Happy New Year! For my first post of 2017 I want to get real about a common theme in my content: body positivity. This is something I’m deeply passionate about on a professional and personal level, and I’m opening up about my history with body image and my relationship with food – something I’ve never done in a public space! I was super nervous to post this – here it is, world!
First, let’s talk about why body positivity is so important. In our culture, we treat fat as bad and thin as good. We assume people in larger bodies are unhealthy and lazy. We assume people in smaller bodies care about their health and exercise admirable willpower. Weight stigma is everywhere, including the doctor’s office. Many of us hold biases based on weight and size that we might not even realize.
Weight stigma has been linked to many negative health outcomes. From depression and anxiety to unhealthy eating behaviors such as bingeing and dieting, the effects of weight stigma are far from helpful. When people receive negative messages about their bodies, they’re actually less likely to eat and exercise healthfully. On the flip side, when people learn body-appreciation and self-compassion, they are more likely to engage in healthy behaviors, regardless of their size. And we know that healthy behaviors are what matters to health, not body weight. So if we truly cared about people’s health, we’d cut the negative crap. The American notion that people need to feel ashamed about themselves in order to make positive changes is not only illogical and inaccurate, it’s harmful.
For me, the road to body positivity has been a long one. Now that I’ve come out “on the other side,” I’m sharing my journey of my relationship with my body, food and exercise. Some of this may be triggering to people struggling with body image and their relationship to food. You’ll notice several of the classic themes, such as feelings of deprivation, the diet/binge cycle, the link between eating disorders and dieting, parental modeling and self-control.
Growing up I didn’t consider my body weight, eating behaviors or exercise habits until my dad remarried and it was decided I needed to drop the extra pounds I was carrying. I was always an active child, playing outside with neighborhood kids after school each day and riding my bike around. I played soccer for most of my childhood and enjoyed PE class. I packed on some weight over the years my parents got divorced and my dad became a single parent. A lot of fast food and calorie-dense snack food was consumed. So, wham, I had to start watching what I ate. I distinctly remember a night when my family was having Chinese take-out for dinner: I reached for a crab rangoon and was told I couldn’t have it because it was fried.
Soon after came puberty when I shot up several inches and lost several pounds in the course of a year or so. I know this because I was now aware of and consistently tracking how much I weighed. This may have seemed like a great outcome except I was deeply aware of my body size and the amount of fat on my belly. Also during this period, I watched as both my dad and stepmom yo-yo dieted and hopped on the low-carb bandwagon.
My plummeting body image persisted throughout adolescence and things got even more complicated. Bizarre and controlling food rules popped up in my family. I had always loved fruits and veggies and remember asking for these items while grocery shopping and being told no. I have a distinct memory of being told $.49/pound bananas were too expensive but watching as $16.99/pound fancy parmesan cheese was tossed into the cart. My sack lunches consisted of deli meat on white bread and potato chips. Though we were not food insecure, I was told no when I asked for whole-wheat bread and carrots to take with lunch. So I supplemented my sack lunches with veggies from the salad bar in the school cafeteria.
I was told if I wanted to snack between meals, I could have potato chips. Frozen pizzas and just-add-hot-water noodles were for lunch during summers. We had somewhat balanced family dinners and it was typically the only meal I had vegetables. I remember having a disagreement about what hunger felt like – I asserted my stomach actually hurt when I was hungry but was told, no, hunger “pangs” didn’t mean pain, and that other people didn’t feel pain when hungry.
I fell deep into disordered eating one summer in high school, which was more of a control struggle with my stepmom and her food rules than an illness. I restricted my food intake to the lowest amount possible, even throwing away food and pretending I had eaten it. I tried to surmount my hunger “pangs” with “willpower”. I began reading every nutrition label I could get my hands on to gain knowledge of the caloric content of various foods. I secretly exercised in my bedroom, doing lunges and crunches, careful not to make too much noise. Anytime I was home alone, I snuck into my parents’ bathroom and weighed myself on their scale. I would have vivid dreams of being alone in a grocery store, dashing around with a cart, throwing anything and everything I could into it. In this dream, calories didn’t exist and I gorged on sweets and snack foods.
Throughout adolescence, I was taught to be ashamed of my femininity, never allowed to wear a two-piece bathing suit (even though my sister was?), allowed only to wear baggy clothes (and I mean baggy – I got teased by kids at school for this), not wear makeup (not even tweeze my eyebrows), and not style my hair.
I moved out of my dad’s house on the 4th of July (a true Independence Day!) after high school and lived with my then-boss while working at her deli in our small town. This was the first time in a long time I was able to exercise as I pleased and eat and wear what I wanted. Although it would make this story more exciting, I didn’t go wild or do anything reckless with my newfound freedom. I ate what I wanted, when I wanted, stopped tracking my weight, went for runs on country roads (something I wasn’t allowed to do before), rode my bike with friends, and enjoyed summer before heading off to college. My boss helped me move into my freshman dorm, which I stocked with a variety of snacks, cereal and milk. I ate most of my meals in the dining hall and took some PE classes as was required for credit. I didn’t track or restrict what I ate. I didn’t exercise compulsively. Compared to my adolescence, this was a much more body-positive time.
I slowly transitioned to eating vegetarian toward the end of my freshman year, not as a dietary restriction, but because I was becoming averse to the taste of meat and started connecting my love of animals to what I was eating. During my sophomore year, I became vegan. As I learned more about the animal agriculture industry, I didn’t want to consume anything that came from animals. I became involved in my college’s animal rights group, participated in animal advocacy activities and made vegan friends. Veganism was never about restriction and I actually ended up gaining a bit of weight after becoming vegan because it opened my eyes to a whole new world of food from which I often overate.
Meanwhile, I made the transition from a pre-med biology major to a nutrition major. This choice had nothing to do with my personal history with food but with my passion about prevention, fascination with the power of nutrition, and not wanting the lifestyle of a physician. I loved my nutrition science classes and I worked on several clinical research studies. I finally felt like I was in the field that was perfect for me. I was more interested in the science of nutrition than the practice of dietetics, and I never connected it with my past disordered relationship with food.
Next came grad school, an incredibly busy time as a Master’s student and dietetic intern. I had slowly gained some weight over previous years and decided I needed to lose it. This was at the height of the juice cleanse fad (in the vegan world), which I threw myself into. I started exercising twice a day and got more serious about strength training. I told myself this was when I was finally going to get fit and look fit. It was all about willpower. All I had to do was be disciplined with my eating and exercising and I would finally lose my belly fat. I started following fitspo accounts on social media and constantly compared myself to their progress. I weighed in every week, on a scale that also calculated my body fat percentage. I tracked what I ate in an app and felt like a failure if I went over my daily calories, even if I was physically hungry. If I didn’t lose weight one week, it had a significant impact on my mood. Sometimes, on the weekends, I’d give up tracking and overeat, only to feel guilty and over-restrict the following week.
After a few months of this and losing a considerable amount of weight, I gave up tracking my food and slowly loosened the reigns on restriction. I still wasn’t as lean as I wanted but I realized “it” wasn’t worth the masochism of dieting and compulsive exercise. Over the next year, I was still very much in the clutches of the diet mentality, weighing myself occasionally and flowing through periods of restricting and overeating. Though I had accepted I would never look like a fitness model, I still hadn’t accepted my body for what it was, only for what it wasn’t.
Fast-forward to today: I gained back a few pounds after that last period of dieting and have since maintained a stable body size. I don’t track what I eat, how much I weigh or how much fat is on my body. This is where my body is happiest and I honor that. I trust my body to tell me what it needs.
I didn’t have a light bulb moment of deciding to re-learn how to eat and exercise intuitively, it just sort of happened slowly over time. I am fully aware of and honor my hunger and fullness cues and I exercise how I want, when I want. I’ve been consistently practicing yoga for a few years, which has taught me a lot of body appreciation in ways strength training and running did not. It’s also incredibly important to my mental health. I spend a lot loss time and energy worrying about what my body looks like, and that feels incredibly freeing.
I’m lucky enough to live in a city where I can get pretty much any vegan food my heart desires (from donuts to deep dish pizza), so I never feel restricted. Most days I accept and appreciate my body, and other times I still wish there was less squish on my thighs, hips and belly, or that I had rounder glutes and stronger biceps. I acknowledge these feelings and let them be. I don’t let them dictate my mood, preoccupy my thoughts or guide my eating or exercise. I’m grateful for the knowledge I have about weight-inclusive health and the wonderful, growing community of body-positive health care practitioners and activists. Most of all, I am grateful for all that my body can do. It is the only body I’ll ever get, and you better believe I’m going to love the heck out of it.
This is my unique journey and I urge you not to compare yours to mine, although I am hopeful this post will help people dealing with many of the issues I did. Remember that healing is possible. If you are struggling with your relationship to food, consider working with a registered dietitian nutritionist who specializes in a non-diet approach. If you have an eating disorder, please seek help.