I’ve been thinking about this post—what to write and how to write it—for many weeks now. In fact, I’ve been wondering whether to post it at all. Primarily, I want it to be helpful and not self-indulgent or confessional. Not knowing what my message is makes this a big risk. Furthermore, I don’t feel broken any more . . . well not very much . . . and I’m not looking for anyone’s sympathies. This is for the people out there who may have a similar story and assume that they’re alone.
The few people that I’ve talked about it one-on-one have all said that it will likely be useful to someone out there, so I’ve decided to go ahead and write it. Besides, May is Mental Health Month, and reducing the stigma of mental health issues by bringing this kind of thing to light is what the month is all about.
Enough stalling. On with the dispatch!
When I graduated from high school, I weighed 135 lbs (61 kg). Since I’m 5’11″ (180 cm) tall, that put my BMI at the extremely low end of normal and healthy. I was always thin when I was growing up—some used to say “skinny,” which I always hated hearing because there was usually judgment involved when it was said. I was, to quote Lisa’s matter-of-fact assessment, a “stick boy,” but to me that seemed normal. The way I looked at 18 was how I’d always known myself. Being thin and athletic was part of my concept of who I was.
Why did I weigh so little? Simply put, I didn’t eat very much. I just wasn’t that interested in food. Don’t get me wrong, I ate three good meals a day, and throughout my whole life I’ve enjoyed good food and indulged—yes, even overindulged—when it was plentiful. For the most part, though, it wasn’t. I don’t want to make it sound like I was starved, because I wasn’t. I ate at mealtimes; I ate what was available, which was pretty healthy; I didn’t ever feel overly full; I rarely got a lot of satisfaction from eating; and I didn’t mind being a little hungry.
When I got some freedom in high school, I kept eating the way I always had. Eating healthy was a choice, and (perhaps) I put more pressure on myself than was necessary to eat well for several reasons. (1) I had good eating habits and enjoyed some of the healthier foods, although (even then) eating veggies wasn’t a routine choice. (2) People in my family tend to get larger as they get older, and I didn’t want that to happen to me. In our defense, my grandmother’s desserts are delicious and plentiful! (3) As an athlete, I knew food is fuel. Even at that age I understood that the better the food, the better my running performance was. (4) It was America in the late 80s and early 90s. Even though obesity wasn’t an American epidemic yet, the media was starting to get saturated with stories about “good foods” and “bad foods.” I seemed to take those stories with more gravitas and certainty than they likely deserved.
I thought I was normal. I still do think my teenage self was alright, if atypical. I certainly never thought I had an eating disorder. There might have been clues that I thought about food the wrong way, but I didn’t see them as such. After a cross-country race I was cooling down with a friend who we all thought had an eating disorder. When I declined a hunk of French bread from her loaf, she said, “If I have to eat, you have to eat, too.” Then there was the time in my first year of college when the resident assistant on my floor tried to give me a flier for an eating disorder support group. And when we were newly married and going on road trips, Lisa would from time to time remind me that normal people eat lunch even when it’s inconvenient. I was able to shrug off the first event—my teammate was being friendly, and I certainly wanted her to eat—and Lisa and I were doing the normal thing of figuring out a shared schedule. But the support group suggestion upset me quite a bit. How much I ate was no one’s business but my own, I thought, and I certainly didn’t see myself as having a problem.
Was I calorie deficient? No. Did I have an eating disorder? It’s difficult to say looking back after all these years, but I’m inclined to say “no.” I certainly had several of the elements of disordered thinking about food and body image that are typical in anorexia and orthorexia, but I never actually avoided eating when I was hungry. Eating disorders are serious medical conditions, and I don’t feel any need to include myself in that group lightly. Plus, I was always considered very healthy; no doctor that I can remember ever suggested I was underweight or malnourished. Nevertheless, it’s a fine line and I was close to it. (Looking back, I’d say “uncomfortably close.”)
What I do know, after more than 20 years of being thin and then gaining and losing weight a couple of times, is that at 37 I have body image issues which occasionally lead to anxiety and unhappiness.
In a nutshell: I simply cannot see myself objectively.
I know that when most of us look at ourselves in the mirror, we see things that we like and don’t like, and those things usually look worse to us than they do to other people who also get to see them. That’s normal human behavior. I suspect even Clive Owen looks at himself in the mirror and occasionally sighs in frustration.
What I’m talking about is not really knowing whether I’m the right size and not knowing if the things I don’t like about myself are actually problems or just a symptom of my messed up body image. My mind’s concept of myself is still the person who weighed 135 lbs, had bony arms, and a very outie belly button.
As a triathlete who trains all the time and weighs between 145-150 pounds—depending on the season or phase of the moon, it seems—I’m able to convince myself that what I see isn’t actually the way things are, but it’s all based on faith and logic and not on what I think I see. This I can manage pretty well. “That Buddha belly there,” I think to myself, “isn’t really there. And besides you need it for your infusion sets and CGM sensors. So don’t get any ideas.” And, “That kind of jowly area you have there . . . it isn’t really there either. Really. Really. I know. Trust me. Really.”
What I still have a hard time dealing with are the comments from other people that I’m too thin.
I feel like I’m in a very good place with both my weight and my feelings on food. (Although sometimes I think diabetes would be easier if I didn’t have to eat, that’s completely beside the point and only ever happens when I really, really want to eat but am battling long periods of high blood glucose.) I like to eat. I look forward to eating—and cooking, too! I eat meals of all sizes. I snack. I eat so-called junk food along with my healthy lunch from home. I adore ice cream. Food and I are tight, and my weight stays where it is only because I workout.
But when other people suggest that I’m working out too much or have lost too much weight—even though I haven’t lost any in almost 18 months—my mental equilibrium gets thrown off. I know that I should take it as the joke or sarcastic compliment that it almost certainly was. But not knowing what I really look like and having been defensive in the past, these things leave me worried that maybe people are trying to tell me something that I really should be able to see for myself— just like my RA suggested almost 20 years ago. There’s a fine line for me between shrugging off these comments while being happy with who I have become and accepting that I really just don’t know whether there’s a kernel of truth in them.
I don’t really know how to end this post except to say that it’s not as bad as it might sound from the last few paragraphs. I think about food all the time because I have diabetes, and I think about how I look most mornings after taking a shower and whenever I change my diabetes paraphernalia, but I don’t feel dragged down by food or my body image very often. Mostly I just want anyone reading this to know that (a) if you’ve felt the same way, you’re not alone, (b) body image problems and eating disorders can happen to men, (c) sometimes people are trying to help you the best way they know how and sometimes there just wise-cracking, and (d) it’s okay to like yourself no matter how you think you look. Well, that’s probably enough rambling for now.
p.s. — Yes, this post was scary to write, but it was scarier to publish it.
p.p.s. — If you feel like leaving a comment—which I encourage—please be open-minded and courteous.