Part 1: Body as Enemy

I started dieting when I was 13.

I was a perfectionist from a young age, so maybe it was inevitable that one day I’d become as driven to obtain the perfect body as I’d been to maintain my perfect straight A’s.

Something was very clear: I wanted to be the smartest and I wanted to be the thinnest.

I remember clearly the first day-planner I used to record pounds lost, exercise completed, and any junk food I had eaten that day. I felt so proud being able to flip through weeks of “Nothing!” scribbled across each day, indicating that I hadn’t had a grain of sugar. I buried it away, determined to hide my secret from anyone who might try to sabotage my pursuit.

Thoughts of food, calories, and thinness consumed me for years. All day. Every day.

I manipulated my parents. I manipulated everyone, really. Deny, deny, deny.

I would give my lunches away to classmates. I spent my free time pouring over cookbooks as if to conjure up the taste and smell of dishes I knew I would never actually allow myself to make. I went off to summer camp one year with a calorie content book snuck in under my sleeping bag, no longer an innocent little girl. I even put rocks in my pockets so that my weight would read much heavier at the doctor’s office. If I had 30 minutes to wait for the ferry I’d run laps around the parking lot. I remember going to see The Nutcracker ballet in New York City and by the end of it I realized that I didn’t even know the storyline was because I had been entirely focused on admiring the waif-like bodies of the dancers with focused awe and jealousy. I wouldn’t get in the car with my Mom when she would try to pick me up from dance class, insisting on running home instead so I could burn a few more calories. I remember clearly one day refusing to eat the perfect chocolate chip cookies she sweetly brought me at the end of class. I knew they were still warm from the oven, and that it probably broke her heart to have me so coldly reject her token of love, but I couldn’t afford any moments of weakness.

Anorexia. I cringe just writing that. But that’s what it was. I never say it out loud though, because doing so means admitting what I denied for so long. I’ve typically used “disordered eating.” Sounds lighter, practically harmless, a phase; it wasn’t.

The unspoken competition among us girls in high school transformed teenage bodies into status symbols. I considered my shrinking size a shining example of self-control, dedication, and grit.

I may have been hungry, but I was proud.

Over time, I slowly (and miraculously) left behind the extreme behaviors that were based on restriction. In subsequent years, I went on to experiment with a variety of popular diets and “lifestyles” instead.  I was vegetarian and then I was raw vegan.  I stuck religiously to the food combining program for years.  I would do cleanses every few months. I liked the structure and rules of these programs, and the fact that people couldn’t harass me too much about not drinking or not eating x because I was just “eating healthy.”

However, reflecting now, I realize they were only just more socially accepted variations of my disordered eating. Sure sure, I adhered to them in the name of optimal health and longevity, but if I’m totally honest with myself, I think my greatest underlying motivation was to be skinny. I still maintained an obsession with weight and image, and a skewed vision of beauty. I was scared to see what would happen to my body if I was left to make my own decisions about what to eat, so I choose to wrap myself in the security of someone else’s prescribed recipe for health and happiness, and followed along obediently.

About a year ago, something started to shift in me. I yearned to be able to go into a restaurant and not feel utterly paralyzed trying to incorporate the countless (and sometimes conflicting) rules of the various programs. Most significantly, I felt a growing desire to be free from the restrictions that had bound me since I was in elementary school.

Do you have any idea the amount of time that I have spent thinking about food since I was 13? What I wish I hadn’t eaten. What I wish I could eat but I wouldn’t allow myself. What next diet I should be starting because I felt guilty about what I had eaten. What I could bribe myself with in order to stick more religiously to that diet. Maybe you do actually. Looking back, I frankly find it appalling. Embarrassing. A waste of my energy and precious time on this earth. Taryn Brumfitt echoes my feelings in her compelling new documentary about body acceptance, “Embrace.” She states, “Too much sacrifice, too much time, too much obsession, and it’s just not worth it.” I had to agree.

I wanted to eat for pleasure. Without guilt. Whatever the hell I wanted. Whenever the hell I wanted.

I decided that I wanted to revel in the richness of life, and for me a huge part of that richness is delighting in amazing food. So I stopped putting a value judgment on what I ate or drank. I said goodbye to labels of “good” or “bad.” I just ate, and then got on with my day.

You can imagine the time that I’ve had this past year tasting it ALL with no regret. Food plays an almost embarrassingly huge role in the amount of fun and pleasure I experience in my life, so it has been the best! But as to be expected, my body has been changing shape, and changing in a way that my 13 year-old self would not have accepted. So I’ve simultaneously and persistently been working to view my new body with gratitude and only positive thoughts, because I truly have been enjoying the hell out of my life, and that is the only thing that matters. Right?

Well, despite my greatest effort with continuous positive self-talk and constantly remind myself that I have so much more substance and care about so much more in the world than all this focus on superficiality, the self-criticism I know too well returned with force. I came to the conclusion recently that the overindulging and fun needs to end. I absolutely have to lose weight. You know, summer’s coming and all.

So I’d start each day promising myself that I wouldn’t eat junk food or get second helpings from the free buffet I’m tempted with 3 meals a day at my workplace. TODAY was the day that things were going to turn around. And I would feel so committed to this plan! Well, committed until the minute a friend would kindly bring me a fresh-baked cinnamon bun, or I’d spot the jar of chocolate truffles on my co-worker's desk and my hand would automatically reach to unscrew its lid. In a split second I’d forget my promise to myself, reaching happily for whatever was enticing.

My self-control had completely vanished. Poof. 

How is it possible that at one point I could literally go 3 months without eating a single M&M, and now I can’t go 3 seconds?! It’s baffling, really.  

At first my inability to resist temptation made me feel like a total failure. Pathetic. Soft. Lazy. Based on my former standards of success, I guess I was. When I was younger my sense of self-worth and pride was based on how many days I could go without eating junk food, or the number of hours I could stave off fierce hunger-the goal of thinness my ultimate source of strength.

But then I had an epiphany.  

I realized that the reason I couldn’t say no to treats is not that I have somehow become a weaker person. Rather, it’s because I genuinely DO. NOT. CARE. as much anymore. True enjoyment of life is what my body is guiding me towards. My God, it’s about time.

So I’m going to propose something revolutionary: Perhaps a lack of self-control isn’t a sign of weakness or “letting yourself go,” but actually might be an indication of personal and spiritual growth. It might be a sign of greater self-acceptance, changing of values, and genuine happiness that is beyond the surface.

So stop beating yourself up and go celebrate! Give thanks for any apparent loss of restraint, because I’m totally convinced it means you are evolving.

This is big.