*Please note that this is part one of a three part “series” on diet, body image, and IBD. This post focuses mainly on body image, and the next two will have more to do about food/recipes.
Some say this:
“Look at her. She is sooo skinny. She probably never eats.”
“You never eat anything! Do you have, like, an eating disorder or something? You know it’s not good to be that skinny.”
“Why are you so skinny? You need to eat more!”
“Just eat more!”
“Just eat more!”
“Just eat more!”
But others say this:
“You’re leg is like half the size of mine! I wish I was that skinny!”
“You’re so lucky that you can eat junk food and be so thin. I wish I had your disease!”
“You have to gain weight? I wish I had that problem!”
“Wow! You look so good!”
These are the unspoken thoughts that make me want to hide. The comments that make me want to scream. The knowing looks that make it nearly impossible to feel good about myself in a society that’s obsessed with how much we weigh.
Crohn’s Disease causes many people, especially kids, to have a hard time putting on and maintaining a healthy weight. Now, while this isn’t an issue all IBD patients suffer from, I find it vital that everybody acknowledges it, as myself and others face it on a daily basis. It’s a simple problem, but it’s one few people can truly understand.
According to science (as in doctors), for someone of my age, my height, and my gender, I am very underweight. Yet society thinks I have the ideal body. How can this be?
Truthfully, I like the way I look. Not because I am underweight, but because I just like how I look. However, when doctors tell me I need to gain weight and suggest certain supplements, I realize. I realize that if I want to feel good, I’m going to have to gain weight. This isn’t a bad thing; it’s just a change. Now, I’m not saying I’m going to become the size of a sumo wrestler (diapers aren’t really my thing…). Getting to a healthy weight isn’t going to make me look much different, but it’s going to give me energy, and strength, and the ability to live a great life. So, I realize this and I become determined to become healthier, which in my case is by gaining weight. I decide that I’ll try to eat more calories, more often. I’m happy. My parents are happy. My doctor is happy.
Then, after I’m back in the “real world” after leaving the appointment, I see the signs. “Lite” this and “low calorie” that are popping up all around me. “30% less fat” and “100 fewer calories” a plastered on billboards everywhere. I start to feel weird. Strange. Like I don’t belong. In a world that’s obsessed with losing weight, there’s no place for a skinny kid who’s told to eat 2500 calories a day. Compared to today’s view of the ideal body, I’m perfect. But I know that in reality, I’m not. It drives me insane, not because I have a problem, but because many people refuse to recognize is as a genuine issue. Crohn’s disease is invisible, and because of it, it’s impossible for others to see the challenges it creates. For a long time, I felt lonely because nobody else was trying to eat extra calories. I felt weird because I eat snacks more often than my friends. I felt messed-up because I’m different. But I shouldn’t have.
IBD makes it hard to have a positive body image. It can make you feel gross, ugly, and “wrong”. However, we need to stop liking ourselves when others think we look good, and start loving ourselves when we know we are trying our best to be the healthiest, happiest people we can be. Although I feel good when someone says “wow, you look great”, I feel even better when my doctor says they are impressed with my progress, because it’s an honest compliment. Everybody is different. Nobody has the “perfect” body. (If they do, it’s probably 99% fake). However, with IBD (and without it, too), you have to realize that healthy for you isn’t what healthy is for your friend. Sometimes, being told you look good by the standards of society isn’t a compliment. In fact, it’s often a wake up call that you need to change. When someone says you look like a supermodel, you would expect to feel good. However, when gaining weight is a constant struggle, you feel like you’ve been punched in the face. I mean, even after all your effort people think you’re starving yourself? It’s discouraging, but it’s also motivation to keep trying. Eventually, you’ll get there. .Even if everybody else thinks you’re crazy (I mean, we’re all a little nuts…)
Below are some answers to the three main questions I get about this topic. Scroll to the bottom to see how you can help resolve the issues IBD causes for one’s body image.
Q: Why does Crohn’s Disease make it hard to gain/maintain a healthy weight?
A: There are many factors that play a part in the weight aspect of IBD. One of the main points is that with Crohn’s Disease, the digestive system doesn’t absorb nutrients correctly (and sometimes at all). This makes it so whatever you eat isn’t really being digested, so your body doesn’t benefit from it. Also, some people with IBD go to the bathroom a lot or throw up. They end up losing weight much faster than they can gain it all back. Sometimes, people with Crohn’s aren’t hungry a lot because their stomach hurts, they are nauseous, or the swelling in their digestive system makes them feel full when they’re really not. All of these factors make it difficult for IBD patients to take in the food they do eat. However, if you have IBD and have a hard time gaining weight, you don’t need to worry. Your doctor can help you find ways to boost your calorie intake without making your whole life revolve around eating. All you have to do is be willing to comply with whatever methods they have suggested, and you will find that it’s not as hard as it seems.
Q: What should I do if I am under/overweight but don’t want to change the way I look?
A: I have struggled with this for a long time. I want to gain weight to be healthier, but I also want to stay the same because I like how I look. I find that it really helps to think about the benefits a healthy weight has. This also works if you are looking to lose weight. Just think how getting to a healthy weight allows you to be better at sports, have more energy, and that you will still be “you”; just a healthier version. Every time I think “I like the way I look. I don’t think I really need to gain that much weight”, I end up deciding to try to anyway, and every time I still end up liking how I look. You just have to think past the numbers and calories and amounts of food because it can be overwhelming. Focus on the benefits, and let them help you to achieve your goals.
Q: This sounds like a pretty nice problem to have! Why don’t you just enjoy yourself and eat more? I Would do anything to be able to eat whatever I wanted and stay as skinny as you!
A: Many people have told me that they would love to be able to eat anything and stay so thin; even my closest friends and relatives. No, I don’t hate them for saying these things to me; they just didn’t know. However, I want them to realize that my low weight isn’t the only impact IBD has on my life. Often times, I’m not even hungry, but I have to eat anyway. Sometimes, I eat something and it gives me a horrible stomach ache. Also, people with Crohn’s can’t eat whatever they want. Some foods make us feel really sick, and we still have to eat a healthy balanced diet. Additionally, although some people with IBD look super thin, being underweight also causes them to be weaker and more tired. Weight loss/failure to gain weight is also a sign of active disease, so they are probably pretty sick. Now, I’m not saying all this to make everyone feel bad for me. I don’t want any sympathy for this cause, because saying you’re sorry isn’t going to make anybody feel better. I want empathy. I want people to understand. And most importantly, I want support.
How can you give support?
It’s up to you. If you have IBD, tell your friends if there is anything you don’t feel comfortable talking about. If they comment on what you’re eating, or how you look, tell them the truth. Say “I know I don’t look sick, but inside I really am” or “I know I may seem lucky because I need to eat a lot, but being underweight causes me to not feel well.” If you don’t have IBD, try not to talk to your friend(s) who have IBD about their weight, size, and/or dietary needs unless you know they are okay with it. If your friend (or child) is struggling with weight gain, let them know that you acknowledge their problem and help them become healthier by setting goals and talking about things other than calories and food.
Whether you have Crohn’s and/or struggle with weight gain or not, realize that you don’t have to put on a whole production to support the issue. Just tell yourself or your friend that yes, they look good, but that they will look even better if they follow their doctor’s advice and work towards a healthier body. Society’s idea of the perfect body is wrong. Listening to your doctor is right. Don’t engulf yourself with calorie counting and constant weight checks. Sit back, relax, and drink your supplement shakes without worrying about how you look. You don’t need others’ approval to feel good about yourself. You just need to try your hardest, even if nobody else notices.
DISCLAIMER: This information is not intended in any way to diagnose, treat, or cure any disease. This is simply my personal experiences and advice. Please consult your doctor for more information on this topic if you are interested in learning more.