I’m not sure when it started, but it seems to have been a part of my life since I can remember. This underlying awareness of my body – how ‘big’ I was (I was a tall, chubby pre-adolescent) compared to all my gangly friends. How I felt trying on clothes. How my body looked in a swimsuit. Overly conscious when hugging people, when exercising, when wearing shorts.
Overly conscious. All. The. Time.
How did I know to be thinking these things? Who told me thin was ‘better?’ Certainly not my family, as I don’t recall my parents or brothers ever making one negative comment.
Looking back on my journey, this negative relationship with my body seems to have woven itself in and out of so many of my memories, tainting and stealing joy and life wherever it could – basking in the power I so freely handed over.
I grew up in an “active” family. Raised on a working cattle/horse ranch in Oklahoma, and vacationing in the mountains of Colorado, my dad and mom led us on many the fabulous adventure. Hiking, biking, camping, sports…the list goes on and on. Though I reminisce about my upbringing with deep, permeating fondness, I now recognize the dominant role exercise played in our daily life defined much about how I saw my body – we talked about how good we felt after a run/workout, how we had lost weight, how strong we were…we pushed and encouraged each other. It promoted family bonding – togetherness – but it also laid a foundation for control that would later manifest in many ugly ways.
The Need for Control
Another underlying reality that tainted my childhood was my dad’s drinking. Relatively under control throughout my early years, the stress of life and work and money exacerbated his drinking during my junior high and high school life. I felt out of control, ravenously desperate to create consistency, dependability.
So, the natural expression of this frantic urge was to use my body as my tool for control.
The summer between by sophomore and junior years of high school I had major jaw surgery to correct an overbite that would have led to severe jaw issues later in life. With my jaw wired shut for a few months, I was relegated to a liquid diet and no high-impact activities. Due to my liquid diet, I dropped a few sizes and watched the numbers on the scale get lower and lower.
It felt awesome.
I began spending a few hours a day doing pilates, using boredom as an excuse when my mom expressed concern.
My body continued to shrink and tone – for the first time I could remember, I felt thin. I relished the “wow, you’re so skinny!” comments from friends and family members, and even the comments of concern for my weight loss further empowered me to restrict my calorie consumption.
Exercise became an obsession – a black hole I could never fill. I recall not even wanting to drink water or eat strawberries because of how “full” and “bloated” they made me feel.
This continued straight through high school, and was only exacerbated by my father’s sudden death the summer before my senior year of high school.
College made things worse, as I was now free from the “accountability” of friends and family who knew what a “healthy” version of me and my body looked like.
The Road to Healing
Marrying my husband in March of 2009 provided some relief and healing. His love, affection and consistency freed my deep soul wounds to begin working their way outward. As they surfaced, I was able to more clearly identify their origin, and seek God for healing and redemption on specific areas.
Though I was beginning to not restrict as severely, and my working out moved towards moderation and balance, I still fought almost constantly with an internal negativity around my body. Finally at a healthy weight, I found myself resenting what I saw in the mirror.
Not to mention, I began taking birth control shortly before our wedding – the influx of unnatural, chemically-compiled hormones on my recovering body wreaked havoc both physically and emotionally. From bloating to breakouts, I felt miserable. Lethargic, over-emotional, psychologically fragile, I was constantly walking the thin line between sanity and a breakdown.
Though I believed God had the power to transform and redeem the deep brokenness in my psyche and body image, I had resigned myself to the reality that I would likely battle inward negativity regarding body image and weight for the length of my days. This was, it seemed, my proverbial cross to bear. I would most certainly have to learn to surrender my anxieties and take each of my thoughts captive to ensure I maintained a healthy body – the battle would keep me mentally and spiritually “fit,” a constant reminder of my own brokenness and frailty, juxtaposed to the strength and sufficiency I had come to know in Christ.
However, my God had a more abundant life planned for me. I just didn’t know it yet.
Real Food: Medicine for Mind and Body
In 2007, my mom gifted me Real Food, by Nina Planck. I was unprepared for the way this book would affect my life, my body image, my health, my marriage, my fertility, and even my calling.
I don’t recall what compelled me to open this book in 2010. But once I did, I drank in page after page of research-based information on how our bodies were literally built to consume real, traditionally prepared food. Of how the Standard American Diet robs our bodies of nutrients, and how big-box food producers were producing food in a way that deprived the soil, animals and finished products of nutrients. Words like “grassfed,” “fermented,” “pastured,” “sprouted” and “free-range,” became a part of my vocabulary. When she described the symptoms her body suffered from because of her “low fat,” nutrient-poor diet, I felt as though I was reading my biography:
· Emotional instability
· Stomach/digestive pains
· Hunger and lack of satisfaction after mealtime
· Salt/sugar cravings
Through this book, something broke free in my mind – I cannot attribute it to anything but the grace of God. I know no other way to explain why I was suddenly open to a high (healthy)-fat diet, and embracing all the foods once on my “off-limits” list (butter, red meat, cheese, whole milk). The science, the research, it was impossible to argue with.
Suddenly, I was buying grassfed butter and slathering it on everything. Our frig was soon stocked with whole milk, cheeses and yogurt, organic fruit and veggies. I became a “nerd” for all things fermented, and began brewing my own kombucha, making my own beet kvass, yogurt, and cheese. I started following gobs of “real food” blogs online, and began bookmarking and experimenting with traditional, real-food versions of our favorite recipes.
I simply could not get enough. Slowly, progressively, my body, mind and spirit were finding healing. By providing my body with the real-food nutrients it desperately needed, my nutrient stores began becoming replenished, my energy level was up, and even my moodiness was improving.
For once, my tendency to “nerd out” was paying off. I was officially a Real Food Evangelist.
The Next Step
In the winter of 2011, a friend told me about a book she was reading called Taking Charge of Your Fertility, by Toni Weschler. She introduced me to ideas I had never even considered – charting, temperature taking, cervical mucus, fertility signs…and a new, reliable way to prevent or achieve pregnancy without birth control.
Um, hello! Yes, please.
My initial plan – the plan I shared with my husband – was entirely balanced. I will read this book, practice checking fertility signs and charting for a few months while finishing up my last few packs of birth control,then we can talk about going off birth control and utilizing the Fertility Awareness Method as our form on contraception.
It was a good plan.
Until I read the book.
In typical Kelsey fashion, I started the book on a Friday, and by Monday, informed my husband I wanted to go off birth control.
After my monologue [read: rant] about the reliability of the method, the havoc of BC on a woman’s reproductive system, the hormone disruption, yada yada yada, he agreed we should give it a try.
Within one week of going off birth control, my body (and husband) began to immediately thank me.
· My bloating, something I had learned to live with, had completely disappeared.
· My cravings for sugar disappeared.
· The unsettled, wild, volatile emotional state I often found myself in, literally, completely leveled.
I felt like myself – the version of myself that I really liked – again. My optimism for life returned with a vigor – I felt motivated, empowered, and revitalized.
Charting and checking my fertility signs provided me transparency into my cycle and a new, beautiful way to interact with my body..
For nine months we successfully practiced the Fertility Awareness Method for contraception. And in December 2012, the first month we planned to be “open” to a pregnancy, we practiced it successfully for conception.
In a future post, I’ll talk about exactly what I did to prepare my body for pregnancy and repair my body from birth control and the nutrient-poor diet of my adolescence and young adulthood. I believe the real food lifestyle played a vital role in our quick, seemingly effortless, conception.
Pregnancy, Real Food, and Body Image
Though my first trimester was marked with extreme exhaustion and constant nausea, I learned to listen to my body in a new way, following its lead when it demanded I rest and relinquish my workout regime. I learned a new freedom with eating and exercise those first three months as it was literally impossible for me to eat something my body said “no” to. And my body said no to basically every form of vegetable.
The last grasp (or one of the last) I had on utilizing food and exercise as a tool for control was carefully removed that first trimester. I had to listen to my body. There were no other options. Attempting to force something down resulted in immediate expulsion.
Learning to listen to my body as it judiciously constructed this amazing, tiny human continued to heal the broken relationship between my body and I. By healing it from the inside out, I could now trust what it said about resting, food intake and preferences, thirst, etc. It knew what it needed to build my baby, and I listened. And responded in turn.
And September 10, 2013, my husband, mom, birth team and I brought my daughter into the world. Because I experienced an empowered, peaceful and supported labor, fully releasing my body to follow its instincts, labor acted as a catalyst for healing in a way I had not expected. Something deep down in the recesses of my soul released that day – pregnancy, labor, birth and motherhood, working together, have provided significant growth, healing and freedom.
Postpartum Body Changes
I would be lying if I said I never thought about my body these days – that pregnancy and birth miraculously healed me of all my brokenness around my body, alleviating me of my baggage.
I still think about my body – but not as much. And typically in the positive light of motherhood and wifedom. Transformed to be greater than the sum of my parts, God utilized the reproductive process and my body’s ability to build new life to provide me greater liberty than I ever thought imaginable.
It isn’t all rainbows and unicorns all the time. I still catch myself thinking negatively about my body, silently criticizing my reflection in the mirror or pictures.
But the most powerful motivator I have now to stay physically and mentally healthy is the tiny human clinging to my legs as I type these words – my daughter. I know she learns from watching me – absorbing what I intentionally and, perhaps even more so, unintentionally teach her. She is a sponge, soaking up what I pour out.
I desire great freedom for her. And I know that starts with me. She will have her own areas of brokenness – she will have her own story to write one day. But I will fight every day to equip her with the tools to prevent her from walking the road of eating disorders and poor body image God has so graciously walked me home from.