I have always struggled with maintaining a healthy relationship with food. I have straddled both ends of the spectrum: being too lax with my health and fitness and being too obsessed. Having health and fitness on the back burner, ignoring the rising scale as well as never being able to enjoy the meal before me without thinking about how many calories I was about to consume. I have had problems with my period for being overweight and problems with it for being too extreme on the other end. I think it’s safe to say that I have never been good at listening to my body.
In March of 2015 I was introduced to the exercise program called 21 Day Fix. Thirty minutes of exercise a day and a meal plan lead to a changed life. After my first round I dropped ten pounds and the results became a springboard that launched me into obsession and anxiety. I obsessed over the compliments I was getting and always had anxiety about getting in my workouts and not eating more calories than the program allowed. Thirty minutes of exercise and 1500-1800 calories per day sounds pretty healthy, right? I thought so! Nonetheless, my last period was in April of that year. It was very short and very light and disappeared for 20 months thereafter. At first I thought that my body was adjusting and ignored the change. Actually, I enjoyed not having cramps, stained bed sheets and pants, and the ability to swim whenever I felt like it.
The party didn’t last long, though, and after three consecutive missed periods…
I went to the doctor and two different OBGYNs who all told me that my hormone levels were fine, that I was still ovulating, and to simply keep on keeping on. While my mom was happy that all was fine, I wasn’t satisfied. I knew that not having a period couldn’t be normal, no matter what professionals said. There is a reason God created the woman’s body the way He did, and if my period stopped my body was definitely trying to tell me something. And yet, I wasn’t ready to loosen the reigns on my obsessive and militaristically strict health and fitness regime, so I did just what the doctor ordered: I kept on keeping on and told myself that everything was ok and that my body would eventually adjust to my new “normal.” I have quotations around that word because my situation became anything but. Sure, 30 minutes of exercise a day seems healthy, but the anxiety and pressure I put on myself to get those workouts in coupled with a low caloric intake for my baseline needs was definitely a recipe for disaster.
Also, in order to give myself a break from restrictive eating throughout the week, I would give myself the weekends to eat without calorie counting, which led to binge eating. On the weekends I would eat myself sick to the point that I had sleepless nights running back and forth from my bed to the restroom – a result of eating way too much and my stomach wanting revenge. My mental state was also anything but healthy. I would cancel plans if they conflicted with my eating schedule and could never enjoy a social gathering because I was too obsessive about the food, the calories, and the overeating (oh my!). Sound familiar? It certainly does to countless women who are killing themselves to fit society’s ideal. So, sure, I may have looked healthy on the outside. But I was slowly dismantling my mental and emotional health. I was exhausted from the pressure I constantly put on myself to look a certain way and frustrated that it was never enough.
I couldn’t ignore the inevitable for long.
I constantly researched about amenorrhea – the fancy doctor word for loss of a woman’s menstrual cycle – and realized that I was not alone, that there was an entire community of women who were struggling with the loss of their period and with body image. Those who were victorious and got their periods back told me to relax, to eat, and to stop exercising; to be honest, this scared me immensely. “I can’t gain weight,” I would think, “I can’t undo all of this work” because in my mind, weight gain was equivalent to failure. Despite these thoughts, I knew I had to make a change and so I tentatively upped my calories but continued to strictly follow my intense workout schedule. A few months later I crossed paths with “Intuitive Eating” by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, a book that challenged my ideas about health and body image and for which I am forever grateful. And so, I dropped the calorie counters and began to mend my relationship with food. However, I still could not let go of my workouts. I feared that the moment I stopped the control, I would snowball back into being overweight.
About four months later I noticed my issues with control regarding my body. I knew that my period would not start again until my mind and my body could make up, so to speak, and learn to trust each other again. So I stopped. I stopped putting pressure on myself to workout and only did so when I actually felt like it. When I did feel like it, I would either walk or practice light yoga. Full disclosure – this was really, really hard. The fear can be overwhelming and as a result I was constantly in tears for a few days. “How many pounds away?” I would ask myself. “How many weeks, months, or years?” “How many sizes will my jeans go up until I finally have a period again?” These fears took me to a dark place that only prayer could bring me out of. I prayed and asked God to help me understand what His idea of beauty is and to help me get rid of the lies this society has washed my brain with about what makes a woman beautiful. I began to learn that a number does not define my beauty; whether that number be a caloric range, a jeans size, or the one flashing on the scale (which, by the way, you should throw away). I learned that a number it is just that – a number.
It cannot tell you that you are funny, smart, loving, or kind. It cannot make you a friend, a daughter, a sister, or any other aspect of your identity. It cannot measure the quality of your relationships or give you beautiful memories or hilarious stories. A number is just a number and nothing more. The moment I chose to accept that numbers never had and never will define me is the moment I truly let go and embraced my body exactly the way Jesus chose it to be.
Only ten days later I started my period.
I jumped up and down and danced all around the bathroom at work and must have thanked God a hundred times. It still shocks me how quickly my body began to trust me again and I truly count it as a miracle. I still struggle, friends. Thoughts of food and body image still linger in my mind more that I care to admit, but I know it won’t be this way forever. I refuse to let myself miss out on life because of lies telling me that you can only enjoy it if you are a size 2. My prayer for all who read this is that you may love your body and treat it with the respect it deserves. That you may nourish it and cherish it because it is fearfully made by the same God who created galaxies, waterfalls, and every beautiful thing you see when you walk out your front door. I wish I could take each of you out to coffee and talk about society’s toxic ideas about beauty, why they are absolute hogwash and what health, fitness and beauty really means.
To those of you who are still battling amenorrhea, please don’t give up.
Please keep going because victory is really sweet. The best advice I could give you is this: eventually, you need to stop researching. You need to stop reading about what others did and what worked for them. I’m sure you know by now how overwhelming all that can be. Your body is unique and knows what you need and all you have to do is listen. That’s it. Eat what and when and how much it tells you. Exercise it in a way that brings absolutely no mental distress or pressure. Listen to your body and let it make amends with your mind.
I wish you all the very best in your recovery and hope that you find true contentment with who God has made you to be.
With love and prayer,