My earliest memory of wanting to change the way I looked was in the fourth grade. I wanted to have visible abs and thought that I could achieve this look with a few crunches. Much to my dismay, I never achieved those fashionable washboard abs. In middle school, I learned about eating disorders and was always afraid that I would "catch" one, as if it was the common cold or a case of head lice plaguing the eighth grade. During high school and college, the idea that "fit is the new thin" came on the scene. I knew many people who went to considerable lengths to achieve a desired weight. Looking back, I can see how pervasive media influence was and still is. This influence is unavoidable and affects women and girls of all ages. I personally felt the pressures to live up to these unrealistic standards when I became ill with Crohn's disease.
I lost twenty pounds during my last Crohn’s flare, dropping from 130 pounds to 110 pounds in a very short period of time. I didn't even notice the extent of my weight loss until I discovered that my clothes no longer fit (I'd been wearing pajamas for a few months since the majority of my time was spent either on the couch or in the bathroom). I could see bones in places that I knew I shouldn't and had little muscle left. But at both of these weights, I fell within the healthy weight range for my age and height. This clearly shows that weight alone is not a good indicator of a person’s overall health and well being.
People living with Crohn’s disease often experience weight fluctuations. Weight loss is common due to loss of appetite and an inability to absorb nutrients from food. When I’m dealing with a flare up, the last thing I want to do is eat. Even when I began to feel well enough to eat larger quantities, I still struggled to put on weight. On the flip side, medications like prednisone increase appetite and cause water retention, resulting in weight gain in the abdomen and neck area. It's a constant challenge to maintain a healthy weight while dealing with this disease.
I can’t begin to count how many people commented on my appearance when I was at my lowest weight. People constantly told me I looked fit and healthy. I could barely walk up the stairs without feeling winded and lost nearly all of my muscle, so these comments were very ironic. Some people even had the nerve to tell me they were jealous of how much weight I’d lost. These ignorant remarks were meant to be compliments, but they just served as a reminder of how screwed up our society’s idea of health really is.
I think that the people around me wanted to believe that I was healthy, even when I wasn’t. It’s much easier to equate outward appearances to health and avoid looking beneath the surface. When I was met with comments about my weight, I often tried to explain to people that my weight loss was not a positive thing. Sometimes I was just too exhausted to explain myself and simply said nothing. That’s one of the biggest struggles of living with an invisible illness. It’s hard for people to understand how you can be sick without looking sick.
As my health improved, I slowly put on the weight I’d lost. I felt very conflicted about my appearance during this time. On one hand, I was ecstatic to be regaining health and feeling like my old self again. I was also putting on some of my previous curves and muscle, and was finally able to fill out my favorite pair of jeans. But what surprised me was the little voice in my head that critiqued the parts of my stomach that were no longer skin and bones. Every time I weighed myself, I felt happy and disappointed simultaneously. It was a constant battle between what I knew was healthy and the messages I’d been hearing from the world around me.
As time has passed, I've reflected on this experience and made peace with the conflicting thoughts surrounding my appearance. I’d be lying if I said I was always happy with my weight, but I’ve developed a much more balanced mindset around it. In some ways, I feel lucky that I had the experience of being "skinny". Now that I've lived in the weight that so many girls strive for, I realize that is not a place where I want to live my life. At that weight, I struggled to recognize the person that I saw in the mirror. I didn't feel attractive, confident, or comfortable in my own skin. I felt frail, weak, and downright miserable. I was unable to participate in of most of the things that I love and felt as though I was sitting on the sidelines of my life.
Whenever I find myself worrying about the way I look, I remind myself of all the amazing things my body does for me every day. There will always be pressure to look a certain way, but try your best to drown out the noise and listen to your own common sense. Your best weight is the one in which you feel happiest and healthiest, so don't let a number on a scale convince you otherwise.