Dianna Chillo, LCSW-R
Body Acceptance- Setpoint Weight & Eating Disorder Recovery
Originally published for Project HEAL as a member of Project HEAL's Healer Circle
With National Eating Disorders Awareness week around the corner, I’m always thinking about ways to spread awareness, educate and offer messages of hope for recovery. This year’s NEDA’s theme Come as You Are, is highlighting NEDA’s movements toward inclusivity in the eating disorder community, while validating individuals at all stages of body acceptance and their eating disorder recovery journeys.
As a therapist working with people suffering with eating disorders, as well as having my own struggles, I am acutely aware of how challenging body acceptance and body appreciation is. It’s so difficult to see passed the physical, when in the clutches of an eating disorder. When weight gain and/or maintenance is one of the treatment goals, it is terrifying and uncomfortable. Learning to trust and accept your changing healthier body is a very difficult part of the work. Anyone who has undergone or is going through eating disorder treatment discovers that there are underlying emotions to body image dissatisfaction, beyond just the physical.
Exploring these emotions while learning to change negative thinking toward one’s own body image is a chore but is possible. In my personal experience, I have found a great deal of value having suffered with an eating disorder and relapsing after many years. Trust me, I’m not necessarily happy about having gone through this and I wouldn’t wish it upon anyone, but my struggles have made my understanding for this work with clients even better and my empathy even stronger. When I have moments of vulnerability, where that eating disorder voice creeps back in, I take it as an opportunity to use what I’ve learned in my recovery and apply it in my work with clients. More importantly these experiences make me take a step back and connect to the feelings my clients have in those difficult moments. Considering this year’s NEDA Week theme, I wanted to share a recent experience in my own recovery journey, in the hopes that others might identify and glean some hope.
I’ve written in previous blogs about my breakup with my scale. This was a very intentional choice that I honestly struggled with. For as long as I can remember, I’ve had fears about certain numbers despite intellectually knowing that a number does not define me. In any event, I finally made the choice not to get on the scale and I’ve been quite successful. The longer I’ve stayed away, the more I realized how much freer I felt. I began trusting my body, and its hunger cues, eating intuitively and making choices that I felt reflected self-compassion. I was accepting that my body would maintain it’s set point weight as I continued to practice intuitive eating and living.
So, there I was, a few days before going on a long-awaited girl’s weekend, with some good friends, and I decided to try on clothes that I would bring for the trip. The first pair of pants I tried on fit but seemed to have suddenly gotten snug. “I only wore these a month or so ago, I thought to myself.” The first few moments I felt uncomfortable, tearing apart my body in my head. The eating disorder voice clicked on and thoughts to ‘reset,’ which in my eating disorder meant skipping meals and over exercising re-played over and over in my head. In this moment of despair, I decided to pause and take a breath.
Instead of feeding into that old eating disorder tape, I decided to play my new internal recording and remind myself what going down that road would look like and ultimately lead to. I know it never ends up well. “You are at your setpoint weight,” I kept replaying in my mind.
Here’s the thing about setpoint weight that goes misunderstood, it’s not one number. It’s a weight range and our bodies will adapt to changes in our lives. This was the moment of realizing and accepting that being within my setpoint might feel different in my body at different times and that was ok. This experience was also an opportunity for self-reflection. Since our bodies respond to changes in our lives, it will sense and respond when we aren’t eating enough, sleeping enough or stressed out. I realized I hadn’t been taking quite as good care of myself as I thought. My work/life balance was off and my stress levels very high. On many days I was skipping breakfast, and barely getting enough lunch in. This led to overeating at night and not sleeping well. None of these behaviors were driven by eating disorder thoughts, rather getting caught up in the busyness of life.
Our bodies are resilient, but I was stressed, not eating enough and sleep deprived. It was in these moments that ‘resetting’ took on a new meaning. It wasn’t the equivalent to restricting, over exercising and obsessing, rather working on balance. Eating breakfast, making time for appropriate lunch, moving my body and getting sleep was my way of improved self-care.
I feel that those in eating disorder recovery, including myself have a responsibility to be mindful of our self-care. Life gets crazy for most people but when we neglect ourselves for too long, it increases our vulnerability for relapse. Having this experience made me appreciate the ability for my body to adapt to the recent stress and imbalance I was dealing with. Finally being at my setpoint allowed my body to conserve my energy and not reach a point of getting sick. Life is often changing, and our bodies are meant to change with it. However, prolonged stress and improper nutrition is a recipe for disaster and eventually your body will break down. Eating intuitively is not exact but requires us to focus on inner needs and hungers. I realize that it’s going to be totally normal for clothes to feel different at different times and it doesn’t have to be debilitating. I went away on that girls weekend a few days after my little meltdown. It was one of the best times I’ve had in a while and I laughed more than I have in a long time. There was a time that my body image dissatisfaction would have prevented me from going places or would have monopolized my thoughts the whole time I was out. Accepting that as long as I eat and live as intuitively as I can, my body will respond in the way it’s supposed to and going against that will only hurt me in the long run.
The ability to respect recovery and accept my body at different stages is necessary. Focusing on time spent with friends, and loved ones, exploring passions and living a nourishing life is more fulfilling than a number on a scale or the size of your pants. Trusting these ideas is difficult in a world obsessed with diets and image. However, when you do, it allows for the freedom to love your life.