"I felt like a walking contradiction fueling people in the restaurant industry and restricting myself down to 1200 calories daily while training for a marathon. I envied people for enjoying the dishes I created."
Public speaking jades you a bit. It makes you feel like you've told the same story thousands of times and for me, I worry if I sound rehearsed or if I am fit to tell my story -- what's poppin' imposter syndrome. But when those thoughts creep into my head, I remind myself that there is someone who doesn't know my story and it may help another. It's easy to get wrapped up in this idea that we need to possess a certain look or feel to be qualified to talk to others; I am reminded daily that most of us are struggling together and through open communication comes healing.
Last Sunday, I traveled to the University of Alaska Fairbanks to speak about one of those painful topics that I don't think I will ever be fully comfortable discussing: My battle with an eating disorder. Contrary to the nonsensical commentary that's thrown my way, I do not have a problem with overeating; i am a work in progress from an anorexia nervosa diagnosis in 2015. When I think about the discussions held from Monday to Wednesday, I realize how many people walk around with this perception that eating disorders have a stereotypical look and only stemmed from this desire to look pretty. I can attest this was not my case. And the way that most public service announcements post up advertisements about the uncomfortable topic, I don't see a version of me in most places. It is not typical to see a black, plus size woman in athletic clothing as one of these people who might be afflicted by an eating disorder.
To close out National Eating Disorder Association week - or otherwise hashtagged #NEDAweek - I'll dissect my bullshit relationship with anorexia and how the fitness industry helped and hindered me.
Shitty Advice + Marathon Training Fueled My Anorexia
In efforts of not being redundant to my long winded bio section, I'll start off my journey here: In May 2013, I started this fitness journey in efforts of shaving off over 100 pounds. And in the beginning, it wasn't for a terrible reason. I had a sleuth of health issues but only a few stemmed from the weight gain. What I couldn't see at the time is that I just needed a push ini the right direction to start being active beyond the number on the scale. Couldn't cram that language into my head back then because I didn't know what the hell a body positive movement meant, self care or any of these terms that even I get frazzled about when overly used and not fully comprehended or articulated. I stopped weighing myself around the 265 pound mark and within a year of my "weight loss" journey, I was doing the Harlem Shake between 165 - 185 pounds. In my head, I'd be accepted by my peers and for the most part, I was and wasn't.
People are funny as fuck sometimes -- Losing weight taught me that perception is a real thing. To some, I should've kept on the weight despite their amnesia of telling me that I need to "get healthier and shed some pounds." Others worshipped the ground that I walked on. The diversity in my circle shifted at moments and losing weight made it easier to talk to others when I entered the running community late 2013; I signed up for my first race on January 11, 2014.
When I was diagnosed in 2015, I remember placing the sole blame on a "friend" who suggested that I get "marathon ready" by reducing my daily caloric intake to 1200 calories. imagine how great it was to work in a professional kitchen 40 - 60 hours weekly, marathon training 25 - 60 miles within that time frame and smelling the aromas smacking you in the face as you make orders for hungry patrons. Realistically, I know that it wasn't just one person who brought me here; it was a community of ignorant people fueling my disorder -- myself included.
Hindsight is 20/20 and realistically I should've looked into a certified sports nutritionist. Even with the crappy wages, a thorough conversation with my doctor would have been a great start. I can say that I am fortunate enough to have a general practitioner/internist who refused to preach the Holy Testament of body mass index down my throat. If anyone viewed my earlier pictures on social media, I was the poster child for #TransformationTuesday bullshit. Nothing excited me more than to post a diptych of my before and after photos like some knockoff Jenny Craig commercial. I'd find the saddest fat picture of me - which was easy if it was full framed - and post it up next to my smaller looking body with words like "never again." 2020 me wants to put the 2015 version of her into a chokehold like a big brother plummeting their younger sibling for embarrassing them. Every time someone gave me a compliment about my growth, it was almost like visualizing someone placing the heart button from my Instagram post into my digestive system. When I was in the thick of my eating disorder, it wasn't about being small; I longed to "look" and "perform" like the athlete that others expected me to be.
Just in case you don't know what happens to the body when practicing things like this, my muscle mass reduce, frame thinned, face slightly sunken in and eyes looked a bit bulgy at times. I don't think I hated my reflection so much in my life. It wasn't just the way that it bounced back at me but how I felt miserable all of the time. My body was screaming at me most days but I was obsessed about faster times, mentally fitting in to a running community and trying to maintain appearances in my everyday life and social media. What others couldn't see was my battles with using alcohol to "cure" my depression, the fatigue from long hours away from my family and a marriage that had questionable moments. In the age of getting shit done, most folks praised my work ethic and drive while I smiled and setting myself ablaze for an audience -- good times. It is okay to insert your favorite annoying looking emoji here because I'm already doing it.
Calculate Your Oppression: Intersectionality and Eating Disorders
Consider me one of those people who wouldn't have sought out treatment on my own. April 2015 greeted me with an emergency room visit and a diagnosis that changed my life. Parts of me felt like most black people don't get diagnosed with anorexia which is utter bullshit. Unlike the look of most pamphlets seen in a doctors' offices, eating disorders don't discriminate based on race, shape, size, financial status, gender or sexual orientation. In fact, underrepresented groups are typically gaslit when we discuss these issues. i still remember an ex friend laughing at me during a vulnerable moment stating I was "too black for that white people shit." I think I mentioned she's my EX FRIEND. My maturing compassion and slowly open palate to different perspectives understood the foundation of her sentiment despite not respecting it. When we talk about anorexia, bulimia or even orthorexia, most people visualize a heterosexual thin white woman; the media doesn't help this narrative. And if you look at the multi billion dollar diet industry, how can we think otherwise?
Traveling to several states throughout the United States, I find myself mindlessly listening to commercials as I prep for a race or a talk. While in Dallas, TX, I entertained my Instagram feed by counting how many times a weight loss commercial came on television. I cringed harder while stuck in Duluth, MN. And spare me with the notion that women want to see weight loss advertisements crap. If anything, women are typically reduced down to their looks and not acknowledged for our abilities or strengths. What frustrates me with the diet industry. is this need to market it everywhere and in places that make no sense. These advertisements and campaigns prey on our insecurities from young and we're conditioned that we're here to visually make people happy and everything else is secondary. Adding insult to injury, even reputable magazines that I've interviewed for at one point paired me in articles where recommended articles might surface about cutting some pounds to move faster; nothing about my current message screams in this direction.
As if it wasn't hard enough growing up as an eighties baby where I barely saw black faces in a magazine beyond Essence, Jet or Ebony Magazine, most people were PhotoShopped to the gods. Leaner neck, thin frame, no imperfections and tight asses makes the whole world insecure -- maybe even the model looking at her own picture.
It makes me fear for those who easily fit into the other box. Here's the groups who I don't see represented enough when discussing eating disorders; my real list is long as fuck:
The Road to Recovery, Gaslighting and the Everyday Struggle
2015 scared the fuck out of me and I turned my back on my weight loss journey. Embarking on a fitness journey felt better. It required me to change my entire perspective on what it takes to be an athlete. For starters, I was already training like a decent athlete but it required me to eat like one to be a better athlete. Unfucking my inner dialogue was hard especially when I started gaining some of the weight back. Physically I started feeling better after a month of eating regularly. It was hard to throw myself back into regular sized portions or eat more meals due to months of damage. One of my favorite things about recovery is not feeling like all of my workouts made me feel freakishly achy. A mental observation that I made is realizing that I didn't feel the need to always talk about food or a workout that I have to do. My inner circle was nice but I know I drove them nuts with all of these one sided conversations about dieting, working out and meals that I wish I could enjoy. Eating more made me want to drown my depression with alcohol. Although it requires a standalone post, I had to pull myself away from it entirely, relearn how to be in a room without associating drinking with a numbing or coping mechanism and strictly for leisure.
Disclaimer: Every person has their own way of living and managing their personal demons. I never took on a program like Alcoholics Anonymous but spoke to a therapist -- this works for ME. Another thing to consider: Just because you haven't gone to an AA group or been officially diagnosed with an eating disorder, substance or chemical dependency problem doesn't mean you don't have a problem. If you question where you stand, please seek out professional counseling; there's no shame in this. I am thankful for multiple therapists for helping me see that reality. In ways, I think working in the social work field years ago made me feel like I was immune to being in any of these positions.
There are days where I am triggered and get the urge to fall back into unhealthy eating practices. Last year, I received an unbearable amount of harassment; consequently I lost 15 pounds in weeks from stress, anxiety and pulling back from food. The backlash sent me into a depression and it started off as a lack of desire to eat for a few days. Within a week, I held onto it because it was the only thing that I had control over as I watched a moment make me feel small. Existing in a brand new career and going through public humiliation is never a great combination. Through that experience, I had to relearn how to speak in the media, public spaces, reevaluate my immediate and outer circle and even lost friends within and out of the running community. In some strange way, I feel like that hard period gave me an opportunity to grow, focus harder on myself, as well as some of the causes that I strongly advocate for on a daily basis.
During the stressful moments, I remind myself to take a breath, reducing my interaction with negativity and holding onto great things and people just a bit harder. I shifted my focus on family activities, logging off social media if it doesn't involve work, setting and establishing boundaries and doing things outside of sports that maintain my happiness. I booked more sessions with a talk therapist and changed settings on my social media to only see certain things at any given time.
At the peak of depression, I follow the advice that one of my dearest friends extended to me back in 2017 when getting diagnosed with endometriosis and pregnancy loss: If all you can do is one or two things on that day, celebrate it as a win. During that period, showering and eating at least one meal was all I could do; it was a win despite how terrible that sounds. Over time I was able to build myself back up. My closest friends and family truly shined. They had a beautiful balance of not enabling my bullshit but respecting my struggle. If you are that friend in need one day, remember there's a fine line between being helpful and overbearing. Listen and observe what your loved one is trying to convey to you; it may not always be as clear as you want it to be.
From my personal experience, the most challenging part of an eating disorder is tuning out that inner dialogue. Most times, it's not about what we hear from others but the terrible things we say to ourselves. If compiled with the harsh commentary that people dish out to others - particularly social media - you'd be easily deluded into thinking that your feelings are not valid or a bit melodramatic -- fuck all of that noise.
Thankfully eating disorders, mental and physical health are being discussed more in 2020 than ever but it's slowly progressing. Diet culture is still a piece of shit but here's the thing: If even one of us openly elaborate on some of these layers, it stimulates change. On your worst days, you are enough. You are more than just your body.
Latoya Shauntay Snell
For my pretentious ass bio, check out the about me page but for anyone interested in who I really am, make me a good meal at your house and I'll tell you a dope ass story.
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