The third in a series on body image and kids and life and stuff.
It was around high school or college that I determined that my happiness and success was most likely tied to the way my body looked. I frantically dieted and exercised the summer before starting college, in order to take advantage of the opportunity to start over and reinvent myself. It’s not so easy to escape one’s neuroses, though. I silently joined the throngs of women lurching between Out of Control Eating and In Control eating. It was either black or white—I was either mindless numbing my feelings with food, or I was on some sort of a diet. I discovered the equally-effective anxiety numbing effects of extreme dieting.
While dieting, I continued to use food as a way to deal with anxiety, but just in a new and improved way! Instead of numbing my feelings with the actual consumption of food, I could use mental recitations of calorie counts as a mantra to ward off stress. During those times of dieting, at any given moment I could rattle off what I had eaten that day, and what I had left to eat before bed. I weighed myself daily, if not multiple times per day. The number dictated my mood for the day. On official weigh-in days, I carefully got up first thing, stripped naked, peed out as much as possible, and obtained a number that I recorded on whatever tracking system I was using.
Because restrictive dieting worked, I received a lot of positive reinforcement. Indeed, I succeeded according to the tenets of whatever diet I was on at the time—cabbage soup diet, Jenny Craig, Weight Watchers, Slim Fast. I was a model participant, and I always lost weight. People would comment, and I’d smile serenely and cite diet and exercise, racking up the positive accolades and frantically waiting to drop another dress size. When I was heavier, the scale controlled me in that I was afraid to go near it. When I was dieting (only occasionally to the point of what would be considered thin), the scale controlled me in a far different way. It consumed my every waking thought.
And that’s the thing. For any number of physiological reasons, even the most extreme diets resulted in what would be defined as the thinner end of normal weight. I was never remarkably thin. And that’s the only thing that separated these times of hyper-focus on food from a stereotypical eating disorder. I was just as obsessed, just as preoccupied, just as miserable. I just never was adequately gaunt to draw negative attention. Instead, I received waves of positive attention. My anxiety-driven obsession with food and dieting was seen as a good thing. Indeed, some people reading this will probably think that I should go back to that way of being.
And I wanted to. Oh, how I wanted to go back. But after having kids, I wasn’t able to devote adequate mental energy to obsessing about my food intake. For me to succeed, according to standard criteria, I needed to eat no more than about 1100 calories a day. Did I forget to mention that? At the times that I was deemed “doing well” by the appearance-judging outside world, I was eating, at the very most, 1100 calories a day. Every day. With no room for error.
And I should mention at this point, that I married a man who never even seemed to notice what was going on with my weight! If he did, he never made any mention of it good or bad. Never. The only things I remember him saying were that I always seem to be happier when I’m exercising (true), and he’d go to the gym with me or get up early to do P90X if I wanted. I just wanted to give Jimmy his due accolades.
So. Eventually, I couldn’t succeed at dieting, so I actually sought out help at an eating disorders clinic. And there I met my wonderful therapist. I hoped that she would be able to help me fix my overeating, so that I could successfully get back to fastidious dieting. After a lot of work that remains ongoing, I started to see that eating and food and what I thought about my body at given moment had more to do with how I was managing my anxiety and feelings than anything else. Guys, it was a lot of work. Years and years and lots of crying and writing and breaking up with medicine. A lot of work.
In addition to my work in therapy, I had a life changing moment when I first heard Lindy West reading from her book, Shrill. There are a handful of moments in life that I remember specifically, and I remember the first time I heard an interview with her. It was around the time that I was working intensely with my therapist to unpack all of the reasons that I was misusing food. It was fall, I was walking on the Oak Leaf trail near our home, and I was listening to an interview with Lindy West on Fresh Air. She discussed the audacious concept of being OK with a fat body just as it is, and not owing the rest of the world an explanation or an apology about it. I replayed that interview three times and walked about six miles. I was in a glorious, revelatory trance. I want quote from her book, but honestly the whole thing is quotable, and you just need to go read it.
OK, fine, here’s a quote taken from an online essay she wrote in response to a piece about being concerned about the obesity epidemic. It was later reprinted in her book:
Fat people already are ashamed. It’s taken care of. No further manpower needed on the shame front, thx. I am not concerned with whether or not fat people can change their bodies through self-discipline and “choices.” Pretty much all of them have tried already. A couple of them have succeeded. Whatever. My question is, what if they try and try and try and still fail? What if they are still fat? What if they are fat forever? What do you do with them then? Do you really want millions of teenage girls to feel like they’re trapped in unsightly lard prisons that are ruining their lives, and on top of that it’s because of their own moral failure, and on top of that they are ruining America with the terribly expensive diabetes that they don’t even have yet? You know what’s shameful? A complete lack of empathy. (Lindy West. “Hello, I Am Fat,” The Slog, 11 Feb, 2011.)
Lindy’s interview and, later, the book honestly changed my life. For one thing, she helped me realize that I deserve to wear cute clothes at whatever size I happen to be; I don’t have to wait until I lose x number of pounds before I can dare to present myself to the world in a way that is anything other than shrouded in shame. I started standing up for my body being OK as is. I challenged the weight-shaming statements that my mom and her sisters punished themselves with. I shopped in Lane Bryant—openly! One day, when a thinner friend asked me where I got a top I was wearing, I had to tell her the Eloquii doesn’t carry her size. I was open about it. It’s weird and it’s hard, but I’m done with offering apologies for myself, or reassurances that I’m working on my body in order to make its existence acceptable.
So here’s what I do now. I try not to use food to manage my feelings. That’s my diet plan. I try not to hide my eating, as that usually means it’s anxiety-eating. This means definitely avoiding eating from drive-throughs. I try to do other things to manage my anxiety. I’m on medications. I check in with my therapist and my friends. I write. I don’t do punishment-style exercise anymore either. I don’t enjoy feeling like a wrung-out rag, maybe you do, but not me. I much prefer brisk walks with the dog. I discovered Barre, which makes my body feel like a wrung out rag, but in an enjoyable way. I try hard not to compare myself to others in the mirror. I usually fail, but I have to try. Am I perfect? Absolutely no way. Not even close. But if I expect my girls to be able to see themselves as beautiful and worthy no matter how they stack up to the person next to them, I have to try and give myself the same break.