DEAR FORMER FAT GIRL: I have never been happy with my weight, so I finally began to do something about it last spring, with far more success than I had expected. Unfortunately, the same discipline and intensity that helped me lose weight at a healthy, sane rate in the spring snowballed dangerously close to an eating disorder in the fall, as I moved away to college for the first time and had to deal with a completely new way of eating, as well as the additional stress of transitioning to college life. I continued to lose weight, obsessing over food, weight, body image, and exercise, until I finally dipped below a healthy body weight for my height. I am wondering: Did you ever feel that your desire to live healthfully took over your life to the exclusion of other things? From your blog's name, it seems like you've never really gotten over your identity as a "Former Fat Girl"—what would it take to stop thinking of yourself in that way and finally accept and love your body as slim, strong, and healthy? What advice would you give to someone who is trying to make their healthy habits into a sustainable lifestyle for weight maintenance in a way that is positive, affirming and free of fear and obsession?—Rachel
DEAR RACHEL: Thanks so much for your note. I actually do get questions about this topic, and have thought a lot about it over the years. In fact, when my book first came out, I received several emails from women who expressed concern that I was promoting eating disorders with my advice. I take the issue very seriously, and have consulted with many experts on eating disorders and healthy weight. All agree that there is no easy answer.
The fact is—as you experienced—many of the same strategies you use to get to a healthy weight can also be signs of an eating disorder, if taken to the extreme. The "diet do's" that result in weight loss success—calorie counting, keeping strict exercise schedules, sheltering yourself from activities that involve eating and drinking, weighing often—could edge you into eating-disorder territory.
There is a very fine line between commitment and obsession, and it's sometimes difficult to tell where that line is. But there are some hard-and-fast clues: your weight dropping into an unhealthy range, not getting adequate amounts of key nutrients, becoming anemic, losing your period, shirking other real responsibilities, like school, work and important personal relationships. It sounds like you were self-aware enough to recognize that you were in that danger zone, and your thoughtful note to me shows that you are working towards a healthier balance.
As for my holding on to my Former Fat Girl identity: I can't deny where I have come from. Many of the same qualities that led to my being overweight—perfectionism, all-or-nothing thinking, self-sacrifice, fear of success and failure—are still at work in my life today. And I think it's unrealistic to think that I will ever shed those tendencies, like I shed my 70 pounds. But I accept that they are there, and work on them every day. That is my real work now—not the weight really, but all the psychological things that contributed to my being overweight. I have the body confidence you speak of now, but it's my inner life that I have to continually work on.
My advice to you: Watch for those unhealthy signs to make sure you aren't inching into dangerous territory. Do things—like volunteering—that get you out of your head and make you think of something other than yourself and your weight. Try weaning yourself off of the scale if you weigh often. Get yourself out of your comfort zone, intentionally—do little things to disrupt your routine so you become more comfortable with risk and uncertainty. Start keeping a journal if you don't already, but focus less on what you're eating and how much you're working out, and more on how you are FEELING about your body and your life.
And please do seek help if your obsession deepens. Since you are in college, you probably have resources at your student health center. And check out the website of the National Eating Disorders Association for more resources.
Lisa Delaney is editor of Spry magazine and author of Secrets of a Former Fat Girl. To submit a question, visit spryliving.com/experts.