquet, but I sanctimoniously pawned off the steak and salmon that was also served. Granted, I would have axed the salmon anyway because I don’t eat fish at all (GROSS!!), but was I doing myself any favors by gobbling up potatoes and cake? It wasn’t even the nutritional deficiency or even the hypocrisy of my choice that got to me. It was my realization that I had very easily fallen prey to old patterns of control, frantic rationalization of unhealthy choices, and destructive self-consciousness that pushed me to release the rules I had placed on myself.

What rules and restrictions are keeping you in an unhealthy state of mind or body? Let’s step away from food for a moment. These rules could manifest in thoughts, behaviors, beliefs, or actions and may be your first line of defense against whatever is troubling you. You may place them upon any area of your life or in any relationship. Are you trying to be “perfect” so your partner will love you? (As if their love hinged on that). Are these rules created so you can live up to the expectations you created and projected onto someone else? Is it working?….you sure about that?

But are those rules ultimately serving you in the long term? Are you waiting for that magical person, situation, or thing to happen and only then allow yourself to be happy? Are you coping with a problem by punishing or controlling yourself? Do the rules soothe you in some way? Can you perhaps find that comfort in something else? Can you love and be gentle with yourself the way you are with other people you care about…would you at least consider it?

In late spring I started eating meat again along with a number of other foods. I let myself indulge. I gained a few pounds, but I attribute that more to dining out with friends and slacking off at the gym than adding meat back into my diet. I still think factory farming is horrible, and I do try to make mindful purchases of meat products. I just know I did the right thing for what my mind and body needed.

The thing about not restricting is that I don’t want to pig out on really…anything. Many people who restrict food or diet are afraid that giving up their rules means giving up hope of giving their bodies what they truly need. That hasn’t been the case. That Whataburger meal I promised myself over Labor Day weekend was awesome, and I don’t feel like having another one for a while. I also made a pork roast with homemade gnocchi and marinara sauce over that same holiday weekend. I put a lot of love and effort into the meal, an homage to my Italian heritage, and I was satisfied with a small amount (plus my body doesn’t like digesting pork so that’s an occasional thing anyway). I made the meal because I wanted to introduce a friend to my family’s traditions, not to “reward” myself for a workout or promise myself I’d eat carbs just this one time as a “cheat day.”

If you need more examples, how about these: I had a bag of Cheetos in a basket on top of my fridge that I completely forgot about, and I was annoyed that I still had a box of Pop-Tarts to finish after several weeks of seeing them on my kitchen counter. I would have been obsessing over those silly trigger foods back in my worst disordered eating days. The fact that I didn’t is a small but distinct point of progress for me.

Now I don’t think about food as much, and adding meat back into my diet helped kick-start a more balanced approach to how I chose to nourish myself. If I wanted to eat crappy food, I did, and I learned how to listen to what my body wanted. My body still gets mad and reacts unpleasantly to certain foods, and hopefully with the help of a doctor I can figure out what to avoid. My body likes fries and chocolate, but guess what? It also more often than not likes fresh fruit and vegetables, no guilt tripping necessary. I just wasn’t listening.

I’m still not where I thought I was at the end of last year, although I’m in a much better place than I was many years ago. I don’t know how long it will take me to break old habits or if I’ll ever be able to entirely, and I’m okay with that. I like being a few pounds lighter than I was a year ago. I like that a skirt that used to be too tight now fits just right.  I’m not getting rid of my digital scale that I step on just about every morning. I’m going to continue exercising because I like it, not to punish myself for imagined sins. Swimming, ballet barre, and taekwondo are fun! Moving my body has always been a joy rather than a chore for me, and lately my body is telling me it wants more so I’m listening.

I also know what will ultimately serve me best is a shift in focus away from judging myself by how I look (and how I foolishly assume other people are judging me by that) and how I choose to nourish myself. I look forward to the time when I give little to no judgement to what I’m eating. Being that self-centered all the time is exhausting.

It’s time to break some rules.

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Embracing the Squishy: Body Confidence One Day at a Time

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There are parts of me that are bony. There are parts of me that are muscular. There are parts of me that are squishy. Often these parts are right up next to each other, which I think gives me an odd appearance (big sculpted and kinda bony shoulder, delicate wrist, soft batwing tricep hanging from a hard bicep), but it’s probably a lot closer to being “normal” than my perfectionist tendencies allow me to believe.

I tend to isolate my body parts. I thank genetics for the bony parts, take pride in the muscular parts, and admonish the squishy parts. I forget that these bony, muscular, and squishy parts all work in harmony to help me do really cool stuff like chop an onion, drive a car, swim laps, and beat other people up. Unfortunately it can be a little more difficult in today’s society to appreciate the squishy alongside the bony and the muscular.

Similar to the end-of-year holiday eating guilt trip, we are all being bombarded with the ads, messages, promises, and media-induced panic to get our bodies “ready” for the summer. What it really means is, “You don’t look good enough to wear a bathing suit yet, and holy crap, it’s June!!” Almost every week at the barre class at my gym, the instructor reminds us that summer is almost here, so we’d better squeeze our glutes and “zip up” our cores. Everyone is going on cleanses and amping up their workouts.

Of course the one place I don’t feel a barrage of mixed messages about body confidence is in taekwondo class. I don’t have time to think about whether my waistband feels too tight or if my butt looks big in my dobok. I’m too busy learning, practicing, fighting, coaching, and generally trying to not get hit in the face. Even if my waistband feels tight, um, there’s a f-cking black belt around it, so I’m doing just fine without washboard abs, thankyouverymuch.

Taekwondo reminds me of how powerful my body is. One night in class we were working on jumps. Sometimes for “fun,” we’ll drag out a thick mat, and two people will stand on either side holding a spare belt between them. Depending on the size, age, and rank of the student, the belt could be held anywhere between two and five feet off the ground. The student then takes a running start, leaps off the ground, tucks their legs in close to their body, and ideally clears the belt and lands softly and safely on the other side. The holders always keep the belt soft with slack in case the student doesn’t quite make it over. It’s meant to be used as practice for flying kicks, but usually ends up being more of a source of entertainment as the giggles (and applause) get louder and the gentle teasing increases.

I was knocking it out of the park. It probably helped that (1) I had done this drill many times before and (2) I was working on jumps in physical therapy earlier that day. I leapt over the belt with no problem and room to spare. There’s always a little rush of fear and adrenaline when I hoist myself off the ground, but I’ve learned to power through it and trust my awesome body to get the job done. I was proud of what my injured, aging body could accomplish.

That night as I undressed at home I caught my eye in the mirror, and my gaze inadvertently went straight to the squishy parts. Out of habit my mind turned to the inner critic that had dragged me down the dark road of disordered eating and body hatred for decades:
How can you work out all the time and still look like THAT?
Once a man figures out you’re not as skinny as you appear he’s going to reject you.
Are you really going to wear a two piece bathing suit at the pool this summer? Perhaps you should rethink that.
Why are you flabby? It’s not like you’ve had children and can justify it. You’re not allowed to look like that. [Sorry if I’ve offended any mothers. I’m just repeating what my mean-spirited mind said.]
I think you’d better skip your post-workout snack.

It took me a moment to remember that just thirty minutes ago my body, squishy parts, bulging lumbar disc, aching hips, irritated hamstring, and all, were helping me fight hard and fly through the air as if I were light as a feather.

“F_ck you! I look GOOD!” I said aloud to my inner critic.

I’m starting to believe that a little bit more every day. I’m still learning to love the squishy parts as much as I love the muscular parts. I still glance in the mirror anxiously to make sure the shadows under my cheekbones carve dark hollows into my face. I still count the bones of my sternum when I wear a low cut shirt. My hand still flies to the squishy parts, patting them down in hopes that they’ve shrunk. I’m surprised when I see how thin I look in photos. And then I remember that this body, every single piece of it, earned me my black belt.

Today, on a hot, humid, rainy Sunday, I bought not one but two bikinis. One is leopard print and the other has thick pop art colors and black lines. They weren’t my first two pieces, but there’s always that little voice that asks, “Should I??” My teenage and twenty something selves would be mortified at the thought of exposing my squishy parts. But the only thing I could think today when I was trying on the suits in a multi-mirrored dressing room was, “Damn, black belt, you look GOOD.”

As I write this I’m lying on a heating pad, feeling sorry for myself about my aching back and looking out the window at storm clouds. I certainly won’t be putting these bathing suits to use today or any time soon since there is more rain in the forecast. But it’s nice to know they’re waiting in a drawer for me. It’s nice to know that I’ve stood up to societal pressure to be perfect, and even more so, I was happy that I was beating back my slowly dying habit of harsh self-criticism. It’s nice to know that I’m starting, one day at a time, to embrace the squishy.

Loving Your Body, Pain and All

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Yesterday morning as I strolled down the galley of cubicles to get a cup of tea in the break room I had the sensation of a very uncomfortable air bubble in my left hip flexor. Strange. I didn’t notice any extraordinary pain or discomfort in Monday night’s taekwondo class. I thought I had popped all the kinks out with a 5 AM swim. For a split second I thought, “Oh great, now my left hip is acting up.”

When I was in my late twenties I had debilitating pain in my right hip stemming from an alignment problem with the sacroiliac joint and a dab of sciatica. Driving was excruciating, and I would squirm around for hours at my office job as I tried to ease the discomfort.  Thankfully I was led to a very skilled physical therapist who helped me go from doubling over in pain every time I stood up to running half marathons. Ever since then, though, my right hip has been a bit of an adversary, an enemy I keep close in case it goes rogue again.

Later that night in yoga class my teacher shared a quote from the scientist Dr. Bruce Lipton:
“The moment you change your perception is the moment you rewrite the chemistry of your body.”

About that time my hamstrings had started to protest my hanging over in forward fold for what felt like an eternity, causing a pulley of pain between my the dead weight of my upper body and my legs. Change my perception? Well, okay. I breathed into the back of my legs, stopped inwardly grumbling about the discomfort, and was getting quite comfortable when we were signaled to roll back up to standing position. Easy!

As we bent, stretched, and flowed through the yoga poses I thought about how we regard our bodies. We often either take them for granted (your body filters f*cking oxygen! How ridiculously cool is that??) or we’re scrutinizing and belittling and bemoaning all the perceived flaws and irritants in our body. It’s kind of weird and awesome to think that the human body can both cultivate the growth of a child as well as the rapid spread of a cancer or virus. Life and death all swirling around under T-shirts and sweat pants and yet we can’t help poking at cellulite or complaining about a bum knee.

As we crouched into Warrior II and sank into Half-Pigeon my teacher encouraged us to sit with the discomfort and change our perceptions. I’ve had that same advice for dealing with mental or emotional discomfort. Sit with it for a while instead of fighting it and don’t be surprised if it dissipates. Change your perception and don’t be surprised if you change your reality.

Instead of getting cranky about my aches and pains I thought about how I could appreciate my perfectly imperfect body. My left Achilles tendon aches because I am running and jumping and leaping and having tons of fun in taekwondo class. My lower back and hips get irritated from driving in a car I can easily afford that takes me to a comfortable job in an air-conditioned office. The few pounds that fluctuate up and down are thanks to the abundance of food I have easy access to. My bruises are evidence that I’m not afraid to fight. I have a lot to be thankful for, and my body is living proof.

My right hip is irritating me today. I have what I call the “ring of fire” that makes me want to snap off my leg at the hip socket like a broken Barbie doll. My sacro-iliac joint is wiggling and popping like packing bubbles. Driving home was a lot more painful than it has been in a long time. But I have the tools to cope with the physical discomfort and the emotional skills to not let the pain overwhelm me and ruin my good mood. I can change my perception. My “bum” hip helped me run on the treadmill early this morning. It helped me drive my car to work so I can continue to put food on the table and a roof over my head. I can walk, stand, jump, kick, and dance without a second thought or any extra effort.

Try not to let your aches and pains hurt your spirit as much as they hurt your body. Be kind to your body. Be thankful for what it CAN do rather than getting hung up on what it can’t do. Cut it some slack. It’s the only one you have.