I love food. As far as I can tell, I have loved food my whole life. I am often reminded of the time when I was three and ate nearly an entire bag of potato chips in one sitting, and who can blame three-year-old me? They are delicious.
The result of my love of food, my tendency to use it as a coping mechanism for the anxiety I felt, and my disinterest in athletics lead me to being a chubby kid. It didn’t bother me, that is until my weight and appearance became a concern to members of my family.
I come from a family where weight and obesity is an ever present issue. Members of my family have struggled with their weight for decades. They saw me, a lazy kid with a ravenous appetite, and began to fear for me. Or maybe they were reacting to their own shame. I am not sure, but by late elementary school I began to hear comments: “take a breath between bites,” “don’t end up fat like me,” “you don’t really need that cookie,” and even “your fat.”
Pop culture was also not a fan of my round belly. TV shows and movies always depicted the skinny girl as happy, as loved, as the one winning over her crush. Since I strongly craved love and acceptance from my family and peers, the message that I needed to be skinny to achieve these things seeped in slowly, but oh so deeply.
Seventh grade came, and so did my first serious bout of anxiety and depression that I wrote about previously in “Cycles of Fear.” After I was able to get out of my anxiety episode, I began to tenaciously try to obtain more control over my life. I never wanted to be back in that state again.
I dove headfirst into devout Christianity. I was determined to become a good person. At least the kind of good person I thought Christianity was telling me to be. This meant controlling my perceived vices, and the most obvious one to me was food. Plus, if I got skinny, then I would be loved and accepted, which I wanted now more than ever.
I began to control my portions. It wasn’t very drastic at first, but with time I got more used to hunger and I would reduce more. I remember a time in eight grade when I was offered a second cookie and I was so shocked that anyone would even suggest such a thing. I already ate one cookie, which was enough of an indulgence that I would have to atone for.
The more I restricted, the more control I felt over myself and my mind. And if I could control myself and keep anxious thoughts at bay, that meant I was a good person and a good Christian not prone to overindulgence.
By the end of eight grade I was 5’7″ and 103 lbs. I began to hear different comments from my family: “why are you so skinny?” “eat more potatoes,” “is everything alright?” “what happened to you?” I was mortified. I was skinny now, was this not what they told me to become? Where is the love and acceptance I was supposed to get?
My parents, who had been aware of my obsessive portion controlling but unsure of how to handle the situation, eventually brought to my attention that what I was doing was unhealthy. I reacted with denial, anger at myself, anger at the world, and underneath it all, deep shame.
It took some time, but eventually I began to see myself outside the lens of body dis-morphia. I was not skinny. I was wasting away.
I did not go to counseling. I definitely should have, but the option was not offered to me, and I was too ashamed to talk about it. I fought through on my own and began to allow myself to eat larger sized portions. I gradually gained weight. It was so hard, and the journey continues to not be easy or linear.
Skip a head 16 years, many conversations, lots of reading, some amazing and empowering music and podcasts, and you have where I am now. These are the insights I have found during my struggle:
- My body is my business and no one else’s.
- Food is fuel. It is good.
- So much more goes into health than simply one’s weight.
- What my body can do is more important to me than what it looks like.
- I am worthy of love and acceptance at any size.
Discovering Intuitive Eating
My relationship with body and food is not perfect, but it is so much better. A couple of years ago I ran across the concept of intuitive eating. The idea is that you do not restrict eating any kind of food at any time and then pay attention to how it makes you feel.
For example, if I want a cookie for breakfast, I should go ahead and eat it. Then I pay attention to how I feel. Did I enjoy eating the cookie? Did I feel satisfied after I ate the cookie? Does it sustain my hunger for the time I need it to? Does it give me the energy I need? I know from personal experience that a cookie for breakfast does not make me feel good in the long run, so I usually don’t eat one. However, with intuitive eating, I didn’t come to that decision based on the idea planted in my head that cookies for breakfast will make me gain weight. Instead, I decided that a cookie for breakfast didn’t serve my body in the way I wanted. A cookie after dinner on the other hand, yes please!
Intuitive eating also helps eliminate the pressure to eat foods that are “good for you,” but you don’t really enjoy. For example, I’ve stopped eating foods like kale and quinoa because I simply do not like them. Sure, they have nutrients that will benefit my body, but there are other foods I can eat that are also good for me that I do enjoy. If a food does not bring me joy, I try not to eat it.
Thinking about food in this way, taking cues from my body and not from the calories on the nutrition label, has revolutionized my relationship with food. It is no longer something to be controlled, but rather something to bring joy and health to my body. Intuitive eating has also made me pay more attention to my body and what it needs. I strive to no longer fight my body, but to flow with it. My body is not to be controlled, but to instead be a guide toward wellness and joy.
How I follow an intuitive eating practice
- I eat when I am truly hungry, regardless of what I have already eaten
- I eat what I am craving unless I know it will not serve my body’s needs at that time
- I eat what brings me joy
- I strive to be mindful while eating
- I stop eating when I am full since I do not like to feel overfull
Through this practice, I feel healthier than I have ever felt. Do I still have bad days? For sure. I may never be able to completely rid myself of the beliefs about food and weight I absorbed in my early years, but perfection is never the goal. Greater understanding of myself and my body always is.
If like me you have struggled with body image issues and your relationship with food, do not be ashamed. It is so common. It is not your fault. I encourage you to work towards self compassion for wherever you are on your journey, and seek professional help if you need to. You are worthy of love and acceptance, no matter the struggle.