*Content Warning: This piece contains a reference to an eating disorder, which may be triggering to some.*
About four months ago, I got so sick and tired of my own diet-infused bullshit that I decided to actually do something about it. For reference, I had spent nearly twenty years inside of the craze that we euphemistically call “lifestyle change.”
Right, because fasting for 16 hours every day for the rest of my life is a realistic lifestyle change. That and never tasting sugar again. Or eating past 6pm. Or devouring a banana covered in real peanut butter.
The list of food rules bouncing around in my brain were about as long as Santa’s naughty list. Twenty years of eating disorders – classified so inappropriately under the guise of a healthy lifestyle – will do that to you. Because if there is one thing I’ve learned in this life as a woman, it is that being skinny is a highly coveted adjective. The funny thing about it – aside from the fact that so much value has been placed on our mass of skin and bones – is that most of the people who are skinny don’t actually think they’re skinny enough.
And what diet culture continues to push down our – usually – starved throats is that, whatever number we reach on the scale or pant size we are able to purchase or muscle tone we finally see in the mirror, it will never be enough.
We love to talk about “too fat.” We don’t love to talk about “too skinny.” And if you really dig into the research, you will find that everything you know about obesity is wrong. Our genes impact our eye color, earlobe attachment, and height. Yet we remain in a constant battle with this idea that our bodies could actually have a set point weight, a predetermined number that is optimal for our health (but not necessarily optimal for our jaded viewing pleasure). Because the multi-billions of dollars that we spend on shakes and cups and food plans and gym memberships cease to exist if we are beautiful without losing those five “extra” pounds.
And, in lieu of writing a research report – because my detective brain would love to expand on all of my collected data to date – I simply want to share my story. A diatribe from a privileged white girl who grew up in a small mountain town, and while a few boys in high school once called me chubby and my ex-husband would lovingly remind me of my “skinny” days, I’ve most certainly never been fat by anyone’s standards.
But, hear me. My privilege doesn’t lessen my experience. It doesn’t erase the miles I ran to qualify for the Boston Marathon (my socially acceptable means of working out for an unreasonable number of hours). It doesn’t mean that I haven’t called myself “fat” and really meant that word from the core of my being and also that this word didn’t negatively infiltrate the deep recesses of my fragile brain. It doesn’t mean that my body dysmorphia isn’t real.
It simply means that I’m aware of my privilege. It means that I realize that my language matters. It means that eating disorder stereotypes are altogether bullshit.
When I was thirteen, my dad asked me if I really wanted another bean and cheese burrito from Taco Bell. I had already eaten two. Fuck yes, I wanted number three. And I wasn’t shy about sharing that with my father, brother, and stepsister as we all nonchalantly dined on America’s finest Mexican fast food while sitting around the kitchen island.
It is the earliest moment that I can recall becoming cognizant of my body. Not what my body could do on the basketball court or soccer field, but this idea that other people could look at me – and would look at me – and make judgments about what I consumed and the configuration of my physical mass.
I grew up playing every sport imaginable; therefore, I was surrounded by strong women. I never fretted about my caloric intake. I relished in team dinners filled with an overabundance of pasta and Caesar salad (with croutons) and those frosted sugar cookies that may very well have been laced with crack. It wasn’t until Britney Spears came onto the scene my senior year of high school, wearing that ridiculous Catholic school girl outfit with the exposed mid-section, that it became so blatantly obvious that I did not have a six pack. Naturally, I blamed Taco Bell. Then I resigned myself to a nightly routine filled with hundreds of sit-ups.
Newsflash. Skinny never got me Justin Timberlake.
My freshman year of college, I gained 30 pounds. I was also playing basketball, and when that period of my life ended – when I lost the thing that had defined my entire adolescence – being thin felt like the next appropriate target to describe myself. I’d workout for an hour, eat one quesadilla for the entire day, and repeat. On days that I’d binge – when I’d give myself permission to annihilate anything that was edible because of even the most minor slip up – I’d spend the evening making myself throw up.
Gawd, did people notice. And I don’t mean the convoluted workings of my mind. But rather my physical arrangement. I returned to that small mountain town for my brother’s high school graduation and left the weekend on an all-time high, flooded with compliments on how “good” I now looked – which I immediately twisted into a commentary on how “bad” I must have been before.
In my mid-20’s, I grew tired of puking. I resorted to running an excessive amount of mileage to excuse a diet rich in sugars and carbs. I trained for races as a facade to normal, and my moods were entirely dependent on my hours logged on pavement. My inability to love myself translated into the acceptance of an abusive romantic relationship, which supercharged my desire to control my weight even more because I felt helpless to control anything outside of myself.
My late 20’s and early 30’s have thus been plagued with a myriad of digestion issues. To stake claim on my eating disorders or stress or diet choices is a riddle that offers no solution. The answer, ultimately, is all of the above. And, here’s the frosting on those aforementioned crack-infused sugar cookies, I thought my orthorexia would save me. Because eating healthy has to be the answer to the ultimate lifestyle change question.
Turns out that removing entire food groups and compulsively checking nutrition labels doesn’t bode well for someone with a history of disordered eating.
Disclaimer. Before you tell me that broccoli is better than a Big Mac, I know. We, as a collective whole, have a responsibility to be educated about our food. We, as a collective whole, have also dramatically impacted how our food is sourced in the 21st century. I’m not here to tell you that checking labels is bad. I’m here to tell you that checking labels is bad for me. I’m here to tell you that when you have lived and breathed by the macronutrients on your food’s packaging, it’s time to break free from the mental prison.
So, yes, I got fed up (pun not entirely intended). And, four months ago – after putting myself through one of my most restrictive diets to date – I decided to do something crazy. I decided to eat. Cookie dough. And chips and guacamole. And that new gluten free Bobo’s toaster pastry I’d been eyeing at Whole Foods. Oh, and a banana and peanut butter. I decided to smash some bananas with real peanut butter. And I tried to forget every stupid rule that was ruminating around in my troubled mind.
I felt free and frightened at all the same time. Because, wow, food is actually good if you give yourself the liberty to eat what you want. But, wow, eating what you actually want will more than likely put you in a weight bracket that you’ve spent nearly your entire life uncomfortably trying to avoid.
During the depths of my disordered eating, I consciously compared my food cravings to that of an alcoholic. I convinced myself that I was going to live with a chronic ache to constantly eat. I actually believed there was some twisted correlation between booze and bananas.
Newsflash number two. We can live without alcohol. We cannot live without food.
Nevertheless, I felt guilty for wanting sugar – not even eating it – simply wanting it. And, I’d shove those wants down as far as humanly possible. Until I couldn’t suppress them any longer. Until my body felt like it might actually explode. And, at that point, I’d consume more sugar than an unsupervised five-year-old on Halloween. I’d put myself into a food-induced coma, and if I were wise enough to talk myself out of puking it up, I’d awaken the next morning, bloated and filled with an insurmountable amount of shame.
So, I’d start another diet. I’d go back to my “healthy” lifestyle. And I’d omit the fact that the bingeing was as much a part of my life as were the “good” choices that I was applauding myself for making.
What I now understand is that I do not, in fact, have a binge problem. My desire to overly consume certain foods is not because I lack self-control. It is a byproduct of my intense restrictive behaviors. The less boundaries I draw around what I can ingest, the less pressure my body feels to intake large masses of said foods as an act of self-preservation.
And maybe when all of this is said and done – when I level out in such a way that I am able to eat intuitively without restriction looming like a stalker at the gym in the background – I won’t ever be able to see an ab muscle again. Maybe I’ll jump two pant sizes. Maybe my cheeks will forever carry that baby-style chunk.
But skinny never got me a starting spot on my college basketball team. In fact, it didn’t even get me into the D1 colleges for whom I desperately hoped to play. Skinny didn’t get me the roommate that I wanted in the dorm that I wanted – and thank gawd because Mary Rait Hall is home to some of my very favorite memories.
Skinny never got me a boyfriend. A respectful one. One who saw me for anything more than what I’d look like naked or how I’d make him feel when attached to his arm. And I can’t blame those men who only saw my shell when I hadn’t yet done the work to love my own soul. But the boyfriends who chose me – the good ones who believed in the beauty of my spirit – never hand-selected me because of my skinniness.
Skinny didn’t fix my broken marriage. It didn’t make my ex-husband any less of an alcoholic. It didn’t prevent him from hurting me, mentally and physically. All the skinniness in the world wouldn’t have stopped him from having an affair. With someone who was also skinny.
The only thing skinny has got me is words, my love language. It has fed into my ego. It has been the only objective way for me to showcase to people, what I have deemed as, the best version of myself. It has coaxed people into commenting on my physical appearance when they cannot see all the brilliance that is going on inside me.
Because skinny didn’t buy my Airstream. It didn’t help me keep my jobs (or lose them). Skinny was never a prerequisite for personal growth. If anything, it’s been a road block. Time and time and time again. An energy suck that consumes the best parts of my intellectual mind.
Skinny has never gotten and will never give me satisfaction. It only whispers in my ear every time I glance at an old photo of myself to remind me of how much “skinnier” I used to be. It has forced me to say no to dessert at dinner, only to eat triple the serving off the top of the trash can in the wee hours of the night. Skinny made me a liar. It forced me to turn down dates with my friends that I feared would put me in situations where I simply could not control my cravings. It convinced me to pick working out over everything.
For too long, skinny won.
I was loitering at Whole Foods last week (shocker) and an elderly couple was sitting at the table next to me. They were wearing bike clothes, and the sun splashed on to the outdoor patio while a soft breeze kissed our cheeks. She was drinking a kombucha. He was eating a sandwich on French bread so thick that he had to turn his head sideways to take a bite. And when I finally picked up on their conversation (I do this often), I realized that she wasn’t talking to him about their morning’s outdoor adventure. She wasn’t commenting on the perfection of the weather. The only words that escaped her lips were a chastisement for his lunch choice, a sandwich so full of fat and carbs (gasp).
It was a stark reminder of how much I desperately do not want to be that person. Not because that person is bad. But because I have so many more areas of life where I want to concentrate my thoughts. Areas that don’t involve planning cheat meals or counting macronutrients or feeling guilt over consuming a carton of ice cream.
I know what you’re thinking. About getting too “big” and fast food being “bad” and exercise being an integral part of our “healthy” lives. Trust me, I know all of the thoughts that are in the process of hijacking your mind (if you’ve made it this far). Any question that is attempting to cross your lips, I’ve thought it, spoken it, and challenged it (probably more times than I can even count).
What you will learn if you really start to deconstruct this diet-obsessed talk that infiltrates every single day of every single one of our lives is that our respective ideologies about eating patterns only exist because of what we’ve been taught to know about eating patterns. Humans, like animals, are born with an innate ability to understand hunger cues, yet we are almost immediately encouraged to silence them.
Raise your hand if your parents made you consume everything on your plate even when you said you were full, or they told you that you could only have dessert once your food was finished.
Then, the vast majority of us are ushered through a mechanical school system where our eating times are already predetermined. We have no choice but to abide by the algorithm. And, as we get older, we accept the fact that talking about our “high school weight” should be some chronic conversation that we participate in as 30-somethings who, newsflash number three, don’t need to fit into our junior prom dresses for any good reason (ever).
So four months ago, I did it, I made the choice. That I don’t want to live here anymore. In this body (or maybe it’s now that body). The one that I ultimately hate no matter what it says on the scale. The one I put through rigorous workouts to only then pick apart in front of the mirror.
Newsflash number four. It was never about being skinny.
It has always been about sharpening my own confidence to love myself at any shape or size. And, I will humbly admit that I’m not there. Most mornings, I wake up disappointed in my arms that tie my hair into my messy bun. I stare at my stomach in the shower, poking at the places that I can now only describe as soft. I must force myself to unfollow social accounts that trigger me to digress back into this mindset of thinner being better, and I cry at the disconnection from the physical body that I used to be. I struggle. Daily.
But, I go to the store without the devil on my shoulder. I no longer tell myself everything that is off limits before I walk through the doors. I want chips. I buy chips. I eat chips. I don’t get as anxious about menus. I take my friends up on offers to go out for drinks, and I eat right before I go to bed if I’m hungry. I don’t intentionally skip breakfast. I don’t applaud my starvation tactics. I go to Pure Barre because I love it and I run outside when the weather is optimal – for 30 minutes, not three hours – and I don’t convince myself that outdoor activities don’t burn calories simply because those calories are harder to count. I throw away the last few bites of food when I’m full (sometimes), and I always make room for dessert. I win. Daily.
Amidst these small victories, I still have so much to learn.
Because there are days when I wake up and don’t want to go outside. Moments when I break down because I can’t button my jeans. There have been weeks where I’ve had to talk myself out of intermittent fasting or leaving out the cheese from my favorite salad. Every single day there is a trigger in my environment that is asking me to solely focus on skinny.
And then it hits me. I have even more to unlearn.
But I am here. And that is all I can do. The work. It’s all any of us can do. Because I’m not on a crusade for anyone but myself. If you need hope for your own crusade, whatever that crusade may be, might you find a small spark within my story. And may you start to write your own.