What Happened When I Stopped Trying To 'Bounce Back'
My wellness journey began about three months after my son was born. I was so in love with this new little life that relied on me for everything and I reveled in caring for him. It was exhausting breastfeeding every two to three hours and his colic made for some trying days, nights, weeks … yet it was all worth it for his first smile, rolling over, staring into my eyes, and every marvel in between.
Even though this exhausting little bundle of joy was all-encompassing, I still had time to dwell on the leftover baby weight from my pregnancy. For a while, I believed that those last stubborn ten pounds would fall off if I breastfed, but the weight clung to my frame in rolls around my waist line and they were just as unwelcome as uninvited guests. It was incredibly frustrating that my body felt so foreign to me. Places that were once smooth now were dimpled. Parts that had wide gaps now rubbed together uncomfortably. Not to mention the fact that almost none of my pre-pregnancy clothes fit because of my larger frame. I was desperate to shed this extra weight in an effort to find the body that I once knew. Apparently this thought was shared by many women.
During one of my many late night perusals of mommy forums, I stumbled upon an ad for a mom-focused workout. It advertised that I could fit my workouts easily into my day and they only took 20 minutes. I decided then that I could be like all of these celebrities and “women just like me” and began my weight loss journey. Heck, I might even look better than before I had the baby. I mean, every testimonial was accompanied by a picture of a mother with washboard abs, a thigh gap, mysteriously large, perky breasts, and a spray tan. Maybe I could also look as good as the multitude of women who had tried this program.
Before I began the hard work of losing the remaining baby weight, I decided to do some research into what would work best for losing weight and toning up. After all, I am a teacher, and I like to thoroughly research before starting a project. The minute I hit the search button, my screen was inundated with articles, blogs, and Instagram posts all boasting that they had the key to weight loss. I could go keto and remove essentially all carbs from my diet. Or I could eat like a caveman on the Paleo diet. Maybe I should try the Whole30 to see if I had any food intolerances? Sure, the grocery bill would be astronomical, but I would learn so much about myself … or so I was told. It would be the perfect experiment to kick off my clean eating.
Once I settled on a combination of paleo/clean-eating, I needed a workout that fit me. One article said that I should do yoga five days a week, so I dutifully twisted myself like a pretzel five days a week. Another touted the benefits of running three to four days a week, so I laced up my shoes for four. I also shouldn’t forget weight lifting, so I literally brushed the dirt and cobwebs off my weights.
By the time I had assembled my hodgepodge program, I found myself working out multiple times a day and restricting food to hit my macros. Each day I consulted my schedule to see what workout I needed to do that day, then I would grab one of my rigorously researched meal preps that hit my calories and macros, grab my water, and get to my fabulously healthy lifestyle. I was the working poster girl for wellness … until I wasn’t.
Throughout my regimented wellness endeavor, I still had to juggle motherhood and my return to teaching. My mornings began around five o’clock for my morning run — then I’d nurse my little guy, and get us fed, dressed, packed up, and out the door. My days consisted of teaching teenagers, eating my meal-prepped lunch at my desk while I pumped, running to meetings, fielding parent phone calls, and prepping lessons. I would then pick my son up and we would return home around 5:00 p.m., where I would spend my few precious hours with my baby either feeding, bathing, and getting him into bed. Then I would do my second workout.
The days began to feel overwhelming, especially because my son still wasn’t sleeping through the night. Not even close. It soon became clear that I was headed for a major burnout: I could barely get out of bed, I was chugging coffee like it was air, I was short tempered with my students, and I felt like I couldn’t keep up with my baby.
It seemed I could not give 100% of my energy and focus to even one thing and frustrated me to no end. It did not matter how much I scheduled, prepped, multitasked, or “meditated on” my problems. I was pulling myself in too many directions in name of wellness, and the bags and purple crescents under my eyes were beginning to betray me, and my “I woke up like this, no need for makeup when I drink five gallons of water a day, eat clean, journal, meditate, bathe in unicorn tears, and consult Oprah five times a week” front.
Even through all of this, my husband and I knew that we wanted more children and we wanted them to be close together in age. So we decided to start trying for another baby around our son’s first birthday. There was just one problem: I couldn’t remember the last time I had my period. Aunt Flo hadn’t knocked on my door in months. As we began trying, I grew to regret the days when I would curse and bemoan the fact that I was retaining water like a sinking ship and going through boxes of tampons. Now, I would have welcomed my period with open arms, flowers, a five-course meal, and anything to show my appreciation. However, my period was elusive.
Finally, I consulted my OBGYN and was referred to a fertility specialist where I was diagnosed with unexplained infertility. This diagnosis frustrated me because I am Type A and need answers and solutions. I stewed over this enigmatic diagnosis. It ate at me while I taught, when I brushed my teeth, and kept me awake as I was trying to fall asleep … well, that and Netflix. After enough frustration, I began to — you guessed it — research. Yes, if the answer is not forthcoming my default is to consult the almighty Google and scholarly journals.
The more I looked into my situation, there seemed to be one glaring answer to my problem: hypothalamic amenorrhea. This issue generally affects athletes and women with eating disorders. Basically, women don’t put enough fuel in their tank for their bodies to run on. Eventually, the body stops nonessential functions to compensate for this lack of energy, which results in the reproductive system shutting down. Women will not ovulate or have periods, which makes getting pregnant essentially impossible. If one were to embody hypothalamic amenorrhea it would look like those marathon runners whose bodies just begin to shut down while they are racing: knees buckling underneath them, pale skin barely covering their sinewy limbs, and their eyes unfocused and staring longingly towards the finish line that they would never reach.
My specialist agreed that hypothalamic amenorrhea was most likely what was going on with my body. It explained my meager hormone levels as well as my anovulation (not ovulating) and the resulting lack of a period. Desperate to add to our family, my husband dutifully injected hormones into my abdomen, I swallowed all of the pills, underwent an IUI (intrauterine insemination), and invested thousands of dollars in the hopes that all of this would result in a pregnancy. We were incredibly lucky that (1) we had the money for the procedure and (2) I was pregnant after just one cycle. We were so fortunate. But all I could think about was how I put us in this position because I wanted to lose ten pounds.
The more time that has passed since my fertility treatments, the more I realize that I was the perfect target for the wellness industry. I was easy to take advantage of because I was vulnerable, desperate, and the perfect student who would do all my homework. My social media feeds were inundated with picture after picture of incredibly fit women selling their miracle nutrition or exercise programs thanks to click algorithms. Post after post of “testimonials” told me that the average woman could achieve these results if they stuck to these plans. Yet, here I was — exhausted, sick, and unable to finish the workouts. Why was I so weak? Was I alone in not only failing the program, but also left with impaired health?
The wellness industry is just that — an industry. It is meant to make people money, no matter the cost. Even if that cost is the health of its consumer. In fact, the industry generated $4.2 billion dollars in 2017. Too often men and women alike fall prey to this idealized image that if we are fit, then we can finally be happy. Just like if we buy the perfect wardrobe, we will be happy and confident. Or maybe if we buy just the right product, we can finally achieve that goal we have been longing to meet.
Wellness is a product that many are trying to sell and everyone is trying to buy. It is also designed so people will fail. When people fail, they blame it on their willpower and the program that they invested in. Then they decide to move onto the next big trend that promises big results, thus perpetuating the cycle of self-loathing for failing and vowing to stick to the next big thing, no matter the cost. This constant scramble for the “right” program is what generates so much revenue. People hardly bat an eye over a $100 program, but lose their mind when their favorite coffee shop increases their prices a half percent.
The reason so many of these diets and exercise regimens fail is because our bodies are not designed to function this way. We need to meet so many calories in a day and these calories need to come from a wide variety of sources. Eliminate a source, and your body will eventually begin to crave it. Eventually, many people end this elimination diet with a binge, usually on calorically dense foods because it craves that energy (i.e. cookies, burgers, candy, etc). After these binges, people feel so guilty about “cheating” on their diets that they begin the cycle all over again by sticking to their new diet until they inevitably binge again. I was very much one of these people. Oreos barely made it into the house, cake couldn’t be shoveled into my mouth fast enough, and forget about leftovers of anything that was fried. When I took inventory of the damage I had done to my body, I would feel shame and guilt and vowed to adhere to my diet.
Since my diagnosis and fertility troubles, I’ve begun to be kinder and more gentle to my body. Part of this has to do with my pregnancy, but the majority of this self-care is that I have found a happy medium. I have discovered intuitive eating, thanks to the podcast FoodPsych with Christy Harrison and the help of a nutritionist. I listen to what my body wants and needs. More often then not, it wants fresh veggies and fruits, but I still crave fast food or a piece of cake, and I eat that too! I’m just more aware of my hunger and fullness cues. I no longer feel like the perfect apparatus to eat cake with is a shovel.
I still exercise, but only when I feel up to it. If my son was awake all night, then I don’t hit the gym that following day. In the gym, I do exercises that feel good to me, like walking instead of running, yoga instead of HIIT, and lifting lighter weights. Since this change, I feel so much better. I am no longer overwhelmed and my mind is not preoccupied with exercise and diet.
The wellness industry cost me my health and the health of so many others. It is time for people to speak out against it and embrace their bodies. Mothers do not need to “lose the baby weight,” but they might want another piece of cake. Young girls and boys do not need to look like celebrities; they need to be focused on school, friends, and family. Men and women do not need to look like influencers and may have other important matters to attend to, rather than obsessing about their diet or exhausting themselves at the gym.
I am not saying that diet and exercise don’t belong in our daily life; in fact, I would be lost without it. However, I do think that it is important for people to think about what actually serves them. If you don’t like running, then don’t do it. If you like it, go for it! It is about finding what works for you. If it causes undue stress and worry, maybe find something different. If you look forward to your workouts, then it sounds like you’ve found something that works for you. In the end, only we know what is right for our bodies — not Instagram, not Facebook, not your best friend who swears this diet helped her lose 30 pounds. It is time we take back the wellness industry and get well.
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