I can’t tell you how exhilarating it is to eat food, all food, however much or little I need, and get the fuck on with my life. Sounds simple, but it has been one of the most difficult processes I have ever gone through. It has taken years to undo the insane thinking that comes with restriction and dieting and starvation and bingeing and body obsession. Food is not my higher power anymore, and it is not my enemy. It is not my best friend or lover or challenger trying to ruin my life. It’s just food. Delicious, perfunctory, lovely, healthy, junky, boring food.
But this took a while.
It has been a giant jagged line, up and down across the spreadsheet of learning how to be nice to myself, unconditionally, trusting my body, and facing immense fears about what and when and how and why to eat.
How many messages are we sent about food and body each day? Whether it’s the actress being interviewed about her “regime” or the coworker commenting on needing to lose ten pounds, or the friend talking about her latest cleanse, or the blog touting the miracles of going gluten and dairy free, we are bombarded, literally attacked, with these frustrating and sneaky messages on a far too regular basis. And the messages often boil down to this tired old ditty: you are not good enough as you are, so fix your body! I try not to listen anymore. I’ll think about Game of Thrones or visiting Laos instead. I hear it as gibberish, like the parents from Charlie Brown. Waa-waa-waa. Just noise in the background. I hear it, but I don’t let it pierce me and hijack my life. As Red said from a special little film, “get busy livin’ or get busy dyin’. That’s goddamn right.” Obsession with food and body is no way to live. And it’s boring.
But finding recovery can take a while.
After years of vain attempts to try and love myself by being perfect and thin, I decided I wanted to find God/Authentic Self/HigherPower the real way: accepting my flawed being right now, completely, and stopping the game of fixing. I know now, deep in my guts that self-love and connection and spirituality have nothing to do with dieting and hitting the gym and how fit and toned I can get my body. I bought into this for nearly fifteen years, since the day my teenaged self realized she could make herself smaller if she counted every calorie and ran on the treadmill. Which led to bingeing, over-exercising, bulimia, compulsive overeating, anorexia, orthorexia, raw food/vegan diets, cleanses – MISERY. Thank goodness this stopped working for me. Setting aside this game of trying to feel good enough through the outside opened up the doors of authentic recovery.
The first to clean up was the extremes of anorexia and bulimia. But that was just the tip of the iceberg. In my experience, the insidiousness of dieting and restriction and calorie counting is far harder to break than bingeing and purging or not eating at all. You are immersed in the gray area, no longer clutching the shores of black and white. You have to re-learn everything. You have to learn how to eat food like a sane person.
About a year ago I started to (tried to as often as I could) eat whatever I wanted. I had years of dieting rules imbedded in my head: bad foods vs. good foods and low-carb and no red meat from my teenage years, not to mention the newer “trendier” diet rules of avoiding gluten and sugar and dairy and filling 80% of my plate with lettuce. All of this noise made the act of eating a terrifying and joyless experience. But I got so burnt out/done/fedupwith all this dieting and restriction, that I was like, I DON’T CARE ANYMORE AT ALL EVEN IF I GET FAT BECAUSE NOTHING IS MORE MISERABLE THAN THIS, and I let myself gain weight through a diet of waffles and Nutella and sugary soda and cheeseburgers and whatever the fuck else I wanted to eat that I had not allowed myself to have for years. And man, did it feel good. Also terrifying, because my clothes got tight. My skin broke out. But I felt so fed. I felt happy. I slept like a baby. My period became more regular. I knew my metabolism was repairing. I trusted those who came before me who had gone through the same “Diet Recovery.” I bought new clothes, as needed. I cried and wrote in my journal. I freaked out. I felt grateful. No one loved me less. No one called me names. My world opened up and became so much more beautiful, and, it sounds a little cheesy and cliche, but I rediscovered all the things I loved and cared about that I had set aside in the name of Holy Food and Body.
The initial weight gain only lasted a few months, and then my body seemed to settle at a place it always goes to when I don’t diet or compulsively overeat. A healthy place. I assume it is the place it is supposed to be, even if it doesn’t conform to society’s standards of thin and beautiful. (When I conformed to those standards at a svelte size 2/4, I had no period, no libido, and lived in a paralyzing fear of eating anything besides vegetables. Sexy.)
About seven months in, I had a little “slip” and started eating way too many salads. Restricting sugar and carbs. Wanting to lose weight. Comparing myself to other women and paying far too close attention to my body. That lasted about a month, until my body did itself a favor and screamed at me, “this doesn’t feel good! Feed me all the foods!” So I listened. And I did. And I felt much, much better. My weight also seemed to stay more or less the same. (I don’t weigh myself ever, but I can tell by the fit of clothes.)
I attribute much of this behavior now to stress and trying to find control when I feel overwhelmed. It’s an old broken tool that I can forget is broken. If often alerts me to needing to address something far deeper. At its core, much of this dieting madness has very little to do with food and body. How fun can food really be? How evil? How joyful can a thin body really make you? A large factor is a sense of control and “self-improvement.” If you are a chronic dieter/body obsessor/eating disorder-er, you likely learned at some point that self-love and worth will come through what you look like. And so when we don’t feel great on the inside or we doubt ourselves or feel less than, for whatever the reason, often the first thing our head tells us is that we are fat and ugly and need to do something about it, damn it! When we feel out of control, taking the reins of our food seems like an easy solution. It’s a damn good distraction, too. But it leads to nothing. Call me a Buddhist, but everything is only available right now, in this moment. Self-love and body celebration must happen now in order to have it at all. And then it grows. But we’re not taught that. Pick up any women’s magazine (but don’t!) and on the cover it will say something like,
“six weeks to your perfect bod!”
“Toned abs in just 21 days!”
“Detoxify and cleanse in two months!”
From this outlook, everything waits for you in the future. It never arrives. Let’s say you work real hard and detoxify and cleanse for two months and get real thin and clear and small. Well, what then? Have you suddenly arrived at something grand and transcendent two months later? Have you made it? Are you perfect now? Found abounding self-love? Likely not. Likely you have all the same thoughts and fears and issues you’ve been avoiding by making obsessive grocery lists and chopping vegetables for juicing. Now you’re just in a smaller (and colder) body that is screaming for bread and cheese and a piece of chocolate. Control, in general, is so common for all human beings, because it attempts to dismantle the sacred and undeniable truth: that we aren’t in charge of very much at all, and that we’re going to die one day. No way around that. And for whatever reason, food (and maybe money/consuming) has become the control du jour for our culture. Focusing on the outside leaves little time to tend to the inner world and realm of the spirit, which is for many, a more challenging and frightening (yet sublimely enriching) place.
I read an article recently about how the uprising of so many fad diets in the name of “health” is damaging not only the bodies but the psyche of Americans and is so clearly a substitute for the spiritual connection we crave. Some may have Celiac Disease and benefit from a gluten-free diet or feel better when they don’t drink milk, but most of us are putting far too much stock and thought and energy into our lunches in a way that is completely unnecessary and resembles a sort of insanity. (I’m not dissing – I’ve done it, too, in a very hardcore manner.) No offense to the pioneers of health and clean eating who have shed light on the shady practices of the FDA and the dangers of processed food, but to over-obsess and worry and control so desperately every morsel we put into our mouths doesn’t help. Sure, I love to eat healthy organic vegetables and fruits. I know it is good for me. I also love to eat cookies and gluten-rich pizza with non organic cheese. I know that is good for me, too. There is nothing that I won’t eat today. And no food I think of as evil. As of now, I’m not stocking the house full of Cheetos and frozen corn dogs, because that doesn’t sound very appetizing, but if it ever does, I’ll eat it!
What I’m saying is, I listen to my body today. It goes through waves of cravings and needs, and if I pay close attention, I can give it what it wants and my weight stays stable. I eat when I’m hungry. I eat more when I walk more. When I’m close to my period. When I have to wake up earlier. I eat less during the summer, when I have less work to do. Sometimes I crave spinach and sometimes gooey cheese or tamales. I don’t always eat intuitively, either, because it’s not such a big deal. Sometimes I overeat. Okay, not the greatest feeling, but I can move on. I can love myself through it. Sometimes I still get scared to eat because I have this residue of thinking that says, “but if you don’t eat, you’ll lose some weight,” but I try to ignore it and feed my body what it needs. And love myself through it.
Do I love my body today? Yes! And sometimes no. I love that I am strong and healthy with pretty hazel eyes and nice boobs. A nice head of hair. Sometimes I dislike my arms and broad shoulders and freckly skin. Or that I’m not super tall. (Because that would make everything better!) I’m not perfect. I have those parts of me I’m not wild about. Everyone does. But I don’t beat myself to a bloody pulp the way I used to, and I recognize that I am far more than just my appearance, anyway. I accept all of myself, including my darker thoughts. I also admit I don’t always see my body clearly. The perception of my own appearance can shift all the time, sometimes within an hour. So more than loving my body, I love my Self, unconditionally, the light and the dark. I love who I am, in my spirit. And I LOVE that I eat very much like a regular person. It is deeply liberating to do something like eat pizza or chocolate chip cookies and enjoy them and not feel that sinking terror that leads to a binge or a diet. To love and enjoy food for the delicious and nourishing magic that it is. To eat and then move on and get back to living. It sounds so simple, but if you’ve ever had experience not eating like a sane person, you know how big this is. It’s huge. Immense. Celebratory! And very sexy.