Sunday, 16 August 2015

When Illness Masquerades As "Wellness"

It seems you can't open a paper or magazine or go online these days without being bombarded by a relentless stream of selfies of celebrities posting photos of their abs or asses.  The photo is usually of them in the latest gym gear and possibly even with a slight sheen of sweat on their skin to reassure us they have indeed just come from a marathon gym session.  Whereas the narcissistic self-promotion of your average celebrity is something we have all come to accept as part of our culture there has been a more worrying development in recent years  - the rise of the so-called "wellness" blogger.  



Photo of Kim Kardashian in a gym, dressed in black, taking  a selfie
Kim Kardashian - The Selfie Queen

Many of these grew out of the all prevailing celebrity culture with the earlier ones being trainers or dieticians who helped celebrities get in shape, most notably after having a baby.  However, in recent times there has been an explosion of these types of blogs across social media and it seems anyone who looks lean in lycra feels qualified to share their daily efforts with the rest of the world and dish out advice as to how, you too, can look "lycra lean".  And people (especially women in the 16 - 30 age bracket) can't get enough of them.  

The problem is very few of these people are properly qualified to be dishing out any sort of advice and if they do have any sort of minimum qualification it tends to be in only one area such as a personal trainer certificate but lacking in any proper qualifications to do with nutrition and dietary requirements. 

The bigger problem is that all too often what is presented by these people as an obsession with wellness is in reality masking a serious illness.  Eating disorders have been well documented for the past fifty years and despite recognition by the medical and psychiatric communities and frequent awareness campaigns, admissions to hospitals and treatment centres continue to rise.

The link between unrealistic and unobtainable body image in the media and the rise in eating disorders has been well documented and in recent years there have been many high profile campaigns by leading brands to address this.  Which makes the whole "wellness" craze currently sweeping social media all the more difficult to understand.

It's something I've noticed has intensified over the last eighteen months and is an issue I have to admit to having a sort of morbid fascination with.  I'm a relatively fit, healthy woman who is also overweight.  I believe in eating a healthy diet and taking regular exercise.  Admittedly, I detest gyms. I prefer my exercise to take place outside - walking, swimming, hiking, surfing, snow-boarding - you name it, if it's in the great outdoors, I'm there.  That some other people are into a particular sport or want to take their fitness to a level other than mine is something I don't have a problem with.

What I do have a problem with is when people are presenting a lifestyle that is supposed to be about the attainment of health but in reality is the exact opposite.  I have a problem with people who are, in reality, suffering from eating disorders espousing and prescribing dietary and exercise regimes that lead to ill health both mentally and physically.

So much of this "wellness" philosophy has suspect psycho-babble at its core in the form of what are supposed to be slogans designed to inspire but are really cynical exercises in self-loathing and shame.  Just a quick look at one of the "fitspooration" websites has thrown up a number of these:

"Suck it up now and you won't have to suck it in later."
"Stress is caused by giving a fuck."
"Go hard or go home."

It's all about push, push, push.  There doesn't seem to be any emphasis on enjoyment of exercise but only on exercise as a means to an end and that end of course is the attainment  of a body type that is all too unrealistic in so many cases.

Then there's the shaming of those who don't work out as this little beauty demonstrates:


Why people who choose not to spend hours in a gym should be deemed as leading a "mediocre life" or be considered as anything less than those who do is beyond me. Believe me, there is nothing mediocre about my life! And of course this leads to the development of superiority complexes and feeds the general narcissism that is so much part of this "wellness" craze.  

Then there is the promotion of dietary supplements such as protein shakes that are so often recommended not as meal supplements but meal replacements.

For the life of me I cannot figure out how the promotion of deprivation and hunger and exercising the body to the point of exhaustion can be believed to be in any way about "wellness".  This  is an illness, a pathology and it needs to be seen for what it is.  Wellness is about nourishment of the body, mind and soul NOT punishment.

The following article is taken from this Sunday's Daily Mail and is an insight into the world of some of these "wellness" bloggers.  I found it fascinating and it's what prompted me to write about this subject today.  It's a subject that causes me great consternation as I face the challenge of rearing my children in a world that is increasingly obsessed with the attainment of a body image that comes at the expense of so much else.  I can't do an awful lot about it but I can call bullshit when I see it and when someone is promoting starvation and excessive exercise as "wellness" then I say they need to stop and see that what they are really promoting is "illness".

Exposed: The sick truth behind the great 'wellness' blog craze taking social media by storm and one online star battling a secret fitness addiction.


  • Celia Learmonth is one of a handful of bloggers with thousands of fans
  • At 21 she is enviably lithe but admits to seeking help at an eating clinic.

  • She survives on little more than avocado and eggs and exercises daily
  • Experts warn of the dangers of health and fitness social media craze.
  •  

By POPPY CROSS FOR THE MAIL ON SUNDAY

This may come as a shock to at least some of fitness blogger Celia Learmonth’s 20,000 Instagram followers: ‘I’m trying to get help at an eating disorder clinic,’ she bravely admits. 

On her site, London Fitness Guide, the beautiful and enviably lithe 21-year-old dishes out advice on exercise, diet and how to have a healthy lifestyle – along with a steady stream of selfies.

Live like her, look like her. That’s the message. But having known her for a while, I suspected that what lay beneath the flawless facade was something more sinister.



photo of Celia Learmonth, wellness blogger in a yoga like pose on a bridge
Celia Learmonth - "Wellness" blogger

I once ran into her coming out of the loo before a gym class looking very bleary-eyed. I asked if she was OK, and she admitted that she’d been sleeping in the cubicle, as she was so exhausted.


Still, I was stunned at what she admitted: she’s been putting herself through regular six-hour exercise marathons and 14 miles of walking a day, fuelled by little more than a few poached eggs, an avocado and toast.

Celia’s body is shutting down: aside from crushing fatigue, she hasn’t had her period for months.

Thankfully, she’s finally admitted she has problem, and is seeking treatment. But, worryingly, I know Celia is by far not the only ‘wellness’ blogger whose lifestyle is, quite bluntly, making her sick.



THE NEW FITNESS IDOLS

In a few short years, Celia and those like her have rocketed from ordinary enthusiasts to power players, courted by gym chains and clothing, food and supplement brands.
Just look at ‘Yoga Girl’ Rachel Brathen (1.6 million Instagram followers), firm-bottomed New Yorker Jen Selter (6.9 million followers) and six-pack-sporting Victoria’s Secret model Izabel Goulart (two million followers).

HOW MUCH EXERCISE IS TOO MUCH

Three sessions a week of 30-minutes’ moderate exercise is the minimum you should aim for. 
About 60 minutes a day of moderate or vigorous exercise is enough. Here are signs that you might be overdoing it:
  • You are doing several sessions of exercise a day, every day, though not training for an event.
  • You put exercise above everything else, including friends, work or school.
  • You get upset when you miss a workout and worry about your weight.
  • You may have unrealistic ideas about what your body ‘should’ look like.
  • Injuries and illnesses are slow to clear up.
  • Your menstrual cycle is interrupted.
And there are dozens of others. All of them beautiful. And very thin. They’re not household names, maybe, but famous on social media for revealing how they achieve their ultra-toned physiques.

Encouraging others to live a balanced, active lifestyle is a good thing. If you do too little exercise you run a greater risk of suffering from heart disease, strokes, high blood pressure, osteoporosis and poor posture, and are more likely to be overweight.

However, I feel compelled to be honest. I can’t speak for the above-named stars but in the fitness-blog community, faked and photoshopped selfies are commonplace.

And I’m worried that they hide their eating disorders in plain sight, inadvertently encouraging their followers to do the same.  And so is Celia. She says: ‘I look at other girls and think, why isn’t my life perfect like that? Why aren’t I on top form all the time? That’s why I’m talking about this – because life isn’t a stream of perfect selfies.’

So what’s the truth? One blogger I know will often exercise until she’s physically sick, but instead of resting, she’ll do another workout later the same day. She survives mostly on kale chips and coconut water.
There is the ambassador of a protein-shake company who appears muscular in photos, but in real life she is an incredibly frail, severely underweight girl who struggled breathlessly to get through the exercise class I was in with her.  And there’s another twentysomething blog star who is secretly on hormone-replacement therapy in an attempt to rediscover periods, which have stopped due to excessive exercising.


A DANGEROUS TREND

As with all social media trends, there’s a hashtag that followers look out for. It’s #fitspo (a portmanteau of fitness-inspiration). It is similar to #thinspo – thin inspiration – which was banned by Instagram for being a signal used by girls with eating disorders who refuse to accept they are unwell. 

But has fitness addiction become the new anorexia?

Dr Ian Drever, consultant psychiatrist at The Priory, believes it could be. He says: ‘We see a lot of cross-addiction where one behaviour gives way to the next. A patient might improve their eating but then start over-exercising.’

The obsessions that drive both behaviours are the same: feelings of self-loathing, and desire for control and fear of weight gain. 

The number of teenagers admitted to hospital with eating disorders across the UK has nearly doubled in three years, to more than 1,800 last year, according to the latest NHS figures. A driving factor is social media, say experts. Dr Carolyn Nahman at the Royal College of Psychiatrists said she is increasingly concerned with the pressure that teenagers feel when looking at what are supposedly ideal bodies. The problem is, if these bodies haven’t been digitally manipulated they often have achieved #fitspo status through incredibly unhealthy means.



IMPOSSIBLE PERFECTION

Celia, who still lives with her mother Tina, admits: ‘I set myself crazily high standards. I really want to have rock-solid abs and be in the athletic body-fat percentage range of between 14 and 20 per cent.’

She says she was an overweight child and has openly shared this, and her subsequent anorexia while training to be a dancer, with her followers. Her blog charts her progress from obsessing about being ‘skinny’ to wanting to be ‘strong’.

But Celia now agrees she has just substituted one form of calorie-restriction – starving – for another – feverish exercise. 

‘I wake up, go to yoga, then Barry’s Bootcamp [a famously intense hour-long treadmill-based workout class that claims to burn 1,000 calories], do another class after, then another, go home and then do gymnastics, so it can be up to six hours but it’s usually more like four,’ she says. ‘I’ve recently got into swimming on my rest days.’

She uses a fitness tracker and posts her graphs on her Instagram feed, charting miles of walking each day (‘I don’t see that as exercise,’ she says).


Graphic of data from a fitness tracker
The All Important Fitness Tracker


She adds: ‘I’ve tried but I can’t get my nutrition right. I have porridge in the morning, and then snack throughout the day. Maybe a Greek yogurt or a protein shake with oats. I’ll have four slices of toast with coconut oil before bed. But sometimes I wake up starving in the night and binge on whatever I can find. I often feel better when I eat more but I don’t have time to eat properly.

‘I probably don’t manage more than 1,600 calories on some days. But I feel like I have a tendency to over-eat so I try to cut it back.’


EXERCISE OVERLOAD

The condition Celia suffers from – not having periods – is called athletically induced amenorrhea and it occurs when, in the face of an inadequate diet, the reproductive system shuts down.

‘It happened last December,’ says Celia. ‘I did go to the doctor, and they did tests. They said it was because of all the high-intensity exercise I did producing too much testosterone. I did put on some weight to try to sort it out, going from eight-and-a-half to nine stone this year, but I’m now back to 8st 10 lb. I know I should be more worried than I am but in some ways I don’t miss them.’

Without menstrual periods, oestrogen levels, which are necessary for bones to absorb calcium, are reduced. Not only do the bones fail to absorb calcium but the body removes calcium from the bones for other functions, further weakening the skeleton. The damage can be permanent.

I have been in classes with Celia, and she has a bull-like determination to be top of the class. So it is heartbreaking to hear her say she ‘loathes’ her body. Celia, who is also a personal trainer at a gym, confesses she finds each day ‘a struggle’. She feels ‘a failure, as I don’t look the way I want to look... but my periods have stopped. I do very much beat myself over the head with it’.

SEEKING HELP

The thing that is unusual about Celia is not that she’s got a problem. It’s that she’s come clean about it.

Research has shown mothers can ‘infect’ their daughters with eating disorders, and social media does the same. Yet another blogger, Zanna Van Dijk, a London-based personal trainer with 52,100 followers on Instagram, agrees, saying: ‘There are girls who compete in competitions and train for several hours a day, and their followers assume they have to do this too.’

So what’s the solution, I ask Dr Drever. ‘We try to help patients find perspective. Find out what works for them and their body, no matter what any fitness blog says.’

But for Celia, this seems bewilderingly hard. ‘The idea of putting on weight scares me,’ she says. ‘I know I’m not healthy, but there is a 14-week waiting list to even get a consultation with a therapist. It’s so frustrating, sometimes I just cry.
‘But I feel as if people only want to see the online, happy “me”. And no one is like that all the time.’

Sunday, 2 August 2015

Loss

Babies, we spend so much of our lives trying to avoid having them, in the firm belief that one day we can just throw away our birth control and then magically, by the power of our will alone, we will get pregnant.  In this day and age when we control so much of our lives with the push of a button or tap of a keyboard, we expect something as basic as our fertility to be completely under our control.  It comes as quite a shock to most modern women when this fails to be the case. This is often the first clue that the path to parenthood isn't always an easy one.

Photo of birth control pills in pink packaging
Birth Control Pills

I realised from an early age that the reproductive organs weren't always co-operative.  I hit puberty and I hit a wall of pain.  Severe endometriosis sentenced me to days of monthly agony and wreaked havoc upon my body - both physically and emotionally.  By my late twenties I was diagnosed with fibroids and ovarian cysts were a regular feature of my thirties.  I was told my chances of ever getting pregnant were slim but that just sounded like a challenge to me.

Photo of woman holding abdomen, showing pain from endometriosis
Endometriosis

And it was one I pulled off!  "Ha! Take that you medical experts," I secretly congratulated myself as I retched and swayed through the first months of pregnancy.
However, my self-congratulation was short-lived.  My first pregnancy ended on a miserable night in January as my body cramped and bled and my heart broke.  The loss of my baby wasn't something I ever expected.  I'd defied all the odds and got pregnant and I believed my baby was meant to be.  It was like a Hollywood script - heroine defeats the odds and goes on to give birth to bouncing baby, this is her reward for all she's been through - cue happy ending.  But real life isn't like that, as I was all too painfully aware in the months following the loss of my first baby.

Fifteen months later I was pregnant again, older and wiser this time and nervous but as the weeks and months passed my nerves eased and I started to believe I was going to have this baby, that this baby was meant to be.  At twenty-three weeks I learned otherwise as I cradled the lifeless body of my little girl in my arms.  This loss completely obliterated me.  I disintegrated on many levels and life became a "going through the motions" exercise.

Black and white photo of an adult hand holding the tiny foot of a premature baby


Eventually, I pulled myself together and realised children were most probably not going to be a feature of my life.  How to face this?  How to make peace with it?  This realisation was like a huge boulder before me made of pure granite, one I couldn't get round, go through or climb over.  I knew I needed to break it down piece by piece and this was going to take time.  So my response was to wrap up my life as it was and look for a new one.  Myself and Big D literally sold up, bought a camper van and hit the road.  We didn't know where we were going or what we would do but we knew we needed to go, to try and put some distance between us and heartache and envision a future that didn't involve children.

And we were doing really well and having a wonderful time living in the camper van on the west coast of Portugal when I discovered I was pregnant again. Excitement and joy filled our hearts along with terror.

The decision to return back to Ireland was an easy one.  I knew the doctor I wanted and I knew, if things went wrong, I wanted to be in the care of the incredible people who had carried me through the worst days of my life with a kindness and compassion that I will be forever grateful for.

In December 2005 I got the most amazing Christmas present of all, my beautiful baby girl.

Two and a half years later, after a difficult pregnancy, four months of hospitalisation and much drama my son was born.  He was three months premature and it was touch and go but he made it.

Photo of smiling little girl holding her baby brother for the first time
La-la Meets The Dude For The First Time

It hadn't been my intention to write about this today but I was moved by Mark Zuckerberg's admission about the three babies himself and his wife, Priscilla, have lost on their journey to try and become parents.

Miscarriage is so common and yet is often surrounded by silence.  It's a painful subject but it's one that needs a voice.  I don't mention my experience often and even writing about it today has seen the tears flowing but I want to add my voice to the discussion.

All too often, people don't know how to react to the person who has suffered a miscarriage and some don't even consider it to be that much of a big deal.  Well let me give you an insider's view.

The loss of a baby is the loss of the future.  It is the loss of your dreams and very often the loss of hope.  And when  a person loses hope, which is very much the case after recurrent miscarriage, then they have lost everything.  I think Priscilla and Mark are exceptionally brave trying again after three losses.  I don't know if I would have been able to.

If you know someone who has lost a baby then know this:  no matter how brave a face they put on things, their heart is broken and they are hurting in  a way they have never known before.  This is a time for kindness and gentle compassion.  Don't be afraid to express your sympathy, as you would do for any other person who has suffered a loss but please do not belittle their grief.  Do NOT say things like:
"Oh well you were only a few weeks along."
"It's nature's way of dealing with babies who would have been born severely disabled."
"It was probably for the best."

And absolutely DO NOT say the dreaded:
"Oh you can go again."
or
"You're young, you have plenty of time to have another one."

You might mean well but this is the worst possible thing you can say.  They have just lost the baby that meant the world to them.  They have no reasons why and you are telling them they can just go on and have another one! This is the most ludicrous comment of all.  The person who has just lost their baby can't understand why you would think they would be able to hold onto another baby more than the one they just lost.

Sympathise.  Embrace and hug. Be kind.  Tell the person you are there for them if they need you. Listen.  Check in with them.  Do something nice for them.  Know that the date of the loss is a difficult time, as is Christmas.  Just acknowledge their pain and be sensitive to it.

I count myself incredibly lucky to have my two beautiful children.  When I took my first step towards motherhood, I had no idea of the agony that lay ahead.  We take what seems to be our right to have children so much for granted and it is only when we are faced with loss and infertility we realise becoming a parent is a gift that is not bestowed upon everyone.  If you know someone struggling with this in their life right now then please be kind and sensitive to them because it is something they never thought they would have to face.

I sincerely wish Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg all the best in the months ahead and to any of you who are reading this who are also expecting a baby after a previous loss.  I hope happier times are just around the corner.

Photo of Mark Zuckerberg and his pregnant wife Priscilla Chan
Mark Zuckerberg & Priscilla Chan
Announce Their Happy News