I am in recovery from an eating disorder. Also, I am “overweight.” Just typing that sentence brings up an avalanche of mixed emotions. I am now what I feared and tried to avoid for decades of my life: “overweight.” At the same time, I am also in recovery: something I have fought for relentlessly.
My body has not changed significantly over the past few days, the past few weeks, or even the past few years. Yet, I suddenly became acutely aware that I fall among the millions of Americans categorized as “overweight.” All because of COVID 19 vaccine eligibility.
What does “overweight” even mean?
What does it even mean to be “overweight”? It means if you use an archaic formula derived by a mathematician, astronomer, and statistician in the 19th century (that was never even designed with health in mind) and plug in my height and weight, you get a number that is above 25. Period. It doesn’t mean anything else. BMI is not a valid way to measure health.
Yet, bringing attention to this number and distinction as “overweight” threw me for a loop. It knocked me to the edge of a steep dark stairwell that took me years to climb out of. One misstep and I might easily fall down the path of destructive behaviors from my past.
As someone who struggled with an eating disorder for over two decades, the acknowledgment that I qualify as “overweight” felt jarring. For years my goal was to get UP TO and stay at a number that was high enough when it comes to BMI. Any time I had life stressors (good or bad) the eating disorder crept back in, and my weight slid down while my life spun out of control.
Suddenly I found myself on the other end of the weight dilemma. Instead of “under” I am now “over.” It feels like my recovery consisted of walking on a tight rope with “too thin” on one side and “too big” on the other. And I just realized I fell into the other side.
The real deal
Here’s the deal. My weight has been relatively stable over time. I don’t even know what my weight is. But my clothes have fit for several years. When doctors insist on weighing me, I ask to do it blindly. I smashed my scale with a hammer years ago. (And I highly recommend you do too!)
I have been trying to live my life disconnected from my body’s weight and size.
While I do not know my weight, I saw my BMI on a form at an appointment last year and was shocked to see I fall in the category “overweight.” After wrestling with this awareness for a few days, I attempted to get on with my recovery and my life. That went well for a while. Until the state where I live started rolling out the COVID 19 vaccines. Initially, I was impatient, wanting to get the vaccine, wondering when my age group would qualify to get the shot. Then my state announced- you can get the vaccine if you are “overweight” or “obese.”
Suddenly focusing on weight and BMI, my mind raced down all too familiar roads I thought I’d permanently blocked off. For so long, I had resisted the impulse to even go down this line of thinking. Of numbers and ranges, categories and labels. In a moment of panic, I logged onto a BMI calculator. Entering my height I frantically put in various weights, trying to determine where mine must be now.
What to do?
Questions ran through my head. Should I get the vaccine? If I do, will I have to tell people why I was able to get it? Will they weigh me at the appointment? If I pretend I don’t qualify can I somehow stop obsessing over this? But I want the vaccine.
I re-read an email from Christy Harrison where she answered a listener’s question about this exact subject. She advised anyone who qualifies to get the vaccine as soon as they can. For the second time, I read Emily Duke’s article about her experience getting the vaccine because of her BMI.
A heavyweight sat in my chest and my stomach tied up into knots. There was very strong resistance to getting the vaccine based on my BMI. I had encouraged my friends who were caregivers to older adults to get the vaccine. Why wouldn’t I allow myself?
The stigma of the word “overweight”
The answer is simple; what stopped me was the stigma.
The pressure of the word “overweight” feels like a brick on my chest.
Suddenly the old parts of myself I hoped to have finally put to rest woke up. Not quietly or gradually. But more like when a fire alarm startles you from a deep sleep. My old inner critic screamed angrily at me. “You’ve let yourself go.” “You have taken this recovery thing too far.” “You’re a fraud.”
For days I walked around feeling like a black cloud covered me. Old doubts and insecurities crept out of the woodwork. Well, more like they came barreling towards me like a speeding train. Imposter syndrome followed these intrusive thoughts. They hit me hard. Who was I to write about and talk about recovery? Here I was, five years into it, and still hating my body. A body that is now labeled “overweight.”
The story you tell yourself matters
As I spiraled downward in my thoughts, thankfully the words of body image coach Isabel Foxen Duke rang in my head. Silently willing myself to eat breakfast, I heard the question in my mind, “What is the story you are telling yourself about this situation?
Admitting to myself the current story I was telling was difficult. Shame welled up as I acknowledged the script running in my mind has been: “I am fat, I have let myself go, and I am disgusting. And I only qualify to get the shot because I am a failure of a human being.” No wonder I felt like shit for days.
Desperately wanting relief from the weight of my inner critic, I began considering a new story.
Our stories affect our perception and well being
The responsibility to change our story lies within us. So I began working on a new story. It goes something like this: I have fought my way back from an eating disorder that I battled for over two decades. I was never healthy emotionally or physically when I was at a lower weight. I was not present in my relationships, and I lost my joy in life.
Gaining weight has been a challenge that required me to become courageous enough to stand up against fatphobia. And to reject the cultural norms because I refuse to continue living in agreement with a false system of beliefs that oppresses so many human beings. Beautiful, amazing, caring, creative, loving, giving, joy-filled humans who just happen to be in bodies over a certain BMI.
I believe in my heart and soul that all humans are worthy of love and acceptance no matter their shape, size, gender, sexual orientation, or race. And I am one of those humans.
My story continues: I have been patiently waiting for a very long time to get the vaccine. And I desperately want to return to a more “normal” way of life. I want to eat in a restaurant, and shop in a store without an underlying panic to get in and out as quickly as possible. To enjoy Taekwondo without worrying if the person sweating next to me has a virus that could kill my parents or my children’s teachers.
The truth about my BMI
The truth is: my BMI has only been in the “acceptable” range momentarily. While I struggled with the eating disorder, my BMI was below the “healthy” range. I know, from experience, that I cannot safely control my weight to keep it in the 20-24 range. Because the moment I start “cutting back” on food, I tread a very slippery slope that leads me to a dark and unhealthy place. Alternately, the moment I nourish myself freely, my body goes to its natural set point weight. Which is above 25 BMI.
My overall health cannot be defined by a single number.
It includes my mental health. When I am listening to my body and caring for it with kindness and compassion, it naturally falls into a BMI range classified as “overweight.” But I am healthier mentally and arguably physically. At that weight, I can function. Able to be mindful and present, I find joy in life. At my lowest BMI, I did not even want to be alive.
By working to accept my body, as it is, I am standing up to a system that harms people.
I get to be vaccinated because I have chosen RECOVERY over the thin ideal.
Now I am a recovery warrior whose story is helping others around the world. No longer drowning in an eating disorder, I’m more alive than I ever was when starving and harming myself. I’ve found a job that is consistent with my life purpose and I am thriving.
So… this is the story I am choosing to focus on.
(Last Updated: May 10, 2022)