I went last night to a local theater to see a documentary about body image called Embrace. Sadly, a utility pole fire knocked the power out in the theater, and it wasn’t to be (although it is being rescheduled). Still, even planning to see the movie allowed me to truly consider my own experiences with body image.
When I participate in Nia classes, even now with my great love for all my body does for me, I can’t help but notice in the mirrors how I compare to others. I am strong, healthy, and energetic. I can dance for hours at a time. I can lift, create, move. I wake up every morning with fewer aches and pains than I’ve had in years (unless sleeping with a dog on my feet – but that’s really more about the dog than my body).
My body does all I ask of it and more. It serves me beautifully, yet at times, I’m still hung up on how it looks because it is not the ideal. This is thinking I work every day to quash and replace so I can exist in a space of joy and gratitude, but it’s a process. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t compare my body unfavorably to the ideal. Even when I was a size 2-3, I knew I was lacking something in the appearance of my body. Body image and comparison has always, as far as I can recall, been background noise (and sometimes in the foreground) as part of my self-awareness. Intellectually, I know. My body is magnificent, and I couldn’t be happier with all it does for me. And I’m taking the steps to have that knowledge move into my experience.
I wonder, what do those messages, that constant dialogue, do to our bodies? How much more amazing would our bodies be if we could eliminate the comparison to the ideal? How much more could we appreciate it, let go, and be in joy?
I am a huge believer our thoughts, words, and attitudes affect our outer experience. They affect our biology and physical expression. One of the best ways I can explain this is by sharing Masuru Emoto’s Messages from Water, which are a series of experiments Emoto conducted showing how different emotions and statements affected water crystals. Check out the link above – it’s fascinating stuff.
And if thoughts affect water crystals that way, what are our thoughts doing to our bodies?
Every day, I’m grateful for what my body does for me, and I express that gratitude. However, throughout the day, insidious thoughts of dissatisfaction creep in, too – the ones that tell me because I am not the physical ideal (I’m a size 14 with big boobs, butt, and thighs), my body is somehow lacking. What are these conflicting thoughts doing to my body?
I know I am not alone in my body image struggles. I see it daily among friends, family, and even strangers on the street. Societal messages about our bodies lead us to think we are somehow lacking. We feel ashamed when we fulfill the basic biological functions our body truly needs: eating and rest. We feel gratified when we push our bodies to a place where they are groaning in pain as we work out or our stomaches call out to us in hunger. Is this any way to treat something beloved? Would you push and judge someone you loved in such ways to force them to meet an unrealistic physical ideal?
Body image, negative self-talk, comparison to an ideal – these are all bred into us from an early age and reinforced throughout our lives through various sources. And so we engage in various forms of self-abuse and self-torture because we do not meet that ideal.
How do we fix it? How do we heal? I think awareness is the beginning. Listen to the thoughts you have and the words you speak about your bodies. Be in awareness. And when the negative thoughts about your body arise? Stop them and replace them with words of gratitude. What has your body done for you today? Did you sleep? Wake up? Breathe? Eliminate? Move? Think? Experience pleasure? Hear the signals of pain? This is your body, trying its hardest to partner with you, something it can’t do if you continue to reject and malign it.
Listen to your body. It is talking to you. It is telling you something valuable. It’s sending you signals, telling you what it needs, wants, likes, and doesn’t like. All you have to do is listen and send it words of support, encouragement, and kindness – the very things you would do for someone you love, so why not do them for yourself?
I decided a few years ago it was time to start partnering with my body instead of fighting it, and when I did things changed. I lost weight. I became more mobile. My pain levels decreased. My energy soared. Three years ago, I was almost couch bound. But my partnership with my body has allowed me to move, dance, and experience joy and pleasure I haven’t had since I was in my early 20s. Its an ongoing process, this partnership, and I admit I’m still not always the greatest partner because I have ongoing body image issues. But I’m working on it, and it is paying off.
This, then, isn’t an admonishment to you. It’s an invitation for you to ask your body what it needs and wants, to learn to speak and think to and about your body gently, kindly, and with gratitude. I’m inviting you to seek pleasure and be compassionate with yourself, and for you to enter into a partnership that can totally change your physical experience, if only you’ll allow it.
Almost every day, I write about food. On the days I am not writing about it, I am often editing something someone else has written about food. I spend hours a week combing through the latest studies about how food affects our bodies.
Scientific writings break food down into its components – macronutrients (protein, fats, and carbs) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) – and the roles each of these play in our bodies. Science studies and explains how food affects weight and how it affects health. It explains how our bodies break down and digest the foods, how they store them as saved energy (fat) or use them for current energy. It studies how our bodies absorb nutrients and what it does with them.
Science is at least beginning to acknowledge the foods we eat affect our physiology, and then people like me share that information with others who are looking to affect some aspect of their biology, such as gaining or losing weight, lessening inflammation, or controlling certain health conditions through food.
Food is fuel, we are told. Use it wisely, and your body can’t help but respond. Simple, right?
If it were that simple, everyone would be the picture of health. We would see food as fuel, eat the foods we need, avoid those we don’t, and all be in optimum health. Since we don’t and we aren’t, clearly something else is going on, as well. How food affects us physically is certainly an important part of the picture, but it’s not the only part. To pretend food should merely be treated as fuel does everyone a disservice.
Humans are not like a simple gas-powered engine in which you pour the right amount of fuel and the engine performs. We are complex, multi-dimensional beings made up of far more than biology. We are body, mind, spirit, emotions, memories, conditioning, members of families and societies, and so much more. And food – which sciences suggests should merely be fuel – weaves itself throughout every one of these aspects of self, rendering it impossible to separate it into a simple biological component.
Close your eyes and think of a food from your childhood – one that you loved. How does it make you feel? I would guess that while there is a physical response, that is only part of the answer. Whatever food you are thinking of most likely has associations that are familial, cultural, emotional, and possibly even spiritual.
Food is deeply entrenched in every aspect of our lives. It is part of family celebrations and cultural traditions. We use it as reward and punishment. We connect it to abundance and scarcity. We use it in spiritual ceremonies and traditions. We use it to show love, generosity, and sharing. It serves as a way to gather socially. We use it for humanitarian purposes. Some control it in order to retain power. It can be used for social and behavioral conditioning. These are just a few of the many aspects of our lives in which food resides.
Here’s the problem I see: when we treat food as simply biological and fail to acknowledge the key position it occupies in mind, spirit, and emotions, we create a system in which people are most likely bound to fail in their goals about food. Food has to be more than fuel if we want to use to to improve our health. So people like me, who write about the health aspects of food, must find ways to make sure food continues to meet the mental, spiritual, and emotional needs of the individual, as well.
Food has to do more than just be biologically nutritious if we want to make a lasting change that affects our health. In order to truly connect to eating for health, we also need to connect to the things that truly matter about the foods we eat. We need new “rules” about food in order to truly begin to nourish ourselves in the ways we need for good health.
1. Start With Foods You Know Will Nurture You Physically
It still starts with food and selecting those that will help build your physical wellbeing. Choose the most nutritious, ethically raised, healthful ingredients available that you can afford. There’s plenty of information available about what these foods are – depending on physical health conditions and dietary needs. This is where you start, but it is important to go beyond just considering these foods as fuel.
2. Choose Foods That Please Your Senses
You eat with your all of your senses. Therefore, choose food that looks, tastes, and smells delicious. Consume foods with a satisfying balance of colors, textures, flavors, and aromas. Find foods with a delightful crunch or a satisfying slurp, or those that are pleasing to the eye and have your stomach growling before you take your first bite. Combine raw and cooked foods to vary texture and flavor. Cut foods into fun and interesting shapes. Use pretty garnishes. Balance the flavors of sweet, sour, bitter, salty, spicy, and umami.
3. Consume Foods From Cultural Traditions That Matter to You
Food is cultural. Therefore, it is essential to create and find nutritious foods from cultural traditions that matter to you. That doesn’t just mean foods from your culture, but also from other cultural traditions that have meaning – or that you just love because they make darn good food. Use herbs and spices to create a variety of flavor palates, such as the piquant and spicy Latin flavors, aromatic Asian flavors, or hearty, classing Western foods.
4. Choose Foods Connected to Good Memories
Food is tied to memory and comfort. Because of this, it is important to consume nutritious foods that are in some way similar to those you have eaten that have brought you joy in the past. They don’t have to be exact replicas, but rather have the essence of those other foods.
5. Skip the Foods That Have no Soul
It’s so easy to mindlessly eat something that has very little meaning or soul. Twinkies come to my mind for me as the ultimate soulless food. There is no love there. Nobody lovingly prepared a Twinkie for you. It’s a Frankenfood designed to be quick, sweet, and easy.
I’m not denying a Twinkie has its appeal. But does it have soul? There is nothing alive. There’s nothing that will nourish you.
Nobody created soulless foods with the idea of nourishment in mind. They were created for one reason: profit. While it may taste good, does the food has soul? Ask yourself who has made it, and for what reason has this food been prepared. If the answer doesn’t have to do with nourishment or some type of a personal connection, chances are it’s not a food that’s going to satisfy your mind, body, emotions, or spirit.
6. Prepare Foods With Consciousness and Intent
As you prepare your foods, do it with love for yourself and anyone else who will be consuming them. Intend, as you prepare the food, that its ingredients and nutrients will nurture you not only physically, but will also honor you emotionally, mentally, and spiritually.
7. Give Thanks
Food is spiritual; it’s often used in spiritual ceremonies and rituals. Therefore, if food is part of your spiritual tradition (or even if it isn’t), engage in a sense of spirituality and ritual when you eat. Before you eat, give thanks. If you eat animal proteins, honor the animal that provided the food. Give thanks to the earth for supporting and nurturing the plant-based ingredients you are about to consume. Then, offer the intention the food will nourish your body and your spirit, matching or raising your spiritual vibration.
8. Eat Mindfully
Pay attention as you eat. Make eating an event – not something you do as you engage in another activity. Create a space for eating where you are not distracted (put down the smartphone! Turn off the television!) Eat mindfully, chew slowly, and allow yourself the full sensation of that which you are eating. Notice how the food smells, looks, and tastes. Pay attention to its texture as you chew and how it feels as it travels down your throat into your stomach.
More Than Fuel
It’s time to acknowledge food is more than just fuel. To do anything else makes it difficult for us to truly allow foods to nourish us and support our overall health and wellbeing. Try these eight suggestions as you pursue good health through food to acknowledge the role food plays in all aspects of your being.
A few years ago, I submitted a piece to Chicken Soup for the Soul called “Being Fat Set Me Free.” It was published in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Find Your Inner Strength, and I heard from many people who told me how much my words had inspired them.
The gist of the piece was this: I’d spent most of my life as a morbidly obese adult, and in gaining and living with all that extra weight, I’d learned to rely on something other than my appearance to develop self-worth. While the article was truthful, it never told the whole story about what it truly felt like to be fat – or what it felt like to gain and lose hundreds of pounds over the course of 25 years.
Currently, I’m about 150 pounds down from my highest weight, and I feel fabulous. I’m active, mostly pain-free, and energetic. At the same time, there’s a little voice in the back of my mind reminding me I’ve been here before. It’s not the first time I’ve dropped a significant amount of weight, although I hope it will be my last.
Being a YoYo dieter requires a lot of hope and optimism – and it also comes with crushing disappointment. In the past, it was always painful as I began the slow slide back into obesity once again.
So many people felt it was their place to comment about both my weight loss and my weight gain. When I was losing weight, I’d get praise. In fact, the weight loss would seemingly become the most praiseworthy thing about me, to the point people would talk about that before and to the exclusion of any and all other accomplishments. And then, as I’d begin the slide into obesity once again, I’d see glee in some people’s eyes and disappointment in others. Once again, for many people it was about my weight and little else.
When I was at the top of the YoYo, “I’m a person!” I’d want to yell. “See me? I’m ME! This weight thing? It’s not me. Look beyond it and see me – no matter what size I am.” But I knew I’d be yelling into a vacuum.
Catching glimpses of myself in the mirror, I’d stop, surprised, and think, “Who are you? That’s not how I feel on the inside.”
This is what it was like for me to be morbidly obese. I was still the same person inside I was when I was small. I felt, experienced, and recognized that every day. Fat was just one thing about me. I was a person. I lived a life of joy and contentment. I had trusting and loving relationships. I engaged in creative activities. I was professionally successful. I worked hard. I was an engaged parent, a volunteer, a busy member of my community, a loving wife, a spiritual being, a loyal and supportive friend.
At the top of the YoYo, I was terrified to go to the doctor, because no matter what was wrong with me, every conversation was about my weight. Went in for a broken arm? “Lose weight, fatty – that arm wouldn’t be broken if you were thin.” And so, I put off going to the doctor for those times when I couldn’t hold out any longer. And then I sat in the waiting room, dreading the scale. In the exam room, I’d flush with shame when the inevitable conversation came up. And it always did.
I had some “friends” who felt it was okay to discuss my weight freely under the guise of concern. “I am so worried about you,” they’d say. “I want you to be healthy, you know.” These are the same “friends” who, as I lost weight, seemed to drift away or develop resentment when they could no longer make themselves feel better by pointing out to me that I was fat. As if I didn’t already know that.
At the top of the YoYo, I often felt invisible, and I liked that. At other times, I felt conspicuous as people surreptitiously stared and judged. One day, I was walking through Macy’s behind two women. As we passed through the plus size department, one pointed out the clothing on the racks to her friend and started laughing.
“Look how gigantic it is,” she said to her friend, stopping to touch a large sweater on display.
Then, she caught sight of me as I continued past her. She looked at me and smirked. As I passed, she said loudly to her friend, “Fat ass.”
I wanted to stop and look her in the eye and tell her that at least I was a kind and compassionate person who would never make a remark like that. Instead, I put my head down, burned with shame, and continued walking with my heart pounding in my ears and my face hot.
Once, when the YoYo was just starting to rise, I was lying in the sun by the pool at my apartment building. There were two young adult females splashing in the water nearby. One kept ducking under the water, gathering water in her mouth, spitting it at me, and saying, “Look, I’m a whale.” That was my first taste of how some people treated overweight individuals.
When the YoYo was rising, I was shopping for a wedding dress. I was probably a size 12 to 14 at the time, significantly heavier than my size 3 frame had once been. In the bridal shop, I went to the size 12-14 rack and started looking at dresses. I saw a salesperson eyeing me from across the room. She approached with a frown and asked how she could help, one eyebrow cocked high.
“I don’t think you’re in the right section,” she told me. And then she pulled a size 20 dress from the rack. The style was ugly and the fabric worse – it looked like a potato sack, and I told her it was too big and really wasn’t my style.
“You just need to learn what’s available to you and stop trying to be something you’re not,” she told me, sniffing and walking away. I realized in that moment she’d decided if I wouldn’t fit within her definition of what I should be, then she felt I wasn’t worth helping. It was at that moment I decided instead of a having a wedding, I’d get married in a chapel somewhere with no one else in attendance.
Those were the early days when I was still learning to navigate the waters of being fat. Those were the days when I earnestly tried everything I could to lose weight, such as very low-calorie diets and lots of exercise. Those were the days when I was hungry, exhausted, irritable, sore, bewildered, sad, humiliated, confused, hopeful, and optimistic. Those were the days when seeing myself in the mirror was a shock, because I didn’t feel any different inside.
When I was at the bottom of the YoYo, I always received positive reinforcement from others. But I still felt the same inside. The only difference was that the size of my ass was smaller. It was bewildering people considered that an accomplishment but barely noticed any of the other, truly amazing things I had going in my life. At the same time, I would feel euphoria associated with chiseling down my size and squeezing into smaller jeans. I’d also feel apprehension, because I was waiting for the other shoe to drop. Waiting for the YoYo to rise once again.
When I was at the bottom of the YoYo, I stopped being invisible. I both reveled in it and missed it at the same time. People were kinder, more engaging. People provided positive reinforcement.
Once when I was at the bottom of the YoYo, I had been doing some intense volunteer work – spending about 50 hours a week volunteering in addition to doing my regular job and raising my kiddo. Someone I respected came up to me and said, “I am so proud of what you are doing.” I thought that person was talking about the volunteer work, and I started to discuss it. “No,” that person said. “I mean the weight loss.”
Why is that more worthy of comment than helping others, I wondered. And so it went.
At the top of the YoYo, I often felt I was betraying myself. At the bottom, I often felt I was betraying my community, because instead of accepting myself as a fat person, I was behaving as a “good fatty” in the eyes of society and doing what it took to lose weight. Losing weight, I heard, meant I didn’t truly have self-acceptance, and I was also telling other fat people they shouldn’t accept themselves as overweight either.
One day on the bottom of the YoYo, I walked out the side door of my office building and saw an overweight woman sitting in her car eating. Our eyes met through her windshield. I smiled at her, but I saw the shame flash in her eyes. In that moment, I recognized her as me. She was eating alone in her car, feeling shame for the simple act of providing her body with fuel. I have been her possibly hundreds of times – eating alone somewhere and praying nobody saw me and judged me harshly for the simple act eating.
I can’t tell you how many times I ate a meal with thinner “friends” who had plates piled high with processed junk foods while lecturing me because I was eating a single chicken leg. Or felt it was okay to comment on my weight as they shoveled junk foods into their mouths. Or offered what they surely felt was well-meaning advice about exercising while they sat at home watching television and eating popcorn.
And I allowed it. Somewhere, I’d gotten the idea my body was fair game for others to discuss, and that because I was fat, the state of my body was open for commentary.
On the bottom end of the YoYo, it appears my body was open for commentary, as well. Men have often felt free to sexualize my body. I’ve heard how amazing my rack is. I’ve been told my ass is juicy and squeezable. I’ve been catcalled on the streets, propositioned by strangers in bars (or even walking down the street), and grabbed without my consent. I’ve had women call me a skinny bitch or assume I am sexually promiscuous because of my figure. I’ve been slut-shamed because of the way I looked. These interactions feel just as icky as the fat shaming.
I’ve had “friends” who have dismissed me on both ends of the YoYo. I’ve had other “friends” who have just shifted the content of their negative commentary depending on whether I was fat, skinny, or in-between.
The noise surrounding weight is loud, and it is often difficult to filter. If you listen to it, it just might make you a little crazy. On the one side, you have people telling you to be a bold, proud, fat person. On the other, you have people shaming you for being fat, stereotyping you, treating you as if you aren’t a person at all. The media is loaded with messages about weight. Being too fat or too thin is treated as a moral failing. People have no compunction about commenting on your appearance, no matter how you look. And no matter how self-assured you are, that noise is nearly impossible to completely filter.
Right now, I am on the down side of the YoYo. Not at the bottom, but in a place where I feel well, energetic, and vibrant. In the back of my mind is that little voice always there at the bottom of the YoYo – the one that warns me my weight may rise again. It feels different this time – like this is a permanent change, but I’ve felt that way before. I’d like to believe I’ve got it dialed in – that because this time I’ve made changes for my health that happened to affect my weight instead of making changes for the sole purpose of losing weight, the YoYo won’t start to rise again.
But here’s what I know to be true. Regardless of where the YoYo is, it isn’t a determinant of my self-worth. Certainly being fat has provided me with amazing benefits. It has taught me to focus on health instead of weight. It has moved me away from being appearance- focused, helped me find self-acceptance and self-worth in a world that values appearance above all else, made me compassionate towards myself and others, and many other amazing things. It’s taught me not to judge and showed me I can’t possibly understand who someone is by looking at their appearance. Size doesn’t determine worth, and regardless of whether anyone’s YoYo stays down or zips back up to the top again, what matters is that I treat myself and others with kindness and compassion, listen to my body’s signals for good health, live a life of purpose, respect others’ journeys, and find joy in each moment.
So while my body has often been on a YoYo, the rest of me is not. I have reached a place of equilibrium where I am settled in myself, the noise around me has quieted, and I can meet my own eyes in the mirror knowing I am trying my hardest every day to be the best person I possibly can.