Body Image and Gentle Nutrition Interview with Hannah Lowe of ROCKET Magazine
As promised, I have included the interview transcript where Hannah Lowe of The College of William & Mary’s ROCKET Magazine asked me about body image, body positivity and its roots in the fat positive movement, gentle nutrition, my experiences with my own body as a college student, my experiences becoming a personal trainer, mental health, shame and guilt in relation to health behaviors, and my favorite resources on Instagram and beyond.
Click here to read my previous post about this and also for links to the two articles Hannah has written involving my interview.
I’ll warn you, it’s lengthy because I’m passionate about what I do (and about W&M and ROCKET magazine, so much love for both), but I hope you will be able to find something to take away from Hannah’s insightful questions and my responses.
- There are many terms out there to describe the kind of advocacy you do on social media, from “body positivity” to “size acceptance.” How do you define your mission?
This is difficult because I think, like “feminism,” some of these words can be so charged. Personally, I tend to use the terms “body positive” and “anti-diet-culture” because I strongly believe that every body is a good body, regardless of size, race, gender, sexuality, (dis)ability etc. However, the body positive movement, more recently, has been used and watered down by a lot of companies and a lot of fitness professionals to sell a product/service. The roots of body positivity come from the “fat positive” movement, and so I think if you are trying to say you are “body positive” only if the body is of a “normal” weight or only if the body appears “healthy,” then that is simply not body positive. If fat (or racially diverse or differently abled) bodies are not included in your body positivity, or if you’re saying you can only be positive about your body if it is healthy (see, people who will say fat positivity is bad because it promotes poor health, *eye roll*, fat bodies can be just as healthy and even healthier than thin bodies, and someone’s health is no one else’s business), then count me out! Also I identify with anti-diet-culture because I believe diets are just bad, bad for physical health (they scare your body into thinking it is starving and can permanently alter your metabolism) and bad for mental health (lead to disordered eating, food obsession/”addiction”, body dysmorphia, etc.). I would never put a client on a diet or ask them to restrict their eating; I focus on what nutrient-dense foods we can include more of instead (see my recent blog post about expansion vs. contraction/restriction). Psychologically as well as physically, this is a much more sound approach.
- Could you tell me a bit about what inspired you to become a personal trainer and health coach? How did you learn to teach others to practice self-acceptance and healthy habits?
I became a personal trainer at a time in my life when I was just learning how to love and accept my body in a healthy way, and I wanted to teach other people to avoid the mistakes I had made. During my freshman and sophomore years of college, I restricted food and over-exercised in an attempt to control my life, my weight, and to retain the label of “skinny” which I had been praised for growing up. I discovered weight lifting as a way to feel strong in my body instead of worrying about weight or aesthetics, and the rest is history. I trained at the Rec for a year (loveddd it), and then I started working at acac Albemarle Square in Charlottesville after I graduated and continued training there through grad school at JMU. I have been so lucky to find environments that promote holistic health and provide continuing education for their trainers. I actually became a certified Health Coach through a deal acac had with ACE, and I am so glad that I did. It was always a certification I planned on getting somewhere down the line, but it has been so in line with the coaching and help I want to provide people so that they don’t make the same mistake of hating their body in the name of “health” like I did in the past.
- You’ve written a bit about mental health and your own experiences living with anxiety. How does mental health awareness factor into your work?
For me, one of the scariest things I had to do in my own health journey was admit I needed help with anxiety. I spent a lot of time refusing medicine because I didn’t want to be on “toxic” prescription medications “filled with chemicals.” A lot of my past restriction with eating had been based in food purity or what is often termed “eating clean,” so prescription medications did not fit in with what I found acceptable to ingest. When I finally made the choice to stop shaming myself into living with anxiety that no longer felt manageable and went on prescription medications, it changed my life. It was so the opposite of what I feared; it was an empowering experience. Currently, I am off these medications because they were no longer working well for me (through I stayed on through grad school) and attending weekly therapy, another thing I thought I would never do because it felt “weak” to admit I needed another person’s help to figure out my brain. A close friend who is heavily involved in the AA community always says “You can’t fix your broken brain with your broken brain,” and it’s sooo true. Outside perspective is everything. Also, I would go back on these medications again in a heartbeat if I felt I needed them; there is no shame in needing medication to function.
As far as my work, stress management is one of the biggest things I focus on with clients. If you are chronically stressed, it completely alters your metabolism and the way your body functions. You cannot just slap exercise (a positive stressor for your body) on top of chronic negative stress and hope to see results. Mental health, in my opinion, is more important than physical because you can’t enjoy all your fitness gains if you’re stuck in a crappy place mentally.
- It’s not always easy to talk about the shame we feel about our bodies and our food. How do you start difficult conversations about body image and disordered eating?
It’s not easy, and this is something I’m always trying to learn more strategies for. Two of the biggest things I’m doing right now with clients are:
1) If a client lists weight loss as a goal, I ask what they think would be different if they were at their goal weight/lost their goal amount of weight, and then whatever they list, those are the things we actually focus on as goals (ex. more energy, more endurance, stronger/more capable, etc.).
2) I ask clients to completely change what they follow on social media. Seeing me for an hour or two each week is not enough for them to completely relearn the years of shame and guilt around food and our bodies that our society has indoctrinated us with. You have to immerse yourself in body positivity like you’re learning a new language, and unfollow anything on social media that makes you feel bad about yourself in any way.
- While reading your posts on Instagram, I found myself relating to them quite a bit – especially your post reflecting on your relationship with food when you were in college. Your experience speaks to experiences of many other people, particularly college students. Now that you are in a healthier place in life, what is your advice to someone seeking to build a healthy relationship with food?
Stop defining food as good or bad. Don’t ever tell yourself that you can never have a food (unless you’re allergic, obviously), because then your brain is just thinking about that food all the time; even if it’s just thinking about not having it, it’s still on your mind.
Stop trying to prevent emotional eating; it’s natural to eat for reasons other than hunger sometimes. We eat to celebrate at holidays; sometimes we eat when bored or hungry because food has a very real pathway for creating happiness in the brain. That’s OKAY!
And if you’re worried that your eating patterns are not making you feel the best, focus on adding in nutrient dense foods (veggies, fruits, nuts, seeds, beans, grains etc.) that give you the most nutrients at once. If you’re not sure where you’re lacking or what to focus on eating more of, ask a professional! Many campuses will provide access to a session with a Registered Dietitian for free.
- I love your #EPBeatsalot posts. What’s the story behind the hashtag?
Ummm, the not to so interesting story is that EPB-eats, is actually also EP-beats, so you just get a lot of music stuff with that, so that hashtag wouldn’t work for me to have one of my own.
But more than that, I’ve always eaten a lot; growing up my parents always wondered where I could possibly put it all. It was really just a way for me to celebrate a love of food that’s always been there; even during restriction, I would go out to enjoy a big meal and then just restrict or exercise more later. So this was a way of me reclaiming that love all the time. There is no shame in eating a lot, no matter what size you are. There is no shame in being on a date with a boy and eating way more than him. It was also just a way for me to keep track of restaurants I loved or smoothie recipes that were good etc.
I’m also very passionate about plant-based eating for environmental reasons, so it was a way for me to share that eating plants can be fun and include lots of donuts too. On that note, I actually often say I am vegan for simplicity but will never be 100% vegan because of my restrictive past. I am realistic about what I can mentally/emotionally handle, and having to say no to a donut just because there is some egg in there is simply something that is not in line with my values of never restricting. However, I am very lactose intolerant and cannot digest eggs/meat anymore, so it does have to be a baked good with not too much egg/dairy for me to be able to eat it, so it’s a blurry line that I’m always guessing and checking for myself.
- You are very active on your Instagram page, and you often share content from other activists and influencers. What are some of your favorite social media profiles and online resources dedicated to the body positivity movement?
Healthy at Every Size (HAES) protocol website by Linda Bacon
And like a million more. I try to share a lot in my stories so it is easy for other people to find resources outside of myself. Like I said, it’s all about immersion in body positivity, as though you’re learning a language.
Once again, thank you to Hannah Lowe and ROCKET Magazine for asking me to help out with this project. It was so heart-warming to be involved with ROCKET Magazine once again, if only tangentially.
Thank you all for reading. <3