Sometimes, that elephant feels like me. Except, the point of this post is about bodies and how I'm slowly learning to NOT make jokes like that.
The first time I felt shame about my body, I was a little girl, and an adult pointed out to me that my brother wore slim jeans, and I was bordering on needing a Husky size. Even in my little girl head, I knew that needing jeans with an "H" somehow marked me as different and less-than -- not the thin ideal I saw praised all around me.
My journey with weight has taken a number of turns. Photos of me as a child show a body similar to mine now: hips, thighs, a tiny round belly. I was a chubby-ish high schooler.
After years of hating my body, I went on my first diet in college. My first attempt at weight loss spiraled into an exercise addiction and eating fewer than 500 calories per day. At my lowest weight, I was in the 80's.
The thing is that even when you're unhealthy, people lose their minds over thinness. I was constantly praised for how tiny I had become and how "great" I looked. It was mind-boggling to realize that I was in no way healthy, but everyone was so proud of me.
Later that year, overwhelmed with anxiety and fear about the life I was building (another post all together), I began to eat in secret to calm myself down. When I added alcohol into the mix at age 21, the weight began piling on faster until once again, I was a slightly chubby adult at what is arguably my body's "happy weight."
I started my career as a teacher a few years later and this habit of eating in secret continued on. I gained a significant amount of weight and hit my heaviest point as an adult.
A few years later, I decided to lose a ton of weight after seeing some unflattering photos of myself. The cycle began all over as I started being conscious of what I was eating. At one point, I was going to boot camp in the morning, yoga nearly every evening, and training for a half marathon. Once again, the compliments rolled in, despite what could easily be considered an unhealthy focus on eating "clean" and an exercise obsession.
After my first (and likely last) half marathon, I fell into a depressive episode so bad I could barely function. Working out daily was no longer an option because literally all I could do was go to work and come home. I berated myself constantly and told myself I was lazy and broken, that depression shouldn't cause ALL this.
I later found out that my body was actually quite ill -- my iron levels were through the floor, I had severe adrenal fatigue. The nutritionist I worked with was incredibly alarmed that I was even making it through the day considering my body's state. I was immediately told that I could not exercise for a number of months and had to change the way I was eating. The goal of those months was to rest. As someone who fought to become a daily exerciser, this was hard.
I'll keep it real: rather than fill this time with healthy, healing foods, I slipped into some old habits. It's hard to feel crappy all the time. Typically, the more I'm exercising, the easier I find it to eat well. When I wasn't doing it at all, suddenly the motivation I find in not vomiting during yoga is gone, making it easy to consume all the tacos without a second thought.
Currently, I weigh more than I have in recent years. I can see the people around me reacting to it, with big eyes commenting on how good it is to "be active" and asking if I'm going back to yoga. I get it. I see myself every day. I know what my body looks like.
The reality is that if there's a diet, I've been on it. I've sat in Weight Watchers meetings, eaten low-carb meals, tracked every calorie, been vegan, eaten only protein. I've sat at dinners and denied any taste of dessert and turned down wine. I've also been on the opposite end of things: eating pints of ice cream alone in the dark, hit drive-thrus in secret, eaten until I've wanted to throw up.
What I've found is that for me, food is a vicious cycle. It starts with a desire to fix or control my life, which brings on the endless planning: the diets, the workout plans, the star charts. I start out strong -- working out two or three times per day, eating only greens, praising myself. Then, something shifts: a bad mood, an emotional day, a desire to eat a dang burrito. Suddenly, I am off the damn rails, the workout plans be gone. The cycle starts over once again, this time with even more intense shame and self-hatred because once again, I've failed. The things I say to myself in these moments are filled with the sort of hate I wouldn't spout towards anyone.
Earlier this year, I decided that once again, I wanted to "get healthy." I considered all the typical options I've pursued a million times before: diets and running and workout plans. I decided that what I wanted more than any number on a scale or on my jeans was to feel at peace around food, and moreover in my life.
I found my way towards Intuitive Eating.
The thing that's difficult about food is that it's EVERYWHERE. You can't not eat. Food is tied into every occasion, every moment, every family and social tradition. Food is wonderful. It brings people together. It's enjoyable. Food is also a refuge, a drug, a punishment, an overindulgence, a way of making myself feel safe, a cure for being lonely or sad or angry.
When food has held such a powerful role in your life, it's not as simple as just deciding to join a gym or get on a diet. For me, beliefs around food were deeply tied to my worth, my emotions, and my role in the world. Being a person of extremes means that for most of my adult life, I've either been "good" or "bad" or "healthy" or "terrible."
I started by reading a few books and perusing a few websites on the subject (I highly recommend Intuitive Eating). I decided that this was something I was interested in pursuing.
That's when I started working with Nikki Stern. There are not enough words for how much I love and adore this woman. From our first phone call, I felt listened to, safe, and cared for. She is incredible at what she does.
While our work initially started around food, what we actually unpacked together was everything that goes with that. We have talked about feeling fulfilled away from food -- prompting me to start writing again and begin performing stand-up comedy. We work on self love and understanding that the number on my scale does not make me more or less worthy of love and joy. Mostly, we have worked on eliminating this idea that our bodies are something that need to be fixed or changed or overcome in some way.
The space that's been created in our work together has allowed me to grow, change, and learn to love and appreciate myself in a way I didn't know was possible. Where I once saw an endless quest to fix myself, I now see a life that feels more like one I am proud of and happy to be living.
To be honest, it's been one of the more challenging journeys of my life. It's easy to keep yourself from doing things because you are waiting to reach a "goal weight." Planning a diet is easier than having difficult conversations or taking care of unpleasant tasks. Also, if you have eyeballs and ears, you've likely been bombarded with images of what bodies "should" look like and information about the latest diets.
I am certainly not done on this journey. If I am being truly transparent, I spent half the week contemplating and half-way implementing a ketogenic diet because I convinced myself it was "different" than my previous attempts. When I took a minute to actually check in with myself, I realized that some events of this week took me right back to my old mindset of using diet and restriction to take control of other things.
I could write a million words about how much this shift has changed me, but here are a few of my key takeaways.
Before this journey, I hesitated to trust myself, not just with food, but in all areas of my life. I spent a lot of time doing for others, trying to earn my worth, trying to make sure that what I was doing was "good" in the opinions of everyone I knew. When you have been looking outside of yourself -- to diets, to caloric limits, to food lists -- to know how to perform a basic function of living, it's not surprising that trusting yourself in any other area feels hard. This work has allowed me to listen to my body and trust my intuition and develop my own feelings and ideals in a way that feels powerful and congruent with how I want to live.
While I doubt that I will ever be a poster child for "body love" and shooting videos of myself dancing around my house for my Instagram feed, I have at least made it to a place of "body neutrality." Generally, I think my body is pretty rad. It carries me through hard days. I have a strong immune system. I can crush a spin class. It lets me walk my dog and perform most tasks. I no longer feel the seething hatred and disgust I once felt towards my thighs. I see my body as an ally, not an obstacle.
Intuitive eating means paying attention and being in inquiry -- and then really listening. One thing I was terrified of was that I would suddenly become one of those people who only wanted Taco Bell. In reality, I often want vegetables. I've learned a lot about what it actually feels like to be hungry. I've also gotten way better at really understanding what I want...and knowing that it's rarely an entire pint of ice cream consumed alone in my bed in front of Friends re-runs.
I no longer beat the crap out of myself for eating something I once considered "bad." A few weeks ago, I went to spin and emerged convinced that all I wanted was some Mexican food. I asked myself if I wanted it or if I was emotional or frustrated. As it turned out, I REALLY WANTED IT. I ate it and felt zero guilt.
Part of this process is learning to allow yourself to have all the things you used to restrict, and then making informed decisions. I learned early on that some foods (DONUTS) make me feel crappy and send me down a path of eating everything and feeling terrible. I've also learned that a salad for lunch doesn't work for me, that my body literally MUST have animal proteins (backed up with medical information), and that seven hours is the perfect amount of sleep for me. By allowing my body to show me what it wants and needs, I am slowly befriending it and learning to take care of it. After years of forcing it to look a certain way and stuffing it full of food and generally ignoring its cues, this feels like a brand new process.
I've learned that diet culture is pervasive beyond anything I could have ever imagined. Every time I share a meal with people, there is commentary on whether foods are healthy or not, slyly shared diet tips or plans to "improve" ones food intake, mentions of "cheating" on a diet. It is the fabric of our conversations around food -- we are constantly assessing, comparing, judging, commenting about food and it's perceived benefits. It can be jarring and triggering.
Intuitive eating does not mean that I have "given up" on getting healthy. I still have goals for how I want to inhabit and move in my body -- they just look more like "Be able to run at _____ pace so I can rejoin a trail running group" or "Prepare meals that keep me full and satiated so I make it through the afternoon feeling good."
Movement is everything. I am currently investigating the ways I like to move my body and in what combination. Additionally, the way people talk to you during that movement matters. One of the reasons I am obsessed with spin at Team Ride is that the teachers there are constantly positive about bodies, progress, and effort. I never feel less-than in that room. I've worked out at places where shaming has been common. I absolutely refuse to stand for it anymore.
Food isn't "just" fuel or "just" for comfort. Food is something I make and consume with love, joy, and with the health of my body in mind. It is also a treat, and something that can bring people together. Food is not good or bad.
Finally, it is easier to find peace with food when you have peace in your life. The shifts I have made on this journey have had less to do with meal prep or calorie counting and more to do with making sure I feel fulfilled, joyful, happy, and in alignment with my own values. I can confidently say that these days, I am happier than I have been in a long time. I feel simultaneously in control of my life and excited about what's to come. I feel creative again. I am pursuing dreams (like comedy!) and investing in myself in ways that have nothing to do with what I am eating.
It's unlikely that this journey will ever end. Being kind to myself around food and my body is something that is hard. It is endless. It is something I am committed to. It is not a one-shot deal, but rather a daily remembering of who I want to be in the world, and the things that really matter.