I am reading a book right now titled Brave Girl Eating, by Harriet Brown. The author is a mother of a 14 year old girl newly diagnosed with anorexia nervosa. I am enjoying it, because of the perspective, the medical knowledge it is providing about anorexia, and her perspective of food, health, and parenting.
One part that I have really liked so far, is when the author describes grocery shopping with her daughter in the beginnings of her anorexia. The daughter is persistent that her mother should only buy non-fat and no sugar items. It made me think about myself when I shop – I used to do the same thing, not that long ago. Buy skim milk, non-fat yogurt, diet soda, sweetener for my coffee – not sugar. In fact, I would buy the coffee creamers that are loaded with aspartame and artificial flavors to avoid having a spoonful of sugar with my java. Have you ever looked at the ingredient list on one of those coffee creamer bottles? Not many things found in nature on that list; not many things even pronounceable on that list.
The author (the mother), explains to her daughter that humans are meant to eat everything, even sugar, in moderation. Our bodies are set up to process all kinds of foods to fuel ourselves and regulate our moods and energies. I agree with this!
I have been experiencing a shift in my habits over the last several years. As I get older, I have been more concerned with the inner-workings of my body rather that the outer-appearances of it. I want to live for a long time! I want to have babies and support their growth with my body. This has a lot to do with my thought shift on food and eating.
It has been coming slowly, but my typical food choices now come from asking myself, what is the most natural? I want the whole goodness of the foods I eat. I want 2% milk. I want greek yogurt with fat and protein. If I want a sweeter coffee I add regular sugar. I really enjoy vegetables and fruits and oats and rice and bread. My favorite thing to eat is a peanut butter sandwich. I have switched to natural peanut butter because the only ingredient is peanuts! I buy bakery bread because it is homemade and doesn’t have additives. I feel like my body likes this and I feel good knowing I am minimizing my intake of unnatural products. I don’t count calories and I let my body eat what it craves. It feels so good. I feel so free.
Side note: I wrote a while back about going vegetarian. Quick update: I am back to eating meat, poultry, bacon, and fish. Perhaps it was the stress of my old job combined with a change in vitamins from my food sources, but my hair was falling out, my skin was dry, and I was having terrible stomach pains. I left my job and starting eating meat around the same time. I really think both things have played a role in the improvement of my body. My hair is soft again (I cut off six-inches of what couldn’t be saved), my skin is happier, and I feel more energized. My stomach problems have mostly subsided. I have a better appreciation for meat and what it does for me. For me, I function better with meat. I am getting to know my meat sources so that I can feel more at peace morally with eating meat, and I continue to take care to purchase non-animal tested products.
Back to self-acceptance!
Here is my journey that may give some insight as to where I have been and why I have come to have peace with food.
Being an athlete since I was 8 always kept my heart and muscles strong on the inside. On the outside at age 8, I worried about having a belly – I noticed that some of my friends were skinnier than me and I envied their shape. My pediatrician told my parents I was slightly overweight and to start having me “eat better”. We were a healthy family and looking back I am insulted and disappointed. I am insulted that the doctor insinuated my parents weren’t doing a good job, because they were. We always ate homemade meals with veggies, fruits, and meats, and my parents always kept us active, playing outside every day. I am disappointed because I was at the age before a growth spurt when children typically put on a few extra pounds to support the height change that is about to happen – not to mention I was adding fat to prepare for puberty. The doctor said, in front of me, that I was a little overweight. Then he suggested changes to our diet. To me, the 8 year old, I heard, “She is overweight. She needs to change.” I felt bad in that moment.
Around age 11 I hit a growth spurt and “thinned out”. EVERYONE said how good I looked. This started to tell me that thin was valued. No one ever complimented my body before (outside of family). Oh I get it. Skinny is good. Chubby is bad. Very harmful thinking for a young person. It was at this time that I began to take measures to stay skinny. My friend and I swam laps for an hour instead of playing in the pool one day. Then we eyed the pop tarts in her kitchen, desperately hungry, for a while. When we gave in and ate one we laughed because we negated out workout in caloric terms, but inside I felt shame. So sad for that age. If only I could’ve known then what I know now. I would’ve saved myself so much guilt and heartache.
At age 14, I was in full puberty swing and had filled out. What I know now is that I was starting to develop my adult body. What I thought then was how much bigger I was than everyone else. I want to add that this is distorted thinking. I was not “big”. I was not “fat”. That is the way I felt – it was not real physically. So many factors contributed to this negative way of thinking. I noticed everything that had to do with weight. Boys only asked out the skinny girls. Models were only skinny. Actresses were only skinny. The popular girls were only skinny. People were praised when they lost weight. Everything seen as good was also skinny.
Then I went to high school. In the Spring of my freshman year I used Lent to start my pattern of not eating. For Lent, I gave up snacking and desserts. Only three meals a day. That was my first cut back. Let me just say here, that I don’t think Jesus really feels starving oneself to look better is very Lenten. Also, my intention was not to develop an eating disorder, nor do I think I had an eating disorder. But, I can’t help but to feel like my relationship with food was not normal.
That summer, I was 15, and I started swimming to speed up weight my weight loss. I would swim every day for 30 minutes. If I had eaten something that I felt I shouldn’t have eaten, like a cookie, I would do extra laps. I felt pride every time I stepped on the scale and it lowered. I saw my stomach sinking in, my arms were thin – things I had never experienced. And again, EVERYONE was complimenting me. At summer camp, boys noticed me. I was flirted with, asked out, asked to dance. Everything was so new and so exciting. I was happy, but on the inside I was filled with fear of eating too much or gaining any weight because I felt I could lose it all. I even remember having a hysterical break down when I couldn’t swim one day because my mom was leaving and I wasn’t allowed to swim when no one was home. I threw such a fit that she made herself late and gave me 15 minutes in the pool. I swam furiously. At that point, I knew something was wrong with me. “This isn’t who I am,” I thought as I turned for another lap.
I ended up eating the same thing every day for about two months at the end of that summer and the beginning of my sophomore year. I would wake up and wait as long as I could without eating, which was about 11am. Then I would have a yogurt. You know those yogurts that are 100 calories – and that have all the commercials about losing weight and getting a bikini body for vacation. Then around 4pm, I would have a bowl of brown rice with soy sauce. That was it.
I had started volunteering as the water girl for the football team during their two-a-day practices. This was how I got out of eating dinner and my parents noticing. I would go to football at 4:30 and not come home until 9pm. The coaches always asked me if I wanted Burger King or whatever they were picking up for themselves that night for dinner. I always declined saying I just ate. I remember one time, one of the coaches insisting that I must be hungry. I kept saying “no thank you”, and “really I’m fine”. I remember him pausing and looking at me right in the eyes and feeling like he knew what I was up to. I think he was concerned but didn’t know what to do, so he just left it alone. After that, he didn’t ask me if I wanted dinner anymore.
During that time, I would fall asleep hungry. I started to enjoy the feeling. I would wake up and could see my hip bones sticking above my stomach in the mornings when I laid flat in bed. I loved this. I felt successful. On the first day of school sophomore year, the senior boys noticed me and invited me to come talk to them at lunch. I couldn’t believe this was happening to me. Again, everything I felt was positive was coming from my change in appearance to a thinner girl. At least, that’s what I thought. Looking back, I think that thin helped because it was high school and everyone is so insecure that they like only what it is”mainstream” to like, but I also think the confidence I gained in my appearance is what was attracting people. The funny thing is, the “confidence” was totally fake. On the inside, I was so insecure about myself.
Over the course of sophomore year, I slowly came out of this phase of major caloric restriction and crazy exercising. It started by me making the switch to eating cereal for every meal. Still not enough food for a person, but I was eating three meals at appropriate times and getting some vitamins from the fortified cereal and milk. Then one day, I was sitting there at lunch, and I was so fed up with being hungry. It happened just like that for me. It was that moment that I said, F this, I’m eating again. It’s not worth feeling hungry all the time. People should like me for me. I should be happy with myself. (I credit my parents being so positive in my life for the deep down positive feelings that helped shape me and get me back on track.)
I am extremely lucky for that day. So many people struggling with eating disorders don’t have the power against the disease to say, “stop”. This is why I don’t think I had an eating disorder – I had disordered eating. It would be unfair to make it seem like anyone who struggles with food could flip a switch at one meal like I did. Does that make sense?
I also thank God that I could never make myself throw up. I tried a few times, but it never worked. Thank God for me not being able to induce vomiting or I truly would’ve been down a terrifying road.
Since that time, I have never gone back to that point. I have been more focused on a healthy lifestyle. However, I still battled negative thinking throughout my teenage and adult years. For instance, I would lift weights with the football team my junior year of high school. I was a catcher for the softball team and I could leg press so much weight. I would mix in with the lineman for sets on the leg press and they wouldn’t have to take any of the 45’s off. They would always be so impressed. This made me feel proud and strong and I gained a different kind of popularity for my athletic abilities. Yet there was still a small voice inside me saying, “be more feminine”.
When I was 17, I had a tonsillectomy. Eight days after the surgery, my throat hemorrhaged in my sleep. I lost 3 pints of blood and had emergency surgery to close the wound, which included pumping blood clots from my stomach and the choice of a blood transfusion, which we declined. It was a very scary time in my life. Due to the two surgeries, I lost 15 lbs in two weeks. When I returned to school, looking yellow, weak, and gaunt, my pants hanging off my body, my male friend, said, “Wow. Jess, you look so good. You lost all your weight.” Wow. Just….wow.
When I caught my first college boyfriend cheating on me, the first thought was that it was because I had gained the freshman 15. How sad that my first thought was, what is wrong with me?
In my last year of university, I started working out again because I had begun to feel so out of shape. I felt so good after starting a running and lifting regimen with my dad. I did spin classes, too, and my heart and lungs became so strong! I was hardly ever winded in my daily life and I was regaining the strength I always had when I played sports. It felt awesome. I would be lying if I didn’t say that a huge perk was also dropping 15 pounds – pride in thinness is so deeply imbedded in me that’s it’s hard to push aside.
I ran into two ex-boyfriends at the bar one night at that time. Both of them, separately, started apologizing for things gone wrong in the past and kept telling me how good I looked. Here’s a big F YOU to them from me then and one again from me now. Funny how they didn’t think to apologize before I lost weight, and how nice for me that I was in a relationship at that point with someone who grabbed me up before I lost weight and encouraged my working out but didn’t hinge our relationship on it. We are married now, thank you very much! He has seen my ups and downs and frankly, doesn’t give a hoot. If he did, we wouldn’t be married.
In my early 20’s, I began to look at the world from a real perspective, something I continue to do today. When I feel guilt, I rationalize with myself. Where is this coming from? Is that a real place or a place that I’ve made up based on outside influences? I think about who is in my life and what their intentions are by being part of my life. I value true friendships and positive people. I am not going to let anything irrational make me feel bad about myself.
My body. I love my body. I like the softness of it. I like the jiggle. I like the shape. I imagine holding a brand new baby on my chest and it hearing my healthy heart beat. I like the strength in my arms I am gaining from hot yoga and boxing. Both workouts empower my muscles and my mind. It feels good to go to yoga and to boxing. I challenge the limits of my strength – I challenge my doubtful thinking on the mat or in the ring. I am not forcing myself to do these things, I like to do these things. If I’m not feeling a workout for one day, or for a week or two weeks, I don’t go. I walk the dog to get outside and I try not to sit for too long to keep my energy balanced, but I don’t guilt myself for not doing more. I imagine being in my 50’s and 60’s and having strong bones and a strong mind. I want to be able to throw my grandkids in the air one day. It becomes so apparent as I see others age or battle illnesses, how important my body is to my life. I never want to look back and say, if only I didn’t go tanning, or if only I didn’t do that diet, or if only I didn’t take those supplements/diet pills. If only, if only.
It is not easy. I have to continue to push negative thoughts down, but I have developed a rationalization strategy that has helped me immensely. I have also tried to be conscious of the way I compliment others. I know how compliments about weight can cause distorted thinking so I try to find other ways to give positive feedback to those in my life.
I often think about if I have a daughter and how I will address body issues and weight issues with her. I just hope that God gives me the grace to not be critical of her or myself. I hope that at that time, I will not show her that I think anything negative about myself. The littlest comment or the smallest look can make someone form irrational thoughts. One thing I have also learned is that what other people say, even if it is aimed at you, is something that is personal for them and they are putting it on you. So I don’t personalize someone else’s negative thinking. If I have a piece of cake and the person next to me declines while saying, “Cake is so fattening”, I won’t personalize that person’s issue with food. It’s theirs to bear, not mine. I will eat my cake, not worrying about working out to negate it, and I will simply think, “This is delicious. Aren’t I lucky to get to eat cake?”