Since I started training to be a Curvy Yoga teacher, I’ve been engaged in a long process (still in the early stages) of learning how to listen to, accept, respect, honor, and love my body. After 39 years of having not-so-accepting feelings towards this body, it has been hard. I still hear the (mostly imagined) judgment of so many other people, and me, whenever I see myself in a mirror, or in a picture, or even just my shadow. When I see myself, my first and LOUD inner dialogue goes something like this: “NOBODY LOVES YOU BECAUSE YOU’RE TOO FAT.” I think this voice started yelling at me when I was a teen. It’s only been growing in ferocity in the decades since. Yeesh.
Holy crap, did I just admit that out loud?
Mind you, literally nobody I know has ever said this to me. And in that way, I’m so, so fortunate; most women who look like me have endured relentless, heartless teasing and mockery because of their size. The under-the-breath comments. The meanness of teenage girls. The cutthroat world of grown women. I’ve somehow avoided it all. Thank God I grew up in a world where hot-or-not web sites didn’t exist in my high school. I’m so grateful that I’ve only been exposed to nonverbal assaults on my appearance. And yet, if you wiretapped my inner chatter, you’d think I’d been one of the unlucky ones — the women whose size and appearance are the topic of an endless stream of verbalized criticisms.
The work is hard, and the work is ongoing. But I’m starting to get there; I’m starting to see tiny glimmers of progress after years and years of genuinely awful self-talk. I’m working to make peace with food, to make no apologies for eating what I crave, but only as much of it as I truly want, and only until I’m legitimately full.
My first AHA! moment came a few weeks ago, when as a homework assignment for my intuitive eating course (link below), I was asked to pick two foods I generally consider so “bad” they’re off-limits, then give myself permission to eat them whenever I wanted, as much as I wanted. Sounds great, right? The only requirement was that I then pay attention to how that felt.
So I headed to the grocery store, where I bought a box of Snickers ice cream bars. I ate one the first day (it was heaven, y’all… heaven). I ate a second the next day. And then? I almost forgot they were there. (As an aside: I realized after day two that a Snickers ice cream bar is actually lower in calories and more satisfying than the heaping cup of ice cream I often choose for dessert. Not that that was the point of the exercise — but it did make me stop and think: Why is THIS the food I’ve chosen to demonize?)
Next, I bought a box of Cookie Crisp — one of the few indulgent foods my parents refused to stock, because I’d eat the whole damn box at once — and poured myself a bowl. After I finished it, I sat, noticing how I felt. Shockingly, I felt awful. That Cookie Crisp wasn’t at all as tasty or satisfying as I remembered. Without a moment’s hesitation, I threw the rest out. Cookie Crisp and I are done.
Making peace with food is a good step forward, but making peace with my size is another matter. After hearing person after person — some of them, many of them in fact, medical personnel by training — tell me that being overweight is the single greatest risk factor for, well, everything, I’ve been inspired many, many times to channel the New Diet Energy and “change my lifestyle.” I’ve generally had good successes in these efforts. Once, I lost about 60 pounds and felt amazing. The world rushed to praise my incredible weight loss. “You look so amazing, Liz!” These messages, undoubtedly well-intentioned, only served to underscore the nasty voice lingering inside: If you’re not thin, you cannot be loved / respected / admired / accepted.
Then come the voices who claim only to want you to be healthy. You know what I’m talking about. The message goes something like: “I don’t care how you look. I just want you to be healthy.” Because, we assume, if you’re not skinny, you simply cannot be healthy. One of the most haunting conversations I’ve ever had was with a long-term boyfriend who told me he wasn’t sure we were going to last because he wanted to be with someone who was, ahem, “committed to being healthy.” Regardless of what he meant with his words, the message I extracted was the most alarming I’d ever received from a romantic partner: Shape up, or we’re through.
But here’s the thing: There isn’t that perfect correlation between size and health that you’d expect. It turns out, dieting is a terrible, terrible idea. If you need persuading, pick up Linda Bacon’s book (link below), wherein she will explain to you how diets actually do far, FAR more damage to your health than merely being overweight does. People who diet have worse long-term health outcomes. They screw up their metabolisms. They ultimately train their bodies to hold on to fat longer. Diets damage your health.
I’ve seen it in my own experiences. Each time I’ve lost weight, my body eventually packed it back on, taking me back to my long-standing weight, plus a few more pounds just in case I got another case of the crazy and decided to do it all over. The body likes homeostasis. It hates change. And your body (just like mine) will fight you tooth and nail if you try to change it in drastic ways. To punish you (and to ensure it doesn’t starve if another famine — er, “diet” — comes along), it will take you back to your set point … plus some insurance pounds.
So I’ve decided to trust my body’s wisdom. I’ve given myself permission to follow my food cravings… while respecting my hunger AND respecting my fullness. As a result, I no longer require myself to “earn” a trip to the Waffle House by first working out… and I no longer eat every single morsel of food on my plate at the Waffle House, because I know I can come back anytime. By giving myself permission to eat anything I want, I’m eating less and enjoying it more. Freedom! You taste so sweet.
And then … I went to the doctor.
I’ve been to two different doctors this month, my GP and a rheumatologist for complications related to psoriasis. Both have looked at me with such clear judgment in their eyes and said, basically, “I can treat ____, but you’re just a ticking time bomb. You’re going to get diabetes any day now, and your health will then nose dive.”
My GP said almost those exact words to me this morning. He said to me, straight faced, “You need to EAT LESS. (his emphasis) Get off the couch! Go for a walk. Never eat bread again. Ever.”
I almost laughed in his face… I say almost, because I was really just stunned at the gross assumptions he was making about me.
Then he said, “Stop thinking you’ve got to eat three meals a day! We’re the only animals that do that! One meal a day is enough for humans.”
The only thing I could think? “This man is a freaking lunatic.”
When I told my rheumatologist that my blood is hard to draw, he said, “The best way to fix that? Lift weights.” Notice how he assumed I don’t currently do so. (An incorrect assumption, by the way.) Again with the judgments.
The truth is, I’m healthy. My cholesterol is enviable; people who are smaller and more diet-obsessed wished they had my cholesterol profile. My blood pressure is normal. I exercise regularly. Apart from my psoriasis and the complications related to it, I have no major health issues. I do yoga. I work out with a trainer… lifting those weights Mr. Rheumatologist assumes I’ve never met. I’m stronger now than I’ve ever been. When I can, I go for a swim. I love the physical activity I choose to do. If you saw my health records with my weight redacted like a classified document, you’d call me a healthy woman. And I’m not just dreaming; that’s exactly what my ob/gyn calls me. Those exact words: A. Healthy. Woman. (To be honest, I wish my doctors would redact my weight. Maybe then they’d stop seeing me as a single number and start seeing me as a person.)
But because I’m overweight, most doctors assume I’m destined to get diabetes and die a premature death. I’m a ticking time bomb. Bread is the enemy. I need to get off the couch and eat just one meal per day.
Can you feel my eyes rolling? ‘Cause they are.
These assumptions fill me with rage. Truly, rage. They reduce me to a one-dimension (wide) person, one who people feel free to assume must engage in a whole host of bad behaviors and habits simply because of my size.
I know people make these assumptions, even though they’re rarely voiced outside a doctor’s office. And in anticipating these assumptions, I undoubtedly change my behavior to work around them.
For example: I’ve realized that one of the reasons I pretty much always have three or four (or five, or six…) jobs, working constantly and always saying “yes” to those who need my help? It’s because I’m fighting against the assumption that because I’m not tiny, I must also be lazy. That because I’m on the large side, I must have no self-control or presence of mind. I fill up every second of my life with work — albeit, rewarding, useful, challenging work — to “prove” to the world that I’m not lazy. And lest you think I’m implicating you in that judgment, the person who judges me most is the one who’s typing these words, right now.
It’s exhausting, carrying around all this judgment. It’s probably the least healthy thing about me, constantly judging everything I do against what I imagine others think I should do.
So I’ve had enough. I’m calling it quits. I’m standing up for myself. I declare war on the judgments, from within and from without, real and imagined. Doing so means finding the joy in life, including in food, movement, and — toughest of all — my body. It means listening to the wisdom of my physical being. Yoga is such a great path of cultivating that wisdom and respect. But, to be sure, yoga is just the open door. The work is hard, and in my experience the work requires a lot of help.
So, to help me navigate this quest, I’ve armed myself for battle with a number of great books and resources. Below are links to ones I recommend enthusiastically, for anyone who struggles with body image, acceptance, or food. And, let’s be honest: Who among us doesn’t?
- Linda Bacon’s Health at Every Size: The Surprising Truth About Your Weight
- Brené Brown’s The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are
- Kelsey Miller’s inspirational, true story, Big Girl: How I Gave Up Dieting and Got a Life, as well as her Anti-Diet Project at Refinery29
- Tribole & Resch’s Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program that Works
- The Dietitians Unplugged podcast
- Christy Harrison’s web site, podcast, and online intuitive eating course
- Rachel Cole’s web site and, soon, Feast (starting August 1!)
Thanks for reading this. It’s been festering for a while, and I just needed to get it out of my head and into the world.