Part of that knowledge regards my own health and body. Body image, real and perceived, is an issue alive and well for just about every person I know.
My whole life, I was genetically thin. Growing up with 8 siblings, we could eat anything: active, energetic and carefree kids. My brother and I held a taco eating contest at ages 11 and 12. He won, just slightly, with 13 tacos to my 12. I didn't do sports in high school (even though I towered over most girls) due to my clumsiness and timidness, but I tried my hand at dance. Until I stood uncomfortably over everyone in point shoes with my stork legs.
Married and living in Hawaii, between 25 and 27 I put on 10 pounds of "happy" weight, fueled by honeymoon pasta meals and sushi rolls, Jamba Juice and mochas. We both did. Once we realized it we joined a gym, took up a brief stint with running, and I dropped back to my "fighting weight." Well, close to it. It had been 135, but now it hovered around 140. Still a solid size 6 on my 5'11 frame.
We moved to Arizona in 2002, when I was 28. For the first time, newly pregnant, weight crept on as I had no filter about eating. We always ate 'well,' organic vegetables and balanced meals, but I loved ice cream and Kashi cereal along with long walks and prenatal yoga. 50 pounds later, 9 months along, I stood at my doctor's in shock wondering how the number 192 stared at me from the scale. What the hell happened?
Caring for a sick baby however can peel pregnancy weight off. During Liam's blurry first year in and out of the hospital, frantically recording his weight and monitoring his feeding tube and medications, I completely lost sight of myself in every possible way. Including my shrinking frame as I directed all my efforts to helping the baby in my arms bulk up.
When he neared his first birthday, stable at last, I pulled on a pair of size 8 shorts and they fell all the way down to the floor. I tried again, and again. I remember my face in the mirror, completely surprised, just as I had been a year before on the ob's scale. I took a good hard look at myself and saw cheekbones, hip bones, and arm definition in my biceps.
High cortisol levels due to extreme stress can present as rapid weight loss or, as I would find out later, stubborn gain. So began the next six years of my crash course in Weight and Stress 101.
I gained 45 pounds with Audrey, and lost all but 10 before getting pregnant with Aedan, right as she turned one. She contracted the same kidney disorder Liam had; soon after he received his autism diagnosis at age 3. Consistent stress became my constant companion in the minivan taking Liam to therapy appointment after appointment, baby Aedan eating lunch in the backseat in his carseat. I seethed at the 15 lingering baby pounds, mad at my body.
Three times a week I'd kill time at Gold's Gym during Liam's habilitation appointments, kids in child care as I sweated on the elliptical. I'd get on the scale and it wouldn't budge from 165. Teaching yoga gave me a nice outlet and I tried to cook at home as much as possible, but they were toddler meals, peppered with lots of drive-throughs and lattes to get through each day. I lost sight of myself again, thinking maybe this was the new me.
Then, in a bout of inspiration, I took up running. Trained for (thought I would die, building up to the first three miles), then completed my first half marathon in January 2008 when Aedan was 9 months: crossing that finish line sobbing and heaving and snotting, I saw a light. I found something empowering for myself and felt strong and capable. The scale had moved to 155 and I rejoiced.
But cortisol is a sneaky bitch. Cortisol, alongside its twin: hormone imbalance. We were just getting by, starting a business and raising three difficult kids, money tight, our relationship on a sort of hiatus. I ate more comfort food that I wanted to admit, and even with running, gained five pounds back. I chopped my hair off. Took up Pilates. I didn't understand the connection between stress, inflammation, diet, weight and exercise. I thought I did all I could with what I knew.
Brendan and I tried a crash course of hCG in January 2009, as he wanted to offer it in his clinic. I was up to try anything to get my body back as well as expand the business. For the first time, my eyes were opened to how difficult it could be for dieters who exercised with no results. I found a new compassion for people on weight loss journeys, searching for the right formula to reach an elusive scale number.
The seeds were planted for my current career.
I rebelled against the hCG diet, but we stuck it out. He lost 25 pounds and I lost 15 - finally, finally the scale dipped under 150. In February I left my kids with their rockstar dad and flew to London for my sister's wedding. My family noticed the "new/old" me and I felt renewed. Fantastic, actually. Like a weight, literal and figurative, lifted, giving my sense of self back.
Weight however is just a vessel: the real power comes from internal change.
In 2010 Brendan tested my hormones, which were completely out of whack: estrogen gone wild, testosterone and progesterone virtually non-existent. Once they started regulating with treatment, I felt my vitality return. My foggy brain lessened, my muscles became more defined, I had more pep in my step. I trained for more half marathons, did Insanity. Hired a personal trainer for once a week weight lifting. We bought an InBody scale for the office and my new obsession became body fat instead of weight.
I saw it dip down to 17%, then hover around 20%. My weight would fluctuate easily five pounds, and I started to pay attention to my food intake. I felt stronger and leaner, but still self conscious about my weight, especially when visiting my sisters, who all were around 10-20 lbs less than me. My hormones regulated, I worked out, ate well: what gave?
I tried hCG again but remained terrible at it. I am a no-good dieter. I fixated on a new "fighting weight" number but it wouldn't budge. As long as I remained around 18% body fat, worked out with yoga, running, weights a few times a week (all of which I enjoyed), I tried to release my grip on body image.
Then I hurt myself, blew out my achilles, experiencing all the fears, insecurities and emotions you can imagine from an overuse injury. No running for up to a year? Devastated doesn't cover it. Besides losing my de-stress hobby, my first thought was: "Now I'm going to get fat."
Fat? Why was this word even in my vocabulary anymore?
Today, in nutrition school, I am learning more and more about inflammation, diet, the damaging effects of long-term stress and adrenal fatigue. More lightbulbs going off. I cut out dairy right around the same time (last September) that I decided to unleash my grip on the scale. I began to feel secure about myself, started to notice positive attributes in the mirror instead of zeroing in the "flaws."
Once I cut out dairy, I lost 5 pounds almost instantly. Low-grade inflammation to casein, triggered by high cortisol, kept just enough of a bloat on that I couldn't break free of it. It adds to anxiety as well, as the pathways of inflammation affect the brain and nervous system.
Every time I cheated with a little dairy, over the next few months, my stomach would hurt immediately. A few more pounds came off with more vinyasa yoga and relaxation about the process. I am now 10 pounds down from where I was last August, and several body fat percentage points.
I attribute it to not only changing my diet and my attitude, but loosening my grip on unhealthy communication patterns and ways of thinking about myself. I won’t always recommend therapy to clients who are on a health quest, but for me it made a huge impact.
I have returned to yoga - all 8 limbs, not just an emphasis on asana (poses) - and can say I see the world from a healthier lens now. Flexibility of mind and spirit has become a crucial tool for me in turning my body image around. I see strength and ease in the mirror now, even though the problem areas are still there.
I had three babies in three years. I went through trauma, PTSD, guilt and intense therapy. And good old-fashioned age. My stomach will never be completely flat, but that's okay. It’s gotten strong. I wouldn't trade the three little people who occupy my world for the easy abs of my twenties. Back when I thought I knew everything. I will stumble a lot still in judging myself, but have developed the awareness to turn down the volume of the inner critic, constantly seeing images of idealized bodies and unattainable goals.
I feel free as I slowly absorb all I've learned from Brendan and the corrective diets he created for our clients, IIN lectures, peers, and my own body in what works to help me feel my best. Weight remains only a fraction of becoming a healthy person empowered by a very personal journey.
I want to help people loosen up their grip on weight, find tangible ways to listen to their bodies, and learn simple strategies to cook healthy meals and find balance. Our bodies are our vessels, true, but they are also battleships traversing stormy seas : trauma, childbirth, stress, injuries, chronic fatigue and more. Time to recognize and salute the journey rather than punish ourselves for it.
And freaking enjoy it ... cheat meals, stop obessing over always eating perfectly, et cetera. I won’t ever punish myself towards 135 again because I love food and I cherish life.
On the other side of the weight war, we can find a well-deserved truce.