There are many things we do on a daily basis that seem innocent, but may pave the way for serious mental and physical health issues in future.
I was scrolling through my phone recently to find a particular photo, when I came across a mortifying series of pictures.
They weren’t cute selfies – there’s nothing wrong with snapping some mementoes when you’re really feeling yourself – and they weren’t drunken nudes. They were my ‘before’ photos.
I’m not alone with this damaging habit. At least some of the women reading will know immediately what I mean by ‘before’ photos without needing an explanation, but for those lucky unicorns with a perfectly healthy body image who might be confused, I will explain. ‘Before’ pictures are those taken in front of the mirror, usually on a Monday morning after a weekend full of binge eating and drinking, grim-faced, makeup-free, awful posture, and dressed in the most unflattering low-waisted yoga pants and sports bra, with my whole jiggly gut and flabby arms on display.
With the best of intentions, I tell myself these will be my before pictures to use as a smug comparison in three months’ time when I’ve lost 25 pounds and developed a washboard flat stomach, and sinewy, toned arms. Some may fantasize about cropping them into a side-by-side layout on Instagram; on the left, the sad and defeated-looking before photo, and on the right, the sprightly, tanned, toned, smiling, I-run-five-miles-daily-without-breaking-a-sweat after picture.
I put my life on hold in my pursuit of the perfect body. I don’t like to admit this to myself, let alone anyone else, but I live my life – or more accurately, don’t live my life – in pursuit of my ‘after’ picture. I’m sorry, but how fucking sad is that? My kids are now 10, eight, and five, and we’ve never had a nice family photo session because that’s something that’s on my list for when I attain my perfect body.
I don’t judge others as harshly as I judge myself. The hypocrisy is I am there for the body positivity movement – for other people. On social media I follow fearless bo-po women of all shapes, sizes, colors, and abilities and I get such joy from seeing them, unapologetic, in all their glory, not giving a shit about anyone’s damn diet. I don’t judge anyone else by their weight, but I cannot manage find the same kindness and compassion for myself.
Diet culture is well and truly under my skin, and I know that I am in the majority when I say that. Not only does this make for a rather miserable existence, it well and truly sets the path for a range of dangerous habits which, when left unchecked, can lead to serious – even life-threatening – eating disorders.
Small changes can pave the way for much bigger problems.
Eating disorder treatment centre, EDCare director of marketing Kim Travis says there are many things we do on a daily basis that seem innocent, but may ultimately be contributing to the development of an eating disorder. Here are some warning signs to look out for:
1. Skipping meals
Disordered eating is a pattern of disturbed and unhealthy eating which can include restrictive diets, compulsive eating, and skipping meals. Skipping meals to make up for a ‘bad’ (where you feel you’ve overeaten or eaten the ‘wrong’ foods) day or meal may seem like a sensible and harmless way to control your weight at first, but when it becomes a habit, it can be a slippery slope into a full-blown eating disorder.
2. Counting calories
Counting calories feeds into the restrictive dieting side of disordered eating, and if you’ve ever tried a popular diet, you’ve probably done it. Starting out as sensibly keeping track of what you consume, whether it’s the number of calories or disguised as ‘points’, it can become a subconscious and near-impossible habit to break as you get to know the exact number of calories in every type of food off the top of your head.
3. Constantly checking your weight
Numbers are a common theme when it comes to disordered eating, whether it’s the number of calories, the number on the tape measure, or the number on the scales. Daily or even more frequently weighing yourself can lead to obsession and severe restriction of what goes into your body.
Remember, the scales measure a lot more than fat. Fluid retention, your menstrual cycle, and even when you’ve last used the bathroom can cause huge fluctuations in your weight.
4. Avoiding or severely restricting certain foods
Do you have a list of ‘bad’ foods you try to avoid? It might be bread and pasta because you’ve been told carbs are making you fat, or it might be the current enemy of the body-conscious – sugar – but in any case, restricting foods can form unhealthy habits.
Remind yourself and your friends that food does not carry moral value.
5. Extreme exercise
Sometimes eating disorders can present as, or along with extreme exercise. This symptom can be harder to pick up on because so often we look at our gym bunny friends as disciplined, healthy, and dedicated, but it’s worth paying attention if the exercise is extreme (hours a day) or if not being able to work out causes distress.
6. Comparing yourself to others
They say that comparison is the thief of joy, and it’s true. Whether you’re scrolling through Instagram, watching TV, or flicking through an old fashioned magazine, it’s easy to see beautiful people and fit, toned bodies and feel like you’re not enough.
If anyone you follow on social media makes you feel bad about yourself, unfollow them.
7. Obsessing over ‘health’
This is a tricky one. Becoming healthier is a noble goal, but Kim says there is a line where the desire for physical health can come at the expense of mental health and lead to a lesser known eating disorder called Orthorexia, where the sufferer systematically avoids foods they deem ‘unhealthy’.
“We often hear terms like ‘clean eating, ‘detox’, ‘total body cleanse’, etc. and associate them with the idea of being healthy,” she said.
“It is important to remember that nourishing your body requires a well-balanced meal plan. Foods are not inherently ‘good’ or ‘bad’, but meant to be enjoyed mindfully.”
Finally, she says that achieving a balance between physical and mental health begins by getting to know your “authentic sense of self.”
“Move because it feels good, not to punish your body. Eat what you enjoy while still giving your body the fuel it needs. Don’t allow yourself or others to define your worthiness based on what the scales say or how many calories you burned.”