Rethinking Health: Navigating the Health Industry While in Recovery
By Ljudmila Petrovic
The gym I am a member at recently had a free personal training session. I took the chance because, well, it’s free. It started off with me getting weighed both for my BMI and my body fat and a discussion with the personal trainer about how to get both of those down, about coming to the gym more often, about having a meal plan—under the assumption that those should be everyone’s goals.
I’ve been in recovery for about six years now (with a few hiccups along the way, I’ll admit) and even though I have made leaps and bounds, this was nonetheless a triggering experience, as I imagine it would be for most people in recovery.
I had to remind myself that I have been there: I have had low BMI and low body fat, I have spent hours a day at the gym, and I have been on a self-imposed “meal plan” (if you can call it that). And I was miserable. I have never felt more isolated, more depressed, or more hopeless.
I had to remind myself that a lot of the “health” industry is a business, that people feeling bad about themselves = cash, and that it disregards the fact that health may mean different things to different people. From the “clean eating” trend—which is not unlike the restrictions of an eating disorder—to “Fitspo” (which ask “do you really want that cookie?” or “nothing tastes as good as being fit feels” to a backdrop of six pack abs and muscular thighs), we live in a world where billion dollar industries are fueled by our insecurities and where disordered relationships with our bodies are the norm. The promise of “health” is sold to us at an elevated price, be that CrossFit sessions, boxed water, overpriced Whole Foods asparagus, or the various types of infomercial diet supplements that promise they’ll burn the fat right off.
But health looks different for everyone. It may look like drinking protein shakes and hitting a CrossFit class, but it may also be spiritual or mental health, it may be taking a day off, it may be going for a walk, or it may be writing in a journal or listening to music. Health has nothing to do with what your body looks like, and more to do with how you feel.
If you’re in recovery, your “before” and “after” may not look like the “from fat to fit” Biggest Loser-type pictures you see plastered all over gyms and health clubs. Depending on the nature of your eating disorder, you may have gained weight, lost weight, or stayed the same weight. This is in no way an indicator of your health or your recovery.
For me, the “before” was restriction, isolation, compulsive hours spent on the treadmill, watching those little red numbers climb. The “before” is the feeling of cold tiles of the kitchen and bathroom floors on my skin. The “before” is missing holiday parties and birthdays. The “before” is having an absolute meltdown because I ate an “unsafe” food. The “before” is being exhausted all the time but not being able to sleep because I felt the cold in my bones no matter how many layers I wore. The “before” is waking up in tears because I had eaten a burger in my dream.
After six years of recovery, I have not suddenly reached ultimate 24/7 body acceptance and positivity, but that’s okay and I am proud of what my “after” is. My “after” is going to the gym or for a run when I feel like it and when my schedule allows it, and staying until I feel good. My “after” is trying to eat as well as I can within the constraints of my schedule and budget, but being in on the wings and nachos with friends, or saying yes to dessert. My “after” may not be as exciting or eventful as the photo of the laughing person who has dropped the pounds through personal training, but I have worked just as hard, I have persevered just as much, and I have come to a place that I never would have imagined when I was in the depths of my illness. Your “after” is probably different from mine, your recovery probably looks different, and that’s okay.
So, before you buy into the “health” industry’s messages, remember what health means to YOU. Remember that “clean eating” may not be what you need after years of restricting and/or bingeing and purging. Going to the gym more (or at all) may not be what you need after years of compulsive exercise. Before you buy into the messages of what health is supposed to look like, remember YOUR before and after. Remember YOUR truth.
Ljudmila graduated from SFU, where she studied psychology and gender studies. She lives in Vancouver, BC and is doing her MA in counselling psychology, with the goal of doing women-centred therapy.