Even the words can be uncomfortable.
In a society that shuns women gaining weight for almost any reason, talking about gaining weight is understandably awkward. However, for people in eating disorder recovery, weight gain (recovery reframe, courtesy of my dietitian: weight “restoration”) is often a natural, healthy part of the process… and yet, rarely do people talk about it.
So let’s talk about it. Let’s talk about weight
I have had to gain weight at many points in my life… the consequence of relapsing in and out of anorexia for years. The most excruciating times have been in residential treatment, when I was expected to gain 2-3 pounds per week.
In the purpose of being real, my experience of weight gain has been less than wonderful. In treatment, I spent a lot of time in oversized sweaters, laying stomach-down on couches, and trying not to gag over my thrice daily supplements. The whole process was physically uncomfortable, not to mention that psychologically, it felt like a death. I was starting to look “normal,” and I didn’t know how I felt about that.
From what I can tell, my experience of restoring weight is not unique. Someone with anorexia gaining weight is the equivalent of someone afraid of heights who has to use the Empire State building elevators every day for work, or someone with a spider phobia working in a spider-infested cubicle.
My main point is this: Weight
gain restoration is horribly sucky but it is an absolutely crucial reality of anorexia recovery. For the rest of the post, I’m going to unpack that.
Why it is sucky:
- It is physically difficult for someone with anorexia to gain weight. *Disclaimer: I am not a scientist or dietitian, but I’ve seen dietitians for years, so here’s what I’ve gathered from that. If you want information from a real science writer I’ll link to Carrie Arnold’s blog here.* When someone has been engaging in eating disorder behavior, the person’s metabolism is low and body goes into “starvation mode,” as it tries to conserve nutrients and body weight. Weight gain is difficult because the body temporarily goes into a hyper-metabolic state, meaning: It can take a LOT of calories for a person who has anorexia to gain weight for a period of time. This hypermetabolism doesn’t last forever (it goes away after 3-6 months), but while it is in effect, the weight gain process is all the more difficult.
- Misinformation people give that scares the shit out of you even though what they’re saying is factually unfounded. I can’t even begin to tell you how many inaccurate, triggering things I’ve heard over the years like, “Wow, I could just eat a hamburger and gain 5 pounds.” Or, “I gained a pound yesterday.” Or, “That dessert went straight to my hips.” Or worse, “I just look at a slice of cake and gain weight!” The reality is that gaining weight isn’t so straightforward. Around 3500 calories equals a pound. So unless someone is eating an additional 3500 calories per day, gaining a pound from one day is highly unlikely (and note: that’s 3500 calories on TOP of what a person normally eats). Not even to mention, bodies can fluctuate about 5 pounds per day anyway, depending on the time of the month (for women) and fluid intake. If the scale is “up,” it is much more likely the effect of water, rather than a nighttime snack of cookies.
- The appearance comments are awful. It is hard for people not to notice if you’ve gained a fair amount of weight. I have heard my share of annoying, triggering comments over the years. Recently, someone came up to me and said, “You’ve put meat on your bones.” Um… ok? How is a person even supposed to respond to that? “Thank you…?” “I like ice cream…?” I mean… what? Even the, “You look healthy,” comment can send me into a tizzy. It’s better not to say anything. I know if I’ve gained weight. I don’t need to hear about how you feel about it. I wish I could say I can brush off the appearance comments with ease like the feminist, anti-fat-shaming woman I am, but I can’t. They affect me. As I said earlier, gaining weight already feels like a death.
Why it is crucial:
- I would argue that physical recovery is the most important first step to recovery from anorexia. Without that, a) the person’s life is at stake, b) the person’s bodily organs, such as the brain, heart, and other vital organs are not getting replenished, and c) the eating disorder is still serving some purpose and therapy is ineffective. I have spent years trying to half-ass recovery, or doing pretend recovery, while I really wasn’t willing to do the work, including braving the uncomfortable feelings of weight gain. Anorexia recovery often requires weight gain. If someone is underweight and that person’s dietitian says weight gain is necessary, it’s not just something optional. For me, the real work of excavating my life didn’t even begin until I was weight restored.
I get it. For people with anorexia, gaining weight sucks. There are a million things I would rather do than gain a bunch of weight. Weight gain is sandwiched (pun partially intended) somewhere between running, which I hate, and waking up early, which I also hate.
But withholding the necessary weight for proper bodily functioning is a form of self-abuse.
Again, gaining weight in recovery from an eating disorder is not optional. It’s not fun, but it’s also not optional. Partial recovery is not real recovery.
So my recovery warriors:
You are more than a number on the scale. You are more than bodily discomfort or a slice of cake. I know that getting to your goal weight is far from easy, and neither is the road to anorexia recovery.
I am saying this as much to you as I am to myself, because I have been going through my own weight
gain — dammit, I mean restoration– process, and I’m not letting myself off the hook either.