I Learned What True Self-Care Looks Like — And It's Not Weight Loss

by Kamie Foster Maddocks
David Sacks/Getty

Last year, I started a journey to take better care of myself.

A few months had passed after my second baby was born, and I was feeling really run down. I found an online exercise subscription which included a virtual catalogue of hundreds of workout videos promising results of a new, strong, happy, healthy you! Excited for a change, I thought this would be the perfect resource to help prioritize postpartum self-care.

I believed I needed to lose so many pounds to be healthy and that this physical change would help me find my spark. My plan was to wake up before my boys and do one of the short but intense exercise videos. I hoped that with this new routine, my life would start becoming more manageable.

This plan seemed reasonable to me, and I was being extra cautious because years before in college, I had struggled with eating disorder behaviors.

I ate healthy — too “healthy.” I was constantly dieting, restricting. and skipping meals when I could. Typically spending hours at the gym daily, I would become overwhelmed if my exercise or my diet didn’t match my high expectations.

I thought this was being healthy until my life started collapsing. I was a constant mess of anxiety. Feeling intensely hungry or deprived, I would binge uncontrollably when I was around food. This would lead to feelings of desperation and shame.

Courtesy of Kamie Maddocks

Fluctuating between feeling numb and then overcome with emotion, I couldn’t make simple decisions. One moment I would feel empty and blank, and the next I would be screaming at the people who mattered most to me. I was out of control. So, I started going to counseling.

During counseling for disordered eating (round one), I learned that people do not need to diet. This idea was so shocking and freeing for me that it radically changed my life. No more counting calories, skipping meals, or “replacement” meals of only a smoothie.

Instead, I could listen to my body and eat when I was hungry and stop when I was full.

I learned this primarily from a book called Intuitive Eating by Elyse Resch and Evelyn Tribole which presents research upon research about why dieting is harmful. While this change was gradual and was uncomfortable at times, I was able to free myself of the dangerous cycle of dieting, bingeing and overall feeling terrible.

While my longing to be smaller didn’t disappear, it did get put in check. My desire to be thin was no longer the most important thing in my life. After counseling, I could embrace my life again.

As the years passed, I married my amazing husband, worked a challenging job as a nurse, and then became a mom to two unique little boys. My experience of motherhood, while wonderful, has also been difficult and stressful.

After my second baby, I was feeling increasingly low and wanted to feel better. I was determined to figure out what healthy looked like in this new phase of life. The online exercise subscription seemed like a great starting place. The virtual coaches all encourage that following a program consistently will help you feel better and get “results.”

Months went by and I did not get results. I did not lose weight, and I did not feel better.

Exercising in the morning before the boys were awake was difficult. When I did find the time and energy, the videos would make me feel worse. I felt judged and angry at all those skinny trainers. I did not feel happy or healthy. I felt tired, overwhelmed, and like a complete failure.

My attempt at self-care had backfired. I needed real help.

So, counseling for disordered eating (round two) started up. While I was no longer doing eating disorder behaviors (excessive exercise, restricting, or binging), I was surprised to learn I was still believing eating disorder lies. Such as “Everything will be better when you lose weight.” “If you were just smaller, you would feel so much better.” “If you just try hard enough, you can be perfect.” And this last one had crept into each aspect of my life.

Not only did I need to be the perfect size, but be the perfect mom, wife, friend, and daughter. And if I wasn’t perfect, I must be a failure. Looking back now, it’s obvious why I was miserable. I was being suffocated by the pressure I had placed upon myself.

Author, social worker, and shame researcher, Brene Brown says in her book Daring Greatly, “If we want children who love and accept who they are, our job is to love and accept who we are.” Reading this helped me realize something needed to change — and it was not my weight.

So now, I am in the process of loving and accepting myself. I continue to do the hard work of seeing my counselor and learning about embodiment, mindfulness, and body image so I can confront the lies that this culture and my eating disorder have taught me.

I do not need to be skinny to enjoy my life. I do not need to be perfect to love and accept myself. Self-care is not weight loss. In fact, trying to lose weight was harmful to my health and wellbeing.

I now prioritize caring for my body; not to make it look a certain way, but because I respect it. I have started taking time to do the things I enjoy like hiking, yoga, and kickboxing. My postpartum body is so strong and amazing. I am able to play on the floor with my boys and to climb beautiful mountains. All this is now how I practice true self-care.

Yesterday, I cancelled my online subscription.

My year-long journey of self-care did not go as I’d planned. I did not lose weight. I did, however, discover a beautiful, capable body.

A year later and I am a new, strong, happy, healthy, me.