Eating disorders: How a personal trainer won her battle with food
Overcoming an eating disorder can be a long and painful battle. Here's how one personal trainer won her fight with food and reconnected with her passion for fitnessBy Erin Phelan
I have a complicated relationship with food. From fruit to frites, dinner parties to five-course tasting menus, I love it all. I have shelves of cookbooks and am famous for my chocolate chip cookies. And yet, food and I have spent years in battle. For the last eight years we’ve had a truce, but I want peace.
And not just for my sake, but my daughter’s. She’s not even two yet, but I need her to love her body regardless of a niggling five or 10 extra pounds she may carry in the future. I need her to understand that some models on the catwalk are starving, and that the celebrities you see in gossip magazines are digitally enhanced to look that good. So how do we protect our kids from the pressure to be thin, or from passing our own attitudes on to them?
An unhealthy relationship with food
I know it’s tricky, because my love-hate affair with food and my body started early. In 1974 my father had the first of several strokes that brought a lot of stress to my family: repeated hospital visits, triple bypass surgery and doctors telling my mother he was living on borrowed time. I was just a kid, so I baked cookies to make Daddy feel better and helped Mummy in the kitchen to ease her burden. I was 10 when my father died and I remember lying in my parents’ bed drowning in chocolate bars as the mourners gathered. Food was comfort, and I swaddled myself in its blanket.
Research shows a traumatic event like that can trigger an eating disorder later in life, and I’m sure that’s what happened to me. Fast-forward to the summer of 1989, when I was 17; that’s when I had what eating disorder experts call a “diet-centred experience.” I went on exchange to southern France to perfect my language skills. Every day I walked 10 kilometres to the beach and subsisted on gelato and sparkling wine; I didn’t think about eating right—I was on my own in Europe having a great time. When I walked out of Arrivals at the airport in Montreal six weeks later—and a couple of dress sizes smaller—my mother gasped, overwhelmed at the dramatic change: “Look at how thin you are!” For the first time in my life I was thin, and I loved it.
The influence of family on eating disorders
My mother had a similar experience as a teen, with a twist. Mum went on exchange to live with a family in Germany. The family baker took her under her wing, helping her practise German while making sweet breads. When Mum got off the train in Portsmouth, England, quite a few pounds heavier, my grandmother burst into tears: “What had they done” to her daughter? Ever since, Mum has associated weight with the distortion of self; if she’s fat, she’s not “herself.”
When she started university in London soon after, at the height of the Twiggy era, she experimented with the Cabbage Soup Diet and took up the waist-friendly habit of smoking. She came to Canada in 1967, five feet tall and 98 pounds dripping wet. I don’t remember her ever being overweight.
Did she make comments about weight when I was growing up? Of course—about her weight, and mine. She restricted desserts, making pointed comments if I reached for chocolate instead of fruit, and emphasizing healthy cooking practices. Don’t get me wrong; my mum and I have a great relationship. And when we talk about those days now, she puts it plainly and simply: She didn’t want me to be fat, because a fat daughter was not a good reflection on her. But was I fat as a teen? No; I just had a sweet tooth and a few extra pounds. So, when I returned from France, I dare say my mum was a little proud.
When an eating disorder takes over
But at university I gained my “freshmen 15” thanks to starchy cafeteria chow. When I went home that first summer, my mum and I embraced a fat-free lifestyle. I was a typical yo-yo dieter, 10 pounds up, 10 pounds down. And then in third year, I discovered a miracle tool: purging. To me, this was like a “Get Out of Jail Free” card. You mean I can go to a buffet, gorge, purge and never gain a pound? Bring it on!
The occasional binging and purging soon became routine. I’d throw up breakfast, and count calories at the end of each day to make sure I had gotten rid of them. Looking back, this illness had a hold on me, and I kept slipping down that slope. A voice in my head was always screaming that I was fat. By the time I was in my fourth year, trying to write my honours thesis, my sickness must have had an effect on my brain function: I couldn’t focus. I settled for just my BA, and retreated home for comfort, and to take a close look at my eating disorder via sessions with a therapist.
Using fitness as a recovery tool
During that time of recovery, my mother and I had long chats. It wasn’t always easy—she blamed herself, and we had to confront painful issues from our past. But the more we talked, the better I got. I finished my degree, travelled and then did my MA in journalism. My last bout with bulimia was eight years ago, right around my 30th birthday.
My most powerful tool to keep my eating disorder at bay is fitness: It was no coincidence that I began to recover around the time I reconnected with this passion. I had taught step classes while I was doing my undergrad, and became retrained as a fitness instructor. Now I teach a variety of classes and am a personal trainer. I used to think of fitness as merely a weight-loss tool; today, I run, swim, cycle and stretch because it makes me feel great.
Life after an eating disorder
Experts say some people are cured of their eating disorders, while others manage it. I think I’m part of the latter group. Yes, I have stayed roughly the same size for the last few years. Like many, I put on a little weight during holidays and then exercise more to get back into those jeans. I know enough about weight to know there isn’t a magic button— you have to eat well and exercise, but you should have treats.
I understand all that—but the voice is still there at times. After my daughter was born last year, I was left with 40 extra pounds. The thought of getting back to my pre-pregnancy weight was daunting: not only losing the weight but trying to quiet the voice. So, you’ve had a baby, it whispered. Get out for a run! You can’t be fat. I know that it takes nine months to put on the baby weight and that it takes a bit of time to lose it…but it was hard for me to be “fat.” Psychologically, a battle line was drawn. But this time, I stood back. I ate healthily and began exercising again when the time was right, and the pounds came off.
These days, any time I catch myself starting to say something derogatory about my body, I stop myself. My daughter hasn’t learned how to be self-critical, so why should she learn it from me? I have sought the help of experts and am learning how to pass on a healthy self-image. When she is old enough, I will help her decipher the media messages that will come her way. Right now I’m filling her head with positive messages that aren’t about her body: She’s smart, strong, funny. I’ve hidden the bathroom scale in the closet. Fat won’t be a four-letter word in our house; the war that I have fought is mine, not hers.
This article was originally titled "Breaking the cycle" in the May 2010 issue of Best Health. Subscribe today to get the full Best Health experience—and never miss an issue!—and make sure to check out what's new in the latest issue of Best Health.