Make no mistake; I’ve had a tortured relationship with food for as long as I can remember.
I was about 8 or 9, doing gymnastics when I looked around and realised that I was ‘bigger’ than all of the other girls. Actually, the truth is that I was just hitting puberty early and was more developed. Nonetheless, bigger in my young mind meant “fatter”, and fatter meant = unacceptable.
I think I was around 9 or 10 when I first started skipping meals. I would employ all sorts of strategies, trying to hide the fact that I wasn’t eating through the day. This continued on and off.
It was in my mid-teens, in response to the pressures of probably being a very normal teenager when I really started to play with this idea of food restriction. I’d get on the scales each day, watching it drop millimetre by millimetre, with a mixed feeling of relief and elation each time it went in the ‘right’ direction. More than that, I felt that I was in control. This was the one thing that I could control in my life at that moment, and dammit, I was going to enjoy that feeling.
Obsessive thoughts of food preoccupied me most of the time (well I was starving after all). Concerned family and friends started to comment. It got to a point when I knew I was thin; too thin in fact, I knew this. Yet secretly, I felt a sense of righteousness. “I didn’t need food”, I would think. “I found the secret”. The secret to weight loss, which I was told in a multitude of ways by society, was one of the most important goals a girl could attain.
Most importantly, I had found the secret to ‘fixing’ how bad I felt. I knew that I had never been good enough. I was never thin enough, pretty enough, popular enough, smart enough, happy enough, the list went on. But this….THIS was my secret, I had found an answer!
The months went on like this. I continued to get thinner, the people around me showed growing concern. I had to go and see a psychologist who I basically refused to talk to. I didn’t know the right words, I would just cry.
I don’t remember the exact tipping point, but at some stage I knew that this couldn’t work in the long term. I was getting more and more attention, though despite what some people said, this attention was definitely unwanted. I did not enjoy the arguments at home and seeing my family upset. Conflict has always scared me actually. And let’s face it; I didn’t actually enjoy being hungry. I didn’t enjoy having to outcast myself from social situations. I didn’t want to be different.
More than all of that, I knew even back then that this wasn’t what I was meant for. I knew that I wanted to help people. I didn’t know exactly what form that would take, but I knew it definitely wouldn’t happen if I stayed in this condition.
So I started eating again. I finished school, I got a job. Then I moved away from home, interstate. At which point, food became my friend. It felt like my only friend at times.
When I moved back home a couple of years later, I tried to not let the looks in people’s faces bother me when I could see that they were surprised by the amount of weight I had gained. That was hard though, it hurt. I felt more miserable and out of control than ever.
So I continued to berate and shame myself. I dieted, I restricted, and I binged when I wasn’t getting the results that I wanted and it all became too much. I over exercised and I tried to hide myself in loose clothing. Over the years, my weight went up and down, although slowly, through a lot of self-reflection and therapy, I started to stabilise. I began studying hypnotherapy, I started my own business and I enrolled in university. I started to feel like I was coming out the other end.
Reading back on all of this, do you know what hurts the most?
It wasn’t the things that the occasional person said. Nor was it the looks of surprise I would see in the faces of the people I knew when they saw me after putting on or even losing weight. It wasn’t the shopping outings which would end in tears, as the label on my clothes told me that I was still bigger than I ‘should be’.
No, what hurt the most was the judgement I imposed on myself. On many levels it didn’t actually matter to me what anyone else said or thought, so much as it mattered what I was telling myself. And let me tell you, I was downright abusive.
Looking back, I have spent the better part of my life feeling ashamed about the way that I do not seem to be able to control my weight. I have felt shame in fact, for simply existing in this body which felt unacceptable.
Everywhere I looked, all I ever saw was thin people. Thin people make up the majority of the people represented on our TV’s, in magazines, movies, social media, the list goes on. The occasional ‘fat’ person always seemed like a token gesture at representation. Not so subtlety however, the message was always loud and clear; there was something wrong with these people. There was something undesirable or ridiculous about them. I would take these images and these messages and internalise them in my mind. “This is how I am supposed to look”, I understood. Then I would go out in to the world and through the lens of my confirmation bias, thin people was all I would see.
I’m turning 34 this year and I am still only just coming to realise the ways in which this internalised shame has impacted me in my life. How I have spent so much of my life feeling not good enough; ‘less than’, because I felt like I didn’t conform to what my society and my culture told me was acceptable.
Am I still impacted by this? Absolutely, I can’t say that I’m not.
A few years ago I had a serious injury, a broken foot which meant that I didn’t walk for almost six months. In that time I became quite depressed and despondent and I turned back to my old friend; food. I’ve still not lost the weight that I gained in that time and I can’t say that this doesn’t bother me, it does. Nonetheless, I eat a balanced diet and I exercise regularly. I am still dealing with some physical limitations because of the injury which sometimes hold me back from doing everything that I would like to do, but I am otherwise healthy. Despite currently being around 15-20kg heavier than what is suggested by ‘healthy weight range’ guidelines, a recent visit to my doctor told me that I’m in perfect health. Blood sugar, blood pressure, cholesterol, vitamin levels, the works. Yes, even though I am 15-20kg ‘overweight’. Over what weight I say??
Additionally, as a professional in the wellness space, I have felt the impact of some of the messages of the wellness industry which tell me how I ‘should be living’. What I hear in many of these circles is that if you are psychologically healthy, you should have a “healthy” body. Note that “healthy” is being synonymously used with “thin”, as if it is the same thing. It’s not. I haven’t been immune to wondering at times if I am good enough to be doing the work that I’m doing because maybe I don’t fit in to that mould.
The truth is though, that despite what our culture and society and even the medical world will tell you, thinness doesn’t equal health. Yes, there are fat people who are unhealthy, but there are also thin people who are unhealthy. Likewise, there are thin people who are healthy AND there are fat people who are healthy. There are fat people who have issues with mental and emotional health and there are thin people who have problems with mental and emotional health. Health really does come in every size.
When I first began my career as a therapist around five years ago,
I am almost embarrassed to say that I did what many other hypnotherapists are taught to do and I designed and offered weight loss programs. These programs had varying levels of success; some people responded well to the therapy, others very little. Overall though, I couldn’t escape this niggling feeling that what I was offering wasn’t quite right. There was just something about it that didn’t feel quite right but I couldn’t put my finger on it.
Now I understand more. I understand that I was never comfortable with supporting my clients in their belief that the way that they were was unacceptable. Not that I ever saw it that way or said it in those words of course. I always focused the therapy on eradicating shame and increasing self-esteem and self-acceptance. All the same however, they were ‘weight loss programs’, and that inherent in itself, is something that I have come to see as part of the problem in our culture as a whole.
Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with striving for optimum health. What this means for each individual however, is going to be different. Most importantly, and back to the whole point of this article, is that when taking account of a person as a whole; diets don’t work.
No one is debating that if you restrict your calorie intake over a period of time you will lose weight; that’s not my point. My point is that even if diets physically work to lose weight, they don’t work for the majority of people on every other level in the long term; psychologically, emotionally, socially, culturally, spiritually, everything. Diets create a psychology of deprivation and restriction, to which the mind fights and compensates for. Diets compound the shame that so many people already feel for not being something different.
We must start taking people as whole people, and not just a mathematical machine which uses food as ‘calories in, calories out’. Food is more than just nutrition. Food is how we get together with others, how we create ritual, how we connect, how we love ourselves and so many other things.
These days, I am starting to see myself through different eyes. I feel compassion for where I have come from. I am aware of the judgement that I have imposed and continue to impose on myself, although I understand more than ever that this is a product of an unhealthy society and culture, not necessarily an unhealthy ‘me’. I am compassionate towards the fact that although I bought in to the diet mentality for so long, that this was not my fault. I had no other paradigm to operate by. All I ever heard was that thin was better, more desirable and what people should be.
I no longer believe this message, though I’ll admit that deprogramming it has been hard and I have no doubt that it is hard for you too.
There are things that you can do though. You can:
- Make a conscious effort not to engage in diet conversation when it comes up
- Remind yourself and the people around you in these moments that there are many ways to be healthy, and that there is not just one way to look when a person is healthy.
- Educate yourself on what it means to pursue health at every size. There is a plethora of research available which supports this (and I will be writing future material on this).
- Unfollow anyone on social media who is promoting any kind of weight loss, dieting or exercise for weight loss regime. These ads still creep in, they are pervasive. Nonetheless, get better at spotting the subtle messages behind some of the marketing and campaigns that we are exposed to and make a conscious decision to not follow or support that.
- Follow more body positive and fat positive activists and accounts on social media. There are actually a lot and it is so much healthier to be exposed to a whole range of body types; people who are actively saying in their messages that they are here and they have a right to be seen, heard and accepted.
None of this has been or is an easy process. It hasn’t been any easy process for me and I doubt that it is an easy process for you as well. Aim for progress, not perfection.