Soar with Steph
Welcome to my column! :) Here, I will share insights that pop up along my personal recovery from anorexia, opinions about recent issues regarding body image and adventures that occur as I traverse through my psychology studies as an undergraduate at Duke University. Have a look around, have fun, and let me know what you think! :D
Have suggestions for what you want me to talk about? Tell me about it below!
Deconstructing Diet Culture:
Why do we use such harsh language with our bodies?
It hurts me to see ads that promote the idea of “controlling” and “fighting” our bodies. The more I move through my recovery journey, the more I realize the wisdom in a concept that I learned along the way: that we cannot hate our way to self-love, and that we cannot hurt our way to health.
I presume that for most, if not all people, the ultimate goal for their relationship with their body is to be at peace with it. To be satisfied with what it looks like. To finally stop needing to fight it. I don’t think it is anyone’s wish to hate their bodies forever. Even if your goal is to lose weight, I presume that your ultimate underlying goal is to finally reach a place that you become happier with yourself than before. And unfortunately, that is not something that can be achieved through continuing to punish, criticize, and be at war with our bodies.
Another part of this ad that troubles me deeply is the fact that the spokeswoman speaks about how the product helped her lose the weight she gained after she gave birth. I am saddened to see that our culture has taught women to believe that one of their greatest concerns after giving birth should be to change their bodies.
To me, a mother’s body, with all its marks and scars are a testament to her strength and sacrifice - it is nature’s work of art. It also saddens me that a new mother’s desire to satisfy societal beauty standards should take precedence over nourishing the body after the taxing and difficult process of giving birth. I wish that new mothers could see that practicing self-love and self-care is the most powerful way to exude confidence, and to teach their children to as well.
I am an avid supporter of making lifestyle changes to enhance wellbeing and health, and I have so much compassion, empathy and understanding for those of us who still deeply believe that achieving weight loss is a reliable indicator of improved health.
But could I ask you to consider the idea that it is changes in our health BEHAVIOURS that result in these positive health outcomes, regardless of whether or not weight loss is achieved? That restrictive dieting or taking weight loss pills results in the short-term positive outcome of increased confidence and social approval, but only results in more weight fluctuations and an impaired relationship with our bodies in the long-term?
Instead of starting another diet or weight loss regime next Monday, could I ask you to consider trying to work on nourishing the needs of your body, treating it with compassion and care in both sickness and health, and trusting that your weight will end up wherever it is naturally predisposed to be when your body is in its healthiest state?
If you are still considering purchasing this product or another one created by the dieting industry, I’d just like to make one last effort, and share one of my favourite, most thought provoking quotes with you.
“If diets really worked, everyone would be thin, happy and the diet industry would go bankrupt.”
As part of the "Sunset Stories" monologue event held by the amazing National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) at Duke University, I had the pleasure of sharing my ideas on how changing my understanding of happiness propelled my recovery. The peaceful spring weather, the silently supportive audience members who gathered to listen to my story on the plaza, and the chance to hear others' stories of struggle as well made this event incredibly powerful and moving. The transcript of the monologue is attached below.
*Note: Please excuse the mini technical difficulties that we experienced in the middle, hehe! 😜
* Beginning of transcript *
The simple definition of happiness is that of white sands and blue skies. The easy life. Low stress, no responsibilities. At least, that’s how I grew up believing the definition of happiness was.
It is true that one does not question the nature of something until it is gone. As such, it wasn’t until I experienced moments of deep unhappiness during my illness that I came to question this definition. By its very nature, the above definition suggests happiness as a form of complacence - a kind of laissez-faire attitude, a complete absence of hardship and struggle.
As a naturally anxious and impatient person, I found it difficult to even imagine life without a sense of stress looming like a cloud above me. It seemed that I was fated to be unhappy, based on the definition I’d always believed in.
As I climbed out of the hole of my illness, I came in contact with bits and pieces of happiness - not as it was defined to me, but the intuitive sense of happiness, the kind that filled my stomach with butterflies, the kind that caused me to smile even when no one was around to see it, the kind that made me want to sing at the top of my lungs.
And I soon came to realize that this form of happiness never came from a sense of nothingness or complete relaxation. Instead, it mostly stemmed from having come out of a stressful situation - a period of self-driven effort, of conscious determination. My happiest moments often occurred when I was the most stressed, or right afterwards.
I spoke about this issue with one of my friends one night over dinner, musing over why it was that my personal definition of happiness was so different from the one that I had grown up believing was the “standard.”
Growing up in a Chinese family herself, my friend reflected to me that she believed this standard of happiness to have a lot to do with the gender norms in Chinese contexts. “Women are constantly told to relax and stress less, while men are told to try harder and be strong. It might just be hard for our parents to understand that in this day and age, women can’t just relax and stress less, not only because society as a whole is becoming more competitive, but because women are now empowered with more opportunities, and chasing those opportunities entails a certain amount of stress.”
She had hit the nail right on the head. That was it.
Happiness for me, and many other women growing up in this era, didn’t exist on a sandy beach under a blue sky. It existed in struggle, in determination, in chasing opportunities that were not granted to women in the past.
Fulfilment had become the new definition of happiness. And this meant failing at times when reaching for those heights; it meant feeling overwhelmed by the amount of responsibility that our decisions held; it meant stressing out over things that we cared deeply about.
Happiness is not passive.
Every time you reach that state of happiness, you must find it again and again through setting concrete intentions to find that state again.
It is also useful to differentiate between happiness and contentment.
I see happiness as the peak. You climb a mountain, and you must also find your way back down. You cannot stay at the peak forever. Contentment is walking down and knowing the way back home. It is acknowledging that going home might not be as exciting as reaching the peak, and that you might even feel a little sad on this journey home. Contentment is being able to accept all those feelings, to trust your abilities enough to know that you will climb new peaks very soon.
Whenever I would reach a “successful” moment during my eating disorder - a new pound lost, a new rib revealed - I would feel an extremely short-lived sense of happiness, then almost immediately, fear and sadness because I did not truly believe that I was capable of finding success again. I saw happiness as a destination - I thought that when I got there I would never have to make an effort to find it again.
I didn’t realize that contentment was the destination I sought - the home base, so to speak - a sense of safety and trust that would instill me with the self-efficacy I needed to find happiness again and again.
“Sit with yourself as you would with your best friend.”
This quote epitomizes acceptance, peace and contentment to me. It is a reminder that you must establish a trusting, non-judgmental relationship with yourself before you can carry out your purpose in the world.
* End of transcript *
Body image mini mission: How do clothing sizes affect the body image of Hong Kong women?
It’s no secret that the media, and the fashion industry in particular, strongly influence how women perceive their bodies. Whether this is the way that clothes are advertised (modeled on the bodies of highly overrepresented, thin body types) or the way that they are laid out in the store (e.g. The fact that you have to dig for larger sizes), the experience of shopping for clothing can definitely trigger many body image insecurities.
With this in mind, I decided to go on a mini undercover mission to investigate the clothing scene in Hong Kong - specifically, in the local malls that many young people choose to shop at. Here are a few things I noted:
Many stores only carry the smallest size, meaning that if you want anything bigger than what is considered “average”, you have to actively ask for it, or order it.
Staff members will not hesitate to bluntly comment on how a certain clothing item looks - expect to hear, “You look really fat in that - why don’t you try this one?”
There was, surprisingly, one store that was advertised to cater to curvier bodies. Obviously, not as good as a store with an integration of different sizes, but the acknowledge of different sizes in Hong Kong, in and of itself, is an impressive step forward.
The limited representation of bodies in Asian contexts is a concern, because it has served to create a sense of “normative thinness”, or a space where people perceive that “thin” is “just how everyone is.” A study carried out by Mase et al. supports this idea, suggesting that Asian women are less concerned about absolute numbers (weight and body fat percentage), and more worried about how their bodies compare to those of their peers or even to their past selves. As inherently social creatures, the fear of not conforming to peers is a very real one, and the pressure to conform can result in many maladaptive outcomes such as depression, low self-esteem and self-harm behaviors.
From the perspective of a store-owner:
I had the opportunity to set up a conversation with Cindy, a store owner who seeks to change the norm that customers need to fit into predetermined sizes. She highlighted that at the end of the day, clothing producers need customers (i.e. YOU!) in order to continue their businesses. It should arguably be their priority to make sure that their customers are happy and comfortable in their brand. As Cindy put it, she always wants her customers to feel their best in the clothing that she has designed, and for her, that means catering to her customers’ needs.
From the perspective of a celebrity:
I also got to speak to Belinda, a celebrity in Hong Kong who is one of the few public figures in Hong Kong who is willing to speak openly about her struggles with an eating disorder. As someone who is constantly in the spotlight, she spoke about how she constantly felt pressured to fit into a pre-existing mold, which resulted in the development of her eating disorder. Her recovery inspired her to use her public persona in a purposeful way - to model and promote healthy lifestyle behaviors, such as enjoying exercise and food, instead of merely posting pictures that perpetuate an “ideal” body shape.
The main takeaway from this article is NOT that we should all become overly concerned about how clothing fits us or how it looks on us - instead, it highlights the importance of making it a habit to question the norm - why should we be made to feel bad about not fitting into a generic size? - in order to be less concerned about this issue.
Instead of starting from a glass-half-empty mindset (“What is wrong with me/what am I lacking?”), we can make it a goal to begin with our glasses half full: “What do I have already and how can I make the most of these resources?”
To learn more about the study on normative thinness:
Mase, T., Ohara, K., Miyawaki, C., Kouda, K., & Nakamura, H. (2015). Influences of peers’ and family members’ body shapes on perception of body image and desire for thinness in Japanese female students. International Journal of Women’s Health, 7, 625–633. https://doi.org/10.2147/IJWH.S82193
Monday musings: Step up to your story
When I was recovering from my eating disorder, I had no language to describe my experiences. My suffering was my reality - there were no metaphors or literary devices or fancy language that I could use - my pain just was.
When I first started Body Banter, one of my main goals was to encourage people who didn’t normally speak up about their experiences (whether this be due to cultural stigma or personal shame) to share their unique perspectives.
But a key barrier that I didn’t realize until very recently was that many people likely don’t even know how to describe their experiences. A key part of telling a coherent story is being able to talk about the beginning, middle and end. How can you do that if you don’t even know where you are in the story, let alone how to put it into a cohesive whole?
The Body Banter project aims to highlight the fact that a good, real story doesn’t need to be written in fancy or beautiful prose - in fact, the nature of human stories are that they are always unfinished. We are constantly trying to identify where certain parts began, where we are today, and to continue writing about where we will be tomorrow.
There’s a saying that my friend said to me one day, as I was complaining to her about how insecure I was about my future. “You will never be ready until you are doing it.”
In application to the act of writing and telling our own stories, we have to play ACTIVE roles in engaging in other people’s stories, resonating with their accounts, and learning to craft our own. And by doing so, we become better able to understand how our past connects to our present, and how we can set goals for who we hope to be in the future. It helps us better connect to our missions as human beings - to connect with ourselves, others and the world around us.
So I encourage you to share, and if not that, at least write your stories down, however fragmented. As you keep on walking along your journey, you might just return to that little fragment, and find that it is the puzzle piece that you’ve been missing all along.
Steph shares: Huffpost’s awesome article on ditching the diet
Just wanted to share an article that really hit home for me, and that I hope strikes a chord with you too!
The point of this article is NOT to tell you that dieting doesn’t “work” (i.e. That it doesn’t help you lose weight). It does, at least in the short-term. What it does do however, is bring out the important idea that weight is not what matters for health, or for long-term happiness.
I am also not trying to refute that losing weight or changing one’s body can be a confidence-booster - it is true that social reinforcement (i.e. Nice comments from other people about our physical changes) can make us feel good. But consider the long-term costs of letting external forces dictate our internal functioning. The body doesn’t bow down to external cues, and even when it does for a short period of time, it never ends very well. Think about what happens when we need to pee but can’t find a toilet. Sure, we can hold it in, but eventually, we will need to pee. And what happens if we don’t? We end up with wet pants.
The same goes for dieting. If we suppress our body’s natural hunger cues for long enough, eventually it will rebel, both physically and mentally. Faced with what feels like starvation, the body adjusts itself accordingly - it slows down the metabolism and down-regulates hormones that regulate appetite and satiety. Not to mention that you’ll also be cranky, tired and HANGRY (quite possibly the worst feeling in the world, in my opinion).
Another thing that I love about this article is that it speaks to the multifaceted nature of the concept of health. It highlights that it is healthy behaviors, not weight loss or dieting, is what leads to improved health outcomes. These outcomes include physical, mental, emotional and social ones, and are applicable to bodies of ALL shapes and sizes. I cannot emphasize this enough: HEALTH IS NOT A SIZE.
Finally, I’m a big fan of a point raised in this article - that chasing weight loss reinforces the societal notion that “thinner is better”. Even if it may be hard to integrate all the above information immediately, the idea of personally resisting the urge to diet or to change my body can be a way to actively REBEL against diet culture as a whole lit a flame in the advocate in me, and I hope it lights a fire in you too.
What did you think about this article? Let me know!!! :)
Your own medicine is often the bitterest one to take.
Whenever people come to me for advice about how to get out of a rut, I always tell them to be unafraid to seek help. I am a huge advocate for seeking the help you need for whatever issues you are going through, and I am very vocal about it.
It was only until recently, when I experienced a period of weather-induced physical symptoms that also went on to strongly affect my mental health, that I realized that I was not taking my own advice. I realized that although I had sought some psychological support during my initial recovery phase from an eating disorder, I really only did the bare minimum - I got myself out of the deepest rut, and went solo from there. I had never taken any substantial measures to maintain my mental health. I let myself dip into mini-relapses, or what I would call “subtle struggles”, and let myself reason my way out of seeking help for them. Importantly, I knew all of my triggers and was often very cognizant of when I would inevitably spiral into these small pockets of struggle, but there was just nothing I could do about it, at least not on my own.
It was kind of like drowning with my eyes open, with a lifeboat in plain sight somewhere in the distance, but telling myself that I would eventually find land without it, over and over. And I always did - just never as fast as I could have, if I had reached for the lifeboat.
A lot of it, admittedly, had to do with the fact that I was so proud of where I was at, most of the time. 60-70% of the time, I was mentally and physically thriving - doing the things I loved, living the life I was excited about. But then there was that 30-40% of the time when I dipped, sometimes harder than others. Each time, I told myself I would keep it all under control, and each time, I barely just did. I am a proud mental health advocate and psychology student - I know, probably more than most, how important it is to take care of one’s mental health. I am probably more aware of what symptoms are problematic, than would many individuals in the general population. This is a blessing and a curse - the blessing being my hyperawareness, and the curse being the pride that is associated with that hyperawareness. Oftentimes, I let myself slip because I thought I was capable of taking care of myself, when I should have been seeking higher levels of care.
Well, friends - today is as good as any day to change all of that.
After a few days of feeling physically beaten down and mentally worn out, I marched myself into the Student Wellness Center and sought a higher level of care for both nutritional and mental facets of my life.
Admittedly, this experience was very strange for me - this was the first time I had really visited a therapeutic setting since my initial recovery process, and having taken quite a number of classes on ways to treat patients, I experienced somewhat of an “out of body” experience. Several times I found myself analyzing the therapeutic techniques of the doctor, overthinking my answers and just not fully allowing myself to “be a patient”. But there was also a part of me that was starting to realize the truth of what I had learned in class in its real world application - particularly the principle that a major part of therapy is just having someone listen to you, acknowledge your symptoms like they’ve heard it before and reassure you that they’ll help you get to the bottom of it all.
I’m saying all of this as a reminder to myself, as well as to everyone who will hear me out:
You don’t have to be struggling hard to deserve therapy, or a higher level of mental health care.
As a patient and as a psychology major, I’m learning that subclinical symptoms matter. People rarely become depressed overnight - oftentimes, symptoms progress along a spectrum (Caley discusses this super well in her post, “Diagnostics: Scientific work in progress”), and exacerbate over time after many attempts to suppress and avoid them. Today, I stopped pushing the dust under a rug, and finally got myself a broom and a dustpan.
On a final note: It’s never too late, too weird or too anything to start taking measures to maintain or improve your mental health.
As a psych student and an aspiring psychologist, I thought it might be “weird” for me to assume the role of a patient. I think it’s useful here to remind myself that knowing about a mental health issue, or even knowing how to treat it doesn’t make you capable of healing yourself.
The therapeutic relationship is one of the biggest components of effective therapy - it is in this trusting relationship where you have someone reinforce concepts that you might very well already know, where you have someone (rather than just the empty void in your mind) to reverberate your thought processes, and where you have someone who can see more impartially into your unintentionally biased thoughts, that the magic happens. Trust therapy. Trust that there is value in taking larger strides towards improving your mental health, even if it does not suck very much at the moment. What so many of us, including myself, don’t realize is that optimal mental functioning is largely about maintenance and prevention, rather than waiting to save ourselves from the deepest, darkest pits.
Additionally, I am optimistic that walking my own talk - taking measures to sustain my mental health, whether or not I am currently in a rut or not - will prepare me to be a more compassionate therapist in the future. I’m excited to one day be able to play a role in someone’s life, whether it is pulling them out of the darkest cave they’ve ever been in, or just keeping them on the tightrope of life.
So the BBC episode of the Food Chain is finally out!
Back in August, Claire from BBC radio contacted me, asking whether I’d be willing to speak about my take on the increasing prevalence of eating disorders in Chinese contexts. Of course, I was MORE than willing, and I am so excited to share this episode with you! :)
Whether you are deeply invested in this topic, or whether you know nothing about it, I highly recommend that you take a listen. This podcast touches not only on the rapid rise in the number of eating disorders in China, but more generally, the alarmingly low availability of mental health care and resources:
** As of right now, there is only one closed ward for eating disorders in China, and according to the World Health Organization in 2014, there were less than 2 psychiatrists for every 100,000 people.**
Even more problematic is the fact that despite the clearly detrimental nature of the extreme measures that young Chinese people (women AND men) are taking to achieve societal standards of beauty, there still exists no law to prohibit the rampant sales of dangerous dieting products, such as diet pills and even vomit tubes, making unhealthy methods of weight loss extremely easy to access and all the more attractive as “shortcuts” to the “ideal” body.
Moreover, mental health concerns are very much shrouded in taboo in Chinese communities, and as you will hear in the podcast, mental health professionals in China mostly still tend not to take the issue of eating disorders very seriously, that is, until patients are in their deathbeds. Most discouragingly, when these dying patients are admitted to local hospitals, it is likely that they will simply be physically rehabilitated (i.e. Fed until they are able to reach a healthy weight), and receive little to no psychological treatment.
Connecting this back to my experiences, I was not admitted to a hospital for treatment not only because I, of course, resisted with all my might, but because my mom knew that admitting me to a local hospital would likely have no effect on the real source of illness (i.e. My mind) and might even leave me with more psychological scars.
Why does any of this matter?
The rise of eating disorders in Chinese contexts is not just concerning because of their increasing prevalence, but because despite these rising rates, it still appears that little is being done to prevent them from continuing to increase. At a policy level, there is sadly little than I can do - I can’t make laws that will ban harmful products from being so accessible to the hoards of young people who are blinded by the promises of the media and I have no power to shut down the frightening “vomit rooms” that are now rampant on the Internet. At a cultural level, I can hardly hope to change the perspectives, actions and beliefs of an entire nation overnight - the idealization of the individual who can adhere to the cultural expectation to eat everything on the table yet stay effortlessly thin, and where mental distress is too often disguised as physical discomfort.
But there are SO many little things that you and I can do. If you’re a mother, model self-love and appreciation. If you’re a friend, try not to engage in fat talk - don’t add fuel to the fire that is already making its way into the minds of many young people. Finally, never hesitate to reach out to someone who might be struggling with disordered eating or mental distress - play your role in changing our cultural attitudes towards mental illness.
Learning about the admittedly quite dire situation of eating disorders in China has not, however dampened my resolve to explore this area. The journey is hard, but it is not hopeless. In fact, learning about the situation has enhanced my motivation to focus my undergraduate and graduate studies on the topic of the etiology and development of eating disorders in Chinese contexts. I am even more eager to use Body Banter as a platform to share, empower and educate.
Takeaway Tuesdays: Take the time for your mind
I’m still mending my relationship with exercise every day.
Structure makes me feel safe and comfortable. Having planned, structured workouts on most days keeps me within my comfort zone, and relieves me of the stress of planning what I’m going to do next.
But there is a point at which it gets too comfortable - where structure feels like rigidity, where I feel like a cog in a wheel. With regards to exercise, it means that I find myself feeling obliged to move in certain ways, even though my body is tired and my mind is reluctant. Movement is no longer intrinsically motivated.
So I let it all go today.
I took advantage of the post-hurricane sunshine and went outside for a long walk, listening to my “chill” playlist rather than information loaded podcasts, taking the time to focus on my footsteps rather than what I had on my to-do list for the rest of the day, letting my mind wander rather than chastising it for not doing something productive. Really just let it all go.
Sure, it felt boring and pointless at first. But at the end of my walk, I found myself ready again. Ready to move purposefully and not obsessively, ready to use my engage my mind again after just letting it be.
We so often tell ourselves that we don’t have the time to relax or to give our minds some TLC, some much needed space. Then we pound ourselves with more tasks, burn out, and need even more time to recuperate.
If you don’t have a “time-saver” mindset and already regularly practice self-care, kudos to you! It takes many of us too long to grasp this truth. And for those of us with that chronic, “beat yourself to pulp in order to improve” mindset, think of it this way:
You’re actually saving time by giving yourself regular brain breaks - taking the time to refresh and hit your restart button fuels you in the long run.
Give yourself a break. And no, you don’t need to do anything to deserve it - mindful moments are a necessity, not a luxury.
Not the Crossfit, but the community
I am often asked what spurred the biggest mindset shifts in my recovery journey, and I point straight to my gym community every time. Many question whether this reflects a continued entrenchment in a disordered mindset, whether it is reflective of exercise taking up an excessive and compulsive part of my life. In this post, I want to explain how becoming part of this community not only brought light and joy back into my definition of exercise, but also taught me valuable life lessons that I take with me beyond the gym.
I am not here to prescribe a solution that will work for everyone, but rather to suggest a general pathway that I believe is effective in pulling oneself out of any mind rut. Here it is - community creates change. What I mean by this is that if you surround yourself with people who believe in what you want to believe in, and are not only supportive, but actively model your desired mindset, then you are on your way to achieving it. This community is different for everyone, depending on their goals and personality.
When I first joined my gym, I was a fresh-faced 16 year old - still recuperating mentally from an eating disorder, still desperately trying to find myself in the mess of adolescence.
Being one of the younger members at the gym when I first joined, I was constantly surrounded by individuals who had more life experiences than me, and who were more than willing to share. They showed me that one can do super cool things at the gym, and do even cooler things outside of it. They showed me that working out can definitely be a priority in one’s life, but that it does not need to dominate or define you.
Here, I also learned to change my perspective on what I once viewed as “imperfections.” I saw athletes of all shapes and sizes sweat, laugh and perform incredible feats alongside each other, and realized that everyBODY has advantages and disadvantages that all contribute to their uniqueness. I changed my language from “better” and “worse” to “appreciate the diverse.” I saw women, whose bodies defy conventional beauty standards, disregard all of that and continue to value being and feeling stronger in their training. Day after day of watching them train and getting to know these wonderful women outside of the gym, I learned to value strength over surface as well.
Finally, my coach Ed taught me that “more is not better”, a lesson that he often still has to drill into my mind, but that he never gives up on doing. The competitive mindset that defines my personality, and the compulsive tendencies that remained from my eating disorder resulted in a constant urge to push past exhaustion and end-range limits that stuck with me persistently for a good few years after my initial recovery, and still comes back to haunt me to this day when I put my mind to something that I want very very much.
Slowly but surely, as I watch him and the other coaches at my gym preach and practice what they preach about stress management and letting the body recover, I am learning too. Beyond the gym, I am understanding too that I can do anything if I put my mind to it, but that doesn’t mean doing everything.
Crossfit, nor weightlifting, nor any physical pursuit that I have engaged in during my recovery journey has changed my life. This community has. This community, with its values and with each individual who carries these values forward, has changed my life.
My success in community searching could have been due to luck or fate, but I do believe that I was also initially drawn to this community because of the energy it exuded when I first stepped through its doors. After years of hating exercise, hating my body and beginning to feel like “that is just the way life is”, I was surprised and thrilled to find a community that showed me that movement is something that I get to do (not have to do), that the monkey arms that I had hated so much were what helped me excel in deadlifts, and that whether or not any workout (or generally, life!) “sucks” is up to how you perceive it.
Bottom line: Find your people - individuals who champion and model values that you respect and want to carry forward as well and who support your pursuits to achieve these values.
“Everything in moderation.”
“It’s okay, as long as you don’t overdo it!”
But what about when you do “overdo it”?
I have reached a point in my mindset moving journey where I can deal with my emotions around eating previous fear foods, so long as I feel like I have kept things “under control”, whether this means that I only take a bite of it, or whether I only “allow myself to indulge” at one meal during the week.
I still find it hard to deal with my mind when I feel like I have “lost control” - when that uncomfortable fullness sets in after an unusually big meal, when I eat a fear food for the second day in a row, when I feel that I cannot justify my eating by claiming that I have been “moderate” in the past, when my behaviors would undoubtedly be frowned upon by Instagram fitness gurus. It’s hard, because allowing myself to fully relax and enjoy without restriction (oh the taboo!) is no longer an exception that I can "forgive".
I am not suggesting that we should all just allow ourselves to go completely wild here - I know and believe that discipline and self-control is what allows us to pursue our goals in all facets of our lives. But at least for myself, I do want to learn to re-conceptualize what it means to “lose control” over food, specifically (and what that supposedly suggests about the person that I am), and learn to compassionately manage the emotions that come with it, so that they don’t completely cripple me.
Here are some thought tracks that I took during this mindset move:
“Yes I’m full. So?” - After some journaling and feeling my feelings, I realized that it really wasn’t the physical sensation of fullness that was bothering me. It was the ingrained, automatic onset of anxiety that I had learned to feel whenever I felt that feeling of fullness. So I’m feeling full, or even feeling more than full. That physical sensation doesn’t need to be attached to any emotion or mentality! Being able to ask, “so what?” or “what is really so bad about feeling this physical sensation?” has allowed me to step back and realize that it really isn’t so bad and that there are (far) worse things than feeling overly full! I’m not saying that feeling overly full is comfortable. But think about it this way - there are plenty of times where we push our bodies past comfort, but are not conditioned to feel guilty about them. Did you immediately consider yourself a “bad” person when you stood in the sun on a summer day and felt uncomfortably hot? Or when you fell and scraped your knee? Of course not.
It’s helpful here to realize that emotional anxiety is something we attach to physical discomfort - they do not automatically go hand in hand.
Who the heck cares? - Who the HECK truly cares what I eat at each and every meal? I’m speaking for myself here - I know that there are certainly some of you who are gearing up for a physique competition or otherwise need to monitor your nutrition more closely in order to reach your goals, and I have nothing against that. We’re all chasing different goals. For me, my current goals are to pursue a more holistic understanding of my health - to feel good physically, mentally and emotionally. To eat to nourish my body but also to taste good food and to make memories with friends over food that I can’t necessarily monitor. If there’s something that my loved ones WILL care about, it is that I spend quality time with them and be responsible for my own wellbeing so that I can be that person that they love. NOT what I eat at each meal, NOT how those meals might change my body.
Here, it's helpful to remember that the people that I truly care about, who have my best interests in mind, are never judging me by the fluctuations in my physicality.
Every day is a new day. Sometimes I won’t be able to get over my feelings no matter how hard I try. Some days I’ll just sit down and have a good cry. But it does help to remember that this feeling of over-fullness and the associated feelings of guilt and anxiety will pass, after a magical thing called sleep. Your body is cool and smart - it WILL digest the food, it WILL restore balance after a good night’s rest. When it’s just too taxing to try and analyze your feelings, just let them out (cry, talk to a friend/family member).
Prop up your positive mindset the next day. Feeling like you’ve lost control the day before does NOT translate to compensation and restriction the following day. Again, step back from your emotions and realize that all you’ve really “done” is push your body past a state in which it’s normally comfortable - no correlation whatsoever with how good of a person you are or how capable you are or whatever internal aspect diet culture has taught us to correlate our physical sensations with. You are still the same worthy person who deserves to feel good - to nourish and love themselves. On the “after” days, I like to start my day with a breakfast that satisfies my hunger and my tooth. If I have a training session that day, I make it a point to remind myself more than usual to stay present in this session - to see it as “me time” and feeling good throughout, rather than a method of compensation.
Final word/reflection prompt: What does "losing control" mean to you? How can you learn to detach feelings of physical discomfort with emotional anxiety?
Thought track twists: Watch the boats go...but don't let them affect your flow
Hello family! :)
Just a little reminder for me and you on a terrific Thursday. I was recently reflecting on how feelings of happiness differed between my illness and recovered days. I realized that while the happiness I experience now is more profound and stable, the happiness I felt during my illness - when I would achieve the “challenges” set out by my disordered voice - was very much real as well. So what is it about the happiness that I feel today that feels so much more grounded?
My brain likes to work its way out using analogies, so here goes. My self is a river. My feelings are the passing boats. Depending on what others say or what happens around me, there can be different boats that float on my river, and they can affect the flow of the river in some way. But they never stay on my surface for long - they pass by after a while. The same goes for the effects of any body shape comment. I undeniably feel a very real sense of happiness of satisfaction when someone compliments my body, or when I reach a certain weight. I cannot deny that I still feel these feelings, even if it has been 5 years into recovery. The strength of these feelings have dampened as I have worked to actively unlearn them over the years, but the response is still very much automatic.
My self is the river. The flow of my river can change based on the boats that are floating on it, but fundamentally, the nature of the river is always the same, no matter what boats happen to float by.
There are people out there who easily understand this concept - that feelings about any given event will pass eventually, and that there is no need to automatically correlate them with who you are - to desperately try to identify exactly which personality trait allowed you to deserve a certain positive feeling because you are terrified that you’ll never experience this feeling again, or to immediately attribute negative events to personal flaws.
But it is much more difficult for me - in fact, the tendency to get too caught up in momentary emotions was one of the reasons that my illness deteriorated so quickly. If someone mentioned that I had gained weight, I would immediately translate that terrible feeling to believing that I was a terrible person. If someone complimented my body, I would grasp on desperately to the transient feeling of success I felt, watching it fade away too quickly, and feel terrified that I would never experience it again. I didn’t realize that I was fundamentally the same person, before and after those comments - I was still the person who was loved by my friends and family, who had accomplished what I had in life...still that same river.
Without further ado, here are some takeaways and action steps:
Don’t blame yourself for less-than-optimal thought patterns: Acknowledge the fact that your feelings, whether they are optimal or not (as in whether they contribute to your long-term wellbeing), inevitably occur. I have found that blaming myself for thinking in certain ways only causes me to ignore these thought patterns and to keep pushing them to the back of my mind, making them more ingrained.
Feel it, then move on: Say to yourself, “I totally understand why you feel this way!” In my case, I cannot undo my past of battling an eating disorder. These thoughts will always come more naturally to me than to the average person. I will let myself feel these feelings, and then continue on with my day. I will let myself feel the hurt of receiving a body shape comment, and then realize that I am still the same person that I was, before that comment.
Find your flow: Always remember that no event, no momentary emotion has the power to change the self that you have built for YEARS. The feelings are boats. Whether it’s a yacht or a cruise ship, it too shall pass. And after it does, you will be left with the same body of water, flowing as it always has :)
Exercise - no more, no less
In my latest interview with NowTV, (stay tuned for that - coming soon!!), I share a little about the role that fitness played in my recovery.
A lot of people ask me how I approach fitness and exercise in recovery - how I differentiate between compulsive and enjoyable movement, and how I maintain a balance between exercising and the rest of my life.
To that question, my answer is this: My biggest perspective change was learning to see exercise as no more and no less than it actually is.
What does that mean? It means that I realized that exercise is MUCH more than just a way to burn calories - it’s a way to get my happy hormones, a way to amp up my mental focus and a way to spend time with my one of my favorite communities. At the same time, my performance in the gym does NOT equate to my self-worth - I don’t deny that being part of my gym community contributes to a large part of my identity and that my achievements in the gym are some of the ones that I’m proudest of, but my value and my confidence is not defined by any number, whether this is my weight, how many reps I got, how much weight I lifted, how many calories I burned, etc.
Today, I see exercising for everything that it is - the mental, physical and social benefits that it brings - and this has allowed it to be enough for me, in and of itself. I no longer need to use my physical appearance as a projection of who I wish I could be internally (i.e. Believing that confidence comes with being a certain body size) because I am much clearer about who I am - recovery has allowed me to really hone in on what is important to me and what my values are. I no longer need to use exercise to numb away or superficially deal with negative feelings, because I know that I am capable of facing these feelings head on.
Being bloated is uncomfortable. But we rarely, if ever, stop to question the nature of this discomfort. Are we uncomfortable because of true, physical bloating, or because of what we are taught that bloating is meant to represent?
Obviously there are times when I objectively feel bloated (after a bigger meal or after a bout of sickness), but more often than not, feeling bloated has been a projection of my anxiety. For example, I find that I tend to feel bloated after eating a previous “fear food” which I am still not 100% comfortable with. In other words, I often felt bloated because I think that I should feel bloated in that particular circumstance, based on ingrained beliefs that I have learned from diet culture (i.e. That a certain food would cause me to gain weight or appear to have gained weight, which obviously holds a host of negative implications in diet culture).
However, upon deeper examination of how I feel, I realize that most of the time, I am not “objectively bloated”. That is, my feelings are often the negative connotations that are typically associated with bloating - emotions such as guilt, anxiety and insecurity. Feeling “bloated” was my brain’s way of visualizing these emotions of discomfort.
So the next time you feel bloated, consider these “Mindset Movers” and challenge yourself to change your mindset rather than your body:
Feel those feelings: Diet culture is constantly telling us to get rid of discomfort at the superficial level, by ridding ourselves physically of excess water or fat. Again, there are moments where it is truly the case that our bodies are trying to tell us something by bloating (i.e. That you have eaten something that you are intolerant of). However, a lot of times these feelings of bloating can really just be mental or emotional discomfort. I challenge you to sit in that discomfort and analyze what you are truly feeling.
Get comfy: The above being said, I find that preemptively attacking the problem more superficially can be an effective way to prevent feelings of discomfort from arising in the first place. For example, feelings of bloating are often triggered if I am wearing tight clothing - it makes me claustrophobic in both the mental and the physical sense. I have less space to allow my body to change from moment to moment, and my brain is almost forced to pay attention to my body even when I don’t want to. The solution to the problem can be as simple as wearing looser, more comfortable clothing, and being more in touch with how amazing it feels to let your body be free. A big game changer for me recently has been working out in a sports bra rather than a tight tank top - I am more able to enjoy my movement and more appreciative of the ways that my body can move.
TELL ME ABOUT IT!
Do you ever consider the reasons behind physical sensations, and how much of it is actually related to your mind? If so, how do you tackle these moments?
Dealing with downwards spirals
Today’s post is about understanding.
When I first embarked on my body positivity journey, I strived to instill in myself ideals of self-worth, to find ways to turn myself back in an upward spiral when I started moving downwards. On my best days, I was able to deliver pep talks to others who were struggling. Many times, I heard these people say back to me, “I know, but I can’t.” And during these times, I empathized, but I never understood. I always assumed that understanding body positive and self-worth principles would allow anyone to effortlessly pull themselves out of any hole.
I was wrong.
Just a few days ago, I became triggered by a dieting conversation. It was hard for me to admit that I had been triggered by it, because I thought that I was so over that, but this conversation really hit me where I was unable to shield myself. Instinctively, I knew what my core beliefs and long-term goals were, but in my narrowed mindset, I felt myself believing the excuses that my re-emerging disordered voice was telling me. For every time that I reminded myself of my mission statement, the disordered voice that my purpose in life was so much more than losing weight, the disordered voice lured me into believing that losing weight could help me feel happier, even if for a short period of time.
Coming out of this negative cycle, I have learned that just because I knew how to fix the problem didn’t mean I would automatically be able to carry out the necessary steps. Just because I am an avid body positivity advocate and am passionate about carrying this mission forward, doesn’t mean that I can always walk the walk. However, I did learn a few things, and would like to share how I pulled myself out of a fast-moving downwards spiral:
Action steps for downward spirals:
Acknowledge and admit it: First, you gotta own up to the fact that you are spiraling downwards. Convincing myself that I was totally fine and that I couldn’t possibly be triggered at this point in my recovery only worsened the situation and delayed my action-taking.
Confess to someone that you trust: Having someone you trust just hear you out is a great active first step. Not only does it help you organize your own thoughts to express them out loud, but it also legitimates your struggle to yourself - once I tell someone about a struggle that I have been consciously or unconsciously trying to push out of my mind, I feel that it has become a concrete entity that I can now take responsibility for solving.
Dig deep to analyze what is really bothering you/what you really want to attain: Every time I feel triggered to lose weight, I know that there is an underlying feeling of insecurity about something in my life, an empty hole I need to fill with the temporary satisfaction of losing weight. So I asked myself, why is losing weight important to me? What am I expecting to attain upon achieving this goal? I dug deep and did some journaling, and found that I wanted to show myself that I had enough self-control to stay on a restrictive diet. I wanted to prove to myself that I was capable of something difficult. Well then, I reasoned, if what I am looking for is a way to prove myself, there are many other ways to do that, without sacrificing my mental and physical wellbeing. There are healthier and happier ways of creating happiness and fulfillment that would be more sustainable too, such as putting my whole heart into my summer internship and working hard to make Body Banter blossom. Moreover, fueling my body and mind with enough food is what will allow me to be the most productive, energized, well-rounded person that I can be. to be the most energetic, purposeful and productive person that I can be.
On a final note, this post is a reminder to be empathetic and forgiving to yourself. So often we know that we know what is good for us and that we are not currently acting in our best interests, but it is still difficult to turn things around. There is no need to dwell on it and blame yourself - the key is to acknowledge it as quickly as possible, and ACT ON IT.
Ps. Lastly, if you need someone to carry out step 2 with (confession to someone else to keep you accountable in making a change), I would gladly be that person. I’m here to listen (and give you a pep talk if you will take it!) and get you kickstarted back on that upward spiral!
🌈PERSPECTIVE AND POWER❤️
Written by: Steph
When I first learned to deadlift, someone told me that my build would be SO good for them. I was stunned to realize that the same long monkey arms and short legs that I had been uncomfortable with for so long could be VALUABLE in some way, in someone else’s eyes. At that moment, I was able to step back and realize that although my opinion obviously rang the loudest in my own mind, it was really only one of many. I was awoken to be fact that everything is a matter of perspective - one person’s self-perceived flaws can just as easily be the envied asset of another. And knowing that, I realized that I had the POWER to choose which perspective I took.
Opinions about ourselves, whether this originates from ourselves or from others, are rarely consistent from one time to another. When we make snap judgments, we are simply projecting our changeable emotional states on arbitrary traits (e.g. Feeling unhappy can cause us to be more critical of ourselves than normal). However, when we are COGNIZANT and AWARE of these judgments, we can make the active decision to change them for the better. To realize that we can CHOOSE to see ourselves as our biggest supporter would.
Your best self is only a perspective away !! 🤗🌈
Conversation curls: A guide to cool convos
There are better ways to converse. It is often the case that when we haven't seen someone in a while or when we don't know someone very well, that we tend to speak about superficial topics such as weight and body shape. Stop limiting yourself and make your conversations more memorable and meaningful! :)
Written by: Steph
“If I asked you to introduce yourself, who would you be proud to be?”
That’s the question I ask myself whenever I start judging myself based on the narrow criteria of weight, exercise and food. It’s a good reminder that I am SO much more interesting of a person than merely how I manage these 3 parts of my life.
Recovery, to me, has meant branching out my interests to incorporate more components into my self-concept, but at the same time, acknowledging that my eating disorder has shaped me in ways that I cannot change, and moreover, remembering that these experiences have taught me valuable lessons that I should not be ashamed to share. Exercise and food still play a role in my life, but they are only parts of a much more expansive whole. I am also a psychology student, a daughter to my wonderful parents, the founder of a body positivity platform, and a shameless singer of show tunes in the shower. I am able to find meaning, joy and fulfillment in more areas of my life.
Learning to broaden your horizons doesn’t just have to apply to the context of recovery - it applies to any time when a specific goal becomes so dominant in your life that it starts to completely define your self-concept. Dare to become passionate about more things. Be someone you’d be excited to introduce yourself to! 😜
~ Self-love Syllabus: Self-compassion ~
Written by: Steph (1/27/18)
I woke up today with a more body negative thoughts than I am used to at this stage of recovery. It had nothing to do with what I had done the day before (had a wonderful and stimulating day of Friday classes) nor what I had planned for today (had an exciting day of activities ahead), but my mind just really did not like my body today. Fast forward to this evening, and I can say that despite being more mentally exhausted than usual, I am filled with joy and gratitude.
Today’s self-love syllabus covers a few concrete steps that I took to navigate my mind through a challenging day.
Show yourself some compassion. Be sensitive to your limitations, and don’t push yourself to those limits today. Stop trying to find a reason for how you’re feeling today, because sometimes there isn’t one, and understand that reasonless discomfort is absolutely okay. Understand that your performance may not live up to your personal standards today, but that day to day changes are what make us human and not robots :P
Immerse yourself in positive environments. I consider myself lucky today, because I planned and committed to activities that I enjoy normally, and really needed today. It was a struggle to take the first step out of my comfort zone (aka my room), but participating in my girls mentoring program, spending some me-time in the gym, and being amongst a group of passionate people during tonight’s Body Banter club meeting filled me with excitement, gratitude, and love.
Reach out to/confide in individuals that you trust. I FaceTimed my parents, and I messaged my nutritionist, and felt better just knowing that there are people in my life who will take the time to respond to and reassure me, regardless of how irrational my thoughts may be.
What's your proud area?
I have always had ribs that protrude more than the average person, and this trait was actually something I thought was “pretty cool” before I hit my teenage years. However, that changed when someone commented on how I was “growing a gut” when I was about 13. That comment, coupled with the derogatory terms used to describe fat around the midsection, like “muffin top” and “love handles” triggered an insecurity with my stomach area that continued to affect me throughout my disorder and even long into my recovery process.
During my disorder, my protruding “gut” was a body part that I tried the hardest to change. But no matter how much weight I lost, it never shrunk. Even when I became a skeleton, I was a skeleton with a “belly.” The fact that I couldn’t get rid of the body part that I hated the most despite following every diet and exercise regime under the sun blinded me to the way that other parts of my body were changing - it did not occur to me that I was trying to change a part of my body that I could never change (you could probably go the plastic surgery route to change the shape of your bones, but otherwise, probably not) and that in my attempt to change it, I was damaging both my physical and mental health. The surest sign of “success” to me at the time was being able to make observable, physical changes, so I thought that not being able to do so in the case of my ribs meant that I wasn’t trying hard enough. In my desperation, I pushed on - and hit a dead end (literally)!
I’ve since decided to stick to a solution that is much more sustainable and realistic - healing my relationship with my “problem area.” A particularly useful reminder for me during this time was remembering that ”problem area” is just a label that people assigned to random body parts. You could just as easily have labelled these same parts “proud areas”!! Here’s another way to look at it - why is it okay for our earlobes to be “jiggly” but not for our arms to be? Why is it okay for our butts to protrude but not our ribs or tummies? All it really comes down to is a change in perspective and in terminology.
The next time someone comments on my ribs/tummy/gut, I’ll be saying, “Yep, that’s my proud area right there!” No more sucking in and “getting rid” - only acknowledging and appreciating!
Things to try this week...
If you normally hide a certain body part when taking photos (or often hide it with clothing) try not to do so this week. Show off those proud areas!
Share the new terminology with a friend! If someone comments on their “problem area”, respond back by introducing your “proud area” (and teaching them to do the same)!
Don’t forget to report back to Body Banter headquarters about about how you carried out this week’s mission! :)
#proudareas #notmyproblem #loudandproud
This is not a cheat meal
Holiday season is a time of social gatherings and food - aka the perfect time for triggering comments about our eating behaviours and bodies to be made, often causing us to feel shame and guilt instead of warmth and joy. However, if we look at it through the lens of a Body Banterer, it’s also the perfect time to make some positive change, for ourselves and those around us! :)
For me at least, it is often not a comment from those around me that is the most triggering, but the faint echo of my past eating disorder speaking from inside. It challenges me - asks me what I have done to deserve the freedom of eating whatever I want, of eating something just because it looks good. Puts labels on different foods, and makes me believe that eating in a certain way will make me “good” or “bad”.
And of course, these thoughts only become louder and stronger when they are directly reinforced by the spoken words of those around us, - the friends, the family, the people we follow on social media. There are the conflicting messages: The Instagram post of the most beautiful pumpkin pie, ironically placed right above the one that tells us how guilty we should feel for each slice that we eat. Then there is the general “holiday eating guilt” atmosphere that is just everywhere: the guilty look when someone reaches for the chocolate, the “I will have to run for so many hours to burn this off” reverberating from various corners of the room…
It becomes too much for me sometimes. It becomes too loud. So this holiday season, I am determined to speak louder than these voices, both internal and external, and hopefully spread some of these ideas to those around me as well.
Below are my holiday affirmations/reminders:
- THIS IS NOT A CHEAT MEAL. Cheating necessarily implies that you are deviating from some sort of set standard - and there is nothing bad/deviant about feeling warm and happy!
- YOU DESERVE TO EAT AND ENJOY EATING, regardless of anything that has happened before or after (i.e. Whether I have exercised or will exercise, what I ate before or how I will eat later, what my body looks like - none of it has any effect on how much I am worth or how much I deserve).
- FEELING FULL IS NOT A CRIME. Feeling MORE than full is not a crime. Eating is not merely a way to inject yourself with nutrition - it is a way to enjoy life!
- STOP LABELLING THE MORALITY OF FOOD. There are no “good” or “bad” foods - unless you are referring to what tastes good/bad and what you want to go for! :P
- EATING IS JOY. Joy does not need to be compensated for.
Let me know what you think of these affirmations/whether you used them/if you have any new ones to add to this list!
~ Last reminder before I send you all off to enjoy your wonderful thanksgiving - You are worth it, you are deserving, and there is so much life to be lived. Enjoy it! <3
Steph shares: Create change in casual conversations
Yesterday during my taxi ride from home to work, my taxi driver struck up a conversation with me. “Wow, are you a swimmer?” He asked, glancing at me through his mirror. “No,” I replied, “I’m a weightlifter.” He looked visibly shocked, “A weightlifter?? What a waste of a perfectly good body!” Well that’s new, I thought. “Aren’t you afraid of becoming super bulky? You’d better find a boyfriend that also weight lifts, or he won’t be able to tolerate you.” He proceeded. Ah, I’ve heard that one before, I grimace-smiled.
There was a time in my life when I would face these scenarios with silent anger, where I would just swallow my frustration and hold a grudge against whoever might have spewed these stereotypical statements in my face. But I soon realized that not only were these feelings were toxic towards my relationships (often times, these words were said by well-intentioned people who I respected and loved!), but that by just letting them happen, I was actively contributing to the perpetuation of these stereotypical assumptions.
So recently I’ve been making an effort to inject a little of my own words and thoughts into the conversation. “Actually,” I smiled back at the taxi driver, “it takes an immense amount of effort to put on muscle, especially for women, as we don’t have the same hormones as men. It is physically impossible to become “too big” unless you try really, really hard. And no, I’m not afraid of getting “too big.” I really enjoy feeling strong!”
And if you’re thinking, “HA! Do you think the taxi driver was really listening? Do you really think you can make a change?” - You’re right. The taxi driver just chuckled under his breath, sort of a slightly nicer way of saying, “yeah right.” But as pointless as it might have been with this one taxi driver, who knows? My words might one day hit home for some other taxi driver, or some other person who holds these stereotypical assumptions. I may be talking at a wall for 99 out of 100 people I meet, but hey! That one person that I manage to convince will hopefully consider his or her assumptions, and inject these thoughts into his or her conversations with others. Moreover, saying these words out loud has the added effect of acting as a positive affirmation for me - I have found that verbally affirming what I love to do is so, so empowering.
The main takeaway from this experience: Never underestimate the few words you share with strangers - they can make all the difference. It may seem like no one is listening or that no one cares about the message you are trying to get across (and sadly, a lot of times this is true!), but trust and hope that you will reach someone at some point.
Another positive push to finish off this bloggy post - just think: if negativity and stereotypes can spread, so can positivity and acceptance! :)
Steph shares: Why HK needs to start talking about eating disorders - SCMP article and mini rant feature! :)
Today I want to share an article (click on the picture above to read) that is pretty cool because 1) it's about the super recent Netflix film, "To the Bone", 2) it's written by the super cool Hana, and 3) I get to have my little moment to rant about the low level of awareness regarding mental health issues and eating disorders in HK! :)
The Netflix film, "To the Bone" that follows the story of Ellen, a young artist who struggles with anorexia, has met with both positive and negative responses since its release. Nevertheless, it has had the effect of sparking a conversation about eating disorders amongst audiences all around the world, and that in itself, is something to commend. In my opinion, good conversations can rarely be carried out without some degree of conflict, especially when they are about controversial topics like eating disorders.
So please take a moment to check out this article! It doesn't matter whether you agree or disagree with the points made - what matters is that you are taking the time to explore new viewpoints!
Happy Saturday y'all!! :)