“Growing up, I was chubby—and hyper-aware of it.” I strongly believed there was something wrong with the way I looked,” recalls Alex Light. And so began a toxic relationship with diets from the age of 11.
She popped a rib after making herself vomit on a plane and tried every diet under the sun. “I was irritable, self-centred and too preoccupied to be present,” she recalls.
After a “long, hard and painful” recovery receiving treatment for anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa, Alex, now 32, has “found true food freedom and body acceptance”. She adds, “I’m at a higher weight and I’m the happiest and most successful I’ve ever been,”
Here, in an extract from her new book ‘You Are Not a Before Picture’, she urges others to stop feeling shameful about those extra pounds and ounces…
“Weight loss = good. Weight gain = bad. Right? That’s certainly what we’ve been taught – idolise the skinny and condemn the fat…
But weight gain, just like weight loss, is an inherent part of life.
It occurs for many reasons: recovering from an eating disorder or disordered eating, mental health issues, stress, sleep issues, medication, physical illnesses, physical injuries, menopause, pregnancy and many more. Sometimes, it’s for a simple reason – maybe you no longer walk to work or you’re socializing more and are enjoying eating socially.
Whatever the reason, weight fluctuations are a normal part of being a human and neither weight loss nor weight gain should be celebrated or villainised.
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My weight gain was a result of recovering from an eating disorder and disordered eating. I was terrified of my body getting bigger, and I know I wasn’t alone in this – many of us are fearful of weight gain because we’ve been conditioned to believe that being fat is such a terrible thing.
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I was starkly aware of the contrast between the comments I received when I was thinner – ‘You look amazing!’, ‘You’re my body goals!’, ‘How do you stay so thin? I’m so jealous’ are just a sample of the compliments I received during my thinnest (and unhappiest!) phase – and the silence my new, bigger body was met with.
As I tried to become healthy, I was so consumed with fostering the negative feelings, it took a while for me to identify some of the benefits that weight gain can often bring [I have to note here that I was lucky enough to be able to work with a psychologist throughout this]. What sticks out the most was the realisation that I was able to eat and eat regularly. This was a huge relief after such a long period of being restrictive. It felt euphoric.
Armed with more energy and able to think more clearly my work performance improved. I also gained mental capacity for other things I previously hadn’t been able to allocate any time to, like nurturing relationships with my family and my friends.
On the aesthetic front, I had a lot of hair regrowth – my hair was in poor condition after years of malnutrition – and my skin shed its usual dullness for a slight glow.
My mum summed it up one day when she said: ‘You’ve got your spark back. You were just a shell of yourself.’
We all grew up in a fatphobic culture that taught us that being thin was the best thing a human can achieve. To counter this I shared a series of posts depicting my own weight gain with the message: ‘It’s OK to gain weight.’
Women from all over the world expressed their relief at seeing this ‘permission’ being granted to them. One person actually did DM me to tell me: ‘You’ve really let yourself go.’ I told him that yes, I had, in fact, let myself go. I had let myself go and let myself live, and it was the most powerful thing I’ve ever done for myself.
Weight gain was the external proof of this and I was damn proud of it. He responded with: ‘OK but ur still ugly’. Needless to say, I left it there!”
Here are a few we can do to help embrace weight gain, says Alex…
Turn to self-compassion. It’s OK to be struggling with weight gain. Pushing those feelings down by pretending that it isn’t challenging can make it even more difficult in the long term. Allow yourself to grieve your previous body or your fantasy of yourself at a lower weight.
Think about the relationship you currently have with the scales. Is weighing yourself doing you any good? Or is it causing you harm? It’s likely the latter, given the power the scales have when it comes to dictating our self-worth.
Diversify your social media feed. Rid it of the thin ideal imagery that’s rampant on social media and follow people who look like you and people that don’t. Open your eyes up to new ideals and visions of beauty.
Focus on how you feel. It’s easy to focus on the reflection in the mirror or the number on the scale and let it affect you but this relinquishes power to diet culture. Reclaim the power by getting in touch with your body: for me, that’s through exercise, focusing on what my body can do, rather than how it looks.
Think about a new wardrobe. I know this isn’t possible for everyone, but it’s demoralising to be confronted with a wardrobe full of clothes that no longer fit.
Acknowledge that bodies change. It’s part of being a human being and it’s only because of the world we live in that weight loss is considered good and weight gain as bad. Rid yourself of shame.
Set boundaries with people immersed in diet culture. Be super-aware of exactly what you do and don’t need right now. Set your boundaries with people who are engaging in diet/weight talk and making you feel inadequate.
Live your life. Please don’t avoid social occasions because of your weight gain. You’re treating yourself with shame and I guarantee you it won’t make you feel any better.
Nourish your body. Reconnect with your body’s hunger and fullness cues and try to practise intuitive eating. Your body deserves to be nourished and treated well, no matter what size.
If you’re triggered by any subjects in this article, are struggling with an eating disorder or behaviors you think you might indicate an eating disorder – contact your GP or Beat on 0808 801 0677
You Are Not a Before Picture by Alex Light (published by HQ) is out now in hardback, eBook and audio.
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