Trigger warning: eating disorders, anxiety, depression.
Eating disorders and disordered eating have been a recurring set of characters for as long as I can recall. As far as I am aware, I’ve lived with some form of body dysmorphia and disordered eating since at least the third grade.
In order to best discuss my experience with the concept of intuitive eating, you need to understand my story, so we’ve got a bit of backstory to cover first.
The very first memory of body dysmorphia is from a very specific day in the third grade. My class was lining up for our school portraits and getting into alphabetical order. Having a name that began with an H, I was somewhere in the middle of the line.
Boys and girls shuffled into place around me, dressed up in their best outfits. Not only did they look nicer than me, but most of them looked thinner than me, too. My family was lower-middle class and my parents didn’t see the need to purchase school pictures every year, so I was wearing my everyday clothes. Noticing this, I felt hyperaware of my body — my camouflage Limited Too tank top hugged my childish belly in places I didn’t want it to, while another girl wearing the same shirt looked photo-ready in hers.
I recall, very vividly, standing in that line amongst my fellow eight-year-olds, sucking in my stomach. Standing there, not breathing. Still as a statue.
Now, let me clarify: I was not a chubby kid. Like, by any means. This is just how far the idea that I was less had gotten into my head.
This feeling stayed with me, swimming just under my realm of consciousness, for the rest of my life up until this point. I stayed far away from stores like Hollister and Abercrombie because they did not make clothes for my body — a body that has long, lean limbs, a genetically non-flat stomach, and a stout, wide-ribbed torso. Low-rise jeans were the worst for my body type.
It’s taken me until the age of 27 to realize that it’s not my body that’s fucked up. It’s diet culture that fucked me up and so many people, mainly women, around me. We’re praised for losing weight. Hell, I lost nearly 20 lbs when I did the ketogenic diet three years ago and let me tell you: I got straight-up high off of that feeling.
What the people complimenting me didn’t see was me obsessively counting calories and macronutrients. They didn’t see me eating food that didn’t give me pleasure whatsoever. They didn’t see me ensuring that I was burning enough calories to continue to lose weight. They didn’t see me obsessively googling before and after photos and taking my own hopeful before and afters (cringing writing this, they’re long-gone from my phone at this point), wanting so badly to look like an after photo.
I got into the cyclical negativity that so often goes with dieting and restriction. Don’t eat that, it’s bad for you. You don’t deserve that treat. You definitely did not need to eat another cookie. Why are you eating pasta? Is the taste more important than losing weight? You’ve made so much progress. Don’t you want people to think you’re pretty?
It reminded me of high school: I would skip breakfast entirely, or drink a low-cal protein shake. I would only eat salads for lunch. I’d go to the gym after school, run for an hour to burn off all of my day’s calories, and then go home or work and eat a real dinner. One true meal per day most days. I was pretty thin, but even then I hated my body. I hated my stomach. Genetically, I. Will. Never. Have. Flat. Abs. But did I care? Hell no! I was going to work my ass off to at least try and get them anyway. Even if I was starving myself.
Sometime around my sophomore year of health class, we watched For the Love of Nancy, a made-for-tv film about a teenage girl with anorexia and her parents’ fight to save her. In the film, there’s a scene where Nancy is running on a treadmill after not eating for an extended period of time and she passes out. Instead of being horrified, which I’m sure was the filmmakers’ intent, I was in awe of her ability to abstain from eating for that long. I saw this as something to strive for, not the other way around.
It was during this time that I was also stashing laxatives in my closet, dangerously and secretly taking too many of them at one time. In retrospect, I now know that this is a form of bulimia, but all I knew was it would clear food out of my body before it could absorb any of those calories. The number on the scale didn’t always go down, but it never went up. And that was what I thought was important.
So when I was on keto, I had a lot of these same internalized thoughts. The lower the number got on the scale, the better I felt about myself and the more compliments I got. I didn’t necessarily feel any better, but damn it if I didn’t look skinner. And to me, that meant I looked better.
I stopped keto six months after beginning it because it wasn’t sustainable, mentally or physically. My cholesterol levels were fine how they were, but high cholesterol runs in my family and I didn’t want to risk making it any worse by consuming high fat in a regular frequency.
Once I was off keto, I gained back ten of the twenty pounds I had lost, and I will say: the one good thing that came from keto for me was my eventual celiac disease diagnosis. Since I couldn’t consume more than 25g of carbs on keto, I wasn’t eating bread or pasta anymore and my eczema, chronic fatigue, and bloat subsided, which tipped off a doctor I was seeing.
Early the following year, I went in for my yearly physical with my GP. She weighed me, took my blood pressure, and ran routine blood tests. Everything came back perfectly within acceptable medical standards except for my weight.
“You’re a little overweight,” she told me, “You need to lose about ten pounds to be considered healthy.”
Never mind the fact that all of my blood work came back perfect. Never mind that my cholesterol and resting heart rate were exactly where they should be. Never mind that I had no signs of cancer or chronic illness, no notable issues, and my mental health was in check. My weight was too high to be considered healthy.
When you’re told by a professional, especially a medical professional, that you’re overweight is really and truly a mind game for someone who has an eating disorder or someone who has lived experience with an eating disorder.
It didn’t matter that I was in a good place mentally upon walking into her office before our appointment; her comment hit me in the exact spot where my eating disorder lived. For me, I read this interaction as a doctor giving me permission to restrict and diet and do whatever it takes to lose that ten pounds in the name of health, and so my unhealthy habits and unhealthy self-loathsome thoughts returned.
In 2019, I had a personal goal to go to therapy. Even though mental health coverage is technically covered as part of my health insurance plan, I have a very high deductible so I wanted to pay out-of-pocket instead of dealing with the hassle of finding a therapist in my network and filing with my insurance. For some reason, I had it in my head that my mental health wasn’t worth that out-of-pocket expense and the hoops I’d have to jump through when I so clearly needed to seek professional help. Blah. I hate that this is a thing that I thought.
Initially, I went to therapy for anger, depression, marital counseling, and anxiety, with zero intent on focusing on my eating disorder. In my head, because I wasn’t actively bulimic or restricting, I was doing just fine and my eating disorder wasn’t active. Diet culture was so engrained in my life that I didn’t think my negative self-talk, self body shaming, self-hatred, and the rush I got from losing weight were bad.
On my first day in therapy, I was able to discuss childhood trauma, sexual and emotional abuse from a former partner, my own past with using manipulation on others, and my chronic depression. I recalled my lowest points with relative ease. No tears, nothing. Therapy was… easy?
And then my therapist asked me about how I feel about my body.
At risk of sounding like a cliché here, the proverbial floodgates opened. Until now, I had been eyeballing a box of tissues next to me on the couch, thinking “well, I guess I just don’t need those.”
I told my therapist everything about my past. The third grade comparison incident. The desire to be anorexic. The laxatives. My obsessive calorie counting and weighing. The body dysmorphia that I’d carried with me my whole life. Becoming addicted to the high of weight loss. My doctor telling me I weighed too much. Falling back into the cycle.
“But are you physically healthy?” my therapist asked me, “And did you know that you can advocate for yourself, even at the doctor? You can ask to not know your weight. You can tell them that you are, in fact, healthy. BMI is bullshit.”
That statement changed my life the second it left her lips. During the weekly therapy sessions that followed, we primarily focused on my eating disorder. It was interesting, because the way I felt about myself negatively impacted the relationships with those around me. Slowly, the things that weighed on me were alleviated.
It was during these sessions that my therapist introduced the concept of intuitive eating to me. To put it simply, intuitive eating is exactly what it sounds like: listening to your body and consuming the foods that it wants, cravings and all. Even donuts, because there’s a reason your body is wanting the extra carbs and sugar.
The ten principles of intuitive eating are:
1. Reject diet mentality
2. Honor your hunger
3. Make peace with food
4. Challenge the food police
5. Respect your fullness
6. Discover the satisfaction factor
7. Honor your feelings without food
8. Respect your body
9. Exercise — feel the difference
10. Honor your health
If you need further explanation on the principles of intuitive eating, go here to learn more.
Intuitive eating is also not a health or diet plan. Instead, intuitive eating is forging the connection between a healthy mind and a healthy body. It is a spiritual experience and the single most-gratifying self-exploration journey I have ever embarked on. It took my mind from a place of restriction, self-hate, and weight obsession to a place of empowerment and freedom.
I enjoy food in an entirely new way and I’m only six months in. I’ve learned to respect myself and others’ lives with more thoughtfulness and empathy, and I’ve become aware of my own subconscious and conscious toxic fatphobic beliefs that stem directly from diet culture.
Weight has become almost a nonissue in my life, although for the sake of honesty: I did weigh myself earlier this week and I felt awful immediately afterward. The negative feeling hit more strongly this time than it ever had, and I will learn from this and respect my body by being conscious about not letting that feeling take over again.
Every day is different. Some days, I feel empowered by the symbiotic relationship I’ve established with my body, and some days I fall back into my toxic patterns where I hate it. I have days where I restrict and days where I binge. I forgive myself, honor the process, and honor my body. I’m going up against years of diet culture and self-hatred and my patterns are going to be slow to change.
An unexpected bonus worth noting here is the value of exercise I’ve gained by practicing intuitive eating. With diet, eating disorders, and restrictive habits, exercise is often seen as a means to lose or maintain weight by burning calories, and that was truly all I ever credited it as in my life. But once I got the hang of listening to the food my body wanted, I started to listen to the ways in which daily movement impacted my body too.
Exercise is different now that it means something different to me. I choose to view exercise as a way to honor my body, its capability, and its health. I no longer spend an hour hammering out a workout on the treadmill, and I don’t even look at how many calories I’ve burnt. Most days, exercise comes in the form of walking my mini Aussie, Jet. He’s always been particularly bonded to me, but the two or three miles we get together most days of the week has bonded us even more and made us both healthier, happier versions of ourselves.
I told my therapist that I was afraid of exercise when I first started practicing intuitive eating since the eating part was going so well for me. I didn’t want my weight or body to change and get whisked away in the weight loss vortex. She told me to not worry about it and if I was following along the path my body was taking me, I would be fine. And I have been fine. My mistrust in my body is something I’m actively working to mend and it’s not easy, but it’s working.
For more information on intuitive eating, head to the official website. Or if you’re interested in practicing intuitive eating for yourself, check out this book on intuitive eating and this workbook to accompany it.
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