a body of metaphor: strength, endurance, women, and eating disorders

We live in bodies of metaphor, and it is to our bodies that we turn for answers. Or at least, if not answers, we turn to them and hope they will ask the right questions. They’re our temporary home, after all, and we want to be allowed to jump on the furniture and write inane prophecies on the walls or espouse a firm Mid-Century Modern sense of style and sit, prim as mice, and pretend that there are no problems. 

Some of us want to conquer the world with elegance, and others of us want to rage and burn the house down. Some of us just can’t decide which. But we all turn to our bodies, requesting them to sit for long hours in offices or pushing them on long runs or asking them to scale cliffs or bringing them to the gym three times per week to do the prescribed workout. 

We’re all asking questions. ‘What can I accomplish?’ ‘How hard can I push?’ ‘How can I fit in?’ Each of us balances our own private equations, our own internal variables, our own mathematics. 

Image by Evgen Rom from Pixabay

— 

It’s a documented thing that many women who love endurance sports or extreme sports are at risk for developing an eating disorder.

I think it’s a chicken-or-the-egg sort of situation: do women who love pushing themselves just one step further, who want to push the envelope on tolerating pain and discomfort, become drawn to eating disorders as a way of pushing themselves just one step further? Or do eating disorders, with their dogged quest for perfection, push women towards sports that prioritise endurance?

For me, enduring, especially after a concussion that left me struggling to walk, slowly came to be about silence, introspection, withdrawal. It became about be willing to deal for just one more day. When months of inactivity left me ‘out of shape’, my early-childhood foray into restriction seemed like a promising way to reclaim my body.  I wanted to pursue an image a strength and endurance. I wanted to feel powerful.

— 

Image by skeeze from Pixabay

And so I come to the question of strength and endurance.

‘How much can I do, if I really, really tried? How much good could I do, and what is good? How much could I do, if I really, really tried?’ 

These are the questions I’ve come back to, again and again, even more so than the question of ‘becoming beautiful enough,’ which was a distracting question for some time. 

I watched rock climbers at Garden of the Gods when I was five years old and envied hang gliders and long-distance runners from as long as I can remember. I’ve always loved to lose myself in fantasy, and there isn’t a rabbit hole of arcane knowledge I wouldn’t consider following. Alice in Wonderful and Peter Pan struck my fancy, and I came up with world after world after world.

In these Other Worlds, you needed to be strong, and you needed to endure, and you needed to be uncomfortable.

This was tantalising, and I felt a need for discomfort. I wanted to see what I could create, what I could do. 

What interests me here is that young men who are overzealous in their dedication to the gym or to diets are not often labeled as ‘lacking in self love’ or ‘eating disordered’ or ‘plagued by low self-esteem.’ Of course, many of these men might be. Their lives might be consumed by weighing meals and counting macros, and the lack of a sufficient narrative around male mental health and body acceptance leaves many men struggling in the dark. 

But, by and large, the narrative around male body fixation is one centred on strength, self-development, discipline, and bravado. 

Image by David Mark from Pixabay

If a woman pursues these same activities—if she focuses on her body with a desire to achieve goals of aesthetic or function—the narrative becomes skewed through a lens of insecurity. Often seen as the victim of society or mental health, her striving is glossed over with comments of, ‘You might want to slow down,’ ‘Take care of yourself,’ or ‘She probably has problems.’

Again, there is often some truth to these comments. But it’s almost like our society is scared of recognising the agency, the dedication, the stubbornness, even the brutality of the women who go so far.

It’s almost like society talks down to these women, stoking the insecurity (‘You poor, misguided thing’) rather than addressing the vast reserves of dedication, strength, will, and agency that simmer beneath the surface.

In saying this, I am no way condoning eating disorders. I’m also not dissing life-saving therapy, medication, or support.

I’m recognising the strength and potential in women who suffer from these disorders. Many of the suffering women I know are among the strongest, wisest, and best-educated individuals I’ve ever met.

I’m saying, ‘You did this thing, and there are harmful elements. Society is fucked up and trauma is real. I’m so sorry you suffered. But damn, girl, how far could you go if you just changed directions, even just a little bit? What could you do with even a slightly a more nourishing relationship with your body and mind?’

It’s a call to respect. It’s a call to recognise potential. It’s a call to recognise the real bravado that lies beneath the insecurity and the tremulous self-doubt.

— 

Much of the narrative concerning eating disorders circles, for good reason, around questions of cultural pressure, societal standards, and self-care. 

And so we’re told, on social media and by mental health authorities, that we must be balanced. Be healthy. Love yourself. Love others. Have healthy boundaries. Eat to satisfaction. 

Image by silviarita from Pixabay

But that’s not the entirety of what I see when I look at friends who have struggled or who are struggling. I see women who are wrestling head-on with some of life’s biggest questions and seeking Other Worlds of strength and endurance. Probing their bodies and hoping to find the answers to their questions.

This exploration, this running takes us to dark places, dark places that need to be navigated, understood, soothed, healed. 

In schools and universities, you might be ‘brave’ for openly talking about mental health struggles. You might be praised for learning new levels of self-care, for fitting this societal mould of ‘good girl who’s realised she’s just human and has come back down to earth.’

Balance is important. Sorting out your mental health is crucial. Therapy is pivotal. 

But sometimes I think the path to true recovery lies in the wildness and willfulness at the heart of the problem itself. Not in just becoming more perfectly ‘balanced’ or more perfectly self-loving or more acceptably bold in your portion sizes.

We don’t need sage and massages and chakras. We need rebellion. We need respect.

(But I do like sage.)

Don’t just be balanced. Be ravenous to live.

I think recovery lies through your wild, nagging question.

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

‘How much could I do if I really, really tried?’

This question is an ode to strength and endurance. It’s unapologetic exploration, it’s a rebellion, and it’s daring self-belief that extends beyond self-love and into the land of sacrifice and a desire to make a mark on the world, to touch the lives of others, to create Other Worlds, to love this world.

It stems from the dedication that, when misguided, fuels an eating disorder or mental illness, but properly directed can invoke real change, real power, dogged creativity, courageous risk-taking and endless strength.

It is that wildness and willfulness that can change the world.

Recovery from disordered eating took me through gaining weight and strength and then, slowly, as my body and metabolism readjusted to eating in a more intuitive way, leaning back down. 

In the process, I somehow became much more careful. Much more in tune with my self, my limitations. My anxiety was no longer stifled by bingeing or restricting, and I strove for balance so hard that my anxiety flared up like crazy. I wanted to give a shit about all the right things. I so badly wanted to get it right.

In the process, I kind of forgot how deeply I wanted to push the envelope, how much I enjoy a productive struggle. I loved the chase so much that, at times, I’ve been willing to struggle unproductively.

I don’t think being ‘recovered’ means fitting even more into society’s box of what a ‘healthy, balanced, acceptable woman’ looks like. I think recovery means being able to be more wild, more untameable, more courageous.

Image by Pavel Karásek from Pixabay

For me, it means taking all the energy that once went into fixating on food and weight and putting it where I want it: towards stories, towards relationships, towards adventures, towards the feats of strength and endurance. Even on the hard days.

I fall a lot when I climb. I fall a bit when I ski. And in this path of recovery, I fall the most. But getting back up is a privilege.

Because that’s what it was about all along, however misguided, however confused, however startled and wayward. Strength and endurance. Power and agency.

And I won’t apologise for this wild, restless soul.

Don’t let anyone try to bless it, sage it, pray it, or therapy it out of you.

I’m not content with the easy path. I want the mountains, I want to write novels, and I want love and tequila and community and fast, fast skiing. I want to watch my friends crush high-powered, risk-taking careers, and I want to laugh loudly and dance for hours.

Because my body is neither an answer nor a question. She is not an ornament for sexual objectification, and she is not a mere vehicle for my life. She in an instrument of strength, an enduring home, a body of metaphor, and I will not apologise.

4 thoughts on “a body of metaphor: strength, endurance, women, and eating disorders

  1. […] Nick spouted his encouragement the whole time, but it was gentler than it normally was, patient, letting me know I could do it but that I didn’t have to. I talked to myself a lot on that first lead climb, saying, ‘Emily, you can do this. You’re allowed to be scared, but you’re going to do this.‘ […]

Leave a Reply