How Much Do Looks Matter to You—and Is It Messing Up Your Efforts to Get Sane About Food?

HealthyGirl.org reader and contributor Erica is back today with a guest post about finding herself in a bit of a tougher spot than usual with food and her body. Getting sane about food is a winding road, and we all have little hills and valleys—big thanks to Erica for being so honest about hers here. xo…Sunny

Within the last month I’ve been eating a lot of junk food and having mini binges, and my workouts have not been enjoyable or empowering. As I was struggling on the treadmill one day, huffing and puffing at a pace and incline that could usually allow me to leisurely read a magazine, I broke out crying. I felt like a hamster on a wheel, making myself do this so I could get back on track and not lose the tone that I had worked hard to attain over the summer. A voice inside me begged out loud, ‘Please be kinder! Please, please be kinder!’ over and over again. Like many of us are, I know I’m often too hard on myself, particularly in the looks department, and I think this little freak-out was a sign from my inner-self telling me it had had enough. Can’t say I blame it.”

See, while I know my body image has evolved positively since recovering from binge eating disorder, I still have an underlying desire to look a certain way. Admittedly, it’s a bit hard to focus on maintaining a healthy lifestyle for the sole purpose of being healthy. As much as I preach that I’m trying to take better care of myself so that I can be a healthy, strong old lady in the future, it’s tougher to concentrate on that abstract, distant goal than it is to notice how I look today.

Speaking of looks, I’m realizing just how much I look in the mirror—and I’ve decided I’m going to try and go a day without doing so. I know this isn’t practical for every day life, but for once I’d like to not sneak glances at myself and pinch back my hips to see what I would look like with less flesh there. Don’t get me wrong, I often love how I look, but I want to put a bit less emphasis on appearance either way. From a quick Google search, I see that this challenge isn’t very original. Dove had a seven-day challenge, and some girl on Facebook tried it for 21 days. At this point all I’m asking of myself is one day—I’m doing this because I need to re-focus.

I’m in a workout and food rut, and I believe that is mainly because I’ve lost sight of why I want (or should want) to eat right and exercise. Perhaps I’ve taken my recovery for granted in that once I got better I stopped reading those motivating books, food journaling, and using the other helpful tactics that got me where I am now. On the bright side, I’ve learned that, similar to a doctor or teacher trying to stay current in her profession, an eating disorder survivor should dip into her old toolbox every so often to keep herself on track, always learning, always improving.

I know what you’re going to say (and what I would tell any of you if you were feeling this way), and that’s progress over perfection. So I’m just going to breathe and keep that in mind. Until then, to those of you who consider yourselves to be recovered, how often do you use the strategies you did when you were first beginning the healing process? Or did you never stop using them?” —Erica

Have any of you ever had an experience like Erica? I know that over my recovery, as my life got fuller and my self esteem grew, appearance became less important to me than my happiness and health. And caring more about my insides than my outsides gave me the freedom from guilt and allowed me to bring joy back into exercise and eating. Please share whatever this brings up for you! xo…Sunny

14 Responses to How Much Do Looks Matter to You—and Is It Messing Up Your Efforts to Get Sane About Food?

  1. Heather says:

    For me, I think this article shows just how confusing life can be in general, and how grey most things in life really are – moving forward from disordered eating included.

    For the past month and a bit in my life I’ve has something not right with my eyes that we think is an allergic reaction. As a result, I can’t wear make-up until it’s all cleared, which will hopefully be the end of this month.

    I know I’m in a totally different place than before I started working on myself, as the shame, embarrassment and guilt at not looking like ‘me’ would have had me struggling to work and socialise before. Overall, I’ve dealt with it in a matter-of-fact way, learning to be okay in my own skin without make-up.

    But at the same time, I know it’s not all plain sailing. This week I got a cold sore to top it off, and was at breaking point. Feeling unattractive or less than my best can dent my confidence and I didn’t want to go to work. I had to force myself. I’ve caught myself apologising to my boyfriend for not being as beautiful as I feel he deserves and I’ve been upset that I might not get to kiss him on his birthday.

    I’ve had to make myself go easy on myself and not go to the gym or do things that I might otherwise do to give my body a chance to recover as well as my mind a bit of space. What helps me, I think, is to keep trying to focus on the positives.

    • Sunny says:

      It is so hard, I think, even for women without any eating issues to do with physical stuff that’s out of their control like like. You sound like you’re being gentle with yourself and that’s so important. xo…Sunny

      • Heather says:

        Thanks Sunny.

        I think it’s especially difficult if the main female “role models” in your life don’t seem to know how to look after themselves.

        I remember my mum being on constant diets, scrubbing at her skin really roughly and running herself into the ground rather than stand still and breathe for a minute.

        I don’t remember learning how to take time back for myself, feel okay with myself as I am and how not to beat myself up about things, which I think would have helped me avoid falling into disordered eating (and thinking!) patterns.

        It’s hard having to learn these things for ourselves as adult women.

    • Erica8 says:

      Heather —

      I’m also someone who usually feels uncomfortable going out without makeup. I’ll do it (like to run quickly to the grocery store or sometimes to the gym when I was in college), but not very often, and when I do I notice that my strut isn’t as sassy, I don’t look people in the eye for very long if I don’t know them or care about their opinion on my appearance, and I just don’t feel like one of the “cool girls” in this world that often feels like one entirely-too-long session of high school. I would like to get over that.

      So (even though you didn’t have a choice), I commend you so much for being brave and learning to accept (dare I say, love?) what you see in the mirror, sans Maybelline, Revlon, Mac, or Covergirl.

      I’m sorry to hear about your mother’s intense struggles with self-acceptance, but you seem very mindful, and I believe those tough memories will (& probably already have) only serve as learning experiences for you.

      Best of luck to you!

      *x0|Erica

  2. Therese says:

    When I read, “Within the last month I’ve been eating a lot of junk food and having mini binges, and my workouts have not been enjoyable or empowering,” it described my month so perfectly I wondered if I’d somehow written it in my sleep!

    As for dipping into the toolbox, I find myself avoiding it because there’s such a fine line between obsession and routine maintenance for me. However, I do think it’s true that we lose sight of why I want to eat right and exercise. I’ve been lamenting over the loss of muscle tone in my arms since I stopped lifting weights a few weeks ago out of laziness (in addition to the extra food I’ve been eating). However, I’m still running and really, it should be more about what’s going on inside my body than how I look on the outside.

    Thanks for this post. In times like this, all I can tell myself is that anything (eating a vegetable, not eating that 3rd donut) is better than nothing!

    • Erica8 says:

      Therese —

      Haha, you didn’t sleep-write, but we’ve clearly been on the same wavelength lately, huh?

      I totally agree that the “anything is better than nothing” approach is the way to go. That is what all of us who have experienced weird eating habits/eating disorders need to hammer into our heads, thereby hammering OUT all the black and white thinking. A couple leafs of romaine lettuce in your sandwich DOES make a big difference…skipping that third piece of cake DOES make a big difference…just 20 minutes of exercise even when it’s the last thing you want to do DOES make a big difference.

      And while these differences are big for our bodies, the biggest differences they make are in our minds and the way we look at food, and the way it makes us see that beautiful things can happen when we treat ourselves right (mentally, physically, emotionally), even if it means taking tiny, itsy bitsy baby steps to get there.

      Here’s to us & getting out of this slump! =D

      *x0|Erica

  3. LovesCatsinCA says:

    Hi. I found myself doing the “mini-binge” thing and realizing I was triggered by something in my past that made me feel unsafe while I was in college–and I’d packed on 10 pounds in the next year (and it was NOT my freshman year, and it was AFTER I’d already gained freshman year). Now I packed on that 10 pounds almost 30 years ago, but I suddenly realized that whenever I was dropping to only around 8 of those pounds still there, I felt unsafe.

    I did some work with a professional including parts work so I could reassure that inner college kid that I am much better equipped to keep her safe. Have I still wanted chocolate since? Sure. But I wasn’t just randomly mini-binging afterward–and I don’t want to unconsciously do something like that because of an autopilot thing!

    It’s interesting how our bodies trick us sometimes. I woke up with itchy eyes and a sinus headache so I popped a zyrtec antihistamine. It makes me a little sleepy. I ate an unusually large lunch and was wondering why I still felt physically hungry. Until I realized my stomach was full and I was feeling hunger sensations, not because of emotions, but because I am fatigued–and the fatigue feels an awful lot like low blood sugar–and even though I don’t have low blood sugar and my stomach is full, it’s feeling hunger.

    So I just remind myself that it’s an illusion and hunger won’t hurt me until it’s really physically a good idea to eat and if I eat right now, I won’t be sated. But it’s really interesting to me to be able to just observe this and figure out why this is happening.

    And I think that’s the gift of things like mini-binges or unusual eating habits cropping up–it makes me figure out “so why is this happening”? Could be emotional, but could also be physical.

    And as far as looks mattering, I find that although I initially lost weight for health reasons, as a practical matter, I like looking better (and I gave away most of my larger clothes so gaining any back would force buying more clothes which is expensive.) It’s an additional motivation.

    My sense of practicality also extends to my standards of what I look like though. I’m five pounds over my college ‘happy weight.’ In midlife, this is my new happy weight. I think trying to lose that last five would just not be worth the angst… and I wouldn’t have the same build as almost 30 years ago anyway!

    • Erica8 says:

      LovesCatsinCA — I commend you for not feeling like you have to lose that last five. If you’re BMI is within range for what’s healthy for you and you’re doing the best you can to live a healthy lifestyle then WHO CARES?! It’s a great attitude to have and it sounds like you’ve gained a lot of wisdom from your experiences, which is obviously ideal. =)

      *x0|Erica

      • LovesCatsinCA says:

        Hi, Erica. It’s not that I wouldn’t lose the last five if I thought it was possible without eating celery all day… it’s just not realistic given what I like to eat in what quantities. That “happy weight” kept being yo-yo’d above and below in college–almost 30 years later, I might get to it for 30 minutes and that would be it!

        I have plenty of weird thoughts about food and weight still. But I’m not bulimic like I was until I was around 25, and I’m not overweight like I was in my late 30s and early 40s. So I’ll take where I am.

        Happy weight back then was 8 pounds more than I weighed throughout high school. Happy weight now is 13 pounds more than I weighed in high school…both are normal BMI but I have to say, dark chocolate and red wine are things I’d like to keep in my life much more than those 5 pounds are important–which means that despite some remaining weirdness about food, I’ve come a long way!

  4. Elizabeth says:

    Yeah, I can definetely relate. I’ve never experienced ‘complete’ recovery from my eating issues, but I went from bingeing almost everyday (last winter/spring) to bingeing about once a week (and it was always much smaller binges than before) from may to august. I lost about 15lbs and felt great. Now, since september, I’ve really been struggling and picking up my old habits, which is incredibly frustrating. At first I just wanted to ignore it all, I found myself making up excuses (such as, oh I’m tired, I just re-started school, I’m stressed, I’m PMS-ing etc.) for my binges, to avoid really looking at the deeper issues. But after 2 months of being ‘tired’/’stressed’/’PMS-ing’ (and yes, those were legit concerns, but NOT valid reasons to stuff my face every night), I hit a really low point (feeling completely depressed and exhausted, skipping my classes, avoiding friends, being late to work, crying for no reason), I decided to re-visit my old tools that helped me the first time around. So far, so good. I’ve been feeling a lot better, and I know it’s not something that’s going to get completely better overnight, but I’ve made progress, and I’m happy to finally be getting things back in order. I think I was avoiding the old toolbox because I just didn’t want to admit I had relapsed.. I mean, I knew I had, but it was really convenient to just see it as ‘circumstancial’ binges, that would go away overnight once I had adjusted to my new, more hectic schedule. I guess I just badly wanted to feel as good as I had this summer, without any of the work. Ain’t gonna happen.

    • Erica8 says:

      Elizabeth-

      I SO understand what you mean about avoiding “the old toolbox” b/c you don’t want to admit you might need it again. That’s how I’ve felt…but you are still very new in the recovery stage, so a few relapses early on are to be expected (and throughout life, of course, but even more so when you’re first recovering). I’ve considered myself to basically be “recovered” for about 2 years now, so it’s especially scary for me to have to go back there. But I just picked up a couple of books from the library so off to work I go, hard hat on and hammer in hand! Lol

      Best of luck to you!

      *x0|Erica

  5. Liz says:

    So I just read this article and I honestly felt like it was me writing it. A little over a year ago I lost about 50 pounds. I had been overweight my whole life and finally decided it was time to get healthy. I lost the weight in a healthy way by cutting out junk and eating more fruits and vegetables and exercising all the time. I learned to love running which was something I had always dreaded.

    Recently I have not been able to go to the gym as often as I normally would because of the difficult course and work load I currently have. I only can get there 3 times per week where I would normally go 5 as the minimum. My workouts haven’t been as hard and I find myself getting tired faster than I used to. This is extremely discouraging for me and I just do not want to lose any of the hard work I have done for myself. I also haven’t been eating as healthy as I should and I find myself eating junk. While I’m eating it I am literally telling myself not to do it so I don’t know why I do.

    I’m trying to refocus and bring my life back together again because if I don’t I feel like I’m going to break down soon as well.

    • Erica8 says:

      Liz –
      I feel your pain, but don’t be so hard on yourself! You’re doing great–you’re just in a little slump. Just remember, THIS TOO SHALL PASS.

      Within the last week I have slowly but surely managed to get back on track with my healthy eating and working out. Whenever I wake up feeling less than enthusiastic about getting out of bed and slapping on a sports bra-lol, I try to tell myself, “Erica, I know you’re tired and cranky and a bit sad because of things you’ve faced within the last year…I know the last thing you want to do right now is work out, especially for vanity…but what if you grab a fun magazine and just do 20 MINUTES…20 minutes for your health..for energy…for empowerment” and I do. 20 minutes goes by so fast, especially when I’m reading a magazine or watching TV while I work out. Often I discover that once I reach those 20 minutes, I’m feeling strong enough and engaged enough to do some more! So what I recommend is talking to yourself kindly, acknowledging why you aren’t in the mood to exercise, and then commit to just 20 (or 10, or 15–whatever it takes for you to say “hey, that’s nothing; I can do that”). Then give yourself a huge pat on the back! You’ll most likely begin to build your routine back up within a few days/weeks/whatever feels right.

      As far as eating goes, perhaps try and plan (and prepare if you can) some healthy but yummy meals ahead of time so that when you’re hungry you can just reach for them, enjoy, and not have to think about it. Also make sure you’re enjoying some little indulgences too so you won’t feel deprived.

      Here’s a link to a great article (in my opinion) that can get you thinking about other reasons (besides vanity) to motivate you to work out (these reasons can also go for healthy eating as well). http://www.pickthebrain.com/blog/10-reasons-to-work-out-that-have-nothing-to-do-with-a-sexy-bod/

      Don’t give up! A healthy lifestyle comes with peaks and valleys! xoxo

      *x0|Erica

  6. […] I’m happy to welcome back HealthyGirl.org reader and contributor Erica, with a guest post. Take it away, Erica! xo…Sunny Have you been keeping your eating […]

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Sunny Sea Gold

About the Author

Sunny Sea Gold is a media-savvy advocate and commentator specializing in binge eating disorder, cultural obsessions around food and weight, and raising children who have a healthy body image.