Embrace Your Body: 10 tips to heal from diet culture
Two years ago, I decided to change my relationship with my body, food, and exercise. I had gotten to a point where I was stuck in a cycle of restricting, binging, and purging (mostly through exercise). I finally made a conscious choice to step out of that cycle and start the healing process. In this post, I share 10 things I have done these past two years to help me heal from diet culture and embrace my body image “unicorn.” (Cover photo: via @LOVEYOURLINES)
I don’t know if you can tell, but I have definitely learned to embrace my infertility “unicorn.”
This unicorn is gentle and sweet. While galloping on big white fluffy clouds together, we chase rainbows and giggle (if you’ve never heard a unicorn giggle then you’re really missing out). At the end of a long ride, I brush her magical mane and give her a hug around her neck. My infertility “unicorn” lets me embrace her.
But it’s a different story with my body image “unicorn.” She is fierce and stubborn. Wild and untamed. Over the past two years, I’ve spent a lot of time and energy trying to break her. At first, our training lasted all day long. She was constantly on my mind. Now, she’s less demanding and even lets me take her on rides sometimes. My body image “unicorn’ and I have slowly started to get along, but we don’t embrace. There’s no hugging it out for us yet.
Because I haven’t fully embraced my body, it is still really hard for me to write about it. I find myself staring at a blank screen, unable to take the vivid feelings and images in my head and convert them into sentences. I’m frozen as I think about all of the struggles I’ve had these past two years since I finally said enough is enough to disordered eating and exercise behaviors. Like the time I cried on my kitchen floor before work one morning because my pants were so tight around my waist. Or how I’ve felt guilty for choosing to not exercise. Or the times I’ve caught glimpses of the changing shape of my naked body in the mirror and felt anxious and out of control. Or how easily triggered I have felt when someone mentions how she has to “lose weight” / “gain control” / “be better” / “work out more.”
I also think about all of the triumphs I‘ve had these past two years. Like the energy and sanity I’ve saved by throwing away my scale and stopping my weekly weigh-ins. Or how free it feels to stop thinking about food all the time, like planning what I was going to eat, feeling good / bad for what I just ate, and calculating the protein grams I consumed at the end of a day. Or how good it feels to allow my body to be exactly what it needs to be during this IVF process by buying bigger pants, wearing flowy dresses, and giving myself space to ebb and flow. Or how much more time I have to dedicate to things that really matter to me now that I’m not wasting my time on excessive exercising in attempt to tighten / tone / shrink / lift.
No wonder my body image “unicorn” is so stubborn. She has been abused by this hurtful culture of ours, exposed to unrealistic expectations of what a woman should look like, for as long as I can remember. She is traumatized and will need more than two years of training to be fully healed from decades of scars (poor little unicorn).
Several people have asked me how I’ve started to heal from disordered eating and exercise behaviors. It can feel hard to know where to start, so I created this list of the top #10 most important things I’ve done to start the healing process.
1) Talk about it.
Out loud with people you trust. In writing in a journal (or in a guest blog post!). Also consider finding a good counselor who can help you dig to the core of your issues (hint hint: it’s deeper than how you feel about your body). You might need to shop around until you have found a good counselor. After my most favorite counselor of four years passed away in 2016, I went through three new counselors until I found a good fit. Don’t give up if the first counselor you try isn’t quite right. Keep trying, ask friends for recommendations, and trust your gut. Counseling will only be productive if you connect with your counselor.
2) Get angry.
At the culture that has taught you since you were a child that your body is not good enough…not skinny enough…not muscular enough…not curvy enough…not enough. You know what I say? Enough! Enough of that.
3) Expose yourself to anti-diet, pro-body-positivity, pro-health-at-every-size rhetoric.
After reading through this post, I want you to immediately search the following people listed at the bottom. One of these people is Isabel Foxen Duke. Isabel is a super rad woman who helps others stop dieting (including counting calories / sugar grams / macros, “trying to be good,” clean eating, etc.) and reclaim their lives. She was interviewed a few years ago by Summer Innanen on a podcast called Fearless Rebelle Radio. I listened to this podcast recently, and my jaw was dropped because everything they said resonated with me. It resonated so much that I actually spent an hour transcribing a part of their conversation for all of you to read. I’m going to pause my list for second to have you read this amazing conversation (I promise, it’s worth it). In this conversation, Isabel and Summer are talking about why it’s so hard for women to change their thoughts/actions about their bodies, food, and exercise.
Isabel Foxen Duke (IFD): The only reason anyone has shame and judgment around food is because they’re terrified of the “consequences” of anything they eat…In order to do this strategy…the strategy of “I give up, I surrender, fuck it”...in order to employ that strategy, you have to get to a point where your sanity around food is more important than being thin.
Summer Innanen (SI): And that’s a really scary thing for people…because I think sometimes it’s easy for a woman to say, “Okay, I really like the idea of not wanting to lose weight anymore,” but there is so much fear and resistance around that. I think it literally scares the crap out of women…because they think they’re going to then lose control. Or it means settling on hating themselves. And there’s so much fear around the possibility of gaining weight…And I think a lot of women are listening to this and are like, “That idea makes sense. I want to prioritize being sane around food,” but still have that resistance internally…So how does a women let go of that wanting to lose weight?
IFD: Again, I think it goes back to…asking ourselves the question, “What is more important? This (weight loss) or sanity?” Right? And number two, there is something to be said for like, and this is kind of a deeper spiritual question but, I choose today to take care of my body in a way that feels right for me...I choose to feed my body like I would feed a child or even an animal. I don’t think of my body as something to be manipulated. I don’t think of my body as something I have control over…the way it looks or the size or shape that it’s going to be. I just want to care for it and love it and be there for it...I trust that whatever shape or size it ends up at is the shape or size it’s meant to be.
I think there’s an aspect here where you get to a point where you realize, “What are my actual choices here?” My actual choices are I can just take of, and love, and be gentle with and listen to my body and…relinquish the results. I always say, “What are you in control of? Your weight or your behaviors?” I can only treat my body with love, respect, and kindness and commit to doing what’s right by her on a moment to moment basis…that as she let’s me know what she wants and what she needs on a moment to moment basis…where she ends up, what she does when I treat her that way is up to her. I can’t force her into anything unless I want to be a fucking crazy person. You know? Unless I want to be an abusive slave master. My body shape and weight and size isn’t really up to me. It’s not up to my brain. The only thing I can do from my brain standpoint is to choose to treat my body well. When I’m choosing to treat my body well, when I’m being kind and gentle with my body…my body is going to do what it’s going to do. You know, and ultimately if I’m treating my body well and being kind to my body and treating myself well, it’s going to be the weight it’s supposed to be…by definition, if I’m treating my body well…if I’m making choices for my body that are loving and gentle and giving her want she wants, the weight she ends up with is going to be the weight she wants to be…that she’s happy at.
SI: It’s about like giving up that desire to want to change it…You have to let go of that control of wanting to change your body.
IFD: So going back to the original question of how do we do this (let go of the control of wanting to change your body)? The reason that’s hard is a cultural problem. The reason that’s hard is because there is legitimately privilege given to thin people and there’s legitimate discrimination given to fat people. That’s why it’s hard. It’s not hard because we were born with some weird individual psychosis where we want to be thin. No. We were taught this shit. It’s not your fault that you want to be thin. You’re not a bad person that you want to be thin. It’s totally natural, normal, biological instinct to seek love and acceptance and praise, which is something that, as a society and a culture, that we give to thin people and that we take away from fat people.
Wow. That is powerful stuff! I need to read that on the daily. (Check out the full episode here.) What do you think? Okay, back to the list.
4) Throw away your scale.
Stop weighing yourself. There’s absolutely no need for it. That number doesn’t mean anything to your worth or to your health. Your body / mind / soul will thank you.
5) Train your ear to listen for diet culture talk.
And by “diet culture talk,” I mean any of the following topics: counting calories / sugar grams / macros, “trying to be good,” clean eating, food substitutions, pounds lost, frequency of exercise, avoiding certain foods, being “bad” because you gave in to that brownie, being “good” because you said no to that cookie. Diet talk is everywhere! At the workplace, in your friends’ circle, at family dinners. Once you start listening for it, you’ll realize that it pops up more often that you might imagine. Then, stop engaging in diet talk. When you notice a group of people is talking about a new clean eating fad (“You have got to try these smoothies!”) or a new exercise program (“It burns more fat because you’re keeping your heart rate up.”), just simply don’t enter into the conversation. Sometimes you can’t avoid it, like when someone brings it up directly to you or comments on your body. In these situations, have a kind, respectful response prepared. Just a few weeks ago, a man at work told me I looked like I was “slimming down.” I looked at him blankly. In the past, I would have said, “Oh, thank you!” or something like, “Trying to stay ahead of that holiday weight gain!” Now, I feel insulted that he would even think that my body was open to commentary. I ultimately said something like, “That’s an observation,” smiled, and walked away. I’ll need to think of a better response for the future (any suggestions? Leave me a comment below!).
6) Delete all your past mirror selfies or triggering pictures from when you were in the thick of your disordered eating/exercise past.
My first eating disorder counselor recommended this, and it has been life saving. Am I the only person that used to scroll through past photos when skinnier / more toned every now and then as motivation to get back to the gym or eat “better?” And by “motivation,” I really mean emotionally abusive scare tactics. I deleted all of my old selfies, gym shots, and any picture of me showing off my old disordered eating body.
7) Expose yourself to images of real bodies.
Follow fat positive women on Instagram (check out @the_feeding_of_the_fox, @fatgirlflow, @thebodyisnotanapology, @bodypositiveinspo). Unfollow accounts or friends that promote weight loss, post before / after photos, talk about dieting. Stop reading celebrity magazines, even when in the waiting room at the doctor’s office. Just don’t even pick it up. Consider it poison to your mind and soul.
8) Educate yourself on different ways of eating and moving your body.
There are a ton of great resources online and at your local public library. Check out “The Anti-Diet Project,” a series by Kelsey Miller at Refinery29. Check out Intuitive Eating by Evelyn Tribole, Elyse Resch, Health at Every Size, by Linda Bacon, Landwhale by Jes Baker. To learn more about alternatives to harsh exercise, check out Fat Kid Dance Party.
9) Buy bigger pants, gosh darn it!
If you pants are tight on you, and that tightness around your mid-section offers a harsh, constant reminder that your stomach size has changed, then buy new pants! If money is an issue, try Target or Good Will or other local second hand clothing stores, like Plato’s Closet or Uptown Cheapskate in Colorado.
10) Prepare yourself for a more fulfilling life!
You’ll be surprised by how much more time and energy you have for things in life that really matter to you. Rather than talking about diet and exercise with your friends, now you can talk about other, more meaningful topics. Rather than spending hours at the gym each week, you can explore your passions, like joining a community band, volunteering at a local food bank, or starting a blog like me! You’ll meet more interesting people and expose yourself to more soul-filling (rather than soul-sucking) activities!
Taming our wild body image “unicorns” isn’t easy and won’t happen over night, but I hope these recommendations provided you a jumping off point. Eventually, I’ll join you in the clouds with your body image “unicorn,” where we’ll chase rainbows and giggle and flip off diet culture’s rain clouds in the far off distance.
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Addendum: Thanks to an insightful comment from one of my friends, I’m going to add this little caveat. In the post above, I should have mentioned that your relationship with your body / food / exercise is not black and white or one-size-fits-all. It's not "screw dieting, screw nutrition, screw it all" OR "all dieting, all the time, all the kale." It's a rainbow of complex colors depending on a person's specific needs. I am totally for people modifying what they eat / how they move in order to improve certain aspects of physical health: I'm gluten-free and dairy-free to help with my egg health and rheumatoid arthritis. What I don't stand for is the notion that losing weight = healthier and gaining weight = unhealthier. When considering health, we have to consider mind, body, soul. If focusing on weight-loss and decreasing that number on the scale actually increases stress (and cortisol), increases shame, and decreases quality of life, then that person's overall "health" has declined just in the pursuit of weight loss to be "healthier." If I focus too much on being gluten-free and dairy-free to the decrement of my mental health, my IVF nurse may argue that my increased stress levels are more damaging to my fertility than the food I put in my mouth.
Also, the deeper motivation behind diet modification also matters. If someone is eating a certain way (e.g., keto diet) to lose weight because society tells us you're more loveable / worthy in a smaller body, that's one thing. If someone is eating a keto diet to improve fertility, control epilepsy, etc., that's a whole different thang.
Because this is such a complex topic, I highly recommend looking into the resources I mentioned above, consulting with trained professionals, and finding the path that fits for you!
Check out these amazing women!
Podcast: Food Psych
Facebook: Christy Harrison, MPH, RD, CDN (Public Figure)
Podcast: Fearless Rebelle Radio
Facebook: Summer Innanen (Public Figure)
Megan Jayne Crabbe
Facebook: Bodyposipanda (Blogger)
Book: Body Positive Power
Molly B Counseling
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