I am a feminist. I have been taught, by peers and teachers alike, to love my body, and not to internalize the kind of female body-hatred we see perpetuated in our media, our culture, and amongst ourselves. I don’t just get it, conceptually, and I don’t just preach it. I live it. I sincerely love my body, and feel an immense amount of gratitude for the way it has carried me through my life so far. And I love food, in the purest, most affectionate manner possible.
However. (And you knew there was a however coming.) My adolescence and early young adulthood were marked by a small series of big heartbreaks: a death in the family, a personal violation, some broken relationships that were really difficult to deal with, and a number of big geographical moves that left me feeling consecutively more and more isolated from any kind of support system. I dealt with this – and this is a hard fact, morally neutral, neither positive nor negative – by eating a lot of comfort food, and going pretty much fetal at the first sign of trouble. I don’t judge myself for this: I was going through the hardest period of my life, and it was legitimately difficult, and food made me feel better. I want to make a dangerous assertion here: there is nothing wrong with eating food for emotional sustenance. You do what you need to do to protect, comfort, and nurture yourself, and that is what eating emotionally is. I’m grateful I had the food necessary to do that for myself.
However. (Again.) There comes a point in emotional growth when you are out of the woods and need to start learning to walk without a crutch. And I’ve been out of those woods for a while. And I am here, with this body that has so generously carried me through heartbreak, sorrow, and grief, and I want to do right by that body. I am not claiming that fat is inherently unhealthy, but I know that with my increase in weight, I personally have been less healthy. Also, I know that while there are many things I would like to do (run, dance, compete in physical competition, etc.) that are uncomfortable for me at my current weight, but I cannot think of a single thing I like or would like to do that I cannot do at a lesser weight.
I don’t think anyone else should lose weight; I think it’s important that I say that, because their bodies are for them to decide about. I believe that part of our agency as women who own free bodies is the freedom to make these decisions for our own well-being based on what our bodies, our wise, unceasingly faithful bodies, tell us to do for ourselves. And I have felt for a while now that my body is telling me to get rid of some of the weight I am carrying around.
It scares me to “diet” and “exercise” because I don’t think crash dieting is healthy, and I resist the culture that uses these tools – that ought to be just the moderated enjoyment of beautiful, healthy, emotionally gratifying food, and the joyous moving and strengthening of our bodies – to subject ourselves to guilt, fear, and negative cycles of self-criticism and self-hatred. So I’ve been asking myself: is there a way I can do this without drowning in negativity, without telling myself horrible things about the way I am now?
I think I’ve come up with a few rules that make this work for me. If you’re in a similar place – loving your body, seeing ways you want to treat it better or differently, but desperately wanting to avoid the pitfalls of self-hatred and guilt cycles – maybe these will resonate with you, too.
1. Celebrate everything your body can do, and everything you love about your body, now. I know that I have to dedicate myself not just to celebrating the journey toward a body that can do more, but that I have to appreciate, respect, and adore my body as it is now, for all it already can do, for all it will enable me to do through transformation.
2. Never treat food like an enemy. I’m lucky in a lot of ways because cooking is one of my great passions, so if I arm myself with more nutritional information, I know that eating healthfully does not have to be an exercise in dry, tasteless, disgusting food. I’m committed to eating no pre-packaged complete meals, nothing synthetic, and nothing that tastes bad. (This rules out a lot of so-called diet food, but it also rules out a lot of junk food.) Eating healthfully in the last few weeks, I’ve been able to have tons of gorgeous, organic produce from my farmer’s market, sweet delicious oatmeal with apples for breakfast regularly that tastes like apple crisp, fresh fish, delicious Indian and Mexican food, and the occasional high-quality and to-die-for chocolate. God help me, I love chocolate.
3. Celebrate landmarks not because they indicate “skinniness” or “weight loss,” but because they represent a concerted effort I’m making to care for myself. I started with a goal weight but had to reassess that idea quickly. I don’t have a “goal weight,” because the numbers aren’t really important to me. I have a goal feeling: free, limber, able. So, yes, I weigh myself because it gives me some quantitative data to see if the things I’m doing are pointing me in the right direction, but I’m not getting hung up on end goals or what others would call setbacks. Am I still eating healthfully? Am I still moving my body? I’m good, then.
4. Play to your strengths. I happen to be very goal-oriented (which makes #3 really hard!) and self-competitive (which can be a good or a bad thing, really), so I’m going to treat these qualities as strengths. I’m choosing to make my goals things like, “Exercise every morning, Monday through Friday,” and each week that I do that, I get a reward. Not a junk food reward, because, after all, that isn’t really a reward; it doesn’t do my body any justice. But I can have a pedicure, or a new book, or go see a show! And those are awesome. My self-competitive nature helps me to keep myself working hard and pushing myself.
5. Loving yourself means listening to yourself. As much as I love a challenge and to keep pushing myself to do things that are more physically challenging for me (lifting heavier weights, hiking further, trying new things like yoga and chia seeds), I need to listen to my body. I don’t have to give up on my goals, but sometimes they need tweaking and modifying. Maybe I do a gentle yoga session instead of a hardcore cardio and weights session on a day when I’m feeling sore and tired. Maybe I have a cookie if I’m craving one and make a lighter dinner so my energy intake and output are still balanced.
Ultimately, I think our bodies are incredible, at any size. And I think that they are willing to give us a lot of what we ask for. So I hope that what I ask of my body is a gentle request, a kind one, one that honors and gives respect to the body that has given so much to me.