Did you know there’s an ‘optimal’ way to look when in recovery from an eating disorder? Chances are, you do (thanks, social media).
You know what I mean: popular eating disorder recovery accounts consist of muscular, yet thin, white girls who flaunt their healthy eating and exercise sessions with the hashtag #strongnotskinny.
They praise the gym as their haven for self-care and promote leading a ‘wellness lifestyle.’
Is there anything wrong with these women promoting stress relief and a newfound love of their strong, nourished bodies? Absolutely not. Is it dangerous that these recovered individuals are the ones getting the most press? Hell yes.
I have been in recovery from anorexia for seven years. I am a personal trainer. I do not trust the general fitness industry with my recovery or anyone else’s.
How I developed anorexia nervosa is not as important to me as what perpetuated it.
In the height of my disorder, those around me praised me on how ‘fit’ I was. They envied my ‘healthy lifestyle’ and ‘gym discipline.’
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The gym, to me, became a concrete pillar of my identity that overshadowed my life far after I’d returned to a livable weight.
I pushed my body to the point of breaking down every day, and, in an effort to develop a healthier relationship with movement, I started attending group classes instead of going to the gym alone. This turned out to be a huge mistake.
I delved headfirst into open body-shaming territory.
Common motivation from instructors was ‘sweat out that fat’ and ‘build that booty!’ Oh, and let’s not forget ‘no pain, no gain’ (which is what I was trying to avoid!)
I gathered from these group classes that the ideal female body had a flat stomach, big butt, wide hips, and ‘toned’ arms (whatever that means.) And, guess what? All the popular ED recovery accounts were by girls who fit this mold.
No trainer I’d seen asked me if I had a history with exercise abuse or an eating disorder.
No eating disorder recovery articles I read featured fat or disabled women.
Naturally, my eating disorder returned with a vengeance. Except, now, instead of trying to make my entire self as small as possible, I was trying to be society’s ‘recovery ideal.’
I became a trainer while supporting these toxic body standards, starving myself, and exercising for 2+ hours a day (and fretting about my stomach having a ‘pooch’ and my butt being flat.)
The gym I started at had photoshopped pictures of women and men with abs, booties, and biceps blown up on the wall for extra motivation. More than once, I promised a ‘Beyonce booty’ to my clients to get them to do that extra squat (sorry, guys.)
I was exhibiting severely disordered behavior, but, in the fitness industry, I was normal.
My thinnest body is the most ideal. Smoothies are great meal replacements. (Anyone sense the sarcasm here?)
It was only when I quit that gym that I realized just how far from recovery I’d fallen.
I was still chasing a body ideal, just one that was focused on ‘wellness’ instead of thinness.
It was only when I formed a body positive movement organization and started delving further into body positivity and eating disorder recovery research that marginalized bodies in recovery came out of the woodwork.
Society’s beauty standards helped perpetuate my anorexia and it is a daily struggle to not fall back into disordered habits.
The messages are everywhere–in both the fitness and eating disorder recovery industries.
So, from my personal experience, would I suggest exercising in a general group fitness class or on your own in a gym while in recovery? No.
However, I recognize that movement, when done in a supportive environment, is a source of power rather than shame.
It’s all about finding a body positive exercise space.
I used to believe I was the only trainer who takes a body positive approach to my work, but I was wrong. I found a meaningful space to teach and train at the all women’s gym Uplift Studios, which focuses on women empowerment rather than aesthetic. I also discovered Superfit Hero’s Body Positive Fitness Finder, which is a directory for body positive trainers and spaces all over the world.
Eating disorder recovery and exercise can happen simultaneously, as long as you’re with the right group class instructor or personal trainer.
Find someone who asks about your mental health. Find someone who does not tolerate body shaming in themselves, you, or others. Follow lesser known social media accounts that showcase the good, the bad, and the ugly in eating disorder recovery. Oh, and have a really good recovery team on hand.
I have made it my mission through Thrive Tribe Movement to break down marginalization by the fitness industry. Make it your mission to get angry at anyone who tells you how your body ‘should’ look in recovery.
PS: Check out our #StopFitspiration Project and Instagram account for more body positive fitness!
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