26 Ways to Be Happy About Getting Fatter
Coping with weight restoration in recovery from anorexia.
Posted Dec 30, 2019
I’m clearly fatter, but I don’t mind. Don’t care, even.
— from my diary a few months into recovery
How do you cope with getting fatter? How did I, really? I get asked this a lot, in different guises, by people who are already getting fatter (and stronger, and more robust and capable, and altogether bigger) and by people who are still only contemplating it.
The honest answer is: I don’t know. In the summer of 2008, when I started eating 500 calories a day more than I had for years, I was as frightened of getting fat, as is everyone with anorexia. A year later, when I weighed nearly 35 kilos more, a lot of it fat, I wasn’t frightened of it anymore. By anorexic standards, I was indeed fat, and my life had never been better.
Back in 2013, five years into recovery, I wrote a post on "not being the thinnest any more" and how to adjust. I said, mostly, be strict with yourself (about keeping eating), and be gentle with yourself; above all, be acceptant, and be open. Basically, be everything anorexia isn’t. That is a good answer to the question. Now, with the benefit (and the bias) of more distance, I think it’s worth giving another answer.
I’ll make 26 suggestions for practical things you can start today. Some of them may not seem to be much about your body, but they all are. And some will seem mutually exclusive, but I don’t think they are. Finally, not all of them will be right for everyone, nor at all stages in recovery, so try any that resonate, though don’t rule out the ones that don’t.
- Inform yourself of the facts about what’s going on with your body and why it matters that you gain fat. (You could start here.) As a primary hormonal regulator as well as a protector and insulator, body fat is a crucial contributor to getting well. You will quite likely put on fat around your tummy first, as your body tries to protect its vital organs, and this distribution will normalise within a year or so of reaching a stable weight. If you try to prevent any of this, you will not get well.
- Relish the adventure, for that’s what it is. Take time, now and then, to survey the territory you’ve covered. How has your body changed this month or today? How has it not? What does this mean? How is your future going to be different from your past?
- Ditch old habits of movement as calorie expenditure, and learn how to do something where your body can be skillful and glorious.
- Spend lots of time exploring your body’s capacities, whether in meditation or masturbation, sunbathing or swimming, massage or dance. Honour your need for physical rest (please read these two posts on exercise in recovery and take them seriously) while opening yourself to your new abilities to move and to feel and to be still. In all of it, experience how much more you are than a 2D picture.
- Distance yourself from all bullshit, whatever that means in your life.
- Distance yourself from all media whose "raison d’être" is to sell you something. One good way of doing this is to reduce your phone and social media time to a few minutes a day. Better yet, free yourself of your phone for a week. You are changed not just by what you absorb through it, but by the fact of having it with you all the time, changing your way of being alone with yourself right at the roots. See my post on losing your phone and finding your body for my hypothesis that being present in the little neutral in-between moments makes all the difference.
- Find something interesting to do that has not much to do with body stuff. Decide on a series of books to read; sign up for a class, or a course, or a degree; teach yourself a new skill. (You could take some advice from Ramit Sethi on making learning more fun.)
- Be open to finding someone who loves you, including your body, and can help you see why. Sex is a great medium for this, but not the only one.
- Remove from your life any person who treats you, even sporadically, as an aesthetic object. Do it ruthlessly, for whether or not they realise it, they will be ruthless with you if you continue to allow it.
- Stare long and hard at the fatty parts of your body. Knead the fat, describe it, be present with it, until it loses all of its associations, good or bad. Do the same with the boniest parts of you.
- Make meditation a daily practice. You need to know what it’s like to be you, here, like this, now. Start here (UCLA Health's guided meditations) or here (Sam Harris's how to meditate), if you want. Or find a local teacher and a class. Or just sit on a cushion and see what happens. Ten minutes today and another 10 tomorrow can take you to strange places.
- Consider an image of yourself in fragments and as a whole. Try the method I suggest here if you like.
- Find an old image of yourself, and/or one of you today, and study it. The old image may be of you before you were ill, or of you very ill and thin. Ask yourself what you see in it, in the physicality of you, and in everything else you feel and remember about then or now. What do you conclude? What matters?
- Observe in detail what happens when you look at a person, or the image of a person, whose physical appearance you envy. What is the potency here? Can you write out the precise steps in the addictive fever that glues you to the abs or the tiny thighs? What happens when the process is given free rein to wear itself out?
- Look at yourself in the mirror, absolutely naked, and let your judgments do their worst. Keep standing or sitting there until they give out. Then keep standing or sitting there and wait for what comes next. (This and the previous suggestion may be deeply unpleasant to carry out. Be prepared for it to take a long time for the unpleasantness to turn into something else — boredom, maybe, or some other kind of acceptance, or even some curiosity about what else you can learn about yourself. If you stand or sit for long enough, I believe this change will happen, but you shouldn’t start unless you’re prepared to wait until it does. And consider having someone you trust on hand to talk with afterward.)
- Ask someone you trust to take a photo of you, clothed or partially clothed or naked, and then look at it and talk about it with them. What do you both see?
- Spend 15 minutes writing about what you think beautiful means.
- Don’t be a superficial idiot.
- Spend 15 minutes writing about the qualities you admire in other people.
- Define for yourself the kind of life you want to be able to lead—at every level, from relationships and career stuff to being able to have a lazy food-filled Christmas-New Year week or summer holiday without the remotest anxiety. Then remind yourself that whatever form your body takes as you live that life is by definition the kind of body you want to have.
- Consider the temporal and geographical specificity of all body ideals. Don’t martyr yourself at the altar of ever-mutating dogma.
- Be grateful that it is within your power to choose to eat and make yourself well again. Perhaps by imagining one of the many scenarios in which you would have lacked the capacity to make that choice.
- Spend 15 minutes writing or talking to a friend about happiness.
- Remember all the ways in which having anorexia and being thin failed to make you happy in the ways you wanted. Remember the ways in which it did, too, if it did. When the two sets hang in the balance, how does the scale tip?
- Find different clothes that suit you better now. Do so before you’re breaking the seams of the old ones. Charity shops/thrift stores are your friend for this.
- Ditch the bullshit. Know that doing anything else means perpetuating it, for your friends, for your mothers and fathers, for your sons and daughters, for their daughters and sons.
If you do only one of these, I’d say: Get rid of your phone for a while. If I were recovering now, I know it would be a lot harder because the online world is so omnipresent. The internet is a knowledge-democratising miracle, but it’s also a great distractor from other realities.
In 2008, I didn't have that distraction. I had a mobile phone, but it didn’t do much. Until 2010, two years after I started recovery, I didn’t have a Facebook account, because it wasn’t really a thing. And, of course, Instagram et al. didn’t even exist yet. I cycled to the library to do my email, and my contact with the world of people who sell crap by making other people feel like crap was limited to the magazines and supplements I pilfered from my college recycling bins and borrowed from my family and wheedled out of kind newsagents and very occasionally bought myself. They were bad enough, but they were dumb and inert compared to today’s persuasive genius.
So be smart and divest yourself. Put your phone in the back of your sock drawer for a week (yes, you can make the necessary arrangements) and see what’s different at the end of it. And so as not to seem hypocritical, one of my posts in the first quarter of 2020 will detail a week without a phone.
As I described in my recent post on zooming in and out, one of the main things you need to do to be happy with your body is to experience it as just one part of the whole that is your life. Don’t forget to make time and space for this, in whatever ways inspire you today.
And above all, remember that only by stopping being malnourished can you really start not caring. Reversing the effects of starvation isn't always sufficient to generate a calm, proportional attitude to one's body (some of the ideas above, or other strategies, may be needed too), but it is always necessary. So keep eating in the knowledge that there is no choice to be made between being this size (if you're eating without restriction and your bodyweight has stabilised) or continuing to get bigger (if you're learning to eat without restriction and your bodyweight is increasing) and feeling comfortable with your body: paradoxical as it may seem, the comfort is unlikely ever to transpire without the size.