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Body Love in the Face of Illness or Feeling Unwell

Posted Oct 02 2012 11:09pm

A few months ago, I wrote a post candidly sharing my thoughts on “Fitspiration .” In it, I commented on the slogan “strong is the new skinny,” which I think is well intentioned but not particularly helpful in the sense that it trades one ideal (skinny) for another (fit/strong). The comments on that post were really terrific. A lot of you shared the idea that the only ideal we should be pursuing is that of good health and well-being; “healthy is the new skinny,” in other words.

I’ve been thinking about that idea for a while now, mostly because I spend most of my time thinking about health. One of the beautiful things about the online wellness community is that we’re all so inspired to thrive. Most of us have, at some point or another, had our health profoundly transformed by changes in diet, activity, attitude, or a combination of all of those things. Anyone who has had this experience knows how empowering it is to realize that small changes in what we put into our bodies can actually help to reduce physical discomfort, suffering, and anxiety. Regardless of how sick you were before you had this revelation, the revelation is profound.

I was once asked by someone, “but why do you eat so healthily? It’s not like you were really sick.” Well, I wasn’t really sick in the sense that my life was never in jeopardy, I didn’t need constant medical attention, and I wasn’t forced into drugs or procedures. But IBS and anorexia aren’t exactly negligible health complaints, either (especially since my IBS really did interfere with the quality of my life). Moreover, I don’t think that only life-threatening health conditions are the ones worth heeding. What I said to the person who asked me was this: “I think most of us walk around assuming that all sorts of nagging health issues—fatigue, headaches, indigestion—are normal, and it’s only until we make changes that we realize how much better we can feel.”

I stand by that statement: it’s really incredible how easy it is to write off all sorts of health complaints as being “normal,” when in fact they could be alleviated through nourishing food choices and listening to the body. But today, I want to talk about how we can strive for good health while also accepting and loving our bodies even when we fall ill.

I guess what struck me as problematic when I heard the phrase “healthy is the new skinny” is that so many of my readers have found my blog because they suffer from some condition or another. I have readers with GI ailments like Crohn’s or colitis; readers with multiple food intolerances or allergies; readers with cancer; readers with eating disorders; readers with diabetes, thyroid disease, fertility problems, and a host of autoimmune conditions. We come together here at Choosing Raw to celebrate the possibility of better health, but we also come together so that we can support each other in the moments where health is a bit of a struggle. To present “healthy” as an ideal is both wonderful and a little tricky: wonderful because it gives us hope and motivates us; tricky because it can make those of us with health conditions feel frustrated with our bodies, or even blame ourselves for the fact that we’re not always glowy, energetic, and pain-free.

The truth of the matter is that good health isn’t always just a few green juices away. Sometimes the journey toward wellness is long, and “wellness” is relative, too: for those of us who live with chronic pain or various chronic ailments, it may be important to redefine “health” in a way that makes sense for our lives at this moment, and doesn’t make us feel as though we’re falling short of an ideal. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t all hope for pain free, disease free lives, but what I am saying is that sickness is mysterious, it can visit us all from time to time, and that it’s important for us to find ways to value and love our bodies in spite of that.

I very often get emails from readers who say that they hate their bodies because they feel sick. Though I’ve never had an acute, long-term illness, I do know what it’s like to feel endless frustration with one’s own body. Every time my IBS flared up in the past, I would feel tremendously resentful about what my body wouldn’t let me do: why couldn’t I wear pants without constriction from bloating? Why couldn’t I make travel plans without living in fear that I’d be in a hotel room the whole time, in a fetal position? Why couldn’t I approach restaurant dining like a normal person, rather than fretting about whether or not the chef’s special would have me doubled over in pain? My relationship with my body was already very fraught: feeling as though my GI system might wage a rebellion at any moment made it even more complex.

Ultimately, the symptoms of my IBS changed dramatically, and today I experience flare ups only when I’m very stressed or very sleep deprived (and those two things typically go hand in hand). But it took a long time, and in the meantime, I needed to find ways to be at peace with my body even throughout its ups and downs.

Physical suffering is a very intimate, individual phenomenon, and I can’t claim to know or understand exactly what those of you with illnesses are feeling. But if I can extrapolate from my limited experience, here are some tips I’d suggest for body love in sickness and in health:

1) Try to focus on what your body enables you to do, rather than comparing yourself to others, or feeling frustrated about what you can’t do. I would imagine that it’s sometimes hard to be a part of the online health community if you’re suffering from an illness, because the emphasis on “thriving” and “optimal health” is so very intense. Rather than wondering why you can’t run a marathon or wake up every day feeling like a million bucks, try to focus on the movements and good experiences that you do feel day to day.

2) Choose your reading material selectively. If a blog, book, or health resource makes you feel inadequate, or makes you assign blame to yourself for feeling unwell, take a break. Some health resources present a vision of health that’s a bit unrealistic, and it’s important to edit.

3) Tell loved ones what you need. This is a huge topic in itself, but it’s important to give friends and family the tools they need to support you when you don’t feel well. If excessive concern makes you cringe, just say “I really appreciate your care and concern, but I’d love to feel a bit liberated from my pain/condition right now, so can we talk about stuff that’s unrelated?” If people seem not to understand how bad you feel, tell them. Say, “I know it’s probably hard for you to see how poorly I feel, but I’m really uncomfortable right now, and I could use your support.”

As a side note, autoimmune disease and GI diseases are notoriously hard for people to empathize with because they’re not as “visible” or as well understood as other conditions. I remember when I used to tell people I had IBS, and the typical response belied an assumption that it was “all in my head.” I know that friends of mine with autoimmune disease have expressed even more frustration at how hard it is to convey one’s illness to those who don’t understand it. Just do your best; if you need to, don’t even give info on the condition itself, but rather express how it makes you feel.

4) Stay motivated, but be patient. I can’t tell you how many times I’m asked “how long did it take to heal your IBS?” Honest answer? Years. And by “heal,” I really mean “manage;” IBS, like many GI conditions, can be managed well through diet and lifestyle and stress management, but it’s rarely “cured” for good. This year, as a student, I’ve had plenty of flare ups; I don’t like it, but I am grateful it’s not chronic the way it used to be, and I know that there’s only so much I can do to control stress, fatigue, and so on.

If you are suffering through something a lot worse than IBS, I can only say that I hope you find ways to balance your motivation to get well with a realistic, patient approach to the healing process. Find others who have been through what you’re going through, and talk to them. Talk to your health care providers, talk to your loved ones, and remain hopeful that, no matter how long it takes, you will feel better.

5) No matter what, your body is beautiful. I know this can be a hard thing to feel or think when you’re in pain, and of course if you’re not in the mood to feel that way, it’s OK. But I do believe that all bodies, no matter what, are beautiful. Yours and mine.

Hope that this post is helpful both to my readers who struggle with long-term health conditions, and to those of you who are coping with mild, everyday complaints, but finding it hard to reconcile them with your dedication to healthy living. And I wish you all a great night.


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