Today on the podcast, I am talking to Shreen El Masry. She’s a body positive and Health At Every Size personal trainer, certified Intuitive Eating counsellor and the owner of Be You, Be Free, a body positive health and wellbeing community for women.
Shreen was actually supposed to chat with me a few weeks ago, but instead she was induced for early labour and had her first baby! She’s on the show today 3 weeks postpartum to tell us all about her journey through eating disorder recovery and her experience navigating body image and diet culture through pregnancy and postpartum.
In the episode, we talk about:
- Shreen’s journey from disordered eating to recovery
- Body image during pregnancy and postpartum
- Recovering from pregnancy
- Intuitive Eating during pregnancy and postpartum
- Raising Intuitive Eaters
- Projecting food and body beliefs onto children
- Hypothalamic Amenorrhea and fertility post-eating disorder
- Stopping exercise to heal fertility
- The impact of stress on the body
- Health At Every Size fitness professionals
- Shreen’s program, Nourish Me
Shreen’s Journey From Disordered Eating To Recovery
Nine years ago, Shreen was struggling with body image when her friend asked her to be a bridesmaid in her wedding. At the dress fitting, she was getting measured when the seamstress told her she would need a dress specially made. The shame Shreen felt prompted her to go on another diet, hoping it would finally work. Unfortunately, that was the final straw that led her to a full-blown eating disorder.
During her treatment, Shreen was nearly hospitalized due to her lack of weight gain; this was a massive turning point for her. From that point on, she threw herself into recovery and learned everything she could about health and wellbeing. It was a long road and she fell down many times, but she continued to fight until she made a full recovery.
When recovery finally came, she knew she wanted to help others who were going through the same thing. That was when she set up Be You, Be Free and went back to school to get her personal training certification.
Supporting Postpartum Women’s Body Image Journey
Pregnancy is challenging enough as it is, but it can be even more difficult when body image issues come into play. Here are some of her tips for having better body image during pregnancy:
1. Be grateful for what your body can do.
Part of what helped Shreen through this time was being grateful for what her body could do in pregnancy. Growing a human is a pretty amazing thing to have happen to you. To have gratitude for your body during that time is one of the most important parts of body image during pregnancy.
2. Reject diet culture around pregnancy.
There are so many messages of what you ‘should do during pregnancy, especially when it comes to how much weight you should gain and how much you should eat. Shreen recommends you unfollow anyone on social media who makes you feel like your pregnancy needs to go a certain way. Unfollow anyone who makes you think your bump should look a certain way, and just focusing on you instead.
Having respect and kindness, treating yourself with compassion, and rejecting comparison will get you much further.
3. Don’t feel like you need to weigh yourself.
Shreen refused to be weighed throughout her pregnancy. All of her healthcare providers were very respectful of that and no one forced it on her. She told them she had an eating disorder history, and they followed her wishes.
It was also pointed out by Shreen that she has thin privilege, so her experience with refusing to be weighed may have been a lot different if she were in a bigger body. If not being weighed is not an option, you could always ask not to be told the weight and to step on the scale backwards.
4. refuse the notion that you need to ‘bounce back.’
Aside from the pressure to look a certain way or be a certain size during pregnancy, the pressure to lose the weight postpartum is insurmountable. If you start restricting food or engaging in too much exercise postpartum, you’re going to ruin your milk supply and hinder your healing process. It’s important to heal, rest, and regenerate and give it that break instead of jumping right back into exercise.
In some cases, pregnant women are told to lose weight and are put on diets- that’s a whole other issue that has not been addressed in the healthcare realm. Weight gain is completely necessary and normal during pregnancy, and during postpartum as well. It’s outrageous to recommend weight loss- no matter your size, your body needs fuel during pregnancy and weight loss can cause serious harm.
Regardless of your size, eating enough during pregnancy and postpartum is a non-negotiable.
How Long Should You Recover Postpartum?
For Shreen, her healing experience was prolonged because she had to be cut during labour. Even without that, labour is still such a taxing experience for your body. If you have a difficult pregnancy or labour, it will typically be a longer recovery process. Or, if you have a normal and ‘easy’ vaginal birth, you can return to exercise around the 6-week mark as long as you get doctor’s clearance.
The most important thing is to listen to your body, tune into how you feel, and not rush back into it or put pressure on yourself.
Personal training and exercise is a huge part of Shreen’s life, but she also knows how important it is to recover. What has helped her during postpartum recovery is going out for walks to get outside. Gentle movement until your body is ready for more can actually help with recovery as well as help your mental health (especially if you go outside).
Navigating Intuitive Eating During Pregnancy
Although the same principles apply to anyone who’s practicing Intuitive Eating, the most important principle during pregnancy and postpartum is trusting your body. You truly have to surrender to the hunger. When you’re pregnant, you’re just SO hungry that sometimes it can feel strange. But giving yourself unconditional permission to eat what you want and honouring your cravings is key.
Cravings are normal! Your body constantly tells you what it wants and needs. Even with breastfeeding, you’re potentially going to be even hungrier than when you were pregnant. That’s also why it’s so important to gain weight during pregnancy and honour your hunger throughout pregnancy and postpartum.
Finally, ignore the dieting messages you see about how much weight you should be gaining or what you should be eating. Just trust your body.
Raising Intuitive Eaters
We’re all born as intuitive eaters. When Shreen’s little boy gets full, he shuts his lips and makes it very clear he’s had enough. He has the wisdom that we were all born with, which is something Shreen will continue to encourage as he grows up.
Once her son transitions to more solid foods, she will offer a variety of foods so he can pick and choose and get all the nutrients he needs. Importantly, she will never make him feel like he needs to finish his plate, but instead allow him to rely on his own inner wisdom.
Food will be joyful, pleasurable, and something to be enjoyed.
All this being said, you can do all the at-home work you want, but you’re still up against social media, influences at school, and friends. Diet culture will still be there. It’s about navigating those conversations with him, what that means, and how he can handle it.
This is Shreen’s first child so she says she has a lot to learn as well, but she’s excited to try it out, see how it goes, and learn so she can teach others.
Projecting Food & Body Beliefs Onto Children
Shreen had a client whose child saw her weighing her food, and asked why. That was a huge turning point for them. They realized they needed to do something about their behaviour so their child wouldn’t eventually go through the same thing they were.
Children can be a huge motivator for recovery- not only if you have kids right now, but if you want them in the future.
Hypothalamic Amenorrhea After An Eating Disorder
It actually took Shreen 2 years to get pregnant. She had a condition called hypothalamic amenorrhea (HA), which caused her to lose her period due to over exercising and under eating. This wasn’t realized until she had already been recovered for a couple of years. She thought she was completely recovered, but her body didn’t agree.
Six months after Shreen had come off birth control, she still didn’t have her period. She came across a book called No Period, Now What? by Nicola Rinaldi, when she realized she had HA.
People don’t realize that when you’re on birth control, you’re having a fake period. If you’re on birth control and want kids but have engaged in disordered eating, there’s a chance that you’re not actually getting your period.
If that’s the case for you, seek help throughout the process of getting off birth control and helping your body heal through that process.
Stopping High Intensity Exercise As A Personal Trainer
To heal her fertility from disordered eating, Shreen had to stop high intensity exercise. As a personal trainer, that was difficult to say the least. The goal of having a baby kept her motivated, despite having moments of wanting to throw in the towel and go for a run or go to a spin class.
When she got pregnant, it was so worth it. Not only because she got pregnant, but because that extra step of having to pause high intensity exercise and gain some weight took her that extra step further in recovery.
According to Shreen, this also really helped her navigate body image during pregnancy and made her grateful to be pregnant.
The Impact Of Stress On The Body
No matter how you look at it, exercise (especially high intensity exercise) is stress on the body. In recovery, you have to go full pause from exercise, gain weight, and let the body know it’s safe so it can create an environment that can support a human being.
People underestimate the impact of stress on health. We live in such a high stress culture where if you’re not burning out, you’re seen as ‘not doing enough.’ We’re all so obsessed with health, but no one is talking about stress in the way that we need to.
People also underestimate the impact of not eating enough on stress. Everyone’s chasing health via weight loss when that really has the opposite effect. Shreen restricted because she thought that was what she was supposed to do. Instead, it lead her to an eating disorder. That’s the irony of it.
Here are some of Shreen’s tips for reducing stress in the body:
- Get enough sleep
- Be consistent with self-care
- Create work-life balance
- Nurture your relationships
- Find joyful movement
Healing your relationship with food and exercise plays a role in recovery, but it’s more than just that. Finding your identity outside of all that is hugely important too. Eating disorders are isolating, so prioritizing having fun, building your relationships, and creating balance in your life between work and play can make such a big difference.
Basic self-care like setting boundaries, saying no, and worrying less about other people contribute healing and decreasing stress as well.
Health At Every Size And Fitness Professionals
In the personal training field, there aren’t that many Health At Every Size/body positive fitness professionals. There are a lot of amazing RDs and Intuitive Eating counselors, but there could be a whole lot more personal trainers that are versed in this area.
The thing is, people have figured out how to talk about all of this when it comes to food, but not in terms of fitness. This is very apparent in the prevalence of ‘fitspo’ online, which is all shredding, toning and weight loss. It’s toxic.
Shreen gets a lot of backlash from the ‘fitspo’ people. Instead of discouraging her, it makes her even more passionate about fighting and spreading her message.
Nourish me is Shreen’s 12-week Intuitive Eating program that focuses on 12 areas of wellbeing that helped her in her recovery. It covers self-care, breathing, mindfulness, connection, work-life balance, and has the Intuitive Eating principles woven throughout.
Shreen’s biggest passion is about having fun with exercise. One part of her program is an activity called the circle of fun- it’s where you write down different activities you enjoyed at one point in your life or things you might find fun or want to try now. It could be anything from rollerblading to trampolining! Each week, she has them try something new.
At the heart of it, Nourish me is about healing your relationship with food and exercise. It’s also about finding your identity outside of food and exercise, finding out what your passions are, what you want to do with your life post-recovery, getting your relationships back on track, and just having fun again.
Shreen is a body positive and health at every size personal trainer, certified intuitive eating counselor and the owner of Be You Be Free, a body positive health and wellbeing community for women. She struggled with disordered eating and body issues her whole life, but it wasn’t until she migrated to Australia from the UK back in 2010 that her physical and mental health deteriorated, and she developed depression, anxiety and an eating disorder.
Shreen discovered intuitive eating, health at every size, and became educated in all areas of health and wellbeing to recover. The combination of all these elements ultimately led her to a full recovery. The experience was life changing and she was inspired to set up Be You Be Free.
She is very passionate about promoting a positive body image and helping women break free from diet culture, so they so they can spend their time on the things that matter to them the most and live their lives the way they are meant to. Be You Be Free is a supportive and non-judgmental community for all women.
The programs are based around fun and sustainable health and wellbeing behaviours such as intuitive eating, self-care, body respect, fun and intuitive exercise, connection, work-life balance and mindfulness amongst others. Shreen helps women heal their relationship to exercise, food and themselves in a supportive community with Be You Be Free.
This post was transcribed and edited by Brittany Allison, Intuitive Eating Counsellor. You can find her on Instagram @thefoodfreedomlife.