Five Anti-ED Life Changes, Part 1: Equip Yourself to End Diet & Body Talk

It is a new year, and along with it comes a renewed commitment to writing. I could give a few legitimate excuses for not blogging as much as I hoped I would during the fall, but the biggest reason is that I was often not thinking about disordered eating. It turns out that a big part of recovery is needing much less thought space reserved for recovery. Most of the time, I was busy worrying about other things. Normal things, like “What can I do this weekend that will make me seem cooler than I really am?” and “How did my kitchen floor become a lagoon of cat vomit?”

Because this is the classic month of resolution-making, I thought I would share the best changes I’ve made in the direction of recovery. This isn’t an original idea at all, and you can find other examples at Beauty Redefined, or join the hilarious brainstorm Twitter brainstorm, #FeministNewYearResolutions.

My own recommendations are minor and realistic changes, but when I was in the darkest phase of my illness, they seemed like distant, even impossible, goals, so try not to be too discouraged when changes feels difficult at first. Everyone, even those not struggling right now, can benefit from these skills and tools.

Which leads us to #1….Equip Yourself to End Diet and Body Talk!

I think most women, and some men, are aware that negative talk about bodies, weight, exercise, and food is something to avoid, at least in mixed company. We are aware of this because it makes everyone involved feel like shit. However, diet and body talk still finds a way to slither into conversations, and halting it is easier said than done. I say “equip yourself” because the intention to end diet and body talk doesn’t mean much without a set of tools to actually implement change. My own go-to conversation maneuvers are as follows:

The Comeback: The upside of the humorous little jab is that it doesn’t destroy the conversation or make you seem like too much of a progressive feminist killjoy (which you are). The downside is that you have to be clever to pull it off. An example might sound something like this:

Other person: “I have to go for a run today. I feel disgusting. My stomach is like one of those cylindrical Pillsbury biscuit containers after it’s been opened and the greasy biscuit dough has started to expand grotesquely over the edges of the cardboard.”

You: *Pokes other person in the belly*

Other person: “Don’t touch me! I just told you that my stomach feels disgusting!”

You: “It feels normal to me. Also, you didn’t giggle like a good fucking Doughboy should.”

The Derailleur: This one is suitable for the dim-witted as well as the cunning. All you have to do is change the subject. It can be pretty obvious and jarring, but is usually effective.

Other person: “I shouldn’t have one of your cookies. I ate sooooo much over the holidays. Like, seriously, so much. I even ate—“

You: Did you see the new Annie movie? You did? I want to know if Jaime Foxx sings as badly as he did in Dream Girls, but I’m not willing to drop $10 on it. Could you do your best impression of his main vocal parts, please?

The Brutally Honest: This is not so much a technique as a truth-bomb. You just say that the comment makes you uncomfortable. You can even explain why you don’t like it, although that’s up to your discretion—for instance, a good friend is a different beast than your work supervisor. If you’re a better conversationalist than I am, you can suggest a topic change, and leave the awkward moment behind forever.

Other person: “I started going to a new Crossfit gym. Some of the women there are so goddamn ripped. Their body fat percentages have to be be negative or something. Here, let me show you one of the girls’ Facebook page.”

You: “It’s cool that you’re doing a tough exercise routine, but I really don’t want going to the gym to make you feel bad about body, which is awesome the way it is. Can we talk about something else?”

I personally find myself using humor the most, but I also go for “The Brutally Honest” when I’m in the right mood. For the most part, reactions to the honest method are positive. It’s almost always another woman, and she’ll say something like, “Oh, thanks for calling me out. I know I shouldn’t talk like that.” Sometimes it even prompts a serious discussion about body image and eating disorders, but more often we just move on. When I do meet some resistance, it’s someone who feels like I am calling her shallow or unenlightened by rejecting her comments. To that, I clarify, “I’m not calling you shallow. I just know from personal experience that talking about food/bodies/exercise in a negative way is poisonous, and I don’t want either of us to get poisoned!”

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You might have caught that all of these examples deal with someone voicing negative self-judgment. So what about when you find yourself talking shit about someone else’s body or eating habits? More on that in an upcoming post about dealing with the F-word: fatphobia.

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Girls Who Hate Math But Love Numbers

A week or so ago, I did something…unadvisable. Not wise. An objectively poor choice.

I weighed myself in the middle of a grocery store.

Ok, that’s a bit of an exaggeration. The scale was on the perimeter of the supermarket, predictably tucked next to the pharmacy pick-up counter. I was with my boyfriend, waiting for his prescription to get filled, when we spotted it. Dan has a pathological compulsion to avail himself of any free service, and a “comprehensive” set of health metrics (weight, blood pressure, and body fat percentage) is no exemption. He giddily surrendered himself to the machine, and hummed calmly as the Bioelectrical Impedance analyzed[1] away.

I guess I felt jealous. I envied the way Dan could look at his weight and body composition on a whim, and see them as nothing more than a couple of mildly interesting statistics. So I thought to myself, “I’m more or less healthy now. I haven’t purged in months, and I’ve stopped obsessing about my body 24//7, so it’s fine to see how much I weigh.”

You know, it’ll just be a sequence of three numbers, with no meaning or implications whatsoever.

So I let the machine do its calculations, and was not shocked by the results (good news: my blood pressure has always been in the normal range, and still is!). My weight was also higher than it used to be, back when I was using my ED behaviors, but it wasn’t much higher than I expected. However, when graphed on a BMI chart, my weight places me firmly in the “overweight” range. Despite the knowledge that BMI is hopeless outdated and virtually useless as an indicator of fitness, this fact has always made me extremely self-conscious. And in this instance, the touchscreen before me flashed yellow, as in “warning, you’re almost an unhealthy, gross pariah,” a yield sign from the body police.

Yet I walked away from my “comprehensive digital health exam” emotionally unscathed, maybe even in a lighter mood than before.

The reason for this calm was the result of the other measurement, body fat percentage. According to the admittedly flawed, supermarket-quality technology, my body fat is well into the healthy range, even in a subcategory labelled “athlete.” Given that I have visible muscle outlines on multiple parts of my body, this should not be as reassuring (or panic-reducing) as it was. But I got a lot of vindication out of this one stupid number, and that is a problem.

A characteristic shared by almost all the ED patients I met in treatment was a preoccupation with numbers. Pounds on the scale, calories in and out, food measured by the gram. For me, the numbers associated with my athletic pursuits, in addition to calories burned, clouded my consciousness: fastest mile time, 800 meter splits, max push-ups completed in one minute. These were not just numbers of interest, as they must be for an athlete: the mental noise of these numbers reached an obsessive, unrelenting pitch, such that could not be quieted for more than a few moments at a time.

In fact, I never had the extreme anticipation and fear of the scale that many others do, partly because the ideal body in my mind’s eye was not a conventionally thin one. Free of fat, yes, but heavily muscled, and even a bit masculine. I could accept a higher scale number as long there were light striations in my quads and biceps. Before treatment, I weighed myself at the gym once or twice per month, but if I had had round-the-clock access to body composition measurement, I’m sure I would’ve used it several times per day.

In light of this obsession with numerical figures, it seems hilarious to me now (hilarious in an ironic, sad-making way) that I always had such an intense aversion to mathematics, and a distinct lack of confidence in the subject. Even when I was placed in algebra two years ahead of time, as a 7th grader, or when I scored in the 90th percentile on the math section of the SAT, I bemoaned my lack of talent. I could be caught saying, “I just don’t have a knack for numbers.” Perhaps what I really meant is that my brain did not have functional room for more numbers. If I had fewer calorie counts and mile splits running on a manic ticker tape through my head, who knows? Maybe I wouldn’t have dropped out of calculus (twice…).

I wonder how many women with a penchant for manipulating numbers exclude themselves from math-related fields for this same reason. I have a hunch that the amount would not be statistically insignificant.

The bottom line is that no one should get such a high from a number assuring them that they are “not fat,” or not too fat, as though having ample body fat is a sin, a shame, or a personal failure. Now that my behaviors have been under control for a while, and overall I consider myself more enlightened on the subject of body positivity than I was before, putting faith in numbers that make me feel “safe” from fatness is something I need to work on. I am also identifying my own fat-phobic tendencies, and take notice when I judge myself, negatively or positively, based on my body composition rather than, you know…shit that actually matters.

[1] Bioletrical Impedance Analysis is the cheapest and most readily available technology for measuring body fat. It is also the most notoriously inaccurate, as factors such as hydration, most recent meal, and most recent workout can skew results as much as 10%.

Letting Go of Weight Control

In the highly structured environment of treatment, I did not find it difficult to give up my most extreme behaviors. I admitted myself to the hospital because I was frightened by the way I was destroying my body, and wanted to stop. As I sat for the admission interview, the case worker asked me “How ready are you to change?” and wanted it expressed as a value on a scale from 1 to 10. I think my answer was a 9. But then I was thinking about my actions, like purging and restricting, not my thoughts. Only later would I realize how much I did not want to give the thoughts up, especially the idea of weight control.

“Weight control” is both a practice and an aspiration. The regimen prescribed for ED recovery usually prevents the patient from practicing weight control—but it does not take the aspiration away. It is that nagging and faux-redemptive hope that in the future, you might be 5, 10 pounds lighter.

When I was a month into programming at the hospital, I felt confident that I could continue, indefinitely, to abstain from purging. Maybe I could call it quits for forever; regurgitation held very little sentimental value for me. But I was already looking forward to my upcoming freedom, in which I could begin “watching my weight” again. Substituting green smoothies for dinner every once in a while, exercising regularly, eating fewer grilled cheese sandwiches (seriously, as the only green-lighted vegetarian on the unit, I ate SO MANY grilled cheeses that I hoped to never inhale one again).

There’s nothing wrong with drinking green smoothies, or not eating something you don’t like, but I now understand that the reason for these actions does make a difference. The aspiration aspect of weight control is everything: wishing desperately to lose weight is just as miserable as doing something about it. And I think this is true for everyone, regardless of whether you have an ED inclination or not.

If I have a thought about changing the way I eat or exercise, I have to ask myself: is the goal, or even a residual goal, to be skinnier? Does the idea of restricting French fries make my giddy with anticipation? Am I holding weight control in my palm like a silver talisman, hidden from others, but always there for my own good luck?

When the answer is yes, I have to shut that thought loop DOWN. Because one green smoothie leads to one less snack a day, which leads to two less snacks, which leads to hunger and food preoccupation, which leads to the debilitating obsession that once made me so hopeless. Even if my weight control wishes did not have the tendency to spiral out of control, what would be the point of nurturing them?

In treatment, we are taught that pursuing a lower weight will have no impact on our health or happiness. Even for people who are deemed overweight by doctor’s charts, a number on the scale is no indication of health, and health goals can be reached by changing habits, not losing pounds (although this may or may not be a side effect). For many athletes, however, a lower weight can offer immediate and practical advantages. A fighter has the dangling carrot of a lower weight class, a rower or cyclist the promise of a more aerodynamic load. A runner can also reap instantaneous speed benefits from the loss of a few pounds. I know this to be true because I lived it. I lost ten pounds from a prolonged case of the flu, didn’t change my training at all, and was suddenly running 5ks at 90 seconds faster. The loss didn’t fix my body dysmorphia at all, but at least I was charting more impressive times. This correlation helped me hold on to the illusion that weight control had a purpose. That it could be a part, albeit small, of a healthy, happy lifestyle.

Here’s the bottom line: a person can manufacture a million reasons why a lower weight is a genuine, live-affirming aspiration. I know I can. But every one of these reasons is bullshit. In a vacuum, there is nothing beneficial or glamorous or healthy about losing weight. I hope that, as a culture, our dialogues about health will eventually omit weight entirely, because even mentioning it as a “residual benefit” creates space in our minds for weight loss. What does the weight loss aspiration replace? More effective and honest avenues to achievement, like trying a new training style to cut seconds off my mile time. Most insidiously, the weight loss goal replaces more meaningful ones, like becoming a better comedian, a better writer, a better friend, or a better teacher.

Letting go of weight control is easier said than done, but I know that it has to be done if I want to stay recovered and be happy.

When Your Significant Other Has the Appetite of a Syphilitic Baby Bird

Sorry, this is not a post on recognizing the symptoms of avian syphilis, nor is it about the pros and cons of cross-species dating.

Instead, we will consider how the food habits of our loved ones can worm their way into our brains, causing angry, obsessive thoughts, and how to approach the age-old but perplexing proverb, “You Do You.”

Let me begin by saying that my boyfriend, Dan, is the light of my life & fire of my loins.[1] Without his unconditional support and encouragement, I may not have had the guts to get myself some help with this whole ED thing.

But Dan is also a thin person with a tiny appetite. For example: the other day, I complimented the look of his torso, astonished that he now seems to sport an 8-pack of abs. According to him, most of these “abs” are protruding ribs (…oops). He is not, however, sickly or undernourished. It’s just that his body has always been this way. Because his natural body weight is lower than mine, it makes sense that he should have less of an appetite.

That doesn’t stop it from infuriating me, though.

During treatment, there were times I hated him, appallingly and selfishly. When you start a recovery program, you don’t get the layperson’s luxury of “eating until full.” You eat until you finish your goddamn food. So I’d sit there at the dinner table, staring at the portion of stir fry still on his plate, and fume. “It’s not fair that you get to eat less!” I’d whine. “YOU HAVE TO EAT ALL OF YOUR FUCKING FOOD, TOO!” I’d bark between tearful mouthfuls. Have you ever wanted to see a full-grown woman regress into the temper tantrums of her diapered youth? Just head on over to your nearest ED treatment facility!

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“I hate you and all things,” said Kat hangrily.

I felt terrible for the way I treated him, this man who cradled me and held my hand while I thought about choking him with his leftover spaghetti. But he understood, better than I did, that this cranky and belligerent Kat was just a phase of the process.

Now I am starting to separate the idea of how much Dan eats from the way his body looks. Despite what popular culture and even “science” wants us to believe, different people process food differently. Some people with bodies larger than mine don’t get as hungry as I do, and some tiny people have to shovel food in all day to keep up with their metabolisms.

Nature’s idiosyncrasies can drive you mad, if you let them. The only way to deal with these comparisons is to stop indulging in them, which is no easy feat. I believe that everyone in our culture struggles with assessing their bodies and eating habits in relation to those of others. For people in the throes of an eating disorder, comparisons are a full-time job.

So, in recovery, you have to keep your head down and repeat to yourself, “Oh yeah that’s right I’m doin’ me.”[2] And maybe try be nice to your significant other, even if he does eat like a syphilitic baby bird.

 

[1] I told him that this post is a flattering treatise on all of his laudable traits, from calm demeanor to sparse & graying chest hair. (It is not.)

[2] Drake voiceover and table dancing optional.

Eating is Hard; or, Should I Register for an Ultramarathon?

My last post was about how cRaZy I got about marathon training. So it would make sense for your response to be, “NO KAT. NO ULTRAMARATHONS FOR YOU. No regular marathons, no halfs, and if you must race a 5k, you must do it by sitting on a skateboard and propelling yourself with a kayak paddle.”

But where I left off in my last post is far from the full picture. I allowed marathoning to become a tool in my hateful attitude toward myself and my body. When my ED treatment team first helped me see that I was using exercise in an alarming way, I felt totally bereft, because before my habits got out of control, running was an integral and healthy part of my life. During treatment, I took a two-month training break. This forced separation gave me insight into which of my exercise impulses were about controlling my body, and which impulses were about the joy of movement and dedication.

I intend to dedicate future posts to further explaining this dichotomy, but for the question at hand, suffice to say that my relationship with exercise has healed tremendously. We still have our struggles, but I’m confident that my current training attitude is healthy. Right now I am preparing for the Mexico City Marathon, which I am running with a friend at the end of August. My goals are simply to finish strong in the heat and enjoy a short vacation with my bestie.

But an endurance racer always needs to plan ahead—not only because training cycles are so lengthy, but because registration fees are hella expensive if you don’t book several months (sometimes years) prior to race date. Currently, I have my eye on the Isle du Bois Trail Run. I’ve been curious about ultras[1] for a while, and would like to try my hand at one. I have also decided to step away from BQ-ing/speed as a training goal for now, so I think that greater distance at a slower pace is a fair trade.

Here’s my one misgiving: eating for endurance training is HARD! A lot of people (aka uninformed assholes) react to high volume training and the accompanying high calorie eating with something like, “Omg you’re so lucky, you can eat WHATEVER YOU WANT lololol! Bacon cheeseburgers up to your eyeballs!”

Um, have you ever had to stuff tofu and beans down your gullet until you are convinced that your stomach will split down the middle? That is the reality of endurance fueling for a vegetarian athlete. It is not glamorous, and it can also be pretty taxing—if you’re doing it right, you need to carefully plan your macronutrient ratios, make sure you have enough food packed on the go, and, honestly, eat past the point of being comfortably full. This is to make up for the huge calorie deficit you create by running 35+ miles a week. You also have to take your regular lifestyle into consideration. For me, that’s biking everywhere (I don’t have a car), and being on my feet for most of the workday.

Infuriatingly, there is a lot of shitty information masquerading as sound nutrition science out there. A lot of this is packaged in attractive manuals written “by athletes, for athletes.” For example, I recently picked up a book called Ironfit Strength Training and Nutrition for Endurance Athletes. The author explicitly states that his audience is marathoners, long distance cyclists, and Ironman[2] triathletes, both men and women. After a couple of chapters on fueling techniques, he includes sample meal plans at three different levels of daily intake. Those calorie levels? 1700, 2200, and 2500. WHAT?!? 1700 calories is what a sickly, petite woman should eat every day just to keep her organs functioning, and I know a lot of mildly active men who need to eat more than 2500 calories per day to have any kind of functional energy. My dietician at the treatment center (who, coincidentally, focused on athlete nutrition in her private practice) had me, a 5’6” woman, on a 3000-4000 calorie diet for my level of activity, and that was not a weight gain diet.

Another book I read when I was still sick, Racing Weight by Matt Fitzgerald, straight-up glorified disordered eating behavior. In the first few pages, he recounts the story of a famous elite athlete who was known to buy only one day’s worth of food at a time; he would get so hungry at night that having food in the house would be too much for his “will power.” Fitzgerald portrays this man as an American hero. Here’s another, more accurate way to frame that parable: “Elite athlete utilizes anorexia to maintain low body fat percentage!”

That’s the culture that athletes are up against. But back to the inquiry that spurred this discourse: how should I approach the task of training for an ultra while staying healthy and well-fueled? If you’re an endurance athlete who has successfully completed one of these events, I would love to hear about how you maintained a high calorie intake during your training!

 

[1] For those of you unfamiliar with endurance running, a full marathon is 26.2 miles, or ~42k. “Ultramarathon” is a less exact term that encompasses pretty much any race longer than 26.2 miles. The shortest is usually 50k, but the one I’m considering is 55k, or ~34 miles. From there, shit gets real with 50 milers, 100ks, and even 24 hour races where you just run a loop course as many times as you can before you collapse in a stinking pile of raw muscles and very concentrated urine.

[2] An Ironman triathlon consists of a 2.4 mile swim, a 112 mile bike ride, and a full marathon (26.2 miles). ALL IN A ROW.

My Feminist Eating Disorder

The evening before I ran my 7th full marathon, I had an ample carb-loaded meal just like the ones thousands of other runners in the Austin area consumed that night. The only difference between their dinners and mine was that I threw up most of mine half an hour later. I dutifully had my night time snack as well: a bagel with peanut butter. This, too, landed in the toilet soon after.

I ran the marathon in 3 hours and 53 minutes. Not my best, but not my worst. The next day, as planned, I checked myself into full-time outpatient eating disorder treatment, also known as a Partial Hospitalization Program.

I have long considered myself to be an athlete. I am not necessarily fast or strong compared to other women, and I’m certainly not particularly talented. When it comes to the sports I enjoy outside of the endurance realm, like basketball, soccer, and ultimate Frisbee, I am noticeably clumsy and unskilled. I once played a game of one-on-one bball against my also-not-very-skilled boyfriend and made exactly one shot in the whole game. Nevertheless, athletic pursuits factor strongly into my identity. It was normal for me to place great importance on a 5k time or my bench press max. This sense of normalcy put blinders on me and the people around me so that before checking into ED treatment, I had no idea how problematic my relationship with exercise had become.

Things probably started to get out of control around my fifth marathon. I not only hit the sub-4 hour mark I’d been chasing for the past three races, but I surpassed it by 15 minutes. At three hours and 42 minutes, my time approached Boston qualifying range. If you had asked me four years ago if I thought I’d ever BQ, I would have laughed at the idea—I didn’t even know what the qualifying standards were back then. My first finishing time was too long by over an hour, and that was under the lax 2010 standards. So when the possibility of hitting 3:35 became a reasonable goal rather than a pipe dream, I told myself I’d do anything to get there.

Single-minded determination may have its appropriate times and places, but marathoning was not one such place for me. I welcomed this unhealthy preoccupation with open arms, and was especially glad that my BQ goal could overlap with my other obsession: losing weight. I had always considered myself too fat to be a marathoner, but I was damn sure I was too fat to be a Boston qualifier. I saw an article in Runner’s World magazine[1] asserting that for every pound you lose, you would cut two seconds off your mile time, simply by virtue of being lighter. Of course this came with the compulsory caveats about restrictive dieting, possible muscle loss, and so forth. But by the time my eyes reached that point in the text, my brain was already whirring through the math: losing one pound could cut 54 seconds off my full marathon time. Not insignificant, but five pounds would be four and a half minutes off.  And 10 pounds? NINE WHOLE MINUTES, gone! Using this very flawed model, I could do the same volume of training for my next race, and still BQ with three minutes to spare.

How hard can it be to lose 10 pounds, anyway?

Up until this moment of revelation, I had fit the all-too-common mold of American woman who is always trying to lose ten pounds (or more). But now I had my true motivation. I wanted a BQ far more than I had ever wanted to wear a bikini! Somewhere in my subconscious, I knew exactly how slippery a slope I was electing to slide down, but I convinced myself that weight loss in the name of athletic accomplishment was more excusable, more commendable, maybe even more feminist than getting skinny to wear tighter clothes or please a man.

The motivation worked, in a way:  I skipped breakfast and lunch with a renewed fervor; I avoided processed food like I avoid most heterosexual men. I restricted like this while maintaining a training schedule similar to that of an amateur professional athlete, just at a slower running pace. Yet the weight loss didn’t happen. I’ll spare you the gory details here, but as my eating and exercise habits became more and more suspicious, my weight stayed exactly the same. This pushed me to more and more desperate measures, until I didn’t know how to live without them.

I actually tried to check myself into treatment a week before the aforementioned marathon in Austin. I was nearly successful, until I mentioned that I would need the Saturday off to travel to Texas and run for four hours straight. The case manager across the desk from me laughed, and then shuddered when she realized I wasn’t kidding.

“You really believe you are healthy enough to run 26.2 miles without passing out, considering how little you’re eating and how often you’re vomiting?”

“No problem,” I said. “I do it all the time.”

 

[1] More on Runner’s World and the eating disorder-industrial complex in later posts!

Going Shirtless

Ever since I sprouted boobs in the 7th grade, I have dreamed of having a stomach flat enough to excuse shirtlessness throughout the sweltering Iowa summer. I watched the sprinters on my high school track team shed their t-shirts on the hottest days of practice, and glowered with envy as the same girls peeled off sweat-drenched spandex jerseys after the track meet to replace them with dry cotton croptops. Relegated to the discus and shotput due to my weight (I never considered that I was perhaps picked because of my muscled shoulders and wide, athletic back), I did not believe myself worthy of the right to bare skin. I daydreamed about the breeze on my bellybutton as I coasted for miles on a desert-hot day; I meditated on a future in which itchy clothing could be discarded, tossed to the side of the track.

In college, I got into long distance racing, and inadvertently lost 15 pounds by eating less ice cream and training for marathons. And yet, despite the fact that I could run 26 miles in less than four hours, I looked nothing like the women in Nike ads or the celebrities flaunting their abs on the covers of Women’s Health. I spent countless hours combing fitness magazines, weight loss cookbooks, and lifestyle blogs for ways to “whittle my middle,” and finally earn the freedom to wear whatever I wanted. I was the type of girl who didn’t think twice about donning gym shorts at a party, so the holy grail I sought was not high-waisted pants, nor the slinky backless dress, but a simple, supportive sports bra.

A couple of years ago, I started going to greater lengths for this sports bra body. I cut out entire meals, added kickboxing and yoga on top of a 40 mile/week training schedule, and biked 10+ miles each day in commute, all to no avail. I still had an ample layer of fat on my midsection, and I felt worse, physically and mentally, than ever before. I started skipping class, work, and social obligations in order to work out. I clipped low-fat, high protein recipes from Vegetarian Times and hoarded them like silver coins in a small sandalwood chest labeled “GOALS.” One day, after consuming a container of hummus in one sitting, I decided to throw it all up. It felt good to have nothing inside my body. If I gave my body nothing, it would finally shrink to fit society’s (and my twisted mind’s) standards.

But, somehow, it didn’t.

My stomach wasn’t meant to be flat. It was meant to echo with a jovial thwack if played like a bongo drum. It was meant to bunch up when I sit down cross legged to eat a bowl of stir fry. It was meant to jiggle ever so slightly while running down hills, and less slightly while exploding out of a burpee.

But that doesn’t mean it was meant to stay cooped up under loose cotton t-shirts or flowy yoga tops. All tummies are built to withstand some sun contact, and roam free on a heat wave afternoon. Running or walking, sitting or standing, each belly is born with the right to be bare. But it can’t liberate itself—its human has the choice to cloak it or let it all hang out.

That’s why, a couple of weeks ago, after months of counseling and treatment, I finally took my first shirtless run. Physically, it was as freeing as I imagined it would be: less chafing, less back sweat, more opportunities for ridiculous tan lines. But emotionally, it was pretty uncomfortable. I was terrified that someone would stick his head out of a station wagon and yell “Put a shirt on, whale girl!” I was hyperaware of my posture, and kept seeing weird, garish images of back fat flash involuntarily before my eyes.

But no one seemed to notice the girl with a boyish haircut and a lime green bra as she slogged down Scott Boulevard at seven miles per hour. Anyone who happened to glance at me went right back to scanning Facebook on their phone, or scolding their dog for nipping at my ankles. I was just another female jogger, airing out her abdomen on a pleasant summer day.

I understand that, in this respect, I bear considerable privilege:  even though I may sometimes see myself as huge, most others would regard me as relatively slim, and certainly within the range of “healthy” body sizes. I’m fortunate that I must only confront society’s perceived ire, and not real-life, personal animosity. But this intense, ruinous self-consciousness extends to women of all sizes. My shirtless run would have been just as uncomfortable if my stomach were as flat as I always hoped it would be. I could waste myself down to nothing and still be scared of what strangers think. The only way to become comfortable in my skin, no matter its surface area, is to practice baring it.

At the end of the day, it is only our own opinions of our bodies that matter, that either keep us up at night or give us solace and security as we drift to sleep.  That is why we must whittle away at our body image fears, our self-conscious behaviors, and our health-threatening habits in the same way that we once wanted to whittle our middles: with religious fervor, with defiant strength.