“I’m a beautiful mess of contradiction, a chaotic display of imperfection.” ~Sai Marie Johnson
I don’t identify as having an eating disorder. I don’t struggle with anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating. Yet I exercise precise control of my weight, down to the pound. If I gain a mere two pounds, I can feel it. First in my stomach. Then in my face.
That’s when the self-loathing kicks in.
I beat myself up for gaining those two pounds.
I wear a shirt to sleep at night, instead of being naked like I am when I am two pounds lighter.
I leave the towel wrapped around me when I get out of the shower, to avoid having to look at my naked body in the mirror.
I eat only a smoothie for breakfast.
I go to bed hungry.
I don’t want to have sex because I don’t feel good in my body.
I restrict myself from food and pleasure until I lose those two pounds.
What’s worse is that I desire to lose even more weight.
Sometimes I google “BMI calculator” and enter my height and weight in the tool. The tool tells me I am a normal weight. I enter a weight several pounds below my actual weight to see what weight I would need to be to be underweight. That weight is 133 pounds.
I secretly crave to be underweight. Which is why I was so happy when I got food poisoning a few weeks ago and weighed 133 pounds for four days.
I am disgusted with myself for being happy about this. I was throwing up for two days, was only eating toast, and was extremely weak. Yet I felt happy because I was smaller.
I didn’t want to return to my normal weight. I wanted to remain small.
I did slowly regain that weight. I hopped on the scale at the gym yesterday and I weigh 136.8 pounds. “Shit,” I thought. I want to be down to 135 before my wedding in three weeks. I quickly started calculating and felt relieved, knowing it would be easy to lose less than two pounds in three weeks. No problem.
I’m also disgusted with myself about the amount of time I spend thinking about food and my weight. What did I eat today? Did I have too many pretzels? What will I eat for dinner? Today was my rest day, so I have to eat less.
I am slowly becoming aware of how much brain space food and weight take up. I wonder what creativity I could unleash if I devoted less time to thinking about food and more time to brainstorming, dreaming, and problem-solving.
In addition to all this thinking, I also snack incessantly. Yesterday I counted and I went to the kitchen twelve times to get a tiny snack. A couple of pretzels, a mandarin, a handful of granola, a bite of chocolate, a few blueberries.
I’m not sure if my constant snacking is due to actual hunger or if it’s connected to a more general anxiety and inability to relax.
I think it’s both. When I eat a bigger breakfast, I have less desire to snack throughout the day. But I also think there’s an element of anxiety, because I find a moment of calm through the action of putting a bite of something in my mouth. For me this doesn’t show up as over-eating when I’m stressed, it’s more of a daily anxious habit. Perhaps some sort of desire for oral fixation.
I could go even deeper to say that perhaps I feel like I am missing something in my life and, therefore, try to fill that void with snacks. I’m not sure if that’s the case, because mostly I am pretty happy and content. Yet my snacking behavior could suggest otherwise. Perhaps both things can be true. I can be happy in some ways and still yearn for more.
I am also assessing my other eating habits. I don’t severely restrict myself from treats. I eat cake when I want to. I eat McDonald’s at the end of a long backpacking trip. I treat myself to an occasional burger. But I don’t enjoy these less healthy foods guilt-free. If I have cake one night, I’ll work out extra hard the next morning. It’s almost like I punish myself for indulging in a treat.
I’m not sure what’s under my desire to be small. I know some of it comes from messages from society that thin is beautiful, and the insidious design of our culture to distract women with matters of physical appearance, so we have less brain capacity to think about things that really matter. I think it also comes from the positive feedback I receive about how fit I am. As if I’m a better person because I’m thin. I’m not.
To this last point, I’m making an effort to give more non-appearance compliments to other people. My favorite one to give (and to receive) is: “I love your energy.” Let’s attune more to people’s energy than the size of their waist or definition of their brows or shape of their butt.
I also know I have perpetuated these unfair beauty standards. I do it under the guise of: “I want people to be healthy.” But I know that thin does not necessarily mean healthy. I know that bigger does not necessarily mean unhealthy. Also, who decided that being healthy is something to strive for?
Sure, we have a survival instinct, and being strong, mobile, and able to endure will help us survive. But I’m not sure that being healthy is some kind of moral standard. I strive for it for myself, but just like anything else, it’s an individual person’s decision if they want to be healthy, and what healthy means to them.
Yes, I’m seeing the contradiction here, because I say I strive to be healthy, yet my desire to be underweight doesn’t seem mentally (or physically) healthy. The amount of time I spend thinking about food doesn’t seem healthy either. Which means I am going along with the lie that has been shoved down my throat my entire life: the lie that thin and small is beautiful.
Of course I know that is not true. Of course I know that a person’s soul is what makes them beautiful. Of course I know that being weak and underweight is not healthy. Yet in some areas of my life, I act as if I don’t know these things.
I would like to get to a place of trusting and listening to my body. Trusting it when it wants to eat a big burger after a long hike. Trusting it when it wants a piece of cake on a random night. Trusting it when it craves fruits and vegetables. Trusting it when my stomach feels jittery and empty and wants more fuel.
I would also like to get to a place of not beating myself up if I gain two, three, four, or more pounds. I want to actually believe that I am still beautiful and worthy, no matter what my weight is.
Wow. It’s weird to write this. Normally I write about my challenges once I’m on the other side of them. After I have unpacked them. But this time I am writing about a challenge right as I am becoming aware of it. Which means I don’t yet have much wisdom for you. But here’s what I do know:
1. Exercise should be something we do because we love our bodies, not because we want to control them and keep them small.
Sometimes I do have this relationship with exercise.
I love being alive, and I do strength and cardio training because I want to be strong and mobile when I’m old. I want to be on this journey of life as long as possible. I do lunges because I want to be able to climb up a mountain and be stopped in my tracks at the beauty of our planet. I run because those endorphins make me feel good.
Other times, I crank up the incline on the treadmill to punish myself for eating too much popcorn at the movies the night before. Or I try to do all the squats and deadlifts to make my butt rounder. My goal is to release those latter motivations, because those are grounded in control and inadequacy, not love.
2. Your worth is not connected to your weight.
Read that one again. You are talented, strong, and beautiful no matter what your weight is. You can desire to lose weight or gain muscle or strengthen your heart, but doing so gets to be an act of love.
3. We should stop thinking of indulging as a bad thing.
To indulge is to allow oneself to enjoy the pleasures of life—eating a sweet fig in June, eating a chocolate croissant just because it tastes good, hugging your partner after being apart for a few days, driving through your neighborhood listening to your favorite song, sitting outside in the sun on a summer day, and sipping your coffee in the morning.
Life should be pleasurable, and I want us all to indulge more, without guilt.
4. Get to know your body.
What I mean by that is not just getting to know how your body looks, but how your body functions.
One of the most empowering and transformative things for me in the last few years has been learning about my menstrual cycle. Through reading, coaching, talking to my doctor, and being aware of my own body, I know what is happening hormonally each day of my cycle. I am able to pinpoint the day, how I will feel, and what my body will need. And then I (try to) honor what she needs.
For example, on day seventeen of my cycle I am usually cranky, tired, and hungry. I clear my schedule, sleep more, and eat what I want.
5. Your relationship with your body might not be black and white.
In some ways, I have a healthy relationship with my body. In other ways (as described above), I do not. Both things can be true. I think the goal is to shift toward a place of love and acceptance, and to spend less time thinking about what you look like and more time being aware of how you feel, how you live in alignment with your values, and how you show up for others.
6. People’s struggles with confidence and self-esteem manifest in many different ways.
Some people close to me might be surprised to hear about my inner dialogue and complex relationship with food because I look healthy. (And mostly, I think I am healthy.) But it doesn’t mean I don’t fall prey to the social pressures to look a certain way. We all do in some way or another.
So let’s have grace, empathy, and understanding for each other, and know that we’re all going through stuff, whether it’s visible or not.