Photo by Meg Gaiger
I was 6 years old when I began to have anxiety about food. It was a normal Saturday afternoon, and my mother had just baked one of her amazing coffee cakes. My brother and I were watching Power Rangers and I was feeling great about life due to the larger emphasis on Kimberly in that episode. Then I wanted some cake.
That was the day I started to worry about portion size. I don’t even know where I got the idea to diet at that point in my life, I was 6. My life still revolved around the same 4 Barbie scenarios and the fact that my younger brother learned to ride a bike before I did (damn you, you little adventurous bastard). On that day, I walked in and out of that kitchen upwards of 20 times, only allowing myself a little bite each time and reminding myself that was all I could have. Before I knew it half the cake was gone. My very first cake binge!
This idea of being “too big” for my age was not new. Even as a toddler it became routine for adults to express shock at how large I was for my age. It was strange to be entering 1st grade while adults assumed I was entering 6th. “Why don’t you come and play with our Timmy? He’s just learning algebra!” I’ll take this opportunity to suggest that my pre-self loathing phase charm was so blinding it was impossible for them to imagine I was so close to embryonic.
By the time I was 14 I was considered obese. At my heaviest I was 5’6 and weighing in at almost 200 lbs. Despite being much larger than anyone else in my class, I earned the nickname “Invisible Woman,” because I could sneak in and out of rooms without being detected. Regularly, teachers and peers didn't notice my presence, which was a great way to sneak out for extra bathroom breaks when my peers were feeling particularly cruel. Being an awkward tween girl around other tween girls was about as emotionally rewarding as the Jeb Bush Presidential Campaign. RIP 2016. “Clap now, everyone clap for me now please.”
For some people being bigger tends to translate into a proportional sized personality. In my case, I spent my pubescence hiding as much as I could, hoping no one would notice me. With all my heart I wanted to grow into a beautiful woman with an active social life, but in my mind that could never happen until I lost weight. I was so desperate for friendship at that point that I would do homework for my classmates. For so many years I thought proving myself through service for others would be how I would “earn” a rapport, because I believed I didn’t innately deserve it. Not only would I complete the homework, I would make individual copies for several girls in my best imitation of their handwriting (very Catch Me If You Can, I know) so they didn’t have to re-copy it. Somehow it was all worth it, to get the smile and half hug that would go along with it, though it never lead to much else.
As I grew older, I gained more social social awareness. I lost weight and got in better shape. I worked hard and was awarded a full scholarship to go to music school. Things were looking up, and I know that externally I seemed like a productive young woman who was doing well in her life. Yet underneath it all, hidden in moments of self induced isolation; there was fierce self loathing, consistent self punishment and a yearning for being able to accept myself and my body once I got to a place that I deemed acceptable.
Only recently can I see how dysfunctional I was, and how it affected every area of my life. It’s amazing how you can appear to be a productive member of society while hiding such emotional turmoil. Once or twice I sought counseling for weight loss guidance, and I was always too clever to mention what an obsession it had become, lest someone diagnose me with an eating disorder. I learned about calories and portion size and went to get my body fat calculated, but no one was really aware of how much I was suffering. If I was so troubled for so long without anyone being the wiser, I imagine that many women, perhaps even most, will spend a portion of their life on the spectrum of eating disorders, especially in America.
In my mind, I didn’t have a problem. The problem was that I was fat and lazy and if I could find the strength to maintain being thin and in shape, everything would fall into place. Every single day was focused on my goal of becoming smaller; every activity was planned around a food schedule; every day of work or school was spent staring at the clock, consumed with thoughts of when I would allow myself to eat next. I was always taking on some 10 day fast, a new detox diet with dinners consisting of only vegetables, or 2 hour long workout routines that left me feeling debilitated and nauseous. My issues limited me so much socially, to the point where most of the time I would just stay home alone. I couldn’t be comfortable unless I was fully dressed and wearing a full face of makeup. Up until very recently, I never let any of my boyfriends or even close friends see me without partial “face armor." And when friends were out at the beach or playing sports on a hot day, I never participated, terrified that someone would see my body jiggle in an unflattering way.
For years I was trapped in this cycle of caloric restriction and overexercising followed by late night crazed binges where I inevitably lost control. Everything in my life at that time was supporting unhealthy habits. I spent the majority of what little free time I had alone, or with boyfriends who supported this dream, encouraging me to lose weight and reminding me that I would be beautiful when I was thin. One of the biggest sources of my misery was that I desperately wanted to appeal to the opposite sex, and up until the last few years I’ve only ever been with men that wanted me to be smaller. The two relationships I’m referring to were when I was at my lightest, at 130 pounds, and then later when I maintained at around 150. Now content at 180 (I never thought I would throw this number out publicly, it's actually really exciting for me), I can’t believe I was choosing that kind of torture for so many years.
Finally, things started to change when I ended my long term college relationship and moved from the small town in Iowa where I was raised. As ridiculous as it sounds, moving to New York City has ended up being the biggest turning point in my quest to love my body thus far. Sometimes you need to be reminded by outside forces that you’re doing alright. And while it’s dangerous to place too much emphasis on what others think of you, lest a bad opinion come in and crumble your self worth, a little positive feedback when you’re at your lowest can really help. This doesn’t mean you have to move, or end your relationship, or do anything drastic. But for me it became necessary to cultivate my relationships both platonic and romantic and be brutally honest about who was lifting me up and who is pulling me back down. It was extremely difficult for me to end these emotionally abusive relationships, but I wouldn't be able to love myself anywhere as near as much as I do today if I hadn't.
As I began my new life in the city, I made new friends and started new relationships with kinder people who were more supportive to me. Once I realized that a few others in the world loved my body type, I was able to start to give myself permission to love it. And now I’ve gone so far down that road that I feel a deep respect and affinity for my body and I’m not very affected by positive OR negative feedback. I’m just ok. Feeling consistently good and solid.
There are still bad days. I catch myself running my hands up and down my thighs to make sure they haven’t gotten too big, or sucking in my stomach at the pool. I’ll hear myself critiquing my many issues internally and have to consciously make myself stop. But I’m so grateful that I’ve learned to listen my inner voice, because once I learned how important it is, it gave me the power to consciously control what I say inside my head and therefore control how I feel. Underneath all the moving parts I know that I deserve to be kind to myself first, and I am worthy of not only loving myself, but also working hard on being strong and healthy.
How to Start Loving Your Body:
Kindness. Compassion. Discipline. The more you focus on these traits the more you can teach yourself to love yourself. Everyone is capable of loving themselves a little more in this exact moment, no matter how downtrodden you feel. Even if it’s just letting yourself sit down and watch a funny movie, or go out for coffee with an old friend, doing anything to make yourself feel better is a gift that you can always manage if you choose to. If you prioritize feeling better and make consistent choices to support that, you will inevitably spend more of your time feeling content. Being happy with yourself is like anything else, it takes hard work and dedication.
Spend time with those who support you. Who inspires you? Who wants to get fucked up and be hungover for 3 days? Who has your back when things are bad and who drops you like a hot potato whenever the mood strikes? Only you know who these people are in your life and only you can create a supportive environment for yourself.
Spend less time on social media. If you’re like me you can have moments of weakness when you look at all of the beautifully cultivated adventures online and start to compare yourself. Any time you consciously compare yourself to others you are choosing to suffer, even if you’re putting someone else down. Next time you’re feeling really low, set a timer for an hour and go do something else. This can be enough to turn it around for me some days.
Learn how to cook a couple of simple, healthy meals that leave you feeling full without being binge fodder. For me this means lots of protein, vegetables and healthy fats and a few whole grains here and there. I don’t count calories and I’m not shy with butter and olive oil. For me, lots of dairy or refined carbohydrates tend to make me feel ill. I enjoy treats from time to time but I’m usually satisfied if I cook foods that are healthy for me in a delicious way (unless I’m on the hormonal hellwagon and then I usually give myself a healthy portion of I’m really jonesing for, no matter what it is). Listen to what feels good in your body and what it digests well, and learn to cook healthy dishes that you enjoy.
MOVE YOUR BODY. Hate going to the gym? DON’T. Hate spin class? DON’T TAKE IT. Even if it means searching through youtube videos until you find a yoga teacher who has a smooth voice and a smoother butt and doing it for 20 minutes and then stopping to take a chocolate break. If that means you’ll do it consistently, DO IT! If the idea of taking a chocolate break is deeply offensive/ terrifying to you, YOU SHOULD PROBABLY LET GO MORE OFTEN. Go for ten minutes of movement a day if you have to. Go for a walk and listen to Rage Against the Machine and fantasize about being a Ninja Princess who kills people. Whatever works, whatever feels good, just do it. The rest will come with habit.
Buy clothes that FIT. Stop looking at sizes and shopping in stores that are all about "thinspiration." Get your 20$ pair of jeans tailored so they hug your waist and put the round thing in yo face. Go secondhand shopping and find something you wouldn’t normally wear and rock the shit out of it. Flaunt what you’re proud of. Show cleavage, wear bright lipstick, do crazy hairdos. Wear anything that makes you feel beautiful and tell anyone that has any comment other than “WOW YOU LOOK AMAZING” to keep their opinions to themselves.
The next time you feel any sort of negative judgement about your body, no matter how much it breaks your heart, practice telling yourself that you are beautiful and that you deserve kindness. Because if I know anything, I know that.