Stories from Healthy Mind

How I navigate New Year’s resolution season as an eating disorder survivor


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Photo: Tim Gibson for Well+Good

Editor’s note: This piece might be triggering for people with a history of disordered eating.

I was 10 years old when I made myself throw up for the first time.

I have grappled with disordered eating for as long as I can remember. I was bulimic through my parents’ divorce when I was a kid, numbing my confusing feelings by binging and then guiltily making myself get sick. I starved myself through my first real breakup when I was 16 so I would have something to focus on other than the heartbreak. I then became addicted to exercise after I graduated college and tried to pursue a career in dance. Even when I was in the first stage of my eating disorder recovery at age 25, I became fixated on “clean eating,” assuming that if only I ate healthy, “virtuous” superfoods, then all my issues with eating would automatically be fixed. (They weren’t.)

I have spent most of my adult life healing my relationship with my body. Many things have contributed to my recovery—namely cognitive behavioral therapy and somatic experiencing (a specific type of therapy designed for trauma recovery), intuitive eating (a mindful way of eating with an anti-diet focus), coupled with holistic bodywork like acupuncture, reiki, breathwork, massage, and meditation.

But despite all the progress I have made in my recovery, I still brace myself when the calendar flips to January 1, and the entire world becomes fixated on making New Year’s resolutions.

Don’t get me wrong: making resolutions is generally something I enjoy. It suits my personality to reflect and set goals. As a fitness instructor, health coach, and especially as an eating disorder survivor, I think it’s a truly beautiful thing for an empowered person to take charge of their health, which is so often the focus of New Year’s resolutions. But the dark side of the season, however, is that with the insidious universality of diet culture (the belief system that ascribes virtue to thinness and vilifies anything else as unhealthy, bad, or lazy)—those well-meaning resolutions can be used to prey upon our deepest wounds about our bodies and how we eat.

We’ve all been convinced that being good and healthy means being thin and hungry. This harmful rhetoric is ever-present in the wellness industry—and it’s not just limited to January.

So many people continue to equate weight loss with health, which is just simply false. The idea that you are morally superior or inferior because of your body’s appearance or your eating habits is harmful to us all. Just last week, Jillian Michaels publicly shamed Lizzo for her weight in the name of being “concerned,” when in reality it’s not her business to speculate about another person’s health or body. Jillian Michaels isn’t a bad person, but she’s operating from an old system of beliefs about weight, health, and worth.

This type of pervasive rhetoric—that physical and mental health has to “look” a certain way— then influences how people approach their health-related resolutions. To decide to exercise more because you want to run a marathon, improve mobility, or manage stress are all examples of healthy reasons to make a resolution around fitness. Similarly, wanting to eat better because you want to have more energy or better digestive health are healthy ways to approach a food-related goal. Sadly, I hardly ever see those cited in the ads for weight loss apps and products telling me to “Make 2020 the year I finally lose that last stubborn five lbs.”

I choose to believe that our favorite studios, gyms, and influencers mean well when they promote a weight loss resolution. We’ve all been convinced that being good and healthy means being thin and hungry. This harmful rhetoric is ever-present in the wellness industry—and it’s not just limited to January. Our society values thinness as goodness and it does so year-round.

It’s difficult to navigate this time of year as someone who has lived with an eating disorder. But there are a few ways I like to push back against harmful, triggering attitudes floated my way about bodies and food this time of year. If you’re having a conversation with a friend or family member whose goals for extreme weight loss are affecting you, get comfortable changing the subject. I also like to draw a gentle but firm boundary, like, “Hey, [insert loved one here], I appreciate that that is an interest of yours, but it’s unhealthy for me to focus on my weight so much. Can we talk about Succession instead?”

I hope you remember this: You don’t have to deprive yourself to serve someone else’s idea of health.

If an ad or a newsletter or an Instagram post triggers you: delete, unfollow, or mute. The only New Year’s cleanse I can get down with is the social media purge. Replace the posts and people that inspire shame-spirals with imagery from influencers of varying size, race, ability, and gender and you’ll be amazed how uplifting and empowering social media can feel. (Need some ideas? Accounts that inspire me daily are the folks behind @breakdietrules, @allwomxnproject, @thef*ckitdiet, @dietitiananna, and @rebeccascritchfield.)

I also recommend getting some help from a therapist or a health coach to help you work through underlying issues and keep you on track with your recovery. Just make sure the person you work with is well-versed in eating disorder recovery and is committed to helping you feel better first. Experts whose sites feature transformation photos and unrealistic promises like “7 Days to Ripped Abs!” are all red flags.

I love the symbolism of the new year. It’s a time to start fresh, set exciting goals, and take action in all areas of your life. That’s why I encourage resolution setting, so long as you know the why behind your resolutions. The most important tool we have at our disposal to improve our quality of life is to decide what a healthy, happy means for you—and to set boundaries that protect it. As you make your resolutions for 2020, I hope you remember this: You don’t have to deprive yourself to serve someone else’s idea of health.

Helen Phelan is a pilates instructor, reiki practitioner, and integrative health coach who works with clients to find body peace through strength, energy work, and reframing their relationship with food. 

What the predominance of restrictive eating plans means for eating disorder survivors. And here’s how one writer changed her relationship with wellness after recovering from her eating disorder.

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