There is a ton of information about the benefits of exercise and weight loss. It is undeniable that having an active lifestyle and striving to consume ethically farmed nutrient dense food is a paramount step towards achieving a healthy lifestyle. I have however noticed that a lot of information about this topic is centred almost entirely around the physical benefits of being healthy. Very little information is shared about the mental and emotional impacts of undertaking a lifestyle transformation journey. More so the information that is shared tends to highlight only positives and rarely explores the complex feelings that come with undertaking such a drastic change. I have personally experienced a lot of benefits of overhauling my lifestyle. I am happier, I have more energy, my mind is clearer, I enjoy food more, I sleep better, I have less anxiety, I am stronger, I am so much more confident, etc. I cannot stress enough how great this journey has been overall. Even so, it has come with some unexpected hiccups and road blocks that I was completely unaware of. The issues that I have faced and continue to face as I evolve reveal to just how complicated the human experience is, and how little information is given about the emotional toll of any change. It also shows how quick we are to place life experiences into either good or bad categories, rather than accepting moral ambiguities. So even though becoming healthier is an objectively good thing to do, it can have significant negative impacts on your mental and emotional well being. Below details the five main emotional side effects I have or am currently experiencing whilst I endeavour to better myself.
DISTORTED BODY IMAGE/ BODY DYSMORPHIA
Body image is a complicated construct. It comprises not only a person’s visual appearance, but also their subjective thoughts about themselves, their feelings, their evaluations and habits, their experiences and the social narrative surrounding them about their body. Due to this, it is quite difficult to have a neutral view of one’s body, especially if you have been through significant change over a short period of time. In my case, I have had a very complicated relationship with my body ever since I hit puberty and really became aware of it. Due to this, I never truly created a healthy neutral image of myself. I remember being insecure about the shape of my ears when I was a child. I remember struggling to accept the fact that my breasts grew when I was 8 years old. I remember being afraid of those same breasts after my mother passed away from breast cancer complications. I remember afterwards getting haunted by the fact that I looked like my mother, and this both excited and crushed me emotionally. With regards to my weight, I remember staring at myself when I had gained weight and feeling completely disgusting and helpless. I felt like I had just snapped my fingers and put on 15kgs. I remember gratifying myself with cheap fast food, numbing myself with alcohol and mentally berating myself about my habits. I remember trying on a pair of jeans I had not worn in a few months, and they could not get passed my thighs, and being utterly shocked that I had gained so much weight. Now that I have lost weight and adopted a healthier diet, I still find that I am unable to accurately gauge my size. Though I lost the weight, it is taking a while for my mind to update how I look today. Sometimes I look at myself and feel like I am petite, other times I have the overwhelming sense that I am overweight. I have found that the only sure way I can tell my size is through my clothing. It feels like at the moment, my visual assessment is not reliable.
I have also come to realise that though I managed to change my external appearance, I had not addressed the underlying emotional struggles I had been going through. Just because you lose weight, it does not fix how you feel and how you relate with yourself. For many years I have been unkind to my body. I have criticised it, I have doubted it, I have hated it, I have harmed it, I have feared it. These emotional scars cannot be healed by any diet or exercise regimen. Weight loss on its own is cosmetic. The real work begins when you start developing a healthy mind-frame. I am just at the beginning of this journey, so for now I have no concrete answers on how to do that. I have however found that practicing daily gratitude, meditating, yoga and speaking words of love and affirmation to myself have really helped. I have also found that reframing my mind to value what my body can do rather than what it looks like is key.
UNREALISTIC FEAR OF WEIGHTGAIN
I was depressed when I was overweight. I felt that my body at that time was a physical manifestation of the chaotic state my mind was in. I remember how sad I was every time I looked in the mirror, and how powerless I felt; not just to lose weight, but also to lift myself out of the ocean of pain I was drowning in. I never want to feel that incapable again. My fear of regression is so acute, that I have difficulty processing the fact that my body changes constantly. There are times in the month I appear really lean, there are times when I am bloated and there are times when I have retained quite a bit of water. My initial response to these normal body fluctuations is to panic and obsess about the idea that I will unknowingly regress and but the weight back on. At best, this is a fleeting feeling that I am able to rationalise out of my mind. At worst, this fear of weight loss can have me cutting back my calories drastically or outrightly refusing to eat meals. I have assessed this pattern long enough to admit to myself that I have disordered eating habits. I am trying to combat this by researching more on the topic, positively affirming myself and trying to reframe my mindset that my health is now my lifestyle; it is not a 6 month goal. There will be peaks and valleys on this journey, but that in no way spells out regression.
OBSESSION WITH HEALTH
One of the strange things that happened when I started to pay close attention to my nutrition, is that it also brought with it a ton of anxiety about health. Before I decided to change my diet, I had no clue about nutrition. All I knew was that drinking water was purported to be healthy and too much sugar was said to be unhealthy. Because I did not know much, it almost felt like there was nothing to be worried about. I liken this state to being a child playing with a dangerous tool. If the child is unaware of the danger, they are naive to what pain they could experience if something goes wrong. In my case, I was blissfully unaware about the state of my health and the impacts of what I was eating for all 26 years of my life. At 26 when I dove into lots of research about nutrition, I began to panic about how I had lived my life prior. The information was all too overwhelming. I found myself obsessing about not having sugar, vegetable oils, processed meats, processed carbs etc. Though the intention was to be healthy, I found that the inverse was taking place in my mind. I became anxious about food, and even started to actively avoid eating meals that I did not cook myself. The more I read, the more this anxiety bled into other facets of my lifestyle. I realised that not only was my diet unhealthy, but that most life was unhealthy. This caused me to panic about what else I could be potentially naive about that was harming me.
The issue with this way of thinking is two fold. The first is that it creates an illusion of control. It concludes that somehow if we are able to control all the variables in our lives, then we will escape illness, pain or death. This was particularly poignant for me because what finally drove me to taking care of my body was my fear of dying from the same chronic illness that took my mother. But it is an illusion non the less. The reality is, we all have very little control of our lives; and this such a painful thing to come to terms with. We are shackled to our genetics, our luck, our knowledge or lack there of, our belief structures, our time etc. This should not in anyway deter us from controlling what we can, but it should also not inspire us to believe that we are fully autonomous. On a macro scale, are fragile little things; and that is part of the beauty of being alive. The second issue with this mode of thinking is counterintuitive to the first. On a micro scale, the body is such a wonderfully complex set of systems that is quite resilient and easily adaptable. Just because you have existed on a diet of chips and soda for 20 years, it does not mean that you are destined to reap the pain of an unhealthy lifestyle forever. More so, even on that terrible diet, your body still miraculously manages to suck as many nutrients out of it as possible. This in itself is such a wonderful thing to celebrate. Knowing this, if you decide to change, so will your body, and having a piece of chocolate, a slice of pizza, a scoop of ice-cream every so often will not undo any progress you have built towards a healthier lifestyle.
I am working towards being less stringent with my food choices, analysing my anxiety objectively and being okay with the uncertainties of life.
OVERWHELMING SENSE OF PERSONAL ACCOUNTABILITY
The domino effect is a phenomenon that describes how a change in one behaviour, activates a sort of chain reaction, that leads to significant changes in other related behaviours. When I changed my diet and started to read more about nutrition, I found that so many other facets in my life were ‘unhealthy’. I was not sleeping well, I never exercised, I hated my career path, I was in a toxic relationship, I tolerated some terrible friends, I was grieving, I consuming crappy media, I had low self esteem, I had terrible anxiety, I could not be in silence, and I had a poor relationship with my family. I cannot begin to explain how overwhelming it is not only to become aware of how much change needed to occur, but also that all the change was mine alone to undertake. Prior to this, I was content to blame the world and my circumstances on why my life was in shambles. It was cathartic. But the constant drowning was killing me, so I chose the pain of change. We should never underestimate the comfort that lies in being the victim of your life. Is it painful, yes. But quite frankly the pain of change; of facing your own culpability in the shittiness of your life can sometimes be unbearable. It is at best extremely draining, and at worst utterly hopeless. After 20+ years of autopilot, I have to sit down with these tangled strings of ideas and try to make sense of who I was all this time and who I want to be now. I pull one thread slowly and meticulously, and discover it has unravelled some of the core foundations of my personality. Ideas that I thought were intrinsic to me, but now I realise were born from trauma, neglect or ignorance. The anxiety that comes with this process is suffocating. My night time routine now has to consist of exercise, followed by burning lavender, yoga, meditation and a silly sitcom, otherwise I will not sleep. I will instead camp out in my mind being torn apart by the unravelling of my understanding of life. The other painful thing that occurs is that this is such a lonely journey. The reality is, when I decided to become a different version of myself, no one else in my life was really changing their own lives. This has created a chasm between myself and those I love. Many of them no longer know how to relate to me because I am too different. I no longer know what is appropriate to say because my thoughts and ideas have become too ‘unhinged’ or too ‘radical’. So it is lonely.
One thing I have to keep reminding myself is not to climb the mountain from the top. It is impossible to overhaul everything about my life today. Things take time, and the wonder is in the journey; not the destination.
SOCIAL PRESSURE TO MAINTAIN WEIGHT
Our body image is greatly affected by what we perceive as that norm and the images that surround us. The more we visually interact with different beauty ideals, the more our concept of normal changes to fit that ideal. This is known as visual adaptation. It is the temporary change in sensitivity or perception when exposed to a new or intense stimulus, and the lingering afterimage that may result when the stimulus is removed. All throughout my weight gain and weight loss journey, I can pinpoint myself actively shifting my media interactions towards ideals that I was holding on to at the time. When I was overweight, I followed mostly more voluptuous women who spoke and highlighted the sexiness and amazingness of being thicker than a snicker. When I decided to lose the weight, I started to look at leaner women and this also reframed my idea of what looked ‘normal’. The main issue with only using visual imagery as a guide is that it is a snapshot that is either a tiny frame of what someones’ healthy journey looks like, or it is a carefully created lie about what health/ beauty is. A picture cannot in any way truly express the complex journey that is maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Yet we devour and create imagery that keep feeding this lie. But in many respects, we are powerless to change this, especially when using tools like instagram, which are designed to encourage us to interact only with visuals. With this, I have found that I feel quite a bit of pressure to maintain my weight loss, to speak always positively about my health journey and to not share whenever I have had cheat meals or unproductive days. There is so much instant gratification that comes with someone validating my choices. But with this comes fear that should I not uphold this standard, I will lose the validation- and with that my place in the social hierarchy.
It would be very easy for me to attribute my need to maintain my weight to social expectations. It would be easy to examine how they need to change, or how we need to simply ignore or defy them, in order to be ‘free’. The reality is however, we are social creatures. We organise ourselves into social hierarchies based on everything from aesthetics, financial capabilities, talents, social networks, etc. This propensity to judge and rank ourselves against our peers is embedded in the human experience. To ignore it and act like this is not our reality only serves to create new yet different hierarchies to cling to. Some of these new hierarchies are; Who is the most body positive, who is the most philanthropic, who is the most unique member of the alphabet community, who is the most marginalised, who cares for animals the most, etc. So in the end, though we appear to have liberated ourselves from one oppressive hierarchy, we have inadvertently shackled ourselves to another.
Asking society to change is a bit bizarre because, we as individuals make up the society and the ideals that are upheld. The only person you have the right to ask to change is yourself. The systems cannot evolve before the people do; starting with you. I think perhaps the only real chance we have of combating this need to belong to a tribe is to keep assessing our belief systems and to be okay with not always having the answer. This is definitely a lot to ask of anyone. It is practically impossible in most cases as it is asking you to defy your most innate human instinct of belonging to a group. But, you might as well try. I have found that the only true ways of doing this involve actively going offline, meditation, and active skill building. It is only when we take the time to truly cultivate who we are outside the arena of social peacocking, can we gain the confidence to be who we are without fear and without requiring external validation.
All in all, life is complicated. And that is okay 🙂