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Dealing With Body Image As A Woman In Medicine

It was a typical week for me. Too many things jammed into too little time - work, friends, wedding planning, and more work. I was well overdue to go grocery shopping, but my busy week had led to me throw random meals together from the odds and ends in the pantry (and eat plenty of Chinese take-out food).

Finally I had a day with some time so I made my list, headed off the store, and picked up my supplies. While I was waiting my turn to be checked-out, I breezed over the covers of the magazines. Headlines like “HOW TO GET CLEAR SKIN, FAST”, “BE BEACH BODY READY”, and “LOSE WEIGHT, LOOK GREAT” all stared back at me.

The line behind me grew to include a mom and her teenage daughter. She didn’t look like she was older than 14. I watched as she looked at the same magazine covers. Her eyes peered over the titles that accompanied overly photoshopped women who were dangerously thin with unrealistic body proportions.

My heart sank, for I could imagine only too well the thoughts that were going through her head. At 25 years old, I still feel the pressures of the unrealistic world we live in. And I remember exactly the feelings of inadequacy that similar magazine covers left me with when I was this young woman’s age.

I was not comfortable in my own skin in high school. Even though I was a 3 sport athlete and was a very healthy individual, I still found ways to critique myself. That inch of “fat” that I could pinch on my belly, that little blemish that appeared on my skin, or my gawky size 10 feet - there was always something I wanted to change about my appearance. I also came of age during the era of photoshop and filters on social media. I saw beautiful girls my age peering back at me from Instagram or FaceBook, not realizing that I was comparing myself to their highlight reel.

My high school years passed by marked by this lack of confidence but it really didn’t escalate until I was a freshman in college. The transition to college was harder than I thought it would be. Moving away from my family was a challenge, especially to a town that was many hours from them. Like any teenager, I thought that my boyfriend at the time was “the one” and we planned on going to college together. (Of course, we managed to break up the summer before freshman year.) Not only did I lose my support system in my new college town, but now I was left at ground zero and had to make all new friends. On top of this, I had very close family member pass away unexpectedly in my first semester.

In addition to my mental and emotional health, my physical health was in flux since I had to adjust my diet and exercise to ensure I didn’t become completely out of shape. After being a 3 sport athlete all through high school, I had suffered an injury that forced me to put sports aside and my youthfully fast metabolism took a hit, causing me to gain weight as well.

My injury plus my stress put me in a really bad headspace. I was so very sensitive to gaining weight, and even the few pounds I gained led me to be immensely critical of myself. I didn’t cut myself a break to feel the emotions of that time - I just got mad that I was allowing myself to slip. I could just imagine whispers from my hometown friends about how I had “gained the freshman 15” or had let myself go. All the negative emotions and experiences during this freshmen year led me down a very dark and scary road towards the start of an eating disorder.

My path towards disaster started off pretty mild. As I recovered from my injury, I also began to adjust my diet to my calorie output. I stopped eating larger portion sizes and instead gorged on salads, fruit, and other nutritious meals. But this healthy habit took an unhealthy turn when I bought a scale and started weighing myself once a week...which slowly crept towards weighing myself once or twice a day. It became a competition with myself to see my weight go lower and lower each day. I downloaded a calorie tracking app on my phone and didn’t allow myself to go over 800 calories a day.

Within in a year I dropped from a size 6 jean to a size 0. People started to notice my body change. At first I heard varying compliments that revolved around the idea that I looked like I lost weight and that I looked “really good”.

I would be lying to you if that didn’t make me feel good inside...validated in a way. As the months went on, I grew thinner and thinner. Those compliments slowly faded into concern from my close family and friends.

Even with my family’s growing concern, I was so proud of myself for finally feeling like I was the size I wanted to be. Even with fitting into my new wardrobe, I still wasn’t satisfied.

The year went on and I continued suppressing my calorie intake. Every once in a while I would slip up and eat too many calories. I would feel absolutely sick and disgusted at myself for this. I’m not sure when the purging started exactly, but I do remember feeling some sick satisfaction from doing it after I “slipped up” one day. It was a slippery slope from here on out- what started as doing it only after I felt that I ate too much turned into doing it every time I ate a meal, regardless of what is was. I got to the point in my life where I was basically only keeping some fruit, water, and coffee down in a given day. I think that was maybe my lowest point.

I was never officially diagnosed with an eating disorder, but in my heart I know that I was well on my way to one if I hadn’t already arrived at it. I looked in the mirror and saw my delicate bone structure popping through my skin, my eyes were mildly sunken, and I overall did not look healthy. It was at this moment that I knew I needed to change. I was not a person I was proud to be. Slowly but surely I worked on getting better. I deleted the calorie counting app, I tucked away the scale, and I stopped exercising so vigorously. It wasn’t easy, nor was it glamorous. I slipped many times on my ascent back up to a more healthy me, but I am happy to say I’ve finally arrived to a place that I am proud of.

It has been many years from that “a-ha” moment. The new and improved me is now a strong, empowered woman. Going through that awful experience years ago only made me stronger, as cliche as that is. Building myself back up both physically and emotionally gave me the confidence that I lacked back in high school and helped me towards achieving my life goals. Now, as a newly certified Physician Assistant, I realize how important my journey to personal health is to my future interaction with patients.

Reflecting now, I realize how hard it is for women in today’s day and age. The bar is set high in our society for how we should look, and if we fall short we feel guilt and failure. And with perfectionism running deep in the veins of most female healthcare workers, this self criticism and body scrutiny is only exacerbated...after all, we haven’t gotten to where we are professionally by being “second best” and sometimes that mindset can carry over into other areas of our life.

Our careers are focused around helping people be their best, yet, sometimes we don’t give ourselves the same courtesy. While we are running busy around at our clinics and hospitals, we skip meals, hold our bladders to the fullest capacity, and push our bodies to their physical daily limits. Our livelihood’s main mission is to keep patients at their healthiest- yet ironically our physical and mental health can deteriorate in the process of doing so.

Moving forward from this experience, it is my mission as a PA, and a person, to build others up and ensure they feel their best.

This not only applies to my patients, but truly everyone around me: family, co-workers, and friends.

I wish I could go back and tell my 15 year-old self that “you are beautiful” but more importantly I wish I could tell myself that “you are healthy”. Unfortunately, I cannot do that, but I can step in when I hear others putting themselves down. I now make it a point when I hear or see someone clearly critiquing themselves to let them know “you are beautiful” because at times we get so fixated on those minor flaws that we forget to take a step back and evaluate how beautiful each and every one of us is.

We still have a long ways to go to portray more realistic idea of what society appears as “beautiful”, but I think we are well on our way to a making that a reality.