How To Love + Accept Your Body With IBD (Plus my Body Image Journey)

body love with a chronic illness

My body has been a lot of different sizes. It’s been a lot of different shapes. It’s been leaner, faster, smaller, softer, weaker than it is now. It’s been through it all – weekly binge-drinking my freshman year of college, an eating disorder, an addiction to exercise, a marathon, an autoimmune disease, a hospitalization.

And It was also hated, by me, for most of my life.

Growing up a dancer, I was exposed from a young age to the idea of body idealization. And I think my body dysmorphia began without me even realizing because of this. Ballerinas were expected to be stick thin, yet strong as hell. To have quads that could lift their leg clear above their head, but also have a collarbone that protruded and ribs that stuck out.

Talk of “ballerina bodies” were the norm and I never thought twice about it. Especially as I grew older and my dancing classmates began thinking about careers in the dancing realm, there was constant talk about whether or not they had thought they had the right body type for the profession.

It’s such a contradiction because I know first-hand how much work, how much blood, sweat and tears, and how much dedication dancing takes. I know what it’s like to commit your life to a sport and an art-form. But it also makes me cringe now, thinking of how body-focused the sport I grew up loving was.

So, growing up, I was always the skinny friend. Even though I started lifting weights with my parents when I was 12, I was an itty-bitty bean pole.

chronic illness body love

Fast-forward to my freshman year of college and I gained a good 10 pounds – mostly from alcohol, but also from a few too many drunken 4am snacks. I remember being horrified when I stepped on the scale to see how much my weight had changed and committed right then and there to losing it.

And lose it I did. What started as a healthy journey to drop the weight I had gained, quickly spiraled into an eating disorder. I dropped those 10 pounds in mere weeks and just kept letting them fall off. Seeing my weight drop quickly became an addiction.

Throughout my sophomore year of college, I wouldn’t leave the gym until I had been there for over two hours, no matter how weak I felt. I would barely eat throughout the day. All I thought about was food and exercise and my body.

Even when I had lost “enough” weight, it was never enough. I wanted more. I was struggling a lot at this time in my life, with anxiety and grief, and I found solace in controlling my body and food. It felt good, therapeutic almost, to have something to focus my energy on besides the sadness inside of me.

Fast forward to that following summer – my parents had approached me a few months before about my eating disorder and I finally felt ready to get help. I knew I needed it, badly, and I knew my parents wouldn’t support my running if I didn’t show signs of improvement. I began seeing a counselor and a nutritionist and slowly gained some of the weight back.

But it was definitely a quasi-recovery stage for me – I still thought about food constantly and I still ran like a crazy woman. I thought I was “better” because I had hit my “benchmark weight” (the weight I thought my body simply healthfully stayed at when food was at a normal, maintenance amount).

But now looking back on my mindset and on photos almost four years later, I can still see. How much I was struggling.

Fast forward, again, to my senior year of college. I was fully recovered, fully healthy and at a good weight. But as I got further into marathon training, I inevitably dropped a few pounds and once again found myself getting smaller. Being in a better place I knew the weight I had lost wasn’t sustainable and I worked to get strength back.

Right as I felt like I was at my strongest, my first major ulcerative colitis flare hit me. And it hit me hard (you can read the full story here). In a matter of two weeks, I had dropped more than 10 pounds and I emerged from the hospital feeling like UC had won.

I once again put my head down and worked to gain back strength and weight.

chronic illness body love

But then the humira I was on started kicking in and my body kept growing. No matter what I did or ate my body kept gaining weight. I felt so uncomfortable in my body and shed so many tears over what I saw in the mirror.

Fast forward to now, off of humira, yet still at that same weight, and really fckn happy about it this time.

You see it finally hit me one day, after I had a complete breakdown after a doctor’s appointment where I had told them not to show me my weight, but they accidently did, and I saw that my weight hadn’t changed since going off of humira (please note that weight gain was not the reason I quit humira. This Instagram post explains it further!).

I’m talking full blown, sitting in a corner of my room, ugly cry, snotty nose, my life is over breakdown. Yeah that kind of breakdown.

Yeah after having that breakdown it hit me. No matter what size I have ever been at I haven’t been fully happy.

I wasn’t happy with my “ballerina body.”

I wasn’t happy with my body when it gained weight from drinking too much.

I wasn’t happy with my body even when I dropped that weight (and more).

I wasn’t happy with my body at its lowest weight.

I wasn’t happy with my body after my marathon.

I wasn’t happy with my body and how thin it was after my flare.

I wasn’t happy with my body when it gained weight back.

I wasn’t happy with my body when I was on humira.

I wasn’t happy with my body when I went off of humira.

For me, I’ve always been…

Too skinny

Too soft

Too weak

Too big

Too heavy

Too bloated

No. Matter. What. I had never been happy.

I finally realized, maybe it has nothing to do with my body, and everything to do with everything else in my life.

Maybe I need to just love myself so damn hard, that no matter what my body looks like, I’m happy.

And it was like a weight had been lifted. And although I’m heavier than I’ve maybe ever been, I feel lighter. Because that number no longer holds any power over me. Because I finally realize and wholeheartedly accept that that “benchmark weight” I had always tried to stay at? Wasn’t my benchmark at all.

So, I started just loving life. I started focusing on how I acted with love and kindness towards myself each day.

And ya’ll, I’m heavier than I have been in a long time (maybe ever?) and I feel damn good. Because I finally let go of the unnecessary emphasis on my body I’ve been able to focus my energy and thoughts into so many other areas. I’ve been able to finally, really start gaining the strength I’ve wanted to for a long time because I’m not afraid to eat a sh*t ton of food and lift heavy things and gain the necessary weight. I’m more energized. I’m more carefree. I’m more levelheaded when I’m bloated. Because I know I’m worthy and confident and strong and fun and successful because of literally so many other things and NOT because of what I look like.

And lately it’s a true testament to how far I’ve come because I’ve been bloated af every day lately (thank you UC), but my opinion about my body hasn’t changed. I’m like “oh hey body I see you doing your thang and acting all angry for no reason, but it’s fine, we’re chill, I still love you. 

Is it annoying when I’m bloated and IBD makes my body look different? Yes. But does that mean my body is any less? Hell no.

chronic illness body love

Because I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, I asked on my stories if any of you had experienced bad body image due to IBD and it was an overwhelming YES from 98% of you. I then asked specifics and here are some of the answers I got: 

-       I always feel bloated and uncomfortable. I hate not feeling okay in my own skin.

-       Waking up with a flat stomach then you eat something, and you look pregnant

-       When my clothes don’t fit due to tummy issues

-       Being skinny but. looking so flabby because I’m too weak to workout

-       Being at my “goal” weight but it’s only because I’m super sick

-       The weight fluctuations and physical side effects from being on steroids

-       Bloating! When I look like a big hippopotamus

-       Even when I’m not, I constantly feel like I appear extremely bloated

-       How skinny I am but also not at all toned from being unable to strength train

-       Sometimes the pain makes me walk weird and I feel like it’s obvious

-       Of course, the bloat/distention can cause me to not wear what I want to

-       The bloat!! Seriously. And not. Being able to always exercise makes me feel bleh

-       That I lost so much weight beyond my control

-       Complete loss of body confidence when I look 6 months pregnant

-       Swollen face from steroids even when I work out hard and the rest of my body besides my lower stomach and face look okay. It just makes me want to put a bag over my face

-       People commenting on my weight loss

-       I’m a bigger girl already, so I already struggle with body image so when I bloat it’s worse

-       Accepting that my body might look a little different after everything it’s been through

-       Feeling like I always look different and not knowing what I actually look like

-       Gaining weight after a flare

-       Having difficulties staying at a healthy weight

-       No matter when I eat or how much I exercise, I’m still bloated! It’s frustrating!

-       Losing weight all at once and people noticing. Like thanks ya’ll I wasn’t insecure enough…

-       My bloating/discomfort

-       I’ve always had a distended stomach and people think I am pregnant

Reading these broke. my. heart.

Because I’ve been there – hating my body because of IBD. Hating my body when it’s bloated. Hating my body when it was “too thin” after a flare. Hating my body when it felt puffy from medication. Hating my body when I was in pain. Hating my body when I lost muscle when I was at my sickest.

But YA’LL. IBD already takes so much from us – our freedom to eat whatever we want, our spontaneity, perhaps some of your favorite activities, a carefree mindset… so why let it steal our self-love too?

Yes, it sucks to be bloated. Yes, it’s so hard to gain weight from medication. Yes, it’s heartbreaking to feel weak when we know we used to be stronger.

But we don’t have control over that. What we DO have control over is our mindset and how we react to these situations. IBD doesn’t define you. Your BODY doesn’t define you. Your WEIGHT doesn’t define you.

So here are a few of my top tips when it comes to IBD and body image, because I want all of you to be able to let go of some of that emotional heaviness and feel the lightness I now feel:

  1. Realize BLOAT doesn’t equal WEIGHT GAIN:

I know what it’s like to look in the mirror and see your bloat and instantly think “oh my god I’ve gotten so big!” It’s hard to separate our body image from thoughts about weight but that’s what we have to remember – IT IS JUST AN IMAGE. And images change, just like our bodies fluctuate daily. Bloat is literally not weight gained. It’s not. And that’s something you just have to remind yourself of over and over and over again.

2. Remember that your body is a vessel:

Your body is straight up just a casing for all of the amazing wonderful things inside of you like your intelligent brain and your humor and your white and your sass and your kind heart and your compassion and your soul’s passions and everything else that makes you YOU!!! Your body does not need to be and SHOULD NOT be the most important thing about you. Like honestly, you’re cool as FRICK (as my bff Allie would say) no matter what your body looks like!!!!!!

3. Focus your energy elsewhere:

If you find yourself constantly thinking over your body, how it’s changed because of IBD and how annoyed you are that you can’t do anything about it, focus your energy elsewhere. Dedicate your time to the hobbies and interests you still CAN participate in even with IBD. Maybe that’s reading, maybe that’s painting, maybe that’s singing, maybe that’s baking, maybe that’s writing poetry, maybe that’s doing puzzles – WHATEVER it is, do more of what you love. Fill your time with purpose and passion and don’t let your brain stay stagnant on thoughts of what you can’t do (like exercise, for example) or what you can’t change (like medicine-induced weight gain and flare-induced weight loss).

4. Buy comfy clothes that you feel confident in:

I used to force myself to still wear crop tops and little denim skirts and high wasted pants and all of that jazz because it’s what I used to love to wear. But then I realized – I don’t feel confident in that all of the time. Sure, I still loveeee a good crop with high wasted jeans when my stomach is behaving, but I also know that can’t be my wardrobe 75% of the time. I started finding outfits that I felt cute in but also felt super comfy when I don’t feel well and am bloated beyond belief. I love cute, oversized sweaters and long, flowy tops, fun yoga pants, mom-jeans that aren’t tight, t-shirt dresses, etc.

5. Have a bloat-escape-route:

Okay, I don’t REALLY mean an escape route, but more of a plan B. For example, on the fourth of July this past summer, I really wanted to wear a white cropped tube top and high wasted shorts, but knew I would most likely get bloated at some part of the day, so I also had a big comfy (but cute) sweater I could throw on over it and wrap around me. I also brought a sweatshirt and yoga pants incase things got really bad. No matter what or where I’m going, if I’m in a not-so-bloat-friendly-outfit, I bring something to make it more bloat-friendly when the inevitable happens.

6. Do something to make yourself feel more confident:

When I was really struggling with my body image and self-image post-flare and then post-humira-weight-gain, I started getting my nails done every few weeks. Although I truly believe self-love needs to come from INSIDE, sometimes it just feels good to feel beautiful on the outside too. Having pretty nails helped boost my confidence! There’s nothing wrong with wanting to feel beautiful on the outside too – just do the inner work too!!

7. Remember that you are SO STRONG even when your body feels weak:

I remember when I was in that spot – being so stick skinny and feeling so weak after my flare and feeling so self-conscious because of it. But then I thought back on how much my body had been fighting for me and STILL fights every day and realized I am a total bada**. The inner-strength your body has is something to be so proud of. When you feel weak, think back on all that you’ve overcome and remind yourself of your strength. Like honestly – what the FRICK. Your body literally fights EVERY SINGLE DAY FOR YOU. How amazing is that!?? Also, I might’ve walked out of that hospital a hell of a lot weaker physically, but mentally? I was stronger than I had ever been.

8. Pump yourself the frick up daily:

If I ever have moments where I’m like “whoa yeah I’ve gained a lot of weight” I just look at the boobs I never used to have and then I just do a little turn around, look at the booty I never used to have either and then I feel fine!!! ;) BAHAHA no but actually. Whatever it is that you DO love about your appearance – don’t be afraid to tell yourself how much you love it every day! Maybe it’s your booty like me. Or maybe it’s your smile, or your hair, or your back muscles. Honestly whatever it is – pump yourself up on it every day!

9. Focus on acceptance before love

Know that you don’t need to be head over heels in love with your body in order to be kind to it. There’s a nice gray space you can live in too – one where you accept your body and speak kindly to it. Maybe you don’t look in the mirror naked and think DAMN I AM BANGIN’. But you also don’t look in the mirror and tear yourself apart. You look in the mirror and smile and maybe say something like “hey, thanks for doing so much for me.”

10. Tell people to STFU:

Lastly… tell those fricken people who are commenting on your weight (whether weight gain or loss) to STFU!!! Okay, maybe say it a little nicer (or not – you do you boo), but don’t be afraid to put up boundaries. If you’re uncomfortable when Sharon always tells you “you’re too thin,” then put up that boundary and educate Sharon. Let Sharon know that commenting on your weight makes you uncomfortable. Because our weight should never be someone else’s business.

It takes time, learning to love the body you’re in, but I hope this all helps a little. Know that you’re not alone in this and know that you CAN and WILL learn to love and accept your body one day. Xx