Following on from my previous post about my experience with RED-S (which you can read here), I wanted to write about the not-so-pleasant side of recovery. I’m talking about the bloating, the discomfort, the body dysmorphia, the anxiety and insecurities. In shedding some light on this, I’m hoping that others experiencing something similar will know that they aren’t alone and this is all part-and-parcel of the recovery process, albeit not particularly pleasant. Again, I’m not a health professional so consult someone who is if you have any queries.
Going against the grain
In a society where we are conditioned to fulfil a certain idealised body image via diet culture, gaining weight can seem controversial. We are made to feel as if we are committing a fundamental error. That we should feel ashamed for it. “Gaining weight” is equated to “getting fat”, inspiring widespread fear in society (although personally I dislike using the word “fat” as a descriptor of someone’s appearance; you wouldn’t call someone “protein” if they’re extremely muscular!). No wonder it can seem impossible and unthinkable to gain weight. It goes against everything we are taught by the media and have internalised over the past years. Nevertheless, for some – myself included – weight restoration might be a necessary element to recovering from a mental/ physical disorder, such as RED-S.
Bloating, gas and “swelling”
There’s still a significant taboo surrounding discussion of bodily processes such as digestion, bloating and gas. I think that’s one of the reasons why weight restoration is so difficult; no one tends to talk about the less glamorous side-effects involved. Having previously recovered from Anorexia, when I came from a much more severe state of malnutrition, I’ve known what to expect. However, the extreme bloating, increased passing of wind & trips to the toilet are still unpleasant. There’s no denying that.
I’m no scientist, but from what I’ve read (I’ll include links to useful sites at the bottom), these are all some of your body’s ways of adapting to receiving a greater amount of energy. After an extended period of under-fuelling, your body will constantly be in “survival mode”, so when you begin the re-feeding process it stores the extra energy in case it is submerged into the stressed state of malnutrition again. In particular, it stores this nutrition around the vital organs to protect them – aka in your midsection. Cue: the “swelling” of your tummy. This is where lots of issues can arise for people on the road to recovery.
Body dysmorphia and anxiety
This “swelling”, along with bloating, can make it seem as though you are gaining an unprecedented amount of weight in your midsection. Mentally, especially if you have a predisposition to body dysmorphia/ intense self-criticism, this can be incredibly tough. It can confirm fears that you’re “getting fat”. It can prompt states of anxiety, self-loathing and depression. Although I’m better equipped now than I have been before to dealing with such difficulties, I still struggle. It’s totally normal to feel this way, but please know that none of your fears are true. They are just that – fears. Designed by your mind to delay recovery and prevent progress.
The surest way to counteract such physical effects, though, is to continue the re-feeding and weight restoration process. Fuelling adequately and regularly for your body to do everything you’re asking of it. Eventually (trust me on this), the weight redistributes itself and you will no longer experience such extreme bloating/ gas/ digestive discomfort. By kind to your body and it’ll be kind back.
Filling out your clothes
Over the past few months when I was obliviously pushing myself further down the RED-S trajectory, I got used to having extra room in my clothes. I resorted to belts for my jeans and adopted the slightly “oversized” look for all outfits. So naturally, now that I’m starting to fuel properly and restore my weight, my clothes are getting tighter again. Especially my jeans/ skirts around the waist. I no longer need a belt (which is a relief to be honest because it was an ugly belt). My tight-fitting clothes are exactly that.
Friends have assured me I look good in them, but it’s been difficult getting used to the feel of it. The look of it. It has even felt embarrassing sometimes, not being able to fit into a skirt that used to be too big. No one really talks about this, but I think if you expect it, then you’re all the more equipped to manage it. Because, sadly, this is often the moment when under-fuelling tendencies creep back in.
The mirror and the distorted self
Mirrors don’t reflect reality. That’s a misconception. Mirrors simply reflect what you perceive. They reflect your distorted perceptions of yourself. We pick up on our own flaws in minute detail, “flaws” which most people wouldn’t even regard as such. And when it comes to gaining weight, the mirror can become a site of anxiety. I’d say this was worse for me initially, but has got better now. After seeing myself a certain way for a while (cheeks more angular, “abs” more defined), change can be difficult. Accepting that my fuller cheeks and less-defined tummy are only signs of getting stronger was tough.
But deep down, I know I’m looking healthier already. People have told me that I’m “glowing”, even on days where internally I feel exhausted. My hair is glossier and more supple than ever. My skin is softer. I feel happier, despite all this, because I’m no longer tired 24/7 and I’m regaining my love for running along with the strength to do it.
Useful articles and stories
- How Science Helped Me Cope with the ‘Fat Tummy’ in Anorexia Recovery
- Bloating, Fatigue, Pain: How to deal with the hard parts of recovery no one talks about
- The Truth about Bloating in Recovery
- Eating disorders in female athletes: why anorexia athletica is a concern
As always, I hope you’ve gotten something out of this post. If you feel triggered by anything mentioned, please seek help and advice from someone you trust. Although I’m not qualified, if you ever need someone to talk to, my inbox is always open.