When I was younger, I was a competitive baton twirler (AKA pageant girl). It's a hostile environment for young women who are just learning to determine their worth. In this world, worth is determined by strangers based your talent and your appearance, compared to the other women in your division. You are watched, criticized, sized-up, scored, and placed in order of value with your peers, often girls you know and like, who you may (often) end up being "less than".
After five years in the sport, I decided I was done. I left with a few friends, a lot of issues, and no idea what all of this had impressed upon me as a young girl. I was eleven - I just wanted to be the coolest girl at my middle school and training four hours a day after school isolated me from that goal.
Fast forward to my freshman year in high school: my mentor from the baton years is now my Dad's girlfriend, living with us, battling the fallout of aging out of the sport, the only source of identity that she had. I don't blame her for what I learned from her, but I wish her well and hope she's found the peace I'm creating.
It started with weight gain - when she stopped professionally training for 6 hours daily, 5 - 6 days a week, her body started to go through some changes. Then came the fatigue. The depression. The fervent research online as to what could solve all of this. I watched her from the sidelines - turning 12, then 13, learning alongside her about counting calories, body fat percentage, the evil of carbs, the evil of meats, and then, the evil of food.
You had to worry about parasites, chemicals, and additives - so go organic. The meat industry was bad - go vegan. Your adrenals were fatigued, your thyroid taxed, your digestion malfunctioning - do a 3-day, 10-day, 30-day juice fast. Inflammation is killing you - cut out gluten. Your glucose levels are unstable - cut out sugar. Heating foods removed what nutrients were left in your depleted, big-ag grown food - go raw vegan.
Raw vegan women had bright skin, never gained a pound, had flawless muscles and shiny hair. They didn't experience inflammation or mucus or colds because their immune systems were perfect and their macro-nutrients were on point. Yet, some of the girls at my school also had no acne, never gained weight, dressed trendy, listened to all the right music, and could eat whatever they wanted. There must be something broken about me, maybe if I adhere to a super-strict protocol based on all of my research and experience, I could be perfect too.
I'm 14, 5'7, vegan, confused, not worth a damn to anyone (in my own mind), and 112lb. (My healthy weight is 130 - 135)
To summarize high school and college, I unconsciously detach myself from food and instead, come to fear it. Gluten, dairy, sugar, refined ingredients, non-organic foods, soy, corn, fungi, grains, carbs, high-sugar fruits, sweeteners (even agave), pasteurized products, certain oils, restaurant food, alcohol, tap water. If I ate them, I punished myself. If I omitted them in front of anyone, I punished myself for my social weirdness. If I thought about eating them, I punished myself for my weakness. If I acknowledged I couldn't eat them, I punished myself for my imperfection.
It was a vicious cycle: Restrict, punish; binge, punish; justify, punish; explain it to someone, punish.
At the root of everything, I can't seem to get my life under control. I feel like I have my disordered eating in check, so I start supplementing - thirty or so pills morning and night, sometimes a handful at lunch. I'm incomplete. I'm genetically imperfect.
I keep thinking that if I fix my health - if I'm not tired, have no acne, never have a skin rash or a loose bowel or a stomach ache or a headache or sneeze - that I will be worthy. All of these symptoms manifest, I have proof that I'm broken. I see a doctor, they tell me they can fix me. I just have to take more supplements, get more tests, wait more time.
It's November 2016, I can no longer afford my fancy doctor who can fix me. I finally make an appointment at AcuHerbal in St Pete for a $10 student consultation. We spend three hours. I'm fired up, I want to get better. They prescribe me one supplement. One. "For Yuan balance"
A month later, after taking this one supplement, I have my follow-up appointment. I'm even more fired up. I want to fix my gut, get rid of candida, finally validate my perfect lifestyle and become a healed person. My consultant starts reading off the symptoms I reported in the first appointment.
1. Fatigue - better
2. Digestion - hasn't been bothering me
3. Anxiety - barely at all
4. Skin spots - wow, they haven't returned
I sit there in silence, I'm confused. The discussion we have is to the tune of:
Maybe it isn't about the supplements. Maybe it isn't about your genetic results or what you think you could be doing better. Maybe it's about being okay with being imperfect. Maybe it's about giving yourself the time and space to heal, rather than stressing that you're not already healed.
I go home confused. No new supplements. My diet is fine, amazing actually. My psychological state is better than I can recall in years. My budget is not being drained by medicine that I didn't need. My identity is no longer "being broken", but "healing".
It's 2017. The theme of the year is Patience. I've decided to be patient with myself as I heal, as I create a new meaning for what that word even means. Right now, healing means loving my skin because it protects my body and tells me when something off is going on inside me; loving my body because it is strong enough to carry me up a rock wall or do a fast-paced ashtanga practice; loving my hair because it is wild and it is mine; loving the food I choose because I'm fortunate enough to have choices and the resources to cook or purchase them for myself.
For me, healing starts with creating a new relationship with food and reintroducing foods that I fear back into my diet.
What I won't be doing is re-incorporating foods that don't serve me. The only way I can learn if a food (corn, soy, gluten, dairy, tap water, etc) serves me is to try it for myself. To pay attention. To be so very generous with my attention and gentle analysis of my experience with that food.
Am I nourished? Am I energized? Am I happy? - Am I tired? Am I drained? Am I sick?
If anyone is worthy of my time and attention and gentleness, it's me. So I'm going to take the time that I need to heal. I'm going to take my worth out of my health and place it in my well-being. If having a loaf of sourdough with brie contributes positively to my well-being, BRING IT ON. If raw dairy milk makes my stomach do carnival ride flips, I'm going to thank myself for trying and move on with confidence.
Eating gluten in 2017 is on my Wildflowers 100 list and I am so very proud to have completed it. I omitted gluten officially as a New Year's resolution in 2014. The last time I ate gluten was in early 2016, and I broke out in boils on my palms and feet. The only actual symptom I experienced this year was anxiety that I would have more symptoms. This organic sourdough loaf is the first of many experiments with gluten this year, including learning to make my own at a workshop next week.
What I can tell you is that I felt nurtured after eating this bread. I broke it carefully with my bare hands; I studied its stretchy, spongy texture; ran my fingertips over it's artful crust. I felt this surge of humanity - I felt the warmth of breaking bread at a table with friends, the swell of pride seeing bread rise in an over, the labor of love in each knead that produced this glorious loaf. Bread has been a cornerstone of the Western diet for centuries - it's inexpensive, accessible to all, filling, and simple.
What works for one body does not work for everybody. But for now, in 2017, gluten has decided it works with mine. I'm grateful I had the strength to try.
If you're experiencing fears of food, disordered eating, or an identity that may need some recalibration - reach out. I'm just one person telling their story, but I never want anyone to feel as alone as perfectionism leads to believe you deserve.