My best friend recently told me about an article she read in Self magazine that claims 75% of women “eat, think and behave abnormally around food.” The moment I heard that quote was the first time I even considered that there might be a lot of women out there like me - women who aren’t quite “normal” about food but aren’t severely disordered eaters either. Floating somewhere in between the two classifications meant my relationship with food was a sizeable source of stress and depression from the age of ten right on through my early twenties. I had no idea there was anyone else out there hiding the same kind of skeletons (or Fruit Roll-Ups) in their closets.
I grew up knowing I was fat and knowing it was my own damn fault. Not having the willpower to lose weight and win a war with what I thought should have been an insignificant demon became increasingly shameful. When you’re 10 and you’re the only kid to weigh more than your teacher, you naturally assume you’re the only one who’s having a secret love affair with Twix bars. So you eat them when no one’s around and you don’t openly discuss how much you look forward to your date with those crunchy cookie-candy delights after school. As an adolescent with a freakishly large chest (mostly attributed to being overweight,) you don’t ask the girls at your sleepover if they worry about being too fat as they pull your bra out of the freezer. When you’re a teenager and you don’t see any of your 100 pound friends eating big bowls of ice cream after dinner, you’re pretty sure you’re the only gal in the group who has a hard time fighting the urge to eat a gallon of mint chip at a time. You don’t talk about how hard it is to love everything a girl like you shouldn’t have and definitely doesn’t need during 90210 commercial breaks. Before you know it, you’re 25 and you think you’ve changed until you realize you’re too uncomfortable to eat that second cookie in front of the love of your life, so you wait until he gets into the shower go back for one more.
When I moved out to California at the age of 23, I had managed to wildly complicate one of the few things in life that can and should be beautifully simple. By that time, I had long since decided it was beyond pathetic to toil over my relationship with food. I knew people would pay to trade real ailments or far bigger mountains for my silly little molehill. I knew I was smarter and better than waging war against myself over and over again. I knew I ultimately would have the make the choice to be kinder to myself and my body. By 23, I still couldn’t ever do that for more than a month or two at a time. There were often glimpses of hope throughout college, mostly thanks to a shockingly accepting group of women, but then it seemed to be only a matter of time before I slipped back into old habits. As a grown woman, that inability to change was just another thing to feel guilty about and another reason to keep most of what I was going through to myself. It was embarrassing enough to be so caught up in weight, body image and food issues, but being so utterly predictable was terribly shameful to me. The more ashamed I was, the more I tried to control myself. The more I tried to control myself, the more I lost control. The more I lost control, the more I felt I needed to punish myself for it. The longer I was wrapped up in this cycle, the more I kept the details to myself.
When I met B and fell in love with him, for the first time in my life I started thinking about someday being a wife and mother. I wanted to be able to build a happy, balanced life with him; I knew if I was ever going to do that, I needed to do some re-building of my own. I went back to a therapist and started educating myself about ways to reframe my relationship with food and change my patterns of thinking. As the cliché saying goes, I started focusing more on the solutions and less on the problems. I realize now that as a child, I spent too much time feeling sorry for myself. When I was a teenager, I didn’t try hard enough with diet or exercise. And once a young woman, I didn’t fight like I meant it. Falling in love left little room for self-indulgence and self-pity. B’s passion for life left little time for lethargy. A man like him makes you want to fight harder for a lot of things.
I’ve spent the past 5 years of my life learning to see food as a source of nutrition, life and joy. Some days are easier than others. Most days are a bit of a challenge to some degree, because slipping into old habits in the face of stress, sadness or pressure is easy. I’ve broadened my horizons and learned to love different kinds of foods for different reasons. I allow myself a little something sweet every day, but try to stick with fruit or “guilt free” options during the week. I’ve come to appreciate the beautiful colors, textures and smells of a farmers market or kitchen counter covered with fresh and healthy ingredients waiting to be chopped, sliced and combined. I’ve found joy in creating something delicious and nourishing for my B with my own hands and a little creativity.
I’m still very apprehensive of eating too much and gaining weight though. I eat as many vegetables as I can every day, because it’s the one food group I enjoy and feel no guilt for consuming. I have a tough time stepping out of my comfort zone – which is characterized by a pretty controlled diet and some “get out of jail free cards” on the weekends. I probably pay too much attention to proper serving sizes, nutrient density, replacement options and health benefits. I have to remind myself not to put excessive thought or time into ensuring meals are well balanced with lean protein, vegetables, whole grains and vitamins and minerals. I often count calories in my head or on a sticky pad. I don’t stress as much as I used to about too many nights out at San Francisco’s wonderful restaurants- but I shoot for small portions of everything and even then, dining out seldom goes unpunished. (I add extra workouts into my already pretty rigorous routine for pizza, cheeseburgers, decadent deserts.) I often check menus online to identify healthy choices ahead of time too. I still catch myself saving up for things like vacations or Thanksgiving (banking.) I don’t like being put into situations where I have little to no healthy choices (French prix fix, weddings, company parties,) and dread being put into situations where I LOVE all the unhealthy choices (anytime cupcakes or champagne refills are free flowing.) I still feel a little self-conscious admitting the aforementioned, because as far as I have come in 5 years, it’s clearly not quite far enough.
When I look around at dinner parties, in restaurants, at work – women of all shapes and sizes seem to be so casual about making meal choices and enjoying what’s put in front of them. I’ve never noticed friends looking anxiously at menus for guilt-free options or taking pause to tally calories consumed plus approximate calories in a menu selection. I’ve never seen the same disappointed expressions on my sisters’ faces after they’ve eaten a few too many bites of that chocolate cake. I’ve always doubted my colleagues dread business lunches at steak houses because they’re anticipating necessary counteraction to a heavy meal. So you tell me. Are there a lot of women out there like me?