We met almost 20 years ago when I was in nursing school and she was in medical school and we became fast friends. The only photo I have of us together is from my wedding – almost 15 years ago.
When we’re together she takes beautiful photos of the table in front of us to remind us of the time we shared, but she never wants to be in front of the camera. Can you relate to wanting to be always behind the camera and never in front of it?
We had dinner together 2 weeks ago and she shared that through our almost 20 years of friendship – and even when I was 25 pounds heavier than I currently am – she noticed that I’m always comfortable around food and she wanted to know my “secret.”
She mused that she’s 43 years old and she doesn’t know what it’s like to feel hungry, because she has the habit of eating for so many other reasons.
She knows that I struggled with food and my body image all through my childhood and into my late teens, so what changed, so that I could enjoy food, my body (even 25 pounds heavier than I am now!) and my life?
I was 8 years old the first time I remember being called fat. I started sucking in my stomach in photos from that moment on. I started exercising with the intention of losing weight when I was 10. I started my first serious diet (only eating tiny portions of whatever my mom served) when I was 11.
By the time I got to college I had been watching and burning for almost a decade, and I was exhausted.
Luckily I went to a very progressive college, one which had set up an “ExCo” – short for “Experimental College” – where students got to teach their own classes on a diverse range of topics.
You could take courses on everything from Beginner’s Sex to Advanced Klingon. As a freshman I immediately signed up for the course Women and Body Image. After I took it for a semester, I taught it for my remaining years in college.
The class reading list included books by Kim Chernin (The Obsession: Reflections on the Tyranny of Slenderness and The Hungry Self: Women, Eating and Identity), Susan Kano (Making Peace with Food), and, of course, Geneen Roth (When Food is Love and Feeding the Hungry Heart), and I devoured them.
They are still on my bookshelf now over 20 years later. I’ve tossed out hundreds of books over the years, but they will always have a treasured spot on my shelves, honored like friends who helped shine a light on my path and who helped me to heal.
They taught me that when all personal motives for losing weight are stripped away – the desire to be attractive, to be loved, to be successful – what unites the women who seek to reduce their weight is the fact that they’re looking for an answer to life’s problems in the control of their bodies and appetites.
In other words, these women, having discovered that they couldn’t control the world around them, chose to exert a destructive control over themselves. When I made that connection, that was it for me. I decided I was no longer going to allow this specious, almost superstitious reasoning to determine how I felt about myself.
Again, with the help of those books and the women in my class, I decided I would trust myself to eat when I was hungry and stop when I no longer received pleasure from the food.
I still didn’t trust myself to exercise just for the joy of moving my body (and I didn’t appreciate the mood-elevating benefits of exercise yet), so for years my only activity was walking. I was a full-time student with a part-time job and I ate on the go a lot. I also ate a lot at night just to give me energy to stay up late and work or study. And I gained and maintained 25 “extra” pounds.
Through it all I learned to love myself in spite of my weight, and I consider that one of the greatest achievements of my twenties. And then I met the love of my life – now my husband – and when he loved me back, even though I didn’t fit into a model’s size, I knew he was a keeper.
Shortly after my husband and I married we acquired a puppy, a very high-spirited Golden Retriever, and I learned that if she was going to be happy she would need to run at least once day.
So I started to run with her. I’m still not sure if it was her enthusiasm for the activity or if it was because I, like my retriever (and Bruce Springsteen), was born to run, but I loved it from the first time we set out on a trail.
And while I had exercised – sometimes to excess – throughout my teens, and always with the aim to lose weight, this time I never thought of running as a means to burn calories.
As a new health care provider, I also considered it my responsibility to inform my patients of practices in nutrition and exercise that were based in science, not the latest fad.
It was then, in my early thirties, that I lost those 25 extra pounds and I’ve never gained them back.
From working with many women who struggle with food and weight, I realize that figuring out how to escape that is really not about how smart you are or how much discipline you have (look at my brilliant physician friend!).
I’ve even come to believe that intelligence and willpower are irrelevant. The key is to believe that you can achieve a healthy weight. It’s just as important as following science-based guidelines for eating and exercising.
Now in my early forties, I no longer run long distances (because there are other things I prefer to do with my time), but I still do 20 minutes of heart-raising cardio every day. I do this because I feel so much better when I do. In much the same way, I eat when I’m hungry and with pleasure.
And so, after over 20 years of research, study, practice, and, well, living, I have come to one simple, non-earth-shattering conclusion: the way we eat is simply a part of how we live.
Obsessing over our food and focusing on our weight keeps us from finding the joy that is available to us right here and now. But chances are good that if eating is doing that to us, then the way we approach other parts of our life is doing the same.
Fortunately, though, the same skills that help us to release stressful thoughts and bad feelings, those essential skills of staying present, valuing ourselves, tuning in to our bodies and emotions, asking for what we need, and keeping ourselves open to receiving what we need – all those things that enable us to live full and happy lives – will also help us as we struggle with issues related to food.
What I learned in the journey to self-acceptance and self-love made a huge difference in my life, and has helped me in so many ways. I believe it can in yours, too.
If anything I’ve shared with you above resonates with you, I hope you will join me for a completely FREE teleseminar I’m offering next week: The Miracle of Mindful Eating: The Mindset and Tools You Need to Enjoy Food – and Your Life. You can find out more and register here.
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