Today I want to address a different side of body issues: those of us who work to gain weight, not lose it. I have always been pretty small… okay, a frigging beanpole all my life. It’s been a pretty sensitive issue for me too. I still remember some awful girls spreading rumours I had an eating disorder in Grade 8 because I didn’t finish the weird food on my plate during a field trip (I’ve always been picky with food, so I got extra bread instead). So, yeah, I’m skinny. I think it is extremely important to stress that every body shape, size and type comes with its own benefits and difficulties. I’m very uncomfortable with the hyper-sexualisation of my body type. And it’s even harder when people assume you should be grateful for it. So here’s my experience, along with some tips for anyone who has trouble eating at times.
Firstly, a distinction must be made. I am not a medical professional, and I do not have anorexia nervosa, the eating disorder. In this posting I am discussing methods of coping with stress or depression-related appetite suppression, also known as anorexia. Anorexia is a symptom in which a person experiences a loss of appetite. This can be caused by everything from stress to medication to significant emotional loss. It is even used to describe the experience of ‘fullness’ after a large meal. If severe, it can also be a symptom for more serious medical issues, including anorexia nervosa, an eating disorder. Anorexia nervosa is a serious medical and psychological disorder characterized by compulsive dieting and weight loss, body image issues and issues of control. For more information there are a variety of professional resources available on the web, and if you think you may have anorexia nervosa or any form of serious eating disorder, please, please see a doctor or at least tell a close friend or family member about it immediately.
Here’s my story:
Entering high school I had just had a major growth spurt. In gym class, we learned about BMI indexes, and I struggled that year to have my weight catch up with my height. I exercised more to build up muscle mass, and by the end of my first year had put on ten whole pounds to clock in at a decent 108lbs for my now 5’5” frame. Over the next four years, I gradually filled out to hover around a healthy 118lbs. Although my activity level decreased somewhat in the latter years as I weaned my body off a jam-packed dance schedule, my metabolism was still going quite strong. And thanks to an endearing first love who taught me to embrace all parts of my body, I was doing pretty damn well on the body image scale. I knew I looked good, and I liked that I was healthy. I was secure in my place in life and my high grades had opened up a wonderful new world of academia. And then I came to university…
You know the Freshman 15? Where all the first year students combined gain an average of 15lbs after moving away from home? Well, there’s a reason it’s an ‘average’. My lack of cooking skills, the stress of schoolwork and seasonal depression combined with homesickness meant that I would lose weight and then regain it on trips home. It would only usually become noticeably worrisome around exam time. Once, in a conversation with a rather dense (but attractive) young man, I complained about how difficult it was getting for me to keep up my weight. “So?” he replied, “Would you rather be skinny or fat?”. “Healthy”, I replied. And then had to give a mini-lecture on what exactly a false dilemma was in layman’s terms. Yeah… we did not date for very long.
In second and third year, the stress and eating/sleeping problems were compounded by trying to balance a full course load with a part-time job while being active in the campus community. After a particularly harrowing December in which the stress became severe enough for me to have to defer some of my exams, I arrived home only to be horrified that my weight had dropped to 108. I had seen the effects, my ribs had started to show a little, but even though I tried to force myself to eat more I just…wasn’t hungry.
Appetite suppression is a common side effect of stress or depression. I found that much out through the internet as I attempted to research solutions. However, any time I attempted to research “appetite suppression” or “appetite suppression cures” the only results were for dieting aids and losing weight. “Stimulate appetite” gained some results, but all were geared towards cancer patients and end-of-life care. I felt very isolated in my quest to reform my eating habits and maintain a healthy weight. I did not have an eating disorder in the medical sense, but I would experience a significant loss of appetite whenever I became overly stressed. I mentioned it to my doctor, and she recommended that I eat more and eat whatever I felt like during those periods. It helped a little, but not when I just wasn’t hungry, or wasn’t in the mood to make food.
In light of my experience, and because I know there are others out there who dream of one day having curves of their own, here are my own set of tips on how to deal with a loss of appetite:
- Go to the grocery store and walk down all the aisles. If you see something that makes you feel hungry, get it.
- Keep a special stash of crackers or granola bars on hand for tough days
- Have small snacks throughout the day so that making a meal doesn’t seem like such a big deal. Small bags of walnuts, raisins, an apple, some cheese and crackers, a glass of chocolate milk…
- If there is a particular food you love, indulge yourself. For me it was potatoes. Mashed, boiled, baked, fried, any way I could have them. On their own or as part of a larger meal
- Eat with friends. Make a lunch or dinner date with someone else (especially if they are aware of the difficulty). Eating is a social activity, and it’s easier to eat more sometimes when you’re distracted and can spread it out over a longer period of time.
- Make food with friends! Even better, as the preparation and anticipation can increase appetite as well. Again, because you’re committing to eating with others, it becomes harder to avoid your body’s hunger.
- Give in to the fries! Or <insert junk food of choice here>! If it makes you hungry, eat it, as long as you can also ensure you’re meeting your nutritional requirements. For me, I occasionally began eating red meat again, a little bit at a time, because my body craved those particular tastes and nutrients. Watch out for signs of anaemia.
- Try some new foods. This was a hard step for me, but once I found a method that agreed with me, I was able to try new foods, as long as I was in a comfortable, supportive, unpressured environment. Stir fry, kabobs, sweet and sour veggie meatballs, spring rolls and even avocadoes have made it into my diet.
I was able to overcome my issues through these approaches, as well as adopting some lifestyle changes (YOGA YOGA YOGA!) that reduced my overall stress. I celebrate my weight with my friends (“I gained 5 pounds!” “Yay! Congrats!”) and this year I am proud to say that I finally made it up to 120lbs for the first time in my life. I am healthy, strong and balanced, and have some wicked squishy bits. I do have relapses now and then, but hey, no one’s perfect, and I know I’ll come back out on the other end. Most importantly, I have great roommates, family and friends who help me when I’m having troubles. Best wishes to all of you, and good luck on your journey to be happy and healthy, inside and out!
(Cross-posted on the Feministing Community)