Why I don’t say “cheating”

A few words on “cheating” on the Paleo diet, and then a few more words on body image:

I don’t, haven’t, never will use the word “cheating” when referring to foods that are not included in a typical Paleo diet. The word “cheating” holds the connotation that you are doing something bad, something forbidden, and immediately suggests that you should feel guilty for having done so and possibly perform some type of penance to make up for it. That’s all well and good if you’re talking about cheating on a test, but these words become very dangerous when you’re talking about food. Very dangerous, indeed.

I approach Paleo as a lifestyle. It isn’t a diet that I will stop following at some point in the future- it’s just how I eat. But I also want to be realistic and ensure that this way of life is sustainable for me over the long run, and that means not depriving myself of certain foods that I want at certain times. Of course following Paleo would be pointless if I ate cheese or frozen yogurt or naan bread EVERY time I wanted it, but neither will I allow myself to fall into the trap of considering it cheating when I do decide to eat it. A huge aspect of a successful Paleo lifestyle, in my opinion, is intention. Eat your food with intention, take responsibility for it, and acknowledge its’ effects on your body. Really savor and appreciate the super delicious, really special stuff that you only partake of once in a while, and remember that you only partake of it once in a while because your body works best for you when you fuel it well. If I have some tortilla chips at a Mexican restaurant or go out for pie on a Friday night with my sweetie, I’m not cheating. I’m having some tortilla chips at a Mexican restaurant or going out for pie on a Friday night with my sweetie. I’m living, I’m enjoying life, and when I’m not doing those things I’m living and enjoying life by maintaining a well-sized, diverse intake of really healthy stuff.

To really explain why I’m adamant about not using the term “cheating” (isn’t it just a little word? Why the big deal?) I need to provide a little back story.

For the past few months I have had a bit of a rough time in terms of body image. That’s probably putting it lightly- I believe I was well on my way to developing body dysmorphic disorder.

I say “well on my way” because I have not seen a professional therapist or psychologist about it, and since identifying the significant number of “symptoms” I had, I have, with a LOT of gracious help from my husband, begun to turn a corner and see myself in a more positive light. In my reading I was not surprised to learn that BDD is an anxiety disorder. Anxiety (and perhaps a little light OCD, which I believe is also an anxiety disorder) is common in my extended family.

A few weeks ago I began to realize that something was wrong. I would be quietly and subtly following a common mental script (reviewing what I had eaten that day, the nutritional content, what I could probably still allow myself, as well as whether I had exercised that day, how much, what this would mean about my activities and schedule the following day- all very mundane but absolutely absorbing) and engaging in some very subtle compulsive behaviors- primarily feeling, poking, prodding the size of my waist and the pad of fat/skin under my chin and mirror-checking my whole appearance. I have done these things subconsciously for a long time. But lately they seemed to have taken on a fever pitch, to the point where I could think about little else. Going a day without exercise made me feel panicky and awful. My entire mood would be dictated by whether it was a good waist day (I felt like my waist was an acceptably small size) or a bad waist day (FAT COW) or how I felt about what I perceive to be a disgusting flap of fat under my chin, and it was like the still-rational part of my brain was waving a little red flag every time I would engage in these thoughts and behaviors.

“I’ve got to stop doing this.”

“Quit looking in the mirror.”

“You’re fine, go do something else. Knock it off.”

Eventually the word “dysmorphic” started floating around in my head during these times, without any context. I don’t remember where I first saw the word, but it took an unexpected emotional breakdown during what should have been a happy evening with my husband to prompt me to admit that my mental health was suffering and that I might have a problem.

It’s a cliche, but the first step to recovery truly is admitting that something is wrong.

The next day I googled the word “dysmorphic” to see if it really did have anything to do with what I was feeling. When I found the definition of BDD, I was floored. Tears streamed down my face as I read the lists of behaviors and symptoms, recognized so many in myself, and realized that I was not alone.

Common compulsive behaviors and symptoms of BDD (from wikipedia). I’ve bolded the ones that applied to me:

  • Obsessive thoughts about (a) perceived appearance defect(s).
  • Obsessive and compulsive behaviors related to (a) perceived appearance defect(s) (see section below).
  • Major depressive disorder symptoms.
  • Delusional thoughts and beliefs related to (a) perceived appearance defect(s).
  • Social and family withdrawal, social phobia, loneliness and self-imposed social isolation.
  • Suicidal ideation.
  • Anxiety; possible panic attacks.
  • Chronic low self-esteem.
  • Feeling self-conscious in social environments; thinking that others notice and mock their perceived defect(s).
  • Strong feelings of shame.
  • Avoidant personality: avoiding leaving the home or only leaving the home at certain times.
  • Dependent personality: dependence on others, such as a partner, friend or family.
  • Inability to work or an inability to focus at work due to preoccupation with appearance.
  • Problems initiating and maintaining relationships (both intimate relationships and friendships).
  • Alcohol and/or drug abuse (often an attempt to self-medicate).
  • Repetitive behavior (such as constantly (and heavily) applying make-up; regularly checking appearance in mirrors; see section below for more associated behavior).
  • Seeing slightly varying image of self upon each instance of observing a mirror or reflective surface.
  • Perfectionism (undergoing cosmetic surgery and behaviors such as excessive moisturizing and exercising with the aim to achieve an ideal body type and reduce anxiety).
  • Note: any kind of body modification may change one’s appearance. There are many types of body modification that do not include surgery/cosmetic surgery. Body modification (or related behavior) may seem compulsive, repetitive, or focused on one or more areas or features that the individual perceives to be defective.

Common compulsive behaviors associated with BDD include:

  • Compulsive mirror checking, glancing in reflective doors, windows and other reflective surfaces.
  • Alternatively, inability to look at one’s own reflection or photographs of oneself; also, removal of mirrors from the home.
  • Attempting to camouflage the imagined defect: for example, using cosmetic camouflage, wearing baggy clothing, maintaining specific body posture or wearing hats.
  • Use of distraction techniques to divert attention away from the person’s perceived defect, e.g. wearing extravagant clothing or excessive jewelry.
  • Excessive grooming behaviors: skin-picking, combing hair, plucking eyebrows, shaving, etc.
  • Compulsive skin-touching, especially to measure or feel the perceived defect.
  • Immotivated hostility toward people, especially those of the opposite sex (or same sex if homosexual).
  • Seeking reassurance from loved ones.
  • Excessive dieting or exercising, working on outside appearance.
  • Self-harm.
  • Comparing appearance/body parts with that/those of others, or obsessive viewing of favorite celebrities or models whom the person suffering from BDD wishes to resemble.
  • Compulsive information-seeking: reading books, newspaper articles and websites that relate to the person’s perceived defect, e.g. losing hair or being overweight.
  • Obsession with plastic surgery or dermatological procedures, often with little satisfactory results (in the perception of the patient). In extreme cases, patients have attempted to perform plastic surgery on themselves, including liposuction and various implants, with disastrous results.

[NOTE:  As I said before, I was not professionally diagnosed and that is why I say I believe I was on my way to developing this disorder. I had also been dealing with some depression in recent days, which is quite atypical for me, and I knew something was up. I know that there are far worse cases out there than what I have been experiencing. Nonetheless, the description of BDD best fits what was tormenting me mentally and I’m going to stick with that term for now.]

I sent some links to my husband to help him understand what I was going through. At this point I’ve got to pause and say that without him, there’s just no way I could be on the road to changing the way I think about my body. He didn’t say I was being silly or downplay what I was feeling. He jumped in with both feet and actively began searching for ways to help me pull myself together, and I am extremely grateful for his love and support. God put him into my life for many reasons, and his willingness to face this Goliath alongside me is evidence of that.

One of the first things he did was ask for my measuring tape. I admitted to measuring myself more often than was necessary. On a bad day, measuring my waist (a major area of fixation for me) was a way to find out whether I really had become as fat as I felt. Inevitably the size was the same. Recognizing that this was a step I could take towards NOT obsessing about my body, I gave him the tape. He has since sat with me and talked through the problems at length. I’ve come to a few conclusions about this disorder that I’d like to share with you in the interest of explaining what’s going on and encouraging a change in our collective mindset regarding our bodies.

A sketch of how I picture my body.

1. It’s a mental health issue. What this means is that anyone could be dealing with it, and you could be none the wiser. I know that in my case (and I think in most cases of BDD except perhaps the most severe), until I admitted to the person closest to me that I was really suffering, I could continue in my behaviors and ways of thinking and no one except me and God would ever, ever know. The way I compulsively feel my waist and chin as I fixate over what I consider to be an excess of fat looks just like standing with my hands on my hips or my hand under my chin. Totally normal. One of the most effective ways I’ve read about of treating the problem is cognitive behavioral therapy- therapy to help you change the thoughts that you have about yourself at certain times. Like depression or anxiety, it’s invisible.

2. What you say matters. This is a really important point that I want to bring up. It’s a bit of a plea, to be honest. The major example that comes to mind is saying to someone “you’ve lost weight!” as a compliment. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard this from well-meaning relatives or friends. I know that what they mean to say is “you look healthy! You look good!” Why, then, can we not say those things? Why can we not say what we really mean? I believe it has to do with our society’s fixation on fitness and the elusive perfect body. Weight loss is a good thing, REGARDLESS of how you looked before. I’m not here to rant about the media’s portrayal of the ideal feminine body, because I’m pretty sure at this point it doesn’t even need to be said. You know what I’m talking about. When my grandmother says to me “you look like you’ve lost weight!” what she means is “you’re my granddaughter and I’m happy to see you looking healthy!” But what I hear is “The last time I saw you, I thought you were fat. Thank goodness you lost some of that disgusting weight. You can’t ever believe me when I tell you you’re beautiful, because I actually think you’re fat. Fat isn’t beautiful.” Obviously this is incorrect thinking, but again- it’s a mental problem. Of course it’s incorrect thinking. But you can help, by simply choosing to be more intentional if you want to give someone a compliment. I’d say this applies to everyone in your life, but please be especially aware of it when talking to young girls. If you know someone has been working on losing weight and the change is apparent to you then by all means, compliment them on the culmination of their hard work. Otherwise, what else could we say to convey our appreciation of another’s appearance? Some things I would personally LOVE to hear in place of “you’ve lost weight!”

-You are looking so strong! I can tell you’ve been working out.

-Didn’t you say you’ve been doing a lot of yoga? It shows in your posture!

-You have beautiful hair.

-I heard you’ve been doing really cool things at work, tell me about them!

-Nearly ANY compliment, if you really want to give one, that focuses on something other than SIZE or WEIGHT. When you compliment those aspects of my body, it tells the recipient that those things are important. And if they are secretly suffering from BDD or a related or similar problem, they may obsess over those things which have been deemed important.

fearfully and wonderfully made

Hastily drawn and hung by the biggest mirror in my house as a reminder. My faith in Jesus and my belief that he doesn’t create trash has been instrumental for me in getting better.

3. Support is essential. As I mentioned, my husband has been my rock. I know that not everyone who struggles with body image issues has that kind of support, but now that I know what it’s like to struggle both with and without support, I encourage you to share what you are feeling with SOMEONE. If you are not dealing with this personally but you have even the slightest suspicion that a loved one is suffering, TALK TO THEM. Try not to downplay their feelings. I can’t begin to describe the catharsis (although quite embarrassing at first) of sharing the intimate details of what I was going through. It was extremely hard to admit to some of the thoughts and behaviors that I was compulsively, distractingly engaging in, but it’s becoming easier and easier to talk about them. And the more I name the problem and look it straight in the eyes, the more I feel like myself. You should be focusing your thoughts and your energy on your ambitions and your hobbies and the things you love. NOT on your perceived defects. But it is a steep slope to climb without any hands to pull you up.

So. This is what we call a very very long digression from the original point of not using the word “cheating” when discussing how we eat. Hopefully now it’s a little clearer how important a positive mindset is with regard to food, and how even little things like saying that you’re “going to be bad and have a piece of cake” or commenting on how someone has lost weight could be contributing to a very messed up self image, either your own or that of someone you love. I hope that if you feel like the description of BDD describes you, you will reach out and find someone you trust to share your feelings with. There is no shame in seeking professional help. And I hope that if you feel like someone you know may be struggling with this, you have the courage to bring it up with them and offer them your unconditional love and support.

Thanks for sticking with me! Let’s get back to the awesome recipes!

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4 thoughts on “Why I don’t say “cheating”

  1. We are so hard on ourselves. I have always thought you were a beauty, regardless of whatever size you happened to be. I’m glad you are seeking and finding help to deal with this stuff. And that Chris…he’s a keeper. :)

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