Diet & Exercise Make Me Feel Better About Myself, Am I Still a Feminist?
On body positivity, eating disorder recovery, and health & wellness.
I have struggled with eating disorders and over exercising for over half of my life. What a lot of people do not understand is that eating disorder brain is obsessive-compulsive; in fact, there are numerous studies that show people with eating disorders are more often found to have symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorders.
Thus, when somebody with what I dub as “eating disorder brain” decides to diet or exercise, they become obsessed with it.
“In the cases of both anorexia and bulimia, obsessions lead to levels of anxiety that can only be reduced by ritualistic compulsions. The compulsive behaviors of anorexics can often be seen in their careful procedures of selecting, buying, preparing, cooking, ornamenting, and eventually consuming food. Just as with OCD, compulsions are commonly strengthened by many other personality traits, such as uncertainty, meticulousness rigidity, and perfectionism.” (Yaryura-Tobiast al. 2001)
I’ve spoken before about my obsession with eating and exercise, in the article Forget Your Body, What Exercising Every Day Does For Your Mind. I explained that “at my worst, I was eating 800 calories a day and exercising for 4 hours a night.” Luckily I have been far removed from eating disorder land for the better portion of two years, but during this long-term quarantine I have been becoming more and more in touch with my body physically, which has made me question myself tenfold:
- I feel so much better about myself, is it because I’m losing weight?
- Do I like what I look like now because I am thinner?
- Does this make me not a feminist?
- Am I taking major steps back in recovery?
These questions have been ringing in my head daily, and there are a lot of different and varying answers to them; some of these answers may not seem very “feminist” to you, but I am here to talk about why we need to stop demonizing women who enjoy exercise or who eat certain diets because these habits are not inherently bad.
I’d like to preface this with the fact that I am not advocating at all for diet and beauty culture, that I do not agree with fad diets, yo-yo dieting, or any other kind of extreme food obsession. If you are struggling with an eating disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or any other kind of mental health issue, please consult a professional.
Exercising and eating healthy are not inherently bad.
On the road to health and wellness I have learned how to treat myself in ways that are both healthy and beneficial to my body as well as my mind. It took me many years to get to a place where I could exercise and eat well without becoming overly obsessed with it. Prior to this point, I fluctuated between eating disorders and disordered eating, mostly dabbling around orthorexia, and calling myself “recovered” from my eating disorder.
Orthorexia is an eating disorder that involves an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating. Unlike other eating disorders, orthorexia mostly revolves around food quality, not quantity
However, obsessing in any way about food or exercise is not actually healthy. Instead, finding a balance that works for you in regards to eating healthy and exercising is what can actually be labeled as healthy and beneficial to you.
So why do we demonize women who exercise or eat specific diets? It seems that because some of us exercise daily and/or prefer to eat certain diets we are demonized for our choices. This doesn’t mean we are obsessive, it just means that some of us have found a balance that is healthy and beneficial to us.
Recently, because I have been exercising and eating healthy I have been feeling really good about myself, but when I made the decision to post a picture of myself on social media and comment on how I have been prioritizing my health and becoming more in tune with my body, I had this moment where I questioned that decision.
I kept thinking, “What if somebody thinks I am perpetuating diet/beauty culture,” because I am very outspoken in my thoughts against these cultures. I don't want to seem hypocritical or negative or as if I am advocating for weight loss.
In the body positivity community we are supposed to love our bodies no matter what, but does that mean we cannot want to improve ourselves, eat healthier, or exercise in ways that we find joyful? Does that not mean that we can appreciate how we look when all of our hard work begins paying off? Does it mean ignoring that we’ve lost weight or feeling shameful because of this weight loss?
I’m stuck between two things unclear to me: does body positivity mean that I cannot appreciate weight loss on my own body, even if it helps me to become more comfortable in my own skin? Should I feel ashamed of this feeling?
I gained over 15lbs when I recovered from my eating disorder, and those 15lbs were definitely needed, however, at the end of the day I didn’t feel like myself. I had stopped exercising, which I find real joy in, and I had stopped prioritizing what I eat. Thus, when I made the decision to prioritize eating healthier and moving in ways that I found joyful I pretty rapidly began to lose about 1lb per week, without even trying.
I like the way my body looks now, shouldn’t that be a good thing?
I don’t feel like body positivity means that we should not want to improve ourselves, I feel that it means that we should do whatever we want in order to love ourselves. If that means exercising and prioritizing your physical and mental health, you should absolutely be doing that.
Exercising does more than just work your body, it works your mind and improves mental health and wellness.
If following a certain diet makes you feel better, so be it.
I’m vegan, it is a lifestyle choice rather than a diet because it’s pretty well known that just because you are vegan does not mean you are healthy. However, I also make an active effort to eat nothing processed, no junk food, and no sodas or very much alcohol. I make these choices because I feel way better when I am eating like this.
If I had a dollar for how many times somebody has asked me why I’m not eating chips or pizza at a get together I would be one rich woman. I feel judged for not indulging, but I don’t indulge because when I do I feel pretty physically ill. I have some gastrointestinal problems, and though getting drunk and eating pizza with my friends is fun, I pay dearly the next day.
This is not to say that I don’t ever have junk food, that would be insane, but I make a very conscious effort not to do so because I just know my body well enough to know what I should be eating. I don’t feel like I should feel guilty or judged because of my food choices. I felt guilty and judged enough when I was starving myself or obsessing about what I was eating or counting calories.
We have to understand that every single person is different and that specific diets are different for everybody. Judging people for what they are or are not eating is another way to perpetuate food obsession and sensitivity. You do not know somebody’s struggles with eating (or not eating), stop questioning what people put in their bodies. Frankly, it’s none of your business.
Are you still a feminist if you want to lose weight?
The short answer is yes, the long answer is that some people will tell you that you shouldn’t ever want to lose weight. However, it is your body and what you want to do with it is your decision. I have a huge problem with demonizing an individual's choices. I know a lot of women who think that changing your appearance, having plastic surgery, or otherwise wanting to “look better” are negatively impacting women and girls.
I can tell you right now that having a breast reduction (thus dramatically changing my appearance) is one of the best decisions I have ever made for myself. It made me confident for the first time in my life and unashamed in my body. I hated my giant breasts and they caused health issues, so why not alter my looks if it made me feel good about myself?
If you’ve always wanted gigantic boobs or you’ve always wanted smaller boobs, that is your decision, it is your body, and it is nobody’s damn business what you do for yourself.
If you are like me and your body rapidly changed because of a decision to go to therapy and not have an eating disorder, and you want to be healthier both mentally and physically, then fuck it, work out!
If you feel better when you are exercising and eating healthy, go forth and exercise, and eat healthily!
It only becomes a problem when you are obsessive-compulsive, and when you are participating in negative habits. Yo-yo dieting, counting calories, and obsessing about what you eat is not good for you. Exercising four hours a day is not good for you; but eating foods that nourish your body and participating in movement that nourishes your mind is a wonderful habit that everybody should be partaking in.
You are still a feminist if you take pride in your appearance or if you want to celebrate finally feeling good in your body. These are not anti-feminist traits, though judging women for doing so is inherently anti-feminist.
Do whatever you need to do to make yourself happy and don’t listen to any negativity that comes your way when making these choices. It is okay to want to “look better”, but you should still love what you look like now, or at the very least be at peace with it. It is okay to want to improve your diet or exercise habits, these are not negative traits.
We need to stop demonizing women for their choices and instead start celebrating women and being more inclusive. There needs to be space for all women, and we should not feel inherently guilty for wanting to look a certain way.
Recovery is a long and winding road and we all take different paths to get there. One path is no better than the other, but when insinuating that one path is better, we are causing a whole different slough of issues and anxieties around body positivity, health, and wellness.
More by Alexandra Tsuneta:
The Importance Of Listening To Your Body
5 signs that your body is telling you to slow down
Forget Your Body, What Exercising Every Day Does For Your Mind
A few things I’ve learned on the road to health and wellness