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I have a complicated relationship with my body

Doesn’t that sound familiar?!

It is such a heartbreakingly common statement that I know so many of us can relate to. I’ve gone through emotional and physical positivity, appreciation and gratitude, and then the extreme opposite; anger, fear, chronic pain, depression and anxiety when it comes to how I view my body, it’s capabilities, it’s limitations, it’s ever-changing shape, weight, texture and beauty.

I had done most of my growing by the time I was 12 years old. I was almost 6ft before I’d even reached high school. I was a giant, long-legged freak – I was torn between enjoying being treated like a grown up and just wanting to be like all of my friends. I wanted to play the girl role in my jazz dance class, not the boy, but still preferred the boys’ costume. I enjoyed being in the back row for class photos, but I was usually the only girl.  My size and presence were in a continuous battle with my image and understanding of femininity.

I was reasonably proud of my muscular legs that I’d earned through daily activity; snorkelling in the Noosa River and swimming in the ocean or pools… that is until one day I overheard one of the most desired and popular young men at the school comment that I had “nice legs but my skirts were way too short”, hilariously and ironically I was already wearing the largest size uniform available from the school. I had no choice otherwise I’d be ignoring school rules, and I just didn’t do that. I was excited to try out for the school Netball team that same year. I didn’t make the A-team because I’d, “…grown so much so quickly, and just didn’t know how to use my body,” with my limbs and height all over the place.

I was never particularly interested in designer fashion, not because I didn’t like pretty things, but because I got used to having to wear women’s clothes as a child to ensure they fit adequately, appropriately and practically. As an adult, even less exciting options were available in the curvy/ plus size sections and even today they often reflect asymmetrical patchwork quilts rather than flattering, age-appropriate, empowering ensembles. I’ve often found myself somewhere between the largest size in regular and then venturing into plus size clothing, a lot of which just isn’t flattering. I know that all you wonderfully curvy women out there hear me!

When my well trained, strong and healthy body lapped a young man several times in my year 12 class PDHPE 90 minute snorkelling challenge, and my gender-biased teacher immediately claimed my dishonesty (because how could that possibly have happened?!) I was definitely angered, upset and enormously frustrated because the truth, as witnessed by the whole class (including said lapped young man, now with very bruised ego) was let fall along the poolside.  My value as a female, my value in my healthy and capable body, was totally dismissed.

Along with various diagnoses including Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome in my early twenties and just this year, Endometriosis, came various prescribed medications. Some of which dulled some symptoms but created others, including significant weight fluctuations and changes in my shape. In truth the only time I have ever felt truly satisfied with my appearance was when I was running 10km a day and eating a very strict diet (we all know that is no fun and certainly not maintainable!) My strength, pain tolerance and fitness have all been affected by both not medicating and medicating my symptoms, making everyday life feel like a challenge at times.  I love to exercise- I have rowed, played netball, played basketball, attended many gyms, used PTs, done yoga, I have run, jogged, walked and swam what sometimes feels like a whole ocean. Sometimes my pain and pain induced exhaustion makes it impossible to get out of bed, to stand up. Frustrated with an endless deluge of medicated quick fixes… I was determined to find the cause. I just couldn’t understand why people wanted to treat the effects rather than the cause.

In the last 8 to 10 years, with some extensive research and a particularly wonderful doctor, I’ve learned that some of my body changes have been due to a variety of health concerns and diagnoses.  My first endocrinologist (wonderful doctor, as mentioned above) blew me away when he told me the ‘story’ of my growth and behaviour accurately, based on his 40+ years of studying Insulin Resistance. He also told me that insulin resistance was to blame for my small feet and hands – not freakishly small, but sometimes I wonder how I don’t fall over more often – this causation has always made me giggle. All of these challenges and indeed the revelations have driven my fascination with body nourishment; food for fuel, food for healing and food for sheer enjoyment – it is amazing the affect a happy mind can have on the body!

When I’m feeling capable and strong, I love my body; I appreciate my body for all that it can do, and I look forward to reaching my goals, seeing improvement and tracking my progress.  I love my body for being a precious vessel, which carries me through this incredible life.  I love what my body enables me to be involved in. I love that my body can surprise me with its strength, endurance, recovery and miraculous healing.

Sometimes I feel happy with my appearance, and sometimes I don’t. More often than not, the days that I don’t are related to the expectations of others, external pressures and imagery associated with beauty and success – moulds that I simply don’t fit.  Most of those days I can talk myself around by practising gratitude and gaining a little perspective. Unfortunately, there is the odd day when I really beat myself up and let those feelings impact on my self-worth and value. I know that this negativity is in all of us and sometimes it just gets the better of us.

On top of all that (as if that wasn’t enough!) I’m also gluten intolerant, aside from the variety of undesired symptoms that come along with this intolerance (blood sugar spikes and falls, painful digestion, a variety of eczemas and very inhibiting inflammation), some of the world’s favourite, traditional and convenient dishes are full of gluten – how boring! A little-known fact, out of the 60 dishes I created in MasterChef, only two of them contained gluten – this didn’t seem to disappoint three of the world’s best and most discerning palates.  I was determined; I am determined, to create delicious, nutrient-rich, beautiful food without anyone missing out, including me! I don’t, and I never wanted to be coined as ‘the gluten-free’ chef, it simply doesn’t encompass everything I do.  I also get a lot of my enjoyment from cooking for others enjoyment, and sometimes that means cooking dishes for my loved ones that I don’t or choose not eat. But, if you are like me and have to listen to your body and find a way to work in harmony with it, then be sure to browse through my free food recipes for perfectly satisfying alternatives for all our scrumptious favourites and pantry staples.

All of these experiences have driven me to seek answers, to seek control, to seek a healthier approach, mind, body and soul; to find a way to thrive and prosper, to work with my beautiful body and not against it.  I like to cook; I like to grow, I like to connect with farmers and producers, I like knowing what I’m fuelling my body with, I like knowing what I’m putting into my mouth, I like being aware what I’m sensitive to, intolerant to and also what makes me flourish. This is just some of my motivation for creating healthy alternatives to some family favourite recipes, alternatives to my favourite cuisines, using ingredients and methods that allow me to be my best self without missing out on all the joy associated with eating.  I look forward to sharing ongoing tips and tricks with you and likewise, I’m happy to hear from you – your stories, your favourites, healthy alternatives, your successes or challenges and how you overcome whatever challenges you face.

Elena xox

PS. Reflecting my diet choices, being gluten free and watching my sugar in-take too (an unfortunate consequence of being insulin resistant), I thought I would share with you an undeniable food staple, something most of us hate to love and definitely something that needs to be a free food for me….Bread.

I don’t eat a huge amount of bread, but to have the option on hand is convenient.  I keep mine in the freezer to prolong its longevity and to allow for my intermittent toast cravings. Here’s a favourite bread recipe of mine, of which there are several easy variations depending on your personal preference.  

It doesn’t require kneading or proving; it’s filling, satisfying and above all it’s delicious!

Start baking!

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Elena Duggan

Winner of MasterChef 2016, Elena Duggan takes us back to her golden moment ahead of her return to the show as a guest chef in Season 9.