“Don’t read beauty magazines, they will only make you feel ugly.” This is a line from a song aimed at the class of 2000 with a musical background and a guy with a deep voice dispensing advice to the recent graduates as they got ready to face the world. I heard this song on the satellite radio about two weeks ago. I hadn’t heard this song in quite some time but that one line struck me. It made me think about all the magazines out there with headlines appealing to our insecurities as women. As I thought about it more, I realized that I needed to share my struggles with food and self-esteem. This is personal and not one I am sharing for accolades but as a way to help others. I know I am not alone in this either.
As far back as I can remember I obsessed about what I ate. There were magazines everywhere with headlines that might as well have said “your body is not good enough” or “you are not good enough”. I thought it was normal as a female to constantly be on a quest to lose weight. I don’t want to minimize the fact that men can and do face body image issue as well. I just can’t speak about it from experience. I was never a skinny kid. From the time I was in elementary school until the time I graduated high school, there were people who tormented me about my weight as if it was some kind of character flaw. At 10 I remember trying to diet to lose 5 pounds and watched everything I ate. I remember being in middle school skipping breakfast and only drinking chocolate milk at lunch because I thought that would help me get skinny. It didn’t work because by the time I got home, I was so hungry I ate enough to make up for the skipped meals. It was miserable. I was miserable.
In college, I took things to an extreme. I pretty much stopped eating at the end of my freshman year. I would eat a few pretzels here and there. Once a week I would indulge in an actual meal but other than that I forced myself to keep my food intake in check. I exercised as often as I could in between work and classes. I quickly lost 40 pounds and looked much better but honestly I didn’t feel any better. Within 6 months I was having surgery to have my gallbladder removed. This was likely a result of the rapid weight loss. I had this thought that if I was skinny, people would like me and I would be happy. The truth is that happiness comes from within and the skinniest people in the world often have people that say cruel things about them.
Towards the end of my sophomore year in college, I met the man who I would later marry. I was terrified that he wouldn’t like the way I looked or would be staring at the extra layer of fat on my thighs or stomach. It was terrifying. This couldn’t have been further from the truth. He liked me for me and not the shape of my body. This was so odd to me because in high school it was all about how you looked. I just couldn’t understand why he liked me. As time went on I gained the weight back and then some. You know what, John still loved me.
Fast forward a few years. John and I were engaged and were planning our wedding. I had tried on wedding dresses and found my dream dress. Then one day the owner of the bridal shop called me and told me she was ordering me a plus size dress. I remember that I had just started eating a bagel with cream cheese for my breakfast when she called. After the call ended, I started crying and promptly fed my breakfast to the garbage disposal. At that moment, I decided that my body wasn’t good enough so I started exercising again and watching everything I ate. I started to sneak diet pills as well. I had a little hiding spot in our cupboard with the pills so John didn’t know. To this day I have never admitted to this but I am sure he knew. He just knew it wasn’t worth fighting that battle with me.
By the time the wedding rolled around I was at my lowest weight ever. Within two months of the wedding I was pregnant with our first child. At that point, the panic started to creep in. With pregnancy comes weight gain. I knew I had to eat properly to fuel my pregnancy but it scared me to death to gain weight. I was so sick in the beginning that I could barely hold anything down. After that cleared and regained my appetite, I started to eat again. I ate so much that by the time I delivered I had gained 70 pounds. I got to the point that I would get on the scale backwards when I went to my OB appointments. I lost most of the weight thanks to crazy eating after my daughter was born.
Within two years, we were back in the same spot again but this time I was pregnant with twins. I was concerned about how much I was going to gain with this pregnancy. I was so sick during this pregnancy that I could barely eat for three months. I spent time in the ER being treated for dehydration because of the morning sickness. When I did eat, it was often fast food. With this pregnancy, I left the hospital under what I weighed before I got pregnant. Sadly, I still couldn’t fit in those pre-pregnancy pants because my body had changed.
For the next few years, I was back at my disordered eating habits. I had gained a bunch of weight and was ashamed of how I looked. I felt like I wasn’t in control yet did nothing to regain that control. My doctor would tell me how I needed to lose weight for my health. I dismissed her and told her I just couldn’t lose weight no matter what I did. I told her I didn’t have time to exercise either. I was lying to myself and her. I no longer took the diet pills because I was worried about what they were going to do to me. I got to the point that I would rarely eat in front of people because I was afraid that people were going to judge me for eating. For thinking I was too fat to be even thinking of eating. So, I would pick at my food in front of others and eat in silence on my own. It had to be so difficult to my husband to sit and watch. He never said anything because he knew approaching my eating and weight was likely going to start a war. He loved me and how I looked but knew I had unhealthy habits and wanted me to regain control of my health.
I would deflect compliments anytime someone said something nice to me. If someone said a dress looked nice on me, I would focus on my flabby arms.
Then, things changed and I had my “aha” moment. I decided I was going to run a marathon. Yep, the overweight girl was going to run a marathon. I told my husband I was going to start running and he was like “ok”. I knew in his head he was thinking, “I’m sure this is going to last for all of 3 days before she gets bored.” This time my resolve didn’t waver. I started to eat breakfast again. I started to eat less fast food. I wasn’t obsessing about eating in front of others. I am not saying any of this was easy but it was necessary.
I realized that my daughters were watching me. They were at that impressionable age that my habits were likely to become their habits because it was all they knew. I had to break the cycle. I would deflect compliments and would focus on some other part of my body that looked all wrong. I would come into a room and criticize the size of my belly or thighs. And the whole time I had an audience. I didn’t want my daughters to learn that their bodies were something to be ashamed of. I didn’t want my kids to see that food was anything other than fuel.
The other morning, my daughter decided she wasn’t hungry and went back to her room. I quickly redirected her to the kitchen where we had an honest discussion. I told her why food was important. I also told her that I used to skip breakfast and I didn’t feel as good as I could on those days. I didn’t think she realized this because she was younger. Her response to me was sobering. She said, “Mom, I know you used to skip breakfast. Why was it ok for you to do then, but it’s not ok for me”. At that moment, I was put into place by my 13 year old. I explained to her I thought I could lose weight that way but skipping breakfast actually had the opposite impact.
I started to change my attitude food and my body over the past 18 months. I realized that my body is pretty damn amazing and has done some pretty great things. I may not be a model or a size 2, but that doesn’t matter. I look at food as a fuel. I need fuel for my training. I no longer skip meals. I eat the food I want in moderation. If I want ice cream, I will eat it. I no longer try to stick to crazy diets which eliminate entire food groups. My doctor said I have no health conditions that make this necessary. While I eat less carbs than I did in the past they are still an important source of fuel for my running. I still have moments where I will look at my body and call it fat. My husband now gives me a look to bring me back around. For that I am grateful.
My relationship with my husband is better than it has ever been. I realized that happiness is an inside job. Losing weight doesn’t equate to validation, love, happiness or acceptance. Because I am happy with me, I am able to see all the good in myself and my relationships. Let me tell you that is a beautiful thing. Let me challenge you all to think about your attitude towards food and your body. Over the next 30 days resist the urge to talk negatively about yourself. When you feel yourself heading down that path, think of something positive your body has done for you. Resist the urge to compliment people on looks alone. Don’t bash other women on how they look. And stop buying those beauty magazines unless you are reading them for the articles on good sex. In that case I say good for you.