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Making Peace With Our Reflection in The Mirror

Making Peace With Our Reflection in The Mirror

Is that any way to live, in disgust at the sight of your body? This is a question I asked myself for so long and is now the question I ask my clients who struggle with body image.  

If I'm Detaching From My Eating Disorder Identity, Then Who Am I?

jennifer kreatsoulas angie viets identity eating disorder recovery

If I'm Detaching From My Eating Disorder Identity, Then Who Am I?

Jennifer Kreatsoulas, PhD, RYT 500

Photo by Chris Barbalis on Unsplash

When a diagnosis becomes our identity and our identity a diagnosis, we unknowingly become walking, talking containers of illness, pain, and even hopelessness. 

We separate ourselves from others in the belief we are different or broken. As we embody the disease we believe precedes us, we disconnect from our unique gifts and passions. Our bodies hurt, our minds become one dimensional, and our spirits wither. Our world narrows to a single dark point chained to the fear of not knowing who we are without our diagnosis identity. 

It's only having lived to come out the other side of shedding the diagnosis identity of an eating disorder that I can say with conviction that you have permission to detach from yours too. I understand the fear, anxiety, confusion, and uncertainty that accompanies even the smallest of steps to let go of that which you believe keeps you safe, in control, and put together. For decades I fiercely resisted detaching from the diagnosis of anorexia. From my hair style to how my clothes hung on my body to the bags under my eyes to the food on (or not on) my plate, I dedicated my every action, word, and thought to fulfilling my identity as an anorexic. That diagnosis was the lens through which I viewed the world and my place in it, and it was a dead end.   

With time, persistence, willingness, and a whole lot of support, my eyes opened to the shadow I was living in, the shadow of my diagnosis identity. Once I spotted this identity as a menacing shadow and not the entirety of who I was, I realized I had the power to walk out into the light.

As I inched away from the shadow, new possibilities for healing came into my life as did new relationships and opportunities. 

Slowly but surely, I began to resent the shadow for holding me back from embracing more and more of the world around me and the food, people, and sensations in it. The stronger my resentment grew, the more willing I became to detach from the diagnosis identity and replace it with the gifts, talents, and passions that were buried but by no means dead. 

 
 

It took practice giving myself permission to detach from the eating disorder identity. Every morning for months I asked myself Who are you? until the words anorexia, anorexic, and eating disorder were not my first answer. Little by little, more answers surfaced in my mind, like mother, daughter, wife, yogini, writer, creative soul, kind person, etc. I did this exercise over and over until the words related to my diagnosis identity moved down the list and one day slid right off it. Getting to this point took perseverance, and it wasn't a straight line, just as recovery is not.

With the help of a therapist, other supports, and my Yoga practice, I was able to arrive at complete permission to detach from the diagnosis identity. Now the words anorexia and eating disorder do not define me, nor do I strive to embody them. Rather, I respect and honor these words for the profound experiences in my life they represent and the gifts they provided: self-awareness, empathy, resilience, compassion, and ultimately my life's purpose to support others healing from eating disorders through yoga. 

My friend, you are capable of detaching from any identity that keeps you trapped in shadows. Once you give yourself permission to do so, the possibilities for goodness to fill your life are endless. Take a few moments and reflect on these questions: 

How would your life change if you shed your diagnosis identity?
What dreams would become possible?
How much more fulfilled would you be?
How much more connected would you be?
How much more whole would you be?

Don't be afraid to ask yourself who you are. Let the answers come as they are in this very moment. Ask again tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after that until new words bubble up. With permission, they will. Be patient and gentle with yourself as you step away from the shadow, but trust you can do it. I fiercely believe you are more than a diagnosis. You have permission to detach from your diagnosis identity. You have permission to explore who you are without it. You have permission to move through this world as a whole, vital individual. 

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Jennifer Kreatsoulas, PhD, RYT 500 is the founder of Chime Yoga Therapy and specializes in eating disorders and body image. In addition to her private yoga therapy practice, Jennifer leads yoga therapy groups at the Monte Nido Eating Disorder Center of Philadelphia, is cofounder of the Body Kindness Project, and a partner with both the Yoga and Body Image Coalition and the Transformation Yoga Project. She is the creator of the home video series Yoga to Strengthen Body Image and Support Eating Disorder Recovery. Her writing on the topics of yoga, body image, motherhood, and eating disorder recovery can be found on her blog as well as several influential online publications. Connect with Jennifer.

 

Should You Watch 'To The Bone'? A Yoga Therapist Shares Her Hopes and Concerns About The Movie

Photo Credit: Netflix

Photo Credit: Netflix

When pictures and trailer clips of a disturbingly thin Lily Collins began to show up in my news feed the other week, I resolved to avoid the movie To The Bone and all discussions about it. I wasn't going to watch the trailer, read about the movie, comment about it on social media, or write a blog post about To The Bone, the first motion picture about eating disorders due out in the US on July 14 on Netflix. I was determined to sit this one out and wait for the buzz to pass.  

Collins plays a severely anorexic teenager named Ellen, and when I say "severely anorexic," I am not exaggerating. She's a haunting figure, barely there. She is painfully ill and her body is painful to take in. Even now, writing about her, I feel a pit in my stomach--a raw visceral reaction that comes from a sincere concern for the actress, the memory of and deep care for the women with whom I have been in treatment, and from an honest and personal knowing about the life she portrays in the film. Also unsettling for me is the fact that Lilly has a history of anorexia and bulimia. And now, here she is, as sick as can be again, reliving anorexia. For all these reasons, I was set on not getting caught up in To The Bone. I just couldn't see how this movie and the hype around it would support me in my life.

Low and behold, the very next day after explaining all of this to a friend, I received an email from The Renfrew Center of Philadelphia, asking me to appear as an alumna on a local news station with Samantha DeCaro, PsyD, Assistant Clinical Director at Renfrew to discuss my reaction to the 3-minute trailer for the film. Of course, I was excited (exhilarated really) and quite touched Renfrew invited me to do this. How could I not be? And I am grateful they did, because it turns out I do have some important things to say about the trailer, and I am actually a better woman, mother, yoga therapist, and member of the eating disorder recovery community for speaking out. 

In the less than 48 hours I had to prepare for my 3-minute interview on Fox29, I watched the trailer several times, read articles about the film and its director and lead actress, had a heart to heart with my husband, and put out an inquiry on social media, asking people to tell me about their thoughts, opinions, and concerns about the trailer for To The Bone.

After hearing back from so many people, I felt secure in my initial reaction to avoid the film. Many people had similar responses to Collins' physical appearance. More than that, they were deeply disturbed that the actress has a history of anorexia and bulimia and reported she lost weight in a "healthy" way for the film. Like the others who wrote to me, I am very worried about the message this sends to the recovery community as well as teens and others who are vulnerable to messages about weight loss and the connection between one's self-worth and jeans size. After more than 20 years of healing from anorexia, I can say with confidence, that it is highly not possible to lose weight in a "healthy" way. And there is clearly nothing healthy about Collins' body, and I am worried about the state of her mind after embodying this role in such a dramatic way. 

Based on the trailer, anorexia is clearly front and center. I am concerned that anorexia has become the face of eating disorders in the media. The "thin ideal" has glamorized the disease, making it a one-dimensional disease about weight and food. I am hopeful (fingers and toes crossed) that To The Bone will give voice and attention to other types of eating disorders and that other bodies, genders, races, and a spread of ages will be represented. To exclude these bodies and voices would be a severe shortcoming on the part of the film and an enormous disservice to the eating disorder community, including the families and supports of those who struggle.

I am also hopeful that the movie will portray the complexity of eating disorders as well as capture the resiliency that is possible with proper treatment and dedication to one's healing. The joke in the trailer about "calorie Aspergers" is offensive, and not one appreciated by several of the people I corresponded with on social media. In the context of the movie, it may work. But as a one off, it makes me wonder if the complexity of anorexia will be brought to light. 

Another concern is that the movie's ending will suggest that Ellen gets to go home cured. This just isn't the case in real life, and to give families and supports such false hope could be devastating for all parties involved. Let's hope that recovery isn't itself glamorized as a mountain that is conquered after a few weeks or months away at treatment.

Although I value Collins' lived experience and dedication to her career and mission to, I am concerned that To The Bone will fall short in its efforts to accurately educate. I worry it will trigger many and even set off a desire to be "sicker" in others. Still, I am hopeful that this film will initiate important conversations about eating disorders and their prevention and treatment. I am hopeful that the recovery community will come together with honest feedback about whether or not a motion picture in the first place is helpful. As my husband shared with me, a documentary is much more humane and real; let the individuals who are living it share in real time about their experiences.

There are many more concerns and hopes I have about To The Bone, but I want to turn this blog post over to you now. I'd like to hear your thoughts and opinions about the trailer. Please share in the comments below or email me. It's only from learning from one another that we can grow stronger in our voice and more confident in our right to use it!

Sadly, the video clip of my interview is currently unavailable. Should it become available, this post will be updated!

Jennifer Kreatsoulas - Angie Viets - To The Bone Movie

Jennifer Kreatsoulas, PhD, RYT 500 is the founder of Chime Yoga Therapy and specializes in eating disorders and body image. In addition to her private yoga therapy practice, Jennifer leads yoga therapy groups at the Monte Nido Eating Disorder Center of Philadelphia, is cofounder of the Body Kindness Project, and a partner with both the Yoga and Body Image Coalition and the Transformation Yoga Project. She is the creator of the home video series Yoga to Strengthen Body Image and Support Eating Disorder Recovery. Her writing on the topics of yoga, body image, motherhood, and eating disorder recovery can be found on her blog as well as several influential online publications.  Connect with Jennifer.

How Yoga Can Help You Return to Your Senses in Eating Disorder Recovery

Photo Credit:  Marion Michele

Photo Credit: Marion Michele

I was 18, pulled from my sophomore year of college, and on my way to inpatient treatment for the first time. I sat in the backseat of the car, curled up in my mother’s arms, cold, weak, and desperately afraid.

I have one distinct memory from that ride to Philadelphia: driving past the old Nabisco factory, which, until it closed in 2015, had filled the entire neighborhood for decades with the smell of sugar cookies. As a child, that smell and the cookies the factory produced were mouthwatering. A source of pure joy. An innocent pleasure. That day the sweetness in the air was a cruel joke. I couldn't bear it. I rocked in panic, my throat closed, I moaned, cried, and buried my face as deep into my mother’s side as I possibly could.

That was the first time my sense of smell had been so intensely stimulated in a while, and it petrified me. Starvation had numbed me and compromised my senses. The fear of smells and tastes were paralyzing. My vision was blurry, and I could only hear my eating disorder voice. All other sounds were muffled in the background.

It’s only through looking back on that memory 20 years later, that I understand how anorexia literally desensitized me. As we all know, our eating disorders serve a precise function: to protect. Along the descent into eating disorder hell, protection turns into destruction, leaving us isolated in the torment.

We hollow out physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. Sensation is unwelcome. Feeling is not the point.
Jennifer Kreatsoulas - Yoga Helps Return to Your Body

In my experience, the healing process from an eating disorder is a tumultuous effort of learning how to “sense” again—how to sense hunger cues, emotions, our bodies, our intuition, and how we feel in relationships. It’s also a return to our literal senses, sensations, and sensory experiences. In many ways, this aspect of healing—returning to our senses—is what resuscitates our souls by bringing color, textures, and richness back into our lives.

How do we go from numb to sensory human beings?

I find it to be an ongoing process that requires support, patience, and resilience. In my healing, yoga has helped me return to my senses in profound ways. For me, yoga is a safe place to learn how to feel and name sensations that happen in my body. In half pigeon pose I sense an intense stretch in my hip, in forward folds I feel discomfort in my hamstrings, and in triangle pose I notice the sensation of expansion. The more I have become comfortable identifying, naming, and sitting with physical sensations that arise in my body, the easier and more natural it becomes to name and feel emotions, even the painful ones.

The practice of naming physical sensations can be applied to other activities as well. My advice is to find an activity that you enjoy and take stock every so often of what you feel and where you feel it. Name the sensation. Become familiar with it. Observe it. This skill will become useful for naming emotions and experiencing them versus turning to symptoms to banish them.

I recognize that naming sensations in our bodies can aggravate or cause turmoil around body image. Even so, healing requires we name those feelings too. Part of regaining our senses is also knowing and defining our limits. Trust your instincts around when and how often to practice identifying sensations.

Like all aspects of healing, returning to our senses is also a process.

Yoga has also helped me develop my sense of sight. Before I used to stare down food like I would an enemy. Or I'd avert my eyes, turn away from what was fearful. In yoga, we often talk about keeping the eyes soft to embody a sense of ease and calm. I’ve noticed that when my eyes are soft (meaning I am not scrunching up my forehead to fiercely concentrate), my thoughts are kinder. I judge, berate, and demand less. I am more open to the sensory experience of the pose and less concerned about controlling the outcome.

Applying soft eyes in difficult life moments has often made the difference between making a positive choice versus an unhealthy one. Soft eyes have also helped me to stand in front of the mirror and see myself from all angles with compassion.

On a final note, as I recall the Nabisco factory and the difficulty it caused me that day, I can’t help but smile when I imagine how happy the smell would make my two little girls, how much it would light them up, and how they would beg me to stop for cookies. Children have the most beautiful relationship with their senses; automatic, curious, simple, and joyful. Little ones represent the model of what’s possible for all things good. They remind me how much more fun sensational is than numb.

Jennifer Kreatsoulas, PhD, RYT 500 is the founder of Chime Yoga Therapy and specializes in eating disorders and body image. In addition to her private yoga therapy practice, Jennifer leads yoga therapy groups at the Monte Nido Eating Disorder Center of Philadelphia, is cofounder of the Body Kindness Project, and a partner with both the Yoga and Body Image Coalition and the Transformation Yoga Project. She is the creator of the home video series Yoga to Strengthen Body Image and Support Eating Disorder Recovery. Her writing on the topics of yoga, body image, motherhood, and eating disorder recovery can be found on her blog as well as several influential online publications.  Connect with Jennifer.

Are You Managing an Eating Disorder or Healing from One?

Photo Credit: Catherine McMahon

Photo Credit: Catherine McMahon

“I’m not going to help you manage an eating disorder,” my dietician flat out said to me shortly after I discharged from intensive outpatient treatment. “I’ll continue to work with you, but I won’t help you be a functioning anorexic.”

Whoa! Harsh, right? Brutally harsh, I’d say.

Her words hit me hard in the gut. I felt nauseas and defensive. I was at once insulted and found out by her remarks. After months of inpatient, day, and IOP treatment, and a commitment to long-term outpatient work with my team, I was insulted that my integrity and dedication to recovery wasn’t obvious. Had I not just left my family for a month, taken leave from my job, eaten meals I was terrified of, gained weight, persevered through calorie increases and exercise restriction, and turned myself inside out every day to heal my mind and body? Honestly, what else did she or anyone else want from me?

Still, way, way deep down, I knew my dietician was right. Yes, I had done and accomplished quite a bit during all that treatment; no one was taking that away from me. However, I admit, at the time, living as a “functioning anorexic” was quite appealing. The perfect solution.

If I could pull off being a “little sick and a little well,” if I could do just enough to keep my team and my family off my back, then surely, I’d be “doing” recovery. I’d just be doing it on my terms—or, I should say, the eating disorder’s terms. I’d prevent weight gain, still have room for a little hunger, and feel in charge of my life.

Living this way did not get me very far, and it wasn’t long before I was weary of performing, pretending, and being untruthful to myself and those I love. Merely functioning wasn’t as “safe” as I’d thought it would be. In fact, it was the exact opposite, as the threat of returning to treatment consistently came back in play every few weeks.

I may have dabbled with how “recovered” I was willing to be, but there was positively no way I would settle for being a chronically ill mother and wife. That’s where I drew the line.

And so, I kicked myself into gear by taking a more genuine and sincere approach to healing from rather than merely managing the eating disorder. I did this by adopting the attitude that recovery is a lifestyle, not a side job or something “extra” we must do.

Between therapy appointments and going to groups and keeping food logs, recovery can feel like a time-consuming side job. Over time, this attitude toward recovery can cause us to become resentful. The more resentful we become, the less motivated we are to keep up our efforts.  

When respected as a lifestyle, recovery serves as the foundation from which we must attend to everything in our lives to keep us well and moving forward. To make recovery a lifestyle, I strive to let every choice I make be informed by this question: Is “x” going to support me in my healing or is it going to work against me?

Reflecting on this question guides me to honesty with myself about the people, places, and things in my life that merely help me manage an eating disorder versus those that support me in healthful ways. I choose to avoid the landmines and replace them with things that empower me and build me up. It’s not always easy, but this system of self-accountability has made a profound difference in my approach to recovery and deepened my commitment to myself.

Take a pause and ask yourself: Am I managing or healing the eating disorder? Are there thoughts, rituals, and behaviors in place that covertly are in cahoots with the eating disorder?

There’s no shame in your answer. What’s most important is taking this time to get brutally honest with yourself. I encourage you to tap into your resilience and slowly but steadily begin to loosen the grip on things that do not serve you in healthful ways and replace them with thoughts, rituals, and behaviors that do.

As you shift away from the “functioning” and “managing” mentality and embrace an intention of healing, life will ultimately become more filled with you and the goodness you have to offer this world—your gifts, talents, and passions. And I promise you, it is so worth it!  

Jennifer Kreatsoulas, PhD, RYT 500 is the founder of Chime Yoga Therapy and specializes in eating disorders and body image. In addition to her private yoga therapy practice, Jennifer leads yoga therapy groups at the Monte Nido Eating Disorder Center of Philadelphia, is cofounder of the Body Kindness Project, and a partner with both the Yoga and Body Image Coalition and the Transformation Yoga Project. She is the creator of the home video series Yoga to Strengthen Body Image and Support Eating Disorder Recovery. Her writing on the topics of yoga, body image, motherhood, and eating disorder recovery can be found on her blog as well as several influential online publications.  Connect with Jennifer.

The One Question to Ask Yourself Every Morning

Photo Credit:  Evan Kirby

Photo Credit: Evan Kirby

In the early morning hours, before darkness lifts and the pace picks up, I tip toe downstairs, shower, and quietly prepare for the day. I love this time before my husband and children wake and my various responsibilities kick in. I can hear my thoughts, my breath, and the stillness.

I dress and approach the mirror. I stand before it, meet my eyes, and instead of asking who is the fairest of them all, I ask: Who do you want to show up as today?

For years and years, I stood before the mirror frantically checking my body. Do I look anorexic enough? Do I look sick enough from the side, front, and back? Of course, the answer was always no, and in an instant, the calm morning hours turned day into a raging hell. Can you relate?

That single moment in front of the mirror determined my attitude for the entire day. And because of that, recovery felt like a big fat inconvenience. An uphill battle. A never ending source of agony. I was always on the defensive, running against the natural flow of life for the sake of a measly moment in the mirror.

I’m 22 years into my healing path now, and I’ve given myself permission to play offense instead of defense. It’s taken time and many leaps of faith to test what would happen if I asked myself a different question in front of the mirror, one that celebrates instead of berates, empowers instead of belittles, raises up versus ridicules.

The idea of asking myself questions that weren’t traps for misery came from learning about the philosophical concept in yoga called the koshas. The idea is that we are all made of five layers: body, breath, mind (emotions), intellect, and spirit. In my experience, recovery is so heavily focused on food and feeding our bodies (because it has to be!) that we often don’t pause and notice how we are feeding our minds. You and I both know how difficult it is to get a grip on spinning eating disorder beliefs, thoughts, and rules! Gruelingly hard work, yes?

The reality I had to face was that unless I started feeding my mind different questions about myself, I would never have an opportunity to respond differently or feel happier or believe I was more than an eating disorder. My experience of life would forever be dictated by a mirror.

Little by little, I started asking different questions, the most pivotal one being: Who do you want to show up as today? I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that sometimes my answer to that question is related to body size. The difference now, though, is that I don’t allow that thought to stick. I consciously choose to ask myself the question again until the answer that comes is one that feeds my mind with positivity so that I start my day with an attitude of “Look out world, I am ready for you!”

So, I ask you: Who do you want to show up as today? How can you begin to feed your mind differently so that you have the opportunity to create new thoughts about yourself, your body, and your place in your world, in this world?

If you are unsure, just start with one simple question similar to what I ask myself, and don’t let yourself off the hook until your answer is about who you are at your core. We all deserve to draw out these beautiful parts of ourselves, and it begins with feeding our minds new words and thoughts about our whole sense of self.

Jennifer Kreatsoulas, PhD, RYT 500 is a yoga teacher and yoga therapist specializing in eating disorders and body image. In recovery herself, Jennifer is extremely passionate about helping others reconnect with their bodies and be empowered in their lives. She also teaches yoga at the Monte Nido Eating Disorder Center of Philadelphia and is a partner with the Yoga and Body Image Coalition. She leads trauma-sensitive yoga classes and teaches weekly flow yoga classes. Jennifer contributes regularly to several eating disorder and body image blogs and the YogaLiving Magazine. Connect with Jennifer.