The battle with body image and food is more common than most people know.
When I was little, I can remember sneaking into the pantry under the stairs to eat not just one, but two or three oatmeal creme pies.
I grew up being fairly ‘chunky’ as some would say. My mother cooked dinner almost every night of the week, most of it was fresh foods but that didn’t mean it was healthy. Our pantry was stocked with Little Debbie’s, chips, and Cheez-its. I don’t remember eating a lot of fresh fruit growing up either. It normally showed up in our kitchen when my father was on a diet; he often needed to lose weight for his mandatory Navy PT tests.
Fast forward to my rocky and disarrayed teenage years and entering young adulthood, my weight naturally fluctuated up and down from 120 to 130 lbs. During that time of my life, I dated a guy who was emotionally and mentally abusive. It didn’t happen all at once but instead it got worse the longer we were together. He called me fat. He told me that no one else would ever want me because of how ugly and fat I was. I remember specifically one time, he called me a worm in the dirt, I was useless and little.
Nearly out the of the blue one day, he decided he was done eating processed and fast foods. He wanted to start eating healthy; give up smoking and drinking. In hopes of getting him to love me more, I followed his lead, and gave it all up. I bought and ravished books about healthy eating and managed to teach myself to cook. When the day came that I finally left him, I was 118 lbs and it was the lightest weight I had achieved at that point my life. In hindsight, I realized I was abused and manipulated, I was never fat to begin with.
Into my adult years, having yet another abusive relationship and following the birth of my son, I had some extreme body image issues. My weight had reached an all time high (excluding pregnancy weight), I was 160 lbs at 5’1. A year after my son was born, enough was enough. I dieted down using a combination of counting calories, obsessively using the treadmill at the gym and tracking everything in MyFitnessPal. Over the course of about 6 months, I had managed to reach my pre-baby weight of 130 lbs. What no one told about losing the weight was it wasn’t going to combat the horrible thoughts I had about my body. My body image and confidence could have been essentially dead and buried at that point. I had a lot of internal work to do.
After leaving abusive relationship #2, I met the love of my life, my best friend and now husband. During those years I had been maintaining my weight for the most part, only going up or down by about 5 lbs. I was generally eating OK quality foods during that time but I wouldn’t say ‘no’ too cookies or ice cream either. The most physical activity you’d find me engaged in was dancing on the weekends in a drunk stupor (and a topic for a whole other post). My husband and my son were my everything. I depended on my husband especially for all my love, to fill my voids and erase my wounds. After years of abusive relationships and finally finding a healthy relationship, I became co-dependent on my husband for his constant love.
Insert deployment. Yuck. The hubby was sent away on a giant steel can with thousands of other people into the Arabian Sea for nearly a year. Me on the other hand, I was alone, very alone, with myself for the first time in ages. In an attempt to avoid spending additional time with just me and my thoughts, I came up with the brilliant idea to join my local roller derby league. Even though I no longer actively play roller derby, it was probably one of the best decisions in my whole life.
Joining my local roller derby league gave me so many things. It gave me acceptance and a strong female community. It propelled me into the pursuit of strength and finally having my own self-established confidence. I joined the gym and end up pursuing other sports; bodybuilding and power-lifting. If you know anything regarding either sports, they similar in that they both test your mental fortitude but one sport requires you to eat and the other requires you not to eat.
Bodybuilding introduced me to macro-tracking, IIFYM or flexible dieting (whatever you wanna call it). My first bodybuilding competition, I saw extreme success in my ability to lose weight using IIFYM and it had me hooked. But the process totally skewed and disoriented my body image all over again. I was so restricted for so long that I ended binging repeatedly post-competition. As the weight continued to pile on because I couldn’t control myself, I drank more which cause me to become more depressed which then caused me to binge more. It was a horribly unhealthy cycle both physically and mentally. I sat in this cycle of life for nearly a year until I decided to compete again.
A year later, I decided to do another bodybuilding show, I was bound and determined for it to be different this time. I was determined to change my relationship with food. In order to do that though, I had to change my relationship with alcohol. I couldn’t use it as a crutch and mostly eliminated it from life. As the mental fog cleared from cutting out the alcohol combined with another cycle of prep, I realized how good I felt both inside and out. I radiated like the sun. I wanted to feel in control. I wanted to feel confident. And I wanted to feel like that every single day of my life. I grabbed that feeling with all my might, hung on tight and braced for impact.
Post-competition is the hardest. If you have ever dieted and tried to go back to your normal eating habits, you’ve probably found you easily end up putting back on some, if not, all the weight. You want some freedom now that you’ve reached your goal, you want to indulge or live little but it is SO easy to go overboard. And if you do end up putting on weight, or having a few nights where you end up overindulging, it can wreck havoc on your body image and confidence. You lose confidence in your ability to make good, healthy decisions and your mentality can easily move from ‘in control’ to ‘fuck it’ and eat everything in sight.
My point is –
There is a balancing act we all have to maintain between optimal food consumption and freedom.
No one wants to be restricted forever. The last thing I want to give up for the rest of my life is ice cream. As a matter of fact, I wanna keep that shit in my life as long as possible.
As a competitive athlete, I’ve gotten to the point that I’ve realized, fueling my body for performance is important to me. But to get there, I had to come to the realization that in it’s most simplistic state, food is fuel. Food is meant to give to power our bodies and meant to keep us running efficiently.
Culturally and socially, food is not just fuel, food is a way to enjoy and spend time with others. Traditions and holidays are based around the sharing of food. We cook food for those we love, for religious reasons, for celebration. On a cultural and social level, food is meant to be enjoyed.
The problem people like myself have, is that food makes us feel good. We use it as comfort, as a crutch, and a way to cope. We associate it with good memories and moments in our lives. And when we start to use food for constant comfort instead of learning healthier coping skills, that is where food becomes a problem. In that space, we find disordered eating and eating disorders. It is also in this space that we must acknowledge that we have a lot of internal growing that needs to happen.
Healthy relationships with food start on the inside, first when we acknowledge that food is a fuel source first and foremost. Secondly, acknowledge and accept that you are allowed freedom with your food. Thirdly, acknowledge and accept that you are ALLOWED to enjoy food. Lastly, acknowledge and accept when your relationship with food changes from fuel and enjoyment to comfort, coping and/or guilt.
Recognizing, acknowledging and accepting that you may using food as a source of comfort, for coping and/or are feeling guilt over your food consumption is the first step to recognizing and then re-establishing your relationship with food. Starting your journey to health eating can start and be executed in many forms. For me, I have to give up labels such as ‘unhealthy’ or ‘bad’ foods, practice mindfulness (asking critical questions), listening to my body when it was truly hungry and teaching myself different coping skills.
I am still in the midst of developing my own healthy relationship with food. It isn’t something that is easy but something I have to work on each day. I have to re-direct my thoughts when I think about the macros in food, or feel guilt over eating something ‘unhealthy’. Often times, I have to remind myself to be kind to myself, to not rush the process.
The daily choice to actively try and change your relationship with food and learn new coping skills, is a choice to honor your body and mind. It nurtures the internal love for yourself. And each small step you make every day, is a step you take toward self-love and positive body image.