The whole culture of trying to get women to love themselves still tends to isolate and alienate women in some way (fat-shaming, skinny-shaming, colorism, etc.). The body image project is a series that highlights what real, everyday women (and some men) have done to develop a positive perception of their physical appearance thus far — how they’ve gotten to a healthy place, what they’ve done to get there, struggles and setbacks they still experience, and what they’re doing to get to a place where they feel the best about themselves and stay there.
With editing by Adwaa
Katya Weiss-Andersson is a professional chef, a freelance writer and a marathon runner with Team Palestine. She has given lectures at several universities on Israel-Palestine and owned Stay Fresh Veg in Durham, NC. She lives in Denver with a truly excessive stash of various hot sauces.
What issues have you had with your own body image that you’ve learned to love and appreciate about yourself?
I struggled pretty hard with anorexia throughout my teens. Recovery might have been the hardest thing I ever had to do, but it forced me to build myself as a person from the ground up in terms of self-worth, groundedness, resilience, identity and well-being. My eating disorder left me with a heart condition that I still deal with, but I’m really glad that I survived. I was fully recovered for four or five years. Unfortunately, to be completely honest, I’m no longer in a recovered place. I fell into a relapse a couple years ago after a traumatic event, and while the relapse advanced pretty slowly for a while, it got a lot more intense about six months ago. What I’ve been dealing with is a combination of anorexia, anorexia athletica (aka compulsive exercise/exercise addiction/exercise bulimia) and orthorexia. I can’t believe I just admitted that publicly, but I think honesty is important.
eating disorders are not actually about body or food
What has been your experience with learning to be comfortable in your skin and love yourself?
It’s been a long and treacherous process full of ups and downs. It’s really hard to hold onto any progress you make when you’re surrounded by a culture that’s deeply entrenched in body-shaming and fat-phobia for the hyper-capitalistic benefit of industries who profit off of our insecurities and self-hatred.
At the same time, eating disorders are not actually about body or food, and learning that was a huge game-changer for me. And no, they’re not always about control, either. Eating disorders have much deeper root causes–from trauma to various kinds of emotional repression to lack of self-worth–and the most crucial part of my survival was finding out what those root causes were for me. So I’ve had to tackle both the symptoms, which are my body image and my relationship with food and exercise, as well as the root causes.
In terms of body image specifically, I’ve found that one of the most important and challenging things has been to learn to love my body (and whole self) unconditionally. That means even when I’ve gained a bit of weight and even when my exercise and eating haven’t been what I want them to be. It’s still very much a work in progress for me, but choosing to pursue that sort of unconditional body love is a radical and transformative act.
What comments have you heard over time about your weight, height, or other physical aspects of your appearance that have made it difficult to develop that self-love and acceptance?
While my weight has encompassed a 35-pound range throughout the past 12 years, I’ve never been overweight. I’ve been a small person since adolescence and have never had to deal with fat-shaming, so all of the weight-related comments I’ve received have been from myself. But to this day, I do still get comments about my appearance that really get to me sometimes. Specifically, I get a lot of comments about how Jewish I look–my nose, my hair, my skin tone, etc., and according to American beauty standards, to look Jewish (or anything other than white and Aryan) is to look less beautiful and less acceptable. We’re conditioned to believe that looking Jewish is a bad thing. I’ve been trying to dismantle that thought for myself, so I’ve started wearing my hair natural to force myself to embrace how I look. It’s crazy how significant, empowering, and sometimes, political, that choice has been.
Since these issues never disappear completely, what are some things you currently grapple with and what do you do to overcome them?
One of the biggest struggles I face to this day is knowing exactly what recovery should look like. The buzzword and gold standard we talk about for recovery is getting back to “normal” — normal eating, normal lifestyle patterns — but what exactly does “normal” mean? Do we define normal as what’s normative or what’s healthy? Because here in the US, typical/normative eating and lifestyle patterns are pretty much the opposite of healthy ones. I think we all recognize by now that the standard American diet, or any variant thereof, is toxic at best. Likewise, American lifestyle patterns like being sedentary, constantly stressed, etc. are undisputedly unhealthy. And if the goal of recovery is to “get back to normal” so that you can be healthy, striving for the ambient status quo isn’t a logical solution. We live in a place where health is abnormal.
Yet, if we define “normal” as what’s healthy, we immediately enter rocky territory because what “healthy” looks like is so heavily disputed, even among health professionals. There are so many conflicting studies (partially because special interests and food lobbies often pay for studies to produce results in their favor), and “healthy” lifestyle fads come and go like the tides, so it’s really difficult to recognize what really will best support our well-being. Our ideas of what foods are “healthy” are severely skewed by the ways in which big food lobbies have bought their way into curricula and “common sense.” It’s great to research and do trial and error to see what works best for your body, but it’s also really easy for that to lead to unhealthy obsession in someone who already has eating disordered tendencies. You want to eat healthily, but you don’t want to develop orthorexia. You want to exercise, but not compulsively. And in reality, that balance is incredibly hard to strike.
unconditional body love is a radical and transformative act
One thing I do need to clarify is that while I am vegan, that’s actually not at all a part of or motivated by my eating disorder. I know that sounds hard to believe, but while people tend to see veganism as extreme and restrictive, that’s not actually the reality at all (or doesn’t have to be). I went vegan while I was in full recovery, and it helped me to further a really positive, joyful, nurturing relationship between food, my body, and myself. Now, even in my relapse, that’s still the role that being vegan plays for me. It’s always been clearly on the recovery side, not the eating disorder’s side; veganism doesn’t involve me denying my body anything that it wants. Being vegan has made me so much healthier, physically, improved my quality of life so drastically, and it’s always felt very liberating rather than restrictive. So, while some would argue that I should go back to eating animal products because it’s “normal,” I choose not to because it’s both highly detrimental to my well-being and fully misaligned with my values.
Another major common roadblock is the fact that while eating disorders are talked about a lot in our society, there’s a lot of misinformation and misunderstanding about them, as well as the shame and stigma that accompanies all mental health issues in our culture. If you’re not well off, it can be incredibly difficult to access the care necessary for recovery. To be honest, I’m no longer in any sort of treatment because I can’t afford to be. And frankly, the people who don’t have access to treatment are the ones most likely to die from their eating disorders.
Given all of those issues, the ongoing struggle has been very real. But frankly, if I don’t recover, my eating disorder could continue taking a toll on my heart. At the end of the day, I am not about to let that happen. So, between self-care, prayer/meditation, taking regular mindful inventory of my habits and thought patterns, accessing what resources are available (even things like body-positive Instagram accounts), and trying to establish a support network of good people, all of it is a very worthwhile work in progress.
In a short sentence or phrase, create and share your own personal mantra for positive and healthy body image.
I am acceptable as f**k.