December 1, 2012 by Julia
I started obsessing about my weight at around twelve years old, when I realized that some chubbiness had developed in my face. It was like baby fat had skipped over the golden years of childhood and landed smack into my preteens. No matter that my stomach at the time was quite flat. I started to feel guilty for every piece of cheese I ate, every cookie. Weight-related anxiety was with me most of the time. If not in the forefront of my mind, then lurking, waiting to rear it’s ugly head – in a bad photo, or the realization that my girlfriend’s thighs were more slender than mine when she sat next to me on the couch. My weight fluctuated often. Never to the point of obesity or emaciation, but those fifteen-twenty pounds or so that came and went throughout the teenage years and twenties were enough to devastate me. Really devastate me. The other day, I actually found a food and exercise journal from when I was fourteen, and it broke my heart a little, to think of my fragile, aching self, writing all this stuff down.
I know I was not alone in this experience. I know that I am not the only one who has actually thought to herself: I’d rather be thin than happy. I know girls and women, especially, have a constant calorie counter in the back of their minds, telling them whether it’s been a bad day (you ate too much, you’re a disgusting failure) or a good day (you’re totally in control, you’re going to be thin, or you are already thin). I have a feeling that the majority of women began to feel this way around the same time that I did – right on the cusp of adolescence, as if we didn’t already have enough to deal with at that age. This mindset has been a big part of my experience of life for about twenty years. It sucks.
I should say: it sucked, because I am so over it. I don’t think that way anymore. There are lots of reasons why. The first being: those beliefs are crazy. CRAZY. I’d rather be thin than happy? WTF. What kind of sense does that make?
There are better, more important things to expend our energy on. I know that for some people, the pursuit of health and attractiveness through nutrition and exercise provides great pleasure and a deep sense of well-being and strength and confidence. But for many others, so much mental and physical manipulation and misery goes into dieting and exercise that I can’t help but think we are wasting our true selves away on this stuff. If I am concentrating so hard on what I can or can’t eat, I’m not as engaged in reading or writing or playing with the kids. And let’s not even get into the grumpiness that hunger induces. If I am hungry all the time, it will be harder for me to be good to the ones I love. Simple as that.
Another reason I stopped dieting is that it made me unhappy. I couldn’t take the emotional roller coaster anymore. The shameful cycle of either being a fat failure or a skinny success was hurting me, and I’d lived with it for so long; I was tired. I wanted to just hang out in the middle somewhere – which was where I usually ended up anyway, despite my best efforts to attain some ideal. Freeing myself from the craziness sounded like the definition of relief. To just eat when I was hungry, splurge if I wanted to taste something fun, not eat if I wasn’t enjoying the food, not cave to social pressures either way…basically, follow my cravings without worrying about whether or not they’d make me fat, or what others would think of my eating habits. Wouldn’t we all love to do that, if we were given some magical guarantee that we could also be thin? Can you imagine the freedom? Think of the mental space it would clear.
But I don’t think we need magic to eat what we want and maintain a healthy weight. If we were able to quit the dieting mindset, and actually listen to our bodies, I think we’d end up in a pretty good place. Yes, some nights all we’ll want is a family-sized bag of Doritos and a tub of ice cream, but we’re not going to want that every night. Once you take the “forbidden” part of forbidden foods away, they get old much more quickly. In the end, if you trust yourself, it will all even out in the end. Doctors say that you can’t judge a toddler’s nutrition by what they happen to eat in a day. Look at the whole week, or even longer. Some days we’ll be hungrier, some days we might not even be that concerned with food. There is no one-size-fits-all formula for eating – we’re different people with different tastes. If we follow our own particular cravings, I still think we’ll end up with some combination of all the food groups we need. And as far as quantity goes, we are not going to stuff ourselves beyond capacity, all the time. Why would we, if we believe we can eat as much as we want to the next day, or even in a couple of hours? There is no rush, no panic to get it all in.
I’ve found that shame-induced dietary restrictions usually just backfire. In most cases it will not make you permanently thinner. Nor is it a good motivator for finding health. I doubt that it is even helpful in the case of obesity. Speaking from experience with diets, I know that on the days that I felt good about my body, and myself, I naturally ate in a healthier way. On the days that I felt I was failing my diet, or that I was fat or ugly, I felt that I was sliding down a shame spiral into a bottomless pit of insatiability. Positive regard for oneself is surely one of the best fuels for a healthy relationship with food. The minute I feel guilt start to creep in, after a day of what felt like overeating, I just tell myself that it’s okay. It’s not the end of the world. And it’s still not the end of the world if I eat just as much the next day. I know that if I trust myself, I’ll want to stop eating when the time is right. And I do, often enough, and easily enough. (An aside: I know that strict diets are necessary for some people, especially if prescribed by their doctor, and of course I don’t pretend to know what is best for everyone. But I do honestly believe that in every case, shame is a fairly useless tool for achieving healthy eating habits.)
Now, I don’t think everyone is going to be movie-star thin while eating whatever they want. But part of the point is to be okay with that.
It’s hard to be okay with our appearance, I know, even if our weight is decidedly average. We can frame anything as “just wanting to be healthy,” but those extra ten pounds are still bothering us, and not because they’re affecting our “health” much. Who do we need to be this perfect specimen of the human body for? Personally, I am past the point of wanting to attract a mate for life. (Got him already, and we’re pretty happy with each other’s level of attractiveness.) So why else do I want to be attractive? So I can be the hot mama in the yoga pants at the play date, plunging the other women who aren’t quite so tight into puddles of self-loathing? (Not that I’ve EVER been that woman, for the record. I’ve been the puddle on those occasions.) What does that accomplish? Do I want to compete with Stepford wife frenemies, or hang out with real ladies who are all different kinds of beautiful, but may not have had time to shower this week? Um, the latter, please. I don’t expect bodily perfection from my loved ones – I prefer them to be themselves, “flaws” and all. Remember when Jennifer Grey (Baby from Dirty Dancing) got a nose job and became virtually unrecognizable? I rest my case. Physical loveliness comes in a wide variety of forms, and if you embrace your own style, your own self, others will be able to see that beauty, too. I saw it once in a women’s spa, full of nude ladies in various states of wear and tear and wrinkles and luminosity. They were all beautiful.
Anyway, I’m not discounting the need we all have to feel attractive, even if we’ve found our mate and are surrounded by good friends. I just value a different kind of attractiveness more highly now, and I believe that I can be it myself, without necessarily being the skinniest lady in the room (or the 4th or 5th skinniest). Attractiveness to me is being comfortable in your own skin, having a personal style that comes naturally, enjoying yourself, paying attention to the world, using your brain and laughing and empathizing and showing kindness, maintaining self-respect. That is the person I want to be, and hang out with. The physical beauty will shine through if those other things are also happening. The heart does not care about an extra ten or fifty or one hundred pounds, if someone is confident and good and fun. No one is going to notice that I am bloat-y one night if I am truly enjoying the party. And if they do, and it makes them feel superior about their own lack of bloatiness, who gives a bleep? Am I right, or am I right? You know it.
All of this brilliance is not solely my own. The shame-free eating revolution began for me when I picked up a book that spoke deeply to me on this subject, written by two nutritionists. I highly recommend it. Two and half years later, I still believe in it. (A lot longer than I ever stuck to a diet.)
The ultimate test was when I got pregnant with Jack right about when I felt I had finally made peace with food and my body…that’ll throw you for a loop, with the hormones and nausea and obviously the weight gain. After he was born, I was pretty uncomfortable with the extra weight I had to lose, but I really didn’t want to diet. It went against my personal principles, for myself! I kept hoping I wouldn’t have to diet. And I didn’t have to. Most of the weight came off slowly and surely, over the course of a year, (with a lot less stress than it did the first time with Fiona) and has plateau-ed at the most average weight I’ve been during my adult life. If you must know (we love to compare, don’t we?) I am basically a size eight, and my BMI was acceptable last time I checked. Of course, there are other changes to my body from the pregnancy. Not sure if I ever want to wear a two-piece swimsuit again. I’m sure I could change that if I did sit-ups every day. But that does not sound fulfilling or fun or worthwhile to me, so I’m not going to.
Now if I could just go back and give my fourteen-year-old self a hug, tell her she was pretty, and that there are much more interesting things to write than a guilt-riddled account of what she ate that day.