My relationship with food has always been shitty. I’ve gone through many shapes and sizes on my own body, and I’ve also pretty much tried every single diet and eating fad out there. Cabbage soup? Done it. Starvation? Done it. Juicing? Done it. Eat an entire pizza because I am frustrated with my inability to be a stick so who the fuck cares anyway? Done it.
“Skinny, skinny, skinny—if I am skinny, then everything will be great.” This was my mantra from the ages of 8 to 23. I hate admitting that. I wish that this was a piece about how much I’ve loved my body for my whole life. I would love to tell you about how unabashedly unashamed of myself I am, and how much I love bodies of all shapes and sizes. I would also love to be one of those body positive women who’s really never cared about shape or size, and wants everyone to accept who they are and blah blah blah. You know, one of those ball of sunshine girls who are super accepting and loving. The truth is that I’ve had a warped sense of nutrition, and my body pretty much as far back as I can remember.
I don’t know if this is normal phenomenon among eight-year-olds, but at my particular New York City public school in the ’90s, six or seven of us ate lunch in a circle and talked about how much we weighed, trying to decide if we were fat, skinny, or average. I don’t remember why this mattered, I just remember going around in a circle making statements like “I am skinny,” “Well I’m pretty average,” and “I’m fat.” After one discussion, I’d gone home to ask my mom which size I was. I remember her telling me that I was average, which I was pretty cool with. So during our next lunchtime circle, I said, “Well, my mom say’s I’m average” to which this extremely skinny girl (who I still remember the first, last, and middle name of) said, “No Rachel, You are not average. You are fat.” I was a little bit on the chunkier side of eight—my concept of nutrition as an eight-year-old wasn’t the best, but whose is, really? I’d never thought of myself as overweight or fat before, and I was pretty happy to eat all kinds of food. Hearing, “You’re not average, you’re fat” flipped me out for the next 10-15 years, and kickstarted my mantra.
I knew that being that was somehow the secret answer to life. Everyone on TV was skinny. Everyone in magazines were skinny. The tiniest, skinniest girls were the ones who had the most friends. But how would I get skinny? Definitely not with exercise. Exercise sucked. Solution to this: I decided that I was going to get skinny by eating myself that way.
The need to be skinny created a string of compulsions with food that I’m sure many young girls experience, but have collectively decided to never talk about.
Here is what I thought nutrition rules were:
- All food is bad
- Bread is really really bad
- Carrots are okay
- Hardboiled eggs are a go
- One cup of soup at lunch is cool sometimes
- Don’t eat in front of other people
- If you eat sugar because you can’t help it on a particular day, tell yourself how shitty you are in your head over and over again so you don’t do it again
My self-worth was tied to my weight. Teenage me hated everything and everybody, due to the fact that on top of new raging hormones, I would starve myself to try and look like a supermodel. Then, after a few days of this, I would get exhausted to the point of tears, and binge as a self-pity reward. These emotional eating episodes would last for a day, and would usually involve eating an embarrassing amount of food at one time (entire loaves of bread, handfuls of candy, bags of cookies, bags of pretzels, anything edible that I could shovel) in order to feel fulfilled. I could then follow these up with hours of beating the shit out of myself for being dumb enough to consume that much food in such a short span of time.
The people I hung out with thought I was annoying because all I did was talk about my weight and how fat I thought I was. I remember meeting a girl who became my best friend for a year, in only the way teenagers can temporarily be BFFs before trying to kill each other in an elaborate defriending ceremony. We would lie on the floor together because we wanted our stomachs to be as flat as they could be. I’m sure moments like these are more common than people like to talk about.
When I turned 15 I got mono and became a very thin, I thought it was awesome because I was one step closer to becoming Mischa Barton. Even though I had a sore throat and couldn’t stand or speak, I was skinny and therefore worthy. When I went back to school people started calling me “too thin” which I was very proud of. Once I got the word “thin” in my brain, I ate back to a normalish average weight, and then I yo-yoed somewhere in between these two weights until the end of high school.
When I entered university, emotional eating became a whole different ballgame because alcohol became involved. I didn’t really ever drink in high school, because I was too busy driving myself crazy to be perfect and thin, so when I got to university, I discovered this magical elixir (alcohol) which gave me the power and confidence to do things. I also gained 20 pounds over the course of the next four years.
Subsequently, university came with its own bizarre rules of ‘good nutrition”
- Sour Patch Kids
- Beer (which I would later find out I have an allergy to, so in addition to getting super drunk I also swell up)
- French Fries
- Greasy breakfasts
I went to the complete opposite end of the food spectrum, and while I wasn’t concerned with being a stick 24/7, (only 12/3.5), I was still without a sense of actual nutrition. Right before I graduated, I vowed to get thin again when I left school. (Because, skinny, skinny, skinny = fulfillment right?) Even though I had a BA, turns out I still had the same mantra from when I was a kid.
Without the structure of school, I was free to go back to body obsessing. Somewhere deep inside of me though, I knew that there had to be more to this whole thing than starvation. I couldn’t keep yo-yoing, binging, starving, and drinking, because my body was tired, and I was a “grown up” now. Around this time, I decided to look into exercise since “strong is the new thin” started to become a thing (I hate admitting this but I wasn’t concerned at all with the health benefits). So, naturally, I did what most compulsive people do, and got obsessed with physical fitness. I worked out seven days a week. I lost a lot of weight. People congratulated me on it, which in retrospect is pretty stupid and just goes to show how we are so obsessed with being tiny, that we congratulate people on weight loss. People can lose weight for a number of reasons, including being sick, so why are we walking around congratulating ourselves for our shrinking waists?
I would love to say that this is the point where I broke through the barrier, and that physical fitness saved me. I would love to tell you that after getting physically fit, that I’m not longer obsessed with being skinny, and that strong really is the new thin for me. Unfortunately, I just switched my compulsion to physical fitness. Instead of shoving food into my mouth, I was beating my body up in a different way. I cut out gluten and sugar and dairy and others, and got obsessed with nutrition and fitness in the same way I had been obsessed with starvation. I learned so many health facts because this was my new identity (physical fitness girl) that I began to drive my family crazy. One time I visited home and they ate two dinners—one with me, and one that I found out they had after I left and I’d forgotten something. They wanted to have bread and pasta, but they didn’t want to listen to me, so they made an appetizer salad and called it dinner. When people start lying to you because they think of you as some sort of a food nazi, you most likely have a problem.
I tracked all of my macros. I stopped drinking. I ran eight miles a week. I was skinny. I was fit. I was super healthy. I was obsessive. Sometimes I still binged, and then I would go run 10 miles to balance it out. My body would sometimes get physically ill because it was so exhausted. The “skinny, skinny skinny” mantra wasn’t working. I was very skinny, and in a “healthy” way, but I wasn’t happy.
Over the next year I would learn how to eat real food. Not Swedish Fish, or Doritos, or just a bag of carrots because today is a dieting day. Real food from the ground. I read Angela Liddon’s blog Oh She Glows and realized that I wasn’t the only one had an experience like this. Liddon talks about how she struggled with eating issues for years, until she developed a new relationship with food. Instead of thinking that food was the worst thing for her, Liddon started feeding herself in a nutritious healthy way. Her blog and extensive recipe list inspired me to cook more with real ingredients, and learning to feed myself helped me learn to take care of myself. I started opening up to people about nutrition and found out that I wasn’t that weird or special, and that a lot of women go through a lot of these same things. Emotional eating is pretty common, and so is dieting or exercising to the point of exhaustion for short term or unrealistic goals. What would happen if instead of yelling at each other to accept our bodies, we actually talked about how fucked up some of our body dysmorphia is?
I think for me, this was the real key on the path to accepting my natural shape. My question as a whole is, why don’t we cop to thinking like this more on a daily basis? I’m not saying it’s a correct way to think, but I know a lot of people who’ve done it, or will admit to it once someone else does. Why are we so closed off about how we feel, even if we’re getting yelled at to be body positive and accepting all of the time? Why don’t we openly talk about how mean we are capable of being to ourselves?
We are a society who talks about weight all the time. Who’s gained weight, who hasn’t gained weight, why they’ve gained weight, how they should not gain weight, how they should gain some weight. When I meet people who want to talk about weight loss and dieting, I’m OK with it, because being called annoying or an asshole behind your back because you are obsessed with how much food is going into your body is not a great response to the obsession and the dysmorphia. It just makes you feel like you’re even more fucked up and can send you into a whole slew of self loathing, which our bodies and brains could do with a whole lot less of. If you do have a friend who acts like this, I would recommend asking them if they are OK rather than talk shit behind their backs about how shitty they are because they can’t stop hating their bodies.
I wish I could end this with, “And then everything was fine and you can be fine too,” but sometimes I still catch myself slipping into old obsessive habits. Sometimes I’m still a downer because I’m listing nutrition facts during a meal. I haven’t 100% found balance yet, but I’m definitely working towards it—and if this sounds anything like you, I promise you can too.
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