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Crohn’s Gave Me the Weight Loss I Craved — and a Problematic Relationship with Food

Real Talk

December 23, 2023

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Photography by Jill Chen/Stocksy United

Photography by Jill Chen/Stocksy United

by Anne-Marie Varga

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Medically Reviewed by:

Megan Soliman, MD

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•••••

by Anne-Marie Varga

•••••

Medically Reviewed by:

Megan Soliman, MD

•••••

•••••

As a chubby adolescent, I embraced the weight loss that Crohn’s caused and even hoped for flares or the need for surgery so I could keep the number down on the scale.

I can’t recall the exact moment that I became aware of “body image.”

It happened gradually — when my family made jokes about how I was such a big baby (I was born at 10 pounds and 22 inches). When I wore children’s XL clothing when I was in elementary school. When I went to dance class and practiced pirouettes in a leotard and tights beside young girls who were considerably smaller than me.

I craved sweets over fruit, sodas over water. I was a tall kid but chubby and slightly overweight for my age, and I was constantly aware of it.

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An unexpected change

I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease when I was 12. Even before I was diagnosed, my body had begun changing rapidly.

Within 3 months, I had lost 30 to 40 pounds and weighed under 100. My XL clothing no longer fit me. I no longer felt out of place in ballet class. I no longer craved sweets or soda. In fact, I craved nothing.

Anything I ate went right through me.

I wasn’t hungry, and I wasn’t eating. In a sick, twisted way that I’m sure many young women can empathize with, I was happy. I finally fit into the small clothing at Limited Too.

I no longer felt embarrassed in a bathing suit. I excitedly purchased new, smaller leotards and tights and proudly wore them to dance class. I was tiny enough that my dance teacher chose me to be partnered for adagio acrobatic dance, a type of dance that includes a male dancer lifting their partner.

I was malnourished, I was in constant pain, I was having bloody diarrhea every day, but I was finally thin. And I was happy about that.

Months later, after several medicinal attempts, my doctor put me on an intravenous medication called Remicade. The relief was instantaneous. Within weeks, my stomachaches were disappearing. Within the year, I put on 30 pounds.

I loved feeling better, but I hated gaining weight. The clothing my parents had bought me a year ago — the small skirts and extra-small tops — no longer fit. I started wearing coverups over my dance leotards. I began limiting my calorie intake.

I was 14.

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An unhealthy obsession

I became consumed with my weight — it was all I thought about.

Once, my brother’s best friend affectionately picked me up and twirled me around in a hug, and I was convinced he was only thinking about how heavy I was.

I tried not to eat the night before a doctor’s appointment and would wear the lightest clothing to the doctor’s office so that it would add the least amount to the scale.

At this point, I was visiting the office often — every 8 weeks to receive my Crohn’s medication.

I vividly remember my doctor remarking once, “You’ll weigh more than me soon!” after looking at the number that my nurse had recorded on her clipboard. I know now that he didn’t mean anything by it. He was excited for me, happy to see that I was getting healthier and that we had found an effective medication.

At the time, it felt like a punch in my diseased gut.

Dance class was hell in itself. Going through puberty is hard enough. Hating your developing body, your (very normal, healthy) weight gain, and having to see it in a leotard and tights in front of a mirror is another form of cruel punishment. I was constantly worried I would be too heavy for my dance partner — a stocky, 6’3” man — to lift me.

Through high school, my insecurities continued.

I felt uncomfortable in bathing suits, and I tried to wear baggy clothing. Some weeks, I’d binge on cookie dough and chocolates, telling myself that I’d start eating well tomorrow (read: skip meals). Other weeks, I’d avoid breakfast, eat vegetables for lunch, and consume salad and Diet Coke for dinner. At the time, I saw it as “dieting.” Now, I see it as dangerous and unhealthy, disordered eating.

When I was 15, I had a pretty brutal Crohn’s flare. I was hospitalized and put on a steroid to decrease the inflammation. There was talk of surgery, but I responded well to the drug, and the discussion was tabled.

I was disappointed. I wanted the surgery. If they removed part of my colon, I would weigh less. If I was put on a postsurgery diet, I would lose weight.

I craved returning to my 12-year-old prediagnosis weight — that was my ultimate goal. My brain was focused on the look of my stomach from the outside and was completely disinterested in the mess of what was happening within.

Learning to love my body

These habits and distorted ways of thinking continued until college. There, my focus shifted away from my body and toward my studies.

I, of course, still thought of my body image constantly — whenever I had two cookies for dessert in the dining hall or ate a burrito after a night of drinking with friends — but the desire for surgery or a flare that would cause me to lose weight faded.

It took many years before I gained control over my unhealthy obsession with my weight.

It has really been through fitness that I’ve learned to make peace with my body. Working out encouraged me to nourish myself properly and gave me a deeper appreciation for my body’s capabilities.

Now, I prioritize feeling stronger rather than getting smaller.

I focus on feeding my body what it wants rather than restricting it with “good” or “bad” foods. I remind myself that “good” and “bad” foods do not exist.

I celebrate all the amazing things my body does for me rather than pick it apart. My legs may have a bit of cellulite, but these are the legs that carry me through the world. My tummy fluctuates from tight to soft, but this tummy protects the stomach, which digests my food and gives me the energy to move through the day.

I no longer starve myself to fit into clothes. I simply buy bigger sizes.

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The relationship between Crohn’s and body image

Body image is such a complicated subject, often influenced by an individual’s subjective perception of an ideal body and what they’re exposed to through media and social sites.

Ultimately, little is known about the direct relationship between IBD and body dysmorphia, and more professional research is needed to make any firm conclusions.

Researchers hypothesize that people with IBD may be at risk for body dysmorphia because of their specific symptoms, like stomach swelling or inflammation, as well as disease activity and fatigue. Some medications — like the Remicade I take, for example — may result in weight gain.

Further, some people who have surgery may have dissatisfaction or insecurity with their scarring. Others may feel embarrassed about their ostomy bags.

In my case, I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease — and consequently experienced a vacillating pendulum of body transformation — at a formative age, when body image and self-consciousness crept their way and nestled themselves into my psyche.

A constant work in progress

My Crohn’s is active, and I’ve recently found myself struggling again with my body image.

I’m constantly bloated and uncomfortable in my clothing. My bowel movements are irregular and have me feeling sluggish and gross.

Earlier this week, I judged my weight and my body for how I looked in my clothes; I was unfairly cruel to myself. Now, as I write this article, I’m thinking of my preteen years, back when my Crohn’s was running rampant. Funny, how during the time I felt physically my worst, I believed I looked my “best.”

Now, when I look in the mirror and don’t like what I see — which happens because I’m a young woman in a patriarchal society, after all — I try to remind myself that, despite the IBD, my body is capable, strong, and healthy.

I spent my adolescence prioritizing my body image rather than my body itself. I’m trying, in adulthood, to unlearn that behavior, to protect my body the same way it does its best to protect me.

Medically reviewed on December 23, 2023

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About the author

Anne-Marie Varga

Anne-Marie Varga has a dual degree in English Literature and French from the University of Michigan and a Master’s in Digital Media from New York University. She’s an aspiring novelist based in Brooklyn, New York, and is currently working in children’s book publishing. When she’s not writing, she’s most likely watching the Great British Bakeoff or doing her part to dismantle the patriarchy. You can check her out on Instagram, Twitter, or at her website.

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