Like many women, I’ve had a love/hate relationship with my body pretty much my entire life. And, also like many women, the “love” part is more focused on certain areas while the “hate” is more directed at others--in my case, my belly. My stomach and I have what I’d call not so much a “love/hate” relationship, but a “hate a lot/hate-a-little-less-at-times” dynamic. With the exception of an eight pound twelve ounce miracle, my gut has given me nothing but problems.
Part of our complicated relationship comes from external factors--I’ve always struggled with carrying weight there and, no matter how clean I eat or how hard I exercise, I’m just not genetically inclined to have a flat tummy or skinny waist. But part of it also comes from internal factors--the battles with digestive issues and the fact that this has always seemed to be the home of my anxiety and sadness. I know it’s all interconnected.
But, for all the grief it’s given me, I also respect my gut for never steering me wrong. So much of the difficulty it’s given me has been, I think, its attempt to not so much steer me in the right direction, but guide me away from what’s wrong. I can lie to myself--convince myself--all day long in my mind, but when I’m going down the wrong path, my stomach’s always the first to let me know. It’s very mouthy. It speaks up with every symptom it can until it has my attention. I guess this is why we call it “following our gut”.
By most people’s standards, even at my biggest, most people would not think I had a weight problem. For me the issue’s never really been a certain number on the scale, but this feeling of feeling big. From as far back as I can remember, that middle of mine has made me feel--well...fat. I told a therapist that once and she said “you can’t feel “fat”...fat is not an emotion. You can feel happy, anxious, sad, or mad...but not fat.” She said something about digging beneath to identify the emotion that I’m really feeling when I say I feel fat, and I get that, but when my stomach and sides hang over the waist of the jeans I’m constantly pulling up...I really just think I feel fat. I still stand by this, although I now wear yoga pants all the time so I can feel skinny, which I decided is also an emotion.
I think, like most women, I can look back and pinpoint--or at least estimate--when I started loathing a particular part of my body. For me it was right around the end of fourth grade or beginning of fifth--likely the onset of puberty. That was the age food and weight started to be an issue, especially in the belly area. And what I discovered as I got bigger was an interesting phenomena that I grappled with for many, many years--that, as I would become fuller and more uncomfortable soothing myself with food, I would actually have to fight the urge to eat more, not less. I think around age ten I started noticing the pattern. I’d inhale some kind of comfort or junk food way too fast, the full feeling would come on suddenly and I’d have to unbutton or even change my pants. Then, looking down at my bloated belly, I’d feel shame and frustration with myself and want to soothe that feeling with--you guessed it--more food, usually sweets. It was a vicious cycle that, at the age I am now, I can better control. But as an adolescent, the self-control is harder. I don’t think you’re even conscious of what you’re doing or why you’re doing it.
As my shame about gaining weight grew, the eating increased which, for someone without a weight problem or food addiction, is hard to understand. If you feel ashamed of gaining weight, wouldn’t you just eat less? But for people who use certain foods as drugs in sense--balms to soothe sad, lonely, or anxious feelings--the cycle makes total sense. It is, in a sense, an addiction.
Looking back, it was also around this time--about age 10--that the mix of anxiety and depression started, although I didn’t know what to name the ache in my gut back then. All I knew was that I had tummy aches and that junk food and soda and sweets made it feel better (at least in the moment of consumption). I used to describe the feeling of the stomach aches not as pain or nausea but a feeling similar to the sensation you get in your tummy when you’re homesick, except I had a great home life so I could never quite figure out who or what I was homesick for. It was like I was always aching or longing or yearning for something I couldn’t name. But food--especially sweets--made it feel better.
As I grew, so did my weight and it probably peaked around eighth grade. I remember one day overhearing a friend’s mom talking to my mom, suggesting that maybe if I ate more healthy foods and not as much junk, I would be a healthier weight. I felt so embarrassed. The more I felt ashamed, the worse the seeking solace through food became. By the end of eighth grade I was faking stomach aches (well, kind of...I really had them but didn’t really need to miss school over them) to stay home and binge on junk food. It never occurred to me to purge, I never knew that was a thing, and that’s probably good, as I’m sure it would’ve evolved into that eventually to ease the discomfort and shame of fullness.
What ended up being my saving grace was dance. After eighth grade I made the dance team and the sudden uptick in exercise made the weight fall off and my endorphins increase. As the weight dropped and I gained more friends and some blossoming lady parts, the comments eventually went from “you have such a pretty face” to just “you’re so pretty”, and then those comments started to come from boys. The mix of increased confidence and endorphins made the ache in my gut go away for a while and weight stopped being an issue. But it wasn’t because the emotional eating was addressed; the dance factor was just a band-aid put over a still-open wound. By my senior year, I was dancing competitively and training pretty hard so I could eat essentially whatever I wanted and burn it off with no problem. It’s really no surprise then that when I graduated high school and the dance, endorphins, regimented schedule and friendships suddenly stopped, my eating did not, and weight became an issue again quickly.
The concept of using food as fuel and a source of nutrition and energy, rather than something to reach for when stressed, didn’t even really dawn on me until I was an adult. Those addictive patterns I set up early on are something that, to some degree, I still fight today. Certain junk foods have such an emotional pull for me--such a lifelong association with pleasure and soothing--that it’s like any other addiction...if I’m not present, I’ll unconsciously slide right back into those habits. When I eat those foods I have an addictive history with, the eating is different--it’s like I check out mentally and shovel it in and only realize on bite 35 that I’m gone.
I’ve come to believe there are two categories of eaters: emotional eaters (a.k.a. “foodies”) and those who use food simply as fuel and don’t have any real emotional connection to it. And these two types...we’ll never understand each other. I remember reading in a book once about a kind of unofficial “test” to see if you have a sugar addiction. The test said “you come home and smell freshly-baked cookies right out of the oven. You’re not hungry. Do you eat one?” Supposedly there are people who answer that with “no...why would I eat if I wasn’t hungry?” I heard it and thought “I don’t think I’ve ever eaten a cookie when I wasn’t already full. After a big meal is the best time to eat them.”
I’d love to say that today I’ve evolved to fully loving and embracing my body for the temple it is and that I only eat and drink nourishing foods and that carrying a baby gave me a new respect for my belly so now I love my tummy in all its wobbly glory but umm...yea, not so much. Yes, I do respect it for all it's done for me and no, I don’t hate it...but I wouldn’t say I love it, either. I guess I’d say my relationship with my body--my belly--has evolved from swinging between “love” and “hate” to a sort of fuzzier middle-ground: I respect it and most days have gratitude for it, but I also have tough days and I can’t say I fully embrace it.
Part of addiction is acceptance, and one thing I do fully accept is that I’ll never be that other kind of person: the kind that has no emotional tie to food, especially sugar. I’ve had to accept that my relationship with food and my body--especially my stomach--will always be, to some degree, complicated. Food and my gut are like two family members who have a toxic relationship--they love and need each other, yet they can only do well together in small doses; if left to their own devices and old patterns, shit gets out of control again.
For me, the answer to healing this toxic relationship isn’t the “right” food plan or the “right” exercise plan because I have an innately unhealthy, out of balance relationship with food & exercise, so I will only swing from one extreme to the other--obsessing too hard or totally quitting. The easiest places for me with diet and exercise are either going “all in” (too extreme) or completely swinging the other way and letting it all go completely. I’m most comfortable when my body is either everyone’s envy or so out of shape that no one’s noticing. I hate the in-between; it feels non-committal and ordinary and out of my control. I prefer knowing that I’m “all in” one way or the other--striving for some imaginary landing place of a “perfect” body or going all in with loving on my food.
The healthiest path for me is also the hardest one: living in a place of balance--a place somewhere between “perfect” and completely letting it go--and just taking it one day at a time. Life fluctuates just as our eating does, and I think it’s equally healthy and hard to accept that there is no magical place of perfection you’ll suddenly land in; that there is really no other way to be with diet and exercise except for one choice at a time. A diet & exercise “non-plan” of just eating right as often as I can and moving my body a little each day is the trickiest, yet healthiest, place I can be.
Part of the healthy in-between involves learning to recognize anxiety and stress are present before bite 35 and choosing to put it down and breathe through it instead (or not choosing to and trying to do better next time). It’s choosing the tough conversations and making the hard decisions over zoning out and self-soothing with a pint of ice cream. It’s maybe not loving, but at least accepting, my body for the healthy, strong, squishy, dimply, imperfect, fluctuating, fully-feeling thing that it is.
And that perfectly imperfect kind of life takes guts.
This is 40
My whole life I've dreamed of writing a memoir, though I was never quite sure how it might take shape. In 2020, amidst the Coronavirus pandemic, I turned 40 and the idea was born. It felt less like a bolt of lightning and more like a sure knowing that this was the right idea and the right time.
Do you have some feedback for me about 40? I'd love to hear it! Praise or constructive criticism will help as I compile these stories into a book. Drop a DM or email below--your input is appreciated!