Brooke Erlich on Wellness Positivity, Weird Parties and Finding Middle Ground
Updated: Sep 14, 2020
So, Brooke, what is it about wellness that excites you so much? What’s your passion in that and where did it come from?
I mean, I would say for me it was the fact that no one was talking about it and I felt for a long time that I was going through these things alone. Even in middle school, I was insecure and I always was comparing myself to people… in high school, too, it was just another popularity contest. This was all happening even though you would think that being in New York City everyone is just so cool and has it together. Honestly, they kind of are (or at least it seems that way) and everyone’s doing their own thing, You're just left asking yourself like, “What am I? Like what’s my thing?”
Well, I kind of threw myself down this rabbit hole of thinking that my body image was connected to my worth. So, I’d say from junior and senior year [of high school] to basically the entirety of college it’s been an up and down cycle of what began… It started with a really short period of near anorexia to binge-eating and fluctuations of my body... fitting into my clothes and then not fitting into those same clothes and then just not really knowing how to love myself. Then all these other factors being thrown into it, like being in college and dealing with boys and then rushing sororities, all these things. It’s just been through my own research and seeking out people on Instagram, especially when I made that account that’s gotten me through and provided clarity. At first, I wasn’t really following that many friends on my Instagram blog because I was really only following influencers and people who had talked about recovering from binge-eating disorder, or learning to love their body at different sizes because I was trying to teach myself that same thing. I felt like it wasn’t something that I wanted to talk about out loud, or if I did talk about it with my friends, it was kind of like a broken record situation where they would say “We’ve heard this from you, Brooke.”
It was a way to gain insight until I started to share OUT that insight, which was when I realized that a lot of people secretly deal with these sorts of things (and maybe not in the same exact way) in the sense that your mind and your body are two vital parts of yourself and it would be a lie to say anyone is feeling awesome everyday all day.
So for me, @lilredwarrior is a way to try to break through and be like “hey, maybe you should think about how you’re feeling today,” or like “hey, this is not a bikini pic and we’re not in Cabo.” Not that there’s anything wrong with those pictures, but it’s just different from the highlight reel. My mom calls Instagram the “highlight reel.”
Yeah but that’s moving stuff, though, and it sounds like you’ve learned a lot from the account. If you could pick out a few of the most compelling lessons you’ve learned since you started the blog do you have any ideas of what they might be?
Yeah! Well, first and foremost, it’s learning to be okay with vulnerability. At first it was really scary, like going for this public journal-kind-of-a-diary thing that other people are seeing and I think for me I had spent a lot of time prior to starting it just writing a bunch of my thoughts, having dialogues with myself in a notebook.
I feel like a lot of times I have to re-teach myself to do that [physically writing and working out my emotions] since I can’t give insight to others if I haven’t properly reflected on something. So, the biggest thing was being okay putting words out in the world that are not particularly easy or the ideal picture of how people usually see you. And also - not that there was necessarily backlash - but I remember there were some people who would ask me, “Why are you divulging everything about your life? You deserve privacy…” and obviously YES, but there’s also something to be said about being open and honest about the things that we don’t like to talk about on social media platforms. Also kind of getting into that scene of blogging, there were times when I felt I wasn’t good enough… I started getting crazy in my thoughts thinking things like, “I need to be cooking this,” and “why are my images not like that?” and those moments remind me that at the end of the day, this is not meant for anyone else except for me and the people who want to engage in it. So it’s always remembering that it’s not a contest, ya know? And I think that also forced me to unfollow accounts who I, at first, thought were empowering... like really strong women who were weightlifting. But somehow social media always turns into a game of comparison for me and I couldn't look at other people’s bodies at a certain point. For my own usage of @lilredwarrior, it was about understanding what content was continually empowering for me and what was making me question my account and vulnerable content as “not enough.”
In terms of accounts that you follow that you find empowering, what are some of your favorites?
So, there’s this one woman who I follow, her name is @jessijeannn and I found her literally on a whim... like I was going through hashtags and people connected to hashtags based on their videos. So, this woman talks about binge-eating and has done these live Instagram stories saying things like, “I’ve gone through this, and this is something you can do, and this is why this happens and this is why it’s okay,” and I felt like “wow, I’m NOT crazy! Who woulda thought” Because for me, every time I told someone like my mom, “hey, I think I have this thing called binge-eating disorder,” her response for a long time was, “What? Just stop feeling bad about yourself and go to the gym and get better sleep,” she would talk about my vocal struggles like complaints, but also turn it into this logical fix. It’s really a mental thing and in the same way drugs and alcohol are addicting coping mechanisms, food can be too. So for me, understanding what was going on beyond things I read on WebMD and physically seeing a person was game changing. So she’s awesome. And then there’s this other woman called @thebirdspapaya she’s always posting pictures of her stretch marks and I just love it. Being at different body weights, I have had stretch marks at different points (and still do). No surprise, I’ve felt uncomfortable in my skin, in bathing suits, and truly struggled with knowing how to be confident at different sizes. At times it can be external for me, but it’s more so about my head; your mental state truly impacts how everything else follows so I needed to find that balance. But, before you find balance, there’s always imbalance, so it’s about trying to find the inspiration in the first place to think in a more mindful, constructed way.
What would you think some of the most transformative moments were where you sort of realized like oh this is something that I can do and that other people might be dealing with or those sorts of thoughts and what catalyzed those realizations?
I feel like there were a few key moments. I think the very first was way, way in the beginning when I was underweight during high school. And it was realizing what something means when it’s not normal, to the point that what you think is “normal” is really problematic. Especially with disordered eating and people who obsessively count calories. In my mind at the time that was something “normal” for me, so I had a particular moment one day when I thought, “okay, maybe this is an issue,” since other people would ask “why are you counting the amount of french fries you’re eating while we’re at this diner?” I think you realize self-inflicted harmful behavior in moments like that, that kind of pull you out of your body, and makes you think “woah... this is something I need to deal with.” Then, at other times, being at the other end of the scale and heavier entering college to then being in the dining hall having had lost a ton of weight throughout freshman year, I found myself on food free-for-alls where I was eating to the point of literally being sick. Essentially this was a binge-eating relapse. And to clarify, not that there’s anything wrong with junk food, it’s just that I found myself operating on two extremes. So those were two moments when I realized “this isn’t normal” and “this isn’t normal” so why can't I just be here, content in the middle. Of course this led to all the questions and brainstorming about what I needed to do to be at that happy middle ground.
What were some of the things you did to achieve that middle ground? What did the phases of working through things it look like?
Well, I would say the hardest one was buying new clothing. For sure. I mean, going from a 25-waist to a 31-waist and just feeling different, it’s about learning how to see yourself in a positive light again. So for me, I said to myself “just because I’m heavier and I don’t fit into this crop top or these jeans that are probably meant for a five-year-old ANYWAY, that doesn’t mean that I can’t still look good and feel good. So that was a really interesting experience for me, trying things on in the store and newly thinking “That doesn’t look bad! Okay!” Essentially just learning to regain self-confidence and self-worth through my own eyes, if that makes sense… So yes, buying new clothing for sure. Also around that time when I was heavier, the gym seriously scared me. My mom is a gym rat so just thinking about “her people” and the types of people who tirelessly exercise on a machine for two hours, I just felt like “I can’t do this.” I just couldn’t get there so I had to say to myself, “okay you guys are on a different planet, cool.” So for me, the best thing I did was, the summer that I had my first internship - the summer after freshman year - (and for reference, I had re-bounded again in terms of weight gain despite a huge, exciting loss that same year thanks to my dining hall binge-eats and dorm strolls to the vending machines!), I would walk home from work every single day, just being mindful of the people around me while I would have a podcast in my ear. There was this one that was awesome, it’s this psychologist talking to all these women who have had eating disorders and it’s just an hour of hearing their stories. There were two and the first one that I found the most mind-blowing, it’s called the “Psychology of Eating” and another one that my cousin referred me to when she was going through her own body issues is called “Well and Weird” by Holly Lowery.
When you realized that you were going through this, how did you find the words and resources to cope with it? How did you think to look for podcasts and for people on Instagram, or did it come more naturally?
I mean it’s probably because of the fact that it’s an issue that I’ve had for a long time. It started in 2014 and it’s now 2020, a lot of ups and downs have taken place and as you mature through an issue and begin to understand things more you start to get a grasp of like, “okay, this is maybe what I need.” You get more in tune with reality where you say like “this is what’s happening and I have to be okay with that...I need help, I can’t be afraid to ask for help, and I need to figure out how to spring into action because I truly don’t know how.” So at first this looked like doing my own research and asking questions like “what is this called” or “is this normal” ...it was learning about losing a lot of weight quickly and the repercussions of that, understanding binge-eating, understanding the urges that I was having and why this whole experiences was so difficult for me. But it was also talking to my parents and saying frankly, “Hey, I have an issue and I think I need to talk to someone” and then following up on that later saying, “Hey, I think I need to be seen by a psychiatrist because this isn’t normal and hasn’t gotten better.” All those conversations, the first times I brought them up, were followed by backlash. My parents came back with a response like “what are you talking about, you’re fine, you don’t need medication.” And I think as time progresses, you see things, what works and what doesn’t, you realize truly what you need to do, what things are helpful for you to see/hear/read vs. what isn’t.
I think it’s really interesting that you say the first time you brought it up to your parents, it wasn’t so well received. I think a lot of people find similar degrees of backlash when they introduce ideas like this to their families. I’m wondering how you overcame that and began to work more collaboratively with your parents and with other people in your life.
I would say this is where the blog comes in. Using myself as a resource and having to tell myself that, “I know in my heart of hearts that this is a problem, a real problem that other people are experiencing, and while my parents may not believe me (or think I’m lazy, don’t care, or am not trying hard enough), I know that something’s going on here and that I need to find out how other people are helping themselves.” And it’s not that I was able to implement all of these things that other people were doing, and not all advice is/was good and helpful, but it’s just taking the information that you need to inform yourself and build that exterior shield to be able to confidently and say unshaken, “I know that this IS something that I’m actively trying to fix. I’m gonna do something about this whether or not you support me.”
I also think my parents saw that I really wasn’t kidding. At one point they could see that I was truly trying so hard and was extremely distraught about my continued failed attempts to get myself to a better physical and mental place. So, for me, it was having that conversation where I had to clarify that this issue was not a physical thing but rather a mental thing. I think that’s when they realized that too, especially seeing how emotional and visually upset I was when we had candid and open sit-down conversations like this. So for me, at the start, I was trying to pull myself together and figure it all out on my own. So then, when I got a better understanding of my issues and what I needed, I was just going full force with those actions and thoughts, support or no support. And I think that requires a lot of strength. I remember the first time I was on the phone - and this was after weeks of talking to a family member who had spent a long time dealing with struggles on their own. There were all these things going on and, for her, she found a lot of solace in accepting what was wrong, but also being open to the idea of treatment and medication. I had never ever thought about medication until she spoke to me about it, and then all these things started to make so much sense. I thought there was no way all these things weren’t correlated. So, I think it’s just finding that strength to educate yourself, hear new ideas, and know that (regardless of anyone’s permission) this is what I know I need.
So did you do any medication trying out or going through that process or look into it after your cousin recommended?
Yeah I did a lot of online research into different pills, not with my parents' approval, as a way to understand all these different names and benefits of SSRIs and other anti-depression, anti-anxiety prescriptions. To me it was so amazing. I just remember thinking, “Wow! I’ve been feeling that, and that, and THAT and I don’t have to feel this way! Other people don’t feel these same things anymore because this helps them!” It was this sort of epiphany. Not that everything is solved by a pill, because it’s not - I’m referring to problematic body-related thoughts, in formerly wanting to take laxatives or a questionable weight loss pills I found online. But, it was kind of the most exciting moment ever while simultaneously the scariest, ya know? Yeah and there is just like so much stigma around the idea of medication and being on medications for particular things or someone asking you what you’re taking and there’s just a lot of pressure like that so I can understand that feeling. So say you were to go through this same thing right now or you were to talk to someone who was going through something similar, what would be your one major piece of advice?
Well, I think it has a lot to do with where someone is in this process. I think it’s not jumping to conclusions but also being sensitive to people who have eating issues. I know that’s kind of vague, but what I’ve seen in group therapy or talking to people dealing with these same issues is that there are certain triggers that cause a negative spiraling to occur, so knowing triggers is really important. What I’ve said to help others going through this sort of thing (either someone dealing with an eating disorder of their own or serving as a source of support for a friend) is that you have to research and educate yourself. More importantly, as a friend of someone with eating issues, you need to research the most productive ways to communicate so this person (or people) in your life don’t feel attacked. It’s just so much better to say stuff like, “I noticed you’ve been having a hard time and I want you to know I’m here for you if you want to talk,” vs. playing doctor or critical parent. I generally advise people to avoid situations that might make someone feel on-guard.
So, I’ve been thinking as you’ve been talking about how instrumental other people were in your journey towards acceptance. I’m wondering what you think about people currently going through similar experiences while in quarantine and in this weird time, sort of how that might look different or how that could affect someone.
Over the past few months I’ve found a place of balance, but even then, I still find myself thinking “oh my god am I eating my whole fridge?” or “Crap am I actually hungry right now or just bored.” My advice is just to listen to your hunger cues. Like if you’re hungry, then eat! And if you want cookies or cake, EAT IT, because you’re gonna want it later and/or will end up eating twenty other things to push it off when the craving is persistent, inevitable, and also totally allowed, ya know? You deserve to be nice to yourself in the same way that you would be loving, caring, and supportive to a friend. During quarantine it’s really interesting to think about and I think everyone’s situation for sure is different, ya know, like some people can’t really do well being on top of their parents. I’m thinking back to high school where my relationship with my parents wasn’t good - not that it was necessarily bad - but it was definitely strained by my eating issues until I went to college and got that needed separation to figure my shit out until I needed to come back for summer; the separation was healthy! My relationship with my parents is dramatically different (in the most positive way possible), but only because of that ability for independence and separation; quarantine doesn’t necessarily supply that if you live in a 2x4 apartment in NYC. For people in that position, my advice is to just take the step back that you need. When dealing with these issues, I feel like you need to work it out yourself at the beginning of the process so as to be able to ask yourself questions like, “well, why do I think of myself as someone who is xyz pounds when I’m actually pretty normal?” For me, it was writing in a journal and taking the time to work through my problematic and self-deprecating thoughts. Having time to come to terms with what you’re going through is super important, but also just as essential to talk to people in your life. So you can’t really just pick one or the other. I think communication with the people you need to communicate with is really key. So it just depends, it depends on what you need, when, and in what form.
Yeah I mean it’s important to talk about this stuff though because Instagram is a highlight reel and being inside and being stuck with people or just being stuck alone, it’s really hard to grapple with these bigger questions like what happens outside of Instagram when you’re just scrolling.
Right totally. And it’s also not just Instagram, it’s just all these platforms like Tik Tok and Facebook. Sometimes you just need to stop looking at people because we see all these visually captured moments where we assume that everyone is “living their best life” and you’re just thinking, “oh my god why can’t I be them.” I think it’s just learning to say to yourself, “Cool, these people have their lives, but they also have their own problems and are not perfect.” Just learning to separate yourself from this whole spectacle for a little. Because when you’re seeing all these icons and pictures and clips, you’re not seeing a whole person.
So, since you’ve been in quarantine, you’ve been like alone in your apartment, right? Have you had any like human contact really other than facetime or not so much?
I mean, I was gonna say, when my roommates were still here I had in-person-contact, but yeah I’m alone now that they left. I guess completely not if you count constant Facetime calls with my long distance boyfriend, parents, and sister!
[Your boyfriend] is in New York, right? How’s he doing?
Yes he’s in New York. We both live in small apartments [in the city] but he has tighter quarters and more family members. So he says, “I love my family but I can’t stand them right now.” And my sister is feeling that way too, she’s texting me every day saying something like, “save me from mom,” but all of this is circumstantial. It’s definitely being locked up in, like I said earlier, a 2x4 apartment with no city scenes to escape to for the day or night. It’s just being home right now, all day, every day. City kids who have shared rooms and living spaces in particular have it hard right now, as we don’t have that same retreat as others, you know, having a room to ourselves or a door to close. And that’s not to say other people aren’t having a hard time.
So being [in Ann Arbor] it’s kind of a blessing, living as just 1 person in this mini mansion where I can dedicate one room to do work, another where I’ll sleep, maybe one where I’ll exercise for my sister and my parents, they’re doing all these things in the same places; a lot of overlap taking place. I think a lot of relationships are being put to the test right now while everyone’s essentially on top of one another.
To kinda close things out here, I have two questions. The first: what is your number one favorite lesson or piece of advice that someone’s given you?
So, I’ve been given a lot of good advice. It’s funny because my parents sort of switch on and off on the roles of advice giving. Usually my dad gives career advice and like the “go get em!” speech which helps me keep my head up with every professional set-back. In terms of health and wellness, there was this one thing at the beginning of sophomore year of college… it was when we were all living in the [sorority] house and I was just really down on myself, involving myself with people in my life who just weren’t helping like this fuck boi or that friend who didn’t really care - or just, those relationships that you think are okay while you’re in them and then, in hindsight, you’re like “Oh, okay, these are NOT healthy for me.”
So, back to the advice-giving, this is something that my mom said to me when I was down on myself and saying things like “I'm never gonna be successful, I’m never gonna feel good about myself,” all these negative statements while in the depths of my own despair. So, she said: “you always need to remember that you, me and everyone else, we all have something unique to offer to this world and if people don’t get you it’s okay; the right people will always love, respect and support you.” I think that was the most mind blowing thing she could have said because it made me think, “wow, I AM special and I DO have talents and so do these other people and I actually deserve to have a pat on the back.” It also made me think, why do I need to keep particular people around who don’t appreciate me or build me up?
It was really just realizing which relationships were beneficial and fulfilling to me and which dynamics were draining and wholly unhealthy. And I think it’s so true today, particularly during senior year, where there are those people who, no matter what, are always there to build you up and then others who just don’t... You just don’t need negativity like that; it’s a sign of disconnect and/or immaturity on someone’s part if they can’t see that you are an asset to this world with so much to offer. So, for me, that’s the key: Everyone’s awesome in their own way and it’s just finding what you’re the most awesome at.
I just read this book called The Teachings of Yogi Bhajan - he’s a yogi who my grandma loves, so I read it - and he says something about how everyone emits these vibrations and something that’s really important in life is that we’re supposed to be surrounded by people who emit different vibrations than us. So it’s really easy to be drawn to the same types of vibrations and being with like minded people although the real purpose is to like expand the array of vibrations in the world which I think really ties in nicely with what you’re saying about recognizing that other people have these things going for them and it’s like we can all just sorta work it out together.
Yeah and when we were all living in the sorority house, I remember feeling very thrown that I was only really involved in one scene and environment. I was always thinking, “there are so many more people to engage with on this campus.” So I think it’s being unafraid to have different kinds of friends and taking leaps of faith, no matter how uncomfortable you may feel, to explore different scenes. Like, go to a weird party! I’ve gone to so many strange parties and have met so many amazing people. In those moments I always would think to myself “Where has this gem been hiding” or just like taking a chance, going to an area you’ve never been to before or talking to strangers and/or familiar faces, being friendly and genuinely engaged in other people’s stories that are likely very different or similar to things you’ve experienced in your life. I think a lot of people are very afraid of change and afraid of doing things that aren’t status-quo “normal,” so I encourage everyone to do weird things and be friends with weird, vastly different people from yourself, because there’s no point in limiting yourself or having this “you can’t sit here” sort of mentality.
So the last thing, what are you thinking about right now and exploring while you have all this time? What are you working on and considering? I’m definitely trying to not be productive just for the sake of being productive. I sat in on this speaker series, we were all chatting, and this guy said, “we’re never going to have this kind of free time again,” and it’s so true! So I’m trying to just do whatever I want. I’m really just trying to find my creative “thing” or project that’s just like a “why not” because there really is no limit right now. And I also feel like the things that we do out of sheer passion and joy are the things (projects or ideas) that turn into things that stick with you long term. Like doodling, or finding artists on Instagram, or baking with weird ingredients - it’s just doing things and not being afraid of them. There’s so much time and at a certain point, you gotta lie down and not have things constantly stimulating you, but it’s also kinda cool to wake up every day and just be like, “so, what are we gonna do today?”