Abs Are Not the Key to Happiness
Because February is eating disorder awareness month, there is nothing more important than talking about the reality of disordered eating and why it impacts the lives of so many people.
While an estimated one in five women struggle with an eating disorder, a greater percentage (75%) report having some sort of disordered eating, and 97% of women report having an “I hate my body" moment every day.
Will we ever be satisfied? Not if we have this mindset: “I just want a flat stomach.”
The Curse of the "Trouble Spot"
In fact, of all our body parts, the stomach is the number one “trouble spot” for women—the body part that 69% of women say they want to change. What is the answer to this pesky problem? Let's take a look at some common tactics to be rid of this stubborn enemy:
- Juice cleanses to banish belly bloat
- Spot training with 7-minute ab blasts
- Intermittent fasting
- More cardio
- Less carbs
- _______ (insert tactic of choice here)
What do you do? Unfortunately, no matter how hard we try, we are always going to come up short when we keep relying on what our body looks like to make us fully happy, confident, and satisfied.
Even if you do reach your goal weight, or see an ab—or four or six—pop out, or if you finally feel confident enough to go swimsuit or jeans shopping, relying on our appearance, weight, and size to “feel good in our own skin” will always leave you unsatisfied. Here's why:
- You must keep up your focus and hard work on the diet, workout routine, or rules you created for yourself to “get there,” which leaves you constantly feeling like something is clipping at your heels if you are not on top of your game.
- There will always be someone “better,” fitter, prettier, healthier, happier, etc. than us in our mind’s eye.
- Once we “reach” our goal, there will always be something more we want: to lose five more pounds, see two more abs show, see a thigh gap).
The Struggle Never Stops
For 14 years, I woke up most every day with one thought on my mind: “when I weigh X-weight or look like X then life will be so much better.” I thought about reaching these goals every day, and I scripted my to-do list around what I needed to do to “get there.” Things like cutting carbs, spending hours on the Stairmaster, avoiding social food gatherings at all costs, and counting my almonds one by one.
Even in my “weight gain” days, when I wanted so badly to “just gain 10 pounds, and then I’ll be happier,” I filled my self-care to-do list with checkboxes like eating ’til I could barely breathe, more strength training, protein shakes, and eating foods that didn’t always agree with my digestion or gut health.
Every night, without fail, when I laid my head down to rest, I felt completely defeated knowing I hadn’t reached my goals again today. But in the same breath, without fail, I’d tell myself, “You know what? Tomorrow is a brand new day to try again, and I am so close to the body I want.”
Wash. Rinse. Repeat.
Day in and day out, I woke up feeling the same way: hating my body. Then I’d try to “fix it” by focusing more on my body, food, and fitness. I’d go to bed each night, knowing I hadn’t fully achieved my goals, or I fell back into “old ways.” I’d tell myself that I’d try again tomorrow. Although I had another life outside of my diet and fitness routine as well (college, work, grad school, relationships, church, activities), my inner world felt like it revolved around thoughts about my body, food, and fitness.
The Lightbulb Moment
It will come when you least expect it. Complete freedom and happiness with your body, food, and fitness will come, ironically, when you start focusing less on these things and more on just living your life. It didn’t happen for me overnight. I had a rude awakening when my life came to a complete standstill when I was forced to enter eating disorder treatment at age 23. I was on death’s doorstep, at a weight I hadn’t been since I was 10-years-old.
Completely banned from my Stairmasters, low-carb lifestyle, protein shakes, and fitness magazines, I was forced to face my own worst nightmares:
- Lack of control
- Egg McMuffins, Eggo waffles and bagels for breakfast
- Takeout pizza every Friday night and pancakes or pastries every Saturday morning
- A sedentary lifestyle
- Ben & Jerry’s, processed foods, and Snickers Bars for snacks
- Chronic constipation, bloating, gas and discomfort in my own body
- Skin breakouts and pimples
- Growing out of my entire wardrobe
- Feeling lethargic, tired, and not like myself
- Medication prescriptions prescribed by my doctors to help me “recover” and think “more clearly”
- Talking all day, every day, about the past and my eating disorder
Although I am still not sure this extreme exposure therapy was the best approach for helping me heal or recover from my eating disorder, it was helpful for inspiring me to find something different: a happy medium where I felt good in my own skin, regardless of what my body looked like, what I ate, or if I worked out.
Ironically, living for a time in both extremes (extreme eating disorder and diet obsession; and eating disorder treatment, where I felt like a lazy American), helped me have a lightbulb moment I wasn’t looking for. For me it highlighted both extremes: “I never want to go through treatment like this again,” and, “I also never want to go back to my eating disorder again.”
I began to search high and low for the answer to actually feeling good in my own skin—not based on numbers, weight, calories, mirrors, or jeans. Do you know what I discovered? Feeling good in your own skin actually has nothing to do with six packs, popping shoulders, or Kim Kardashian booties. These things are fleeting.
Dangling Carrot Syndrome
When we make the “ideal body,” or “body confidence,” or “feeling good in our own skin” our primary goal and motivation for the things we eat, the way we workout, what we wear, or a million other ways we spend our time, we are always going to come up dry.
I call this “dangling carrot syndrome” because, like a horse that tries to reach the dangling carrot hanging over its nose as it continues to walk forward, we robotically do the same thing when we try to focus on the same things (the scale, our calories, our fat grams, macros, our jean size, how we look in certain pictures, etc.) and try to yield different results.
When has focusing on the scale worked for you—like really worked—to the point that you feel 100% confident? When has focusing on what you look like in pictures, or how you feel in your own skin really, solely, worked for you, so that you feel completely free to be who you are?
Whether you are overweight, underweight, feel too fat, or too skinny, when we wrap our self-esteem and worth in what we look like or how we feel about how we look, we are always going to come up dry.
While I constantly wanted to lose weight in my early eating disorder days, there also came a time when I constantly wanted to gain weight and be “bigger;” not little Lauryn anymore. I’d see pictures of beautiful CrossFit women, Blake Lively, other celebrity idols, even girls at my gym or women on the street and think, “Man. If only I looked like her,” or “If only I was a little more filled out,” or “If only I was a couple sizes bigger…then I'll be more confident.”
It was exhausting, because I was still chasing dangling carrots.
Start Loving Your Own Skin
To this day, I am still self-conscious about being little Lauryn, and sometimes hate my body for being thinner than I want it to be. But now I know that when my mindset shifts from my body and what it looks like to more internal and external factors that define true health (like my energy, digestion, non-obsessive thinking, living out my purpose, doing things I love, meaningful relationships, having fun in life) I feel more alive and less focused on what my outside shell looks like at all.
Here are eight tips to start loving all of the the skin you’re in (no dangling carrots included):
- Stop the negative self-talk. Remind yourself that obsessing over what you eat or look like doesn't make you look any better. Remember, you’ve tried this method a thousand times before.
- Give thanks. Thank your body for what it does, more than what it looks like. Your big strong legs should be appreciated for squatting 200lb on a barbell.
- Pick a new health “marker” (or a couple) to focus on. Energy, digestion, and a healthy gut, for example. Your ability to “go with the flow” on vacation or dinner out, and not freak out. Having refreshing sleep and balanced hormones. Pursuing your passions and setting goals in these areas. Feeling spiritual health and connectedness.
- Work it. Play to your strengths. What are you naturally good at? What are your natural physical and characters strengths you bring to the table? Comparing yourself to others will not get you anywhere other than discontent and chasing those dangling carrots.
- Smash the scale. Or throw out the FitBit. Delete the fitness or calorie tracker. Delete the Instagram accounts that trigger negative thinking, or unplug from social media altogether. Stop tempting yourself with things that put you down. Ironically, when we stop using these measures as barometers for success, often our body (and metabolism) starts working for us, not against us.
- Nourish. Eat and work out to nourish your body, not to punish it. Choose foods that nourish not only physically, but sometimes emotionally or mentally. Even though “emotional eating” is often viewed as a negative thing, it’s not bad occasionally.
- See your body as a whole, and not parts. You and your worth are not your thighs, your stomach, or your underarms. You are a whole person.
- Stand up for non-weight-bias and “health at every size.” Seriously. If and when you are truly taking care of yourself, your body will go to where its happy place is. For some, this is “bigger boned;” for others, this is “smaller framed” or “smaller chested." People in larger bodies often experience the effects of weight bias more deeply than those in smaller bodies, but no one is exempt from feeling shame about their body when we rely on society’s ideals. Our culture makes many people of every size feel on guard, critical of their perceived "flaws," and wanting something other than the body they are in today.
So how do you get there? How do you get to the point you don’t care so much about what you look like without “letting yourself go” or feeling completely unconfident in your own skin?
Join me in a movement (and new attitude) I’m calling the Thrive Life Project, aimed at developing this champion mindset I am talking about. Genuinely learn to love your body—from the inside out.
Find yourself and take some steps toward eating disorder recovery: