Author’s Note: This post contains discussion of weight, clothing sizes, binge eating and under-eating… all of which might trigger you if you’re in a sensitive place. Please don’t read this if those things will bother you.
When I look back over my life, my relationship with food always stands out as a metaphor for my relationship with myself. Food is such an emotional anchor–it comforts us, reminds us of home, roots us in tradition. It nourishes us when we let it, and poisons us when we let it. It can control us if we let it. It can numb our emotions if we let it.
Over the course of my life, I’ve given in to this control as well as tried to counter it with my own excessive self-control. It is only now that I’m reaching a point of balance in my life. Food isn’t the problem. Emotions aren’t the problem. Lack of self-awareness and balance is the problem.
Compulsive Eating, Rationalization, and Resignation
Some time in high school, when my mom finally relinquished control over what my brother and I ate, I dove head-first into food. I would have heaping bowls of ice cream after dinner, eat entire sleeves of Oreo’s, get second servings of spaghetti. I would bake batches of Tollhouse Chocolate Chips and eat eight cookies a night. I was in heaven.
Food became how I managed stress. I didn’t drink in high school and college; I ate my way through. It was cheap and easy and an effective way of numbing my emotions. The endorphins I would feel during these binging sessions seemed to justify any negative consequences that came from it.
I would binge-eat with my roommates on the weekends as we rewatched old seasons of Sex in the City to distract ourselves from studying. We would make “CVS runs,” and I’d get a one-liter of Coca-Cola, a big bag of Chester’s hot fries, and a box of Milk Duds or M&Ms. We would bake midnight sheet cakes and eat plate-size portions. If I was ever concerned about the amount of calories I was consuming, I’d just skip dinner. The morning after this glorious smorgasbord of corn syrup and red dye 40 was never pleasant (I’ll spare you the details), but it never occurred to me to not eat as much as I could stuff in my face after a stressful week.
I exercised a bit during this time, but it was mostly walking or recreational college classes like swimming or ballet. My hips ached when I sat still too long, and I had issues breathing. My pants size rose to a 12, but I told myself it was because I was so tall, not that I was “actually” a size 12 (whatever that means). I would wear out the crotches of my pants with chub rub as the friction between my thighs wore holes through the denim. I comforted myself with the fact that the average American woman is a size 14, as though that statistic is meaningful or matters at all. I did a lot of rationalizing during this time.
My weight shot up, and I gained something like 25 or 30 pounds. I remember weighing myself one morning after a particularly gluttonous dinner at Panda Express (mmmm orange chicken) and feeling disheartened when the scale showed 170. For someone who is 5’8″, anything over 164.5 is considered Overweight according to the Body Mass Index (BMI). I had been in the Overweight range for quite some time, but 170 was a new milestone.
I remember gazing at that number and thinking, “This is me now. I’m in the 170s. Four years ago, I was in the 140s. I guess four years from now, I’ll be over 200 pounds.” I hated my body and hated what I saw in my future, but there was a sense of resignation to the thought, as though this were my fate. Once I hit 197 pounds, I knew I’d be considered obese by the medical community. Some part of me believed I had no control over this, that I was meant to be overweight and I was meant to eventually be obese. What else could I do? Food was the only way I knew how to comfort myself.
Mindless Eating, Binge-Drinking, and Numbing
A couple of years after college, I finally discovered the joys of alcohol. I’ve always been a late bloomer. When I moved to Houston, a party city, I met a new group of friends who were some of the kindest and most welcoming people I’d ever met. It didn’t occur to me until afterwards that almost everything we did revolved around alcohol. We went out 2-3 times a week, taking double shots of whiskey before going dancing for hours. We’d float the river in Austin, foregoing snacks and chugging Malibu Rum. We’d tailgate at college football games before going to the local bar for novelty shots like Flaming Dr. Peppers.
I still ate whatever I wanted, but I lost about ten pounds and a pant’s size during this time as a shot of liquor only has about 100 calories. I also ate less the day after I drank, managing my hangovers by controlling what I put on my delicate stomach. When I met a new guy and we started staying in more than going out, I’d drink a bottle of wine a night as we shared a pizza and watched movies.
As our relationship went on, I picked up some of my guy’s eating habits. He was the first person in my life who I saw actively practicing moderation in what he ate–he might have indulged in an occasional burger, but he was always thoughtful about what he put on it, and he skipped the fries. He didn’t consume empty calories in the form of non-diet soda or mindlessly eating snacks mid-day. He treated candy as a treat and ate it occasionally and slowly–so I did the same. My skin improved and I began to buy clothes that fit my new size.
Of course, I may have weighed less than I had in college, but I was no healthier. When my doctor heard about how often I was drinking, she raised her eyebrows and said, “That’s a bit more than social drinking. Be careful.” After a while and for various reasons, I started binge-drinking less, but I still ate and drank pretty much whatever I wanted. My workouts were infrequent and half-hearted. I wasn’t making the worst choices for myself, but I wasn’t mindful about what I was doing, either.
Obsessive Eating, Calorie Counting, and Self-Control
When a coworker passed away at age 36, I took a long hard look at my life and did not like what I saw. For the first time in my life, I felt some responsibility for the choices I was making and how I was treating myself. I knew there was no guarantee of a long happy life, but I suddenly wanted to do everything I could to make sure I was physically healthy enough to make it to old age.
Junk food and alcohol suddenly held no interest for me, tasting like an early death, and I began researching nutrition and started cooking regularly. I started strength training to build muscle and did high-intensity impact training several times a week to maximize my time at the gym. I felt like I was taking control of my life and my fate, and I cannot describe to you the amount of satisfaction I took from it.
Weight loss hadn’t been my original goal, but it happened nonetheless. I remember being surprised that I dropped two pounds in a week. I had never thought I had much control over the size of my body, and the fact that what I ate actually did affect my weight was a revelation.
I dropped eight pounds the first month, and four pounds the month after that. In six months I dropped almost thirty pounds while gaining significant muscle tone. My hips and thighs shrank, my cellulite almost disappeared, and I reveled in my new body, feeling like I was on my way to beautiful for the first time. I thought that the only thing holding me back from looking like a fitness model was my own self-control.
I began measuring my body fat percentage rather than my BMI (because BMI is a bullshit tool for measuring an individual’s health) and moved from ~32% (the very tippy-top of the “healthy” range) to ~17% (“athletic”). I started getting numerous compliments a day about my body, my friends and coworkers impressed by the change in my body composition. I dropped three pants sizes, getting down to a size 2.
Fat loss became my new obsession. I ate a strict paleo diet for eighteen months, limited my carb intake, became a teetotaler, and worked out 1-2 hours a day, every day. I used MyFitnessPal to track my daily calories, getting down to 1275 calories a day (not nearly enough for a 5’8″ woman). I slept a lot, and woke up at 2am with my stomach grumbling. I was constantly hungry but told myself it would be worth it when I finally looked the way I never had been able to when I was younger. I kept a spreadsheet detailing my calorie consumption, my workouts, my weight, and my hormonal cycle, only satisfied when the number in the “Weekly Average Weight” column tended downwards.
But I started to feel worse about how I looked, not better. I have almost no pictures of myself from this time, because I didn’t want to take pictures until I was “done” losing weight. I wanted that perfect “After” shot, not a series of “In Progress” pictures.
The compliments at work stopped coming as frequently as people became used to the “new me.” Once some of the fat melted off, I also suddenly became hyper-aware of the “problems” in my skeletal structure–a dip appeared between my waist and my legs and I realized I had “violin hips,” which I thought gave the impression of a muffin top even when I was at my very lowest weight. My torso was no better: while I had always had a fairly flat stomach, my breasts, never something to write home about, virtually disappeared; my ribs, unbalanced by mild scoliosis, began to show “too much;” and a divet appeared in my sternum that I self-diagnosed as mild pectus excavatum. And I still thought my arms were too big for the rest of my body.
I realized that I would never look like a fitness model, and I was bitterly disappointed. By this time, friends and family had started telling me to stop losing weight, but I still felt fat and ugly. At my lowest, I weighed 128 pounds, the very bottom of the “normal” range for a woman of my height, and not nearly enough for someone who had as much muscle mass as I had at the time.
It was at this point that I really started focusing on yoga, deciding to try to progress in ways that didn’t revolve around fat loss. My yoga teachers commented on how much muscle I was carrying, observing that the muscle tension from the weight lifting I was still doing was limiting my shoulder and hip flexibility.
Aimless Eating and Feeling My Feelings for the First Time
And so I stopped calorie counting, but I also stopped cooking healthy food for myself. I ate whatever was easiest, which generally meant getting a to-go salad from HEB and putting Light Ranch Dressing on it. It wasn’t high in calories, but it didn’t have many nutrients in it either. Some part of me didn’t feel like spending the time cooking if I wasn’t eating the ABSOLUTE HEALTHIEST FOOD EVER. I stopped weight lifting, focusing instead on yoga, and I didn’t force myself to exercise daily anymore. Ironically enough, I didn’t lose too much strength and gained a lot of flexibility.
While some part of me had been afraid I’d gain all that weight back once I stopped counting calories and obsessively working out, I never really did–because I had developed enough awareness of my body to notice the effects of what I consumed. When I ate pizza, I could feel my intestines struggling with inflammation the next day. If I binged on sugar, I would lie in bed that night and notice my heart racing. If I ate too much red meat, I’d get sweats and feel lethargic. I was starting to focus on how I felt, not on how much I weighed. While I gained about ten pounds and went back up a pants size, I never ballooned out the way I had feared I would.
I reintroduced bread into my diet. I stopped eating dairy to experiment with how it affected my skin and my stomach. I started brewing my own kombucha. I had the occasional glass of wine. I didn’t have strict rules for myself and played each day by ear.
While this was definitely an emotionally-healthy place to land, maybe the first emotionally-healthy place I had ever been in, it was by no means easy. It was only once I gave up both the calorie counting as well as the binge-eating that I was forced to actually deal with my emotions. When I was sad, I was so fucking sad. When I was lonely, I was so fucking lonely. There was nothing I could do to distract myself from those feelings, and nothing to do but work through them. I had to learn new methods of self-comfort. I had to learn how to manage my emotions, not distract myself from them.
Moving Towards Deliberate Eating
Which brings us to today. Today I am on Day 6 of Whole30, which I decided to try for the first time in my life. (How can you tell if someone’s eating Whole30? Just wait five minutes, they’ll tell you all about it. 😉 ) I am aware of some of the problems associated with Whole30. I am not doing Whole30 to lose weight. I am not counting calories, I am not limiting carbs, I am not “tracking” anything.
Instead, I am moving towards viewing food as nourishment. I want to foster awareness of how food affects my body. I want to break food habits and mindless eating routines I fell into while I was dealing with my emotional baggage. To-go iceberg lettuce salads are fine in a pinch, but in the long run they’re not what I want to be eating on a daily basis. I want to get back to cooking for myself, to seeing self-care as something that is worth spending time on. I want to live with the idea of living as long and healthy a life as possible–both physically and emotionally.
I want to live deliberately.