Wednesday, April 15, 2020

My Evolution to Becoming an Intuitive Eater

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been self-conscious about my body.  As women, we’ve been programmed from an early age to see ourselves as a canvas for self-improvement.  It’s reinforced by headlines on women’s magazines that characterize fat as something that needs to be torched and shedding for the wedding hashtags that suggest our slimmest self is our best self.  There’s always a subtle reminder that you’re only ten pounds away from the perfect life. Just ask Jennifer Hudson who revealed to Self Magazine that the most important accomplishment in her life was weight loss, rather than her Oscar.  I cringe at the pervasiveness of the pursuit of conventional beauty standards.

Image from Vogue

My earliest memories of weight are from middle school when I distinctly recall reaching 100 pounds and arbitrarily deciding that number looked cool on the scale, and I wanted it to remain forever.  Cue a few months later and a few inches taller, and the scale inched up.  As a highly competitive athlete, working out up to five hours daily between P.E., the school’s track team and my club volleyball team, maintaining my weight was an afterthought. Nonetheless, at an end of summer pool party, I wore a towel over my two-piece bathing suit for the duration of the party.  My physique was more Marion Jones (whose Olympics poster I literally had plastered on my wall) than Maria Sharapova.  And guess which one was a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model, the unofficial Bible for female attractiveness in the eye of middle school boys, the object of my affection as an eighth grader?  Clue: not the black, athletic one.  At that stage, the neuroses was all my own.  In fact, I was unofficially voted “best body” among the girls in our P.E. locker room for having a six-pack.  Go figure.

Leaving for boarding school in the ninth grade only accelerated my neuroses.  Living thousands of miles away from home without my parents was unfamiliar territory.  I learned that lacrosse was a sport and that “lax bros” were the de facto kings of campus.  I learned, after several Saturday detentions, that my mom was no longer my alarm clock, and I would have to wake myself up for class.  I learned that school was Hard with a capital H, and that despite receiving straight A’s my entire life, I would have to work harder than I was accustomed to.

I also learned about the Freshman 15.

Combine puberty with my first exposure making my own choices about nutrition and you get a fifteen pound weight gain in nine months.  Without my mom to dictate what’s for dinner, the options were limitless and overwhelmingly unhealthy.

There was TJ’s, the local pizzeria where a normal meal included a slice, but probably two; chicken tenders to split with your friends; and a pint of Ben & Jerry’s to top it off.  Maidenhead, the local bagel shop, was no different.  We’d often order a savory bagel and a sweet bagel.  What’s a bacon, egg and cheese without a cinnamon sugar with Nutella?  Not to mention, every Saturday night ended with a Feed in which a parent would sign up to host an 11pm “snack” that ranged from gallons of Cold Stone Creamery ice cream to Domino’s where I would notoriously reserve a box of CinnaStix for myself.

I was not alone in my submission to this way of life nor in our strategy to undo the damage we’d done.  Freshman year, my friends and I tried a water cleanse where we literally only drank water.  I had to stop by 12pm on the first day because I was peeing every 30 minutes during class.  There was also the Master Cleanse, outright not eating and nightly group 8 Minute Abs workouts.  My favorite was the only one dessert per meal tactic.  Needless to say, we needed help.

And I got it, I thought.  The summer after freshman year, I lost all of the weight thanks to a newfound relationship with the elliptical and a strict diet that heavily featured low-fat yogurt, sugar-free jello, cheese sticks and grilled chicken (yum!).  But every year, the weight came back.  And every summer, I lost it again.

It wasn’t until college when the yo-yoing finally came to a halt.  Sure, there were periods where my weight fluctuated, but within a five-pound range instead of 15.

In sunny California, surrounded by classmates who viewed food as fuel and exercise as an integral part of a healthy lifestyle, I too, adopted this behavior.  Even when I studied abroad in Paris, the land of butter and carbs, I managed to maintain my weight, no thanks to my daily pain au chocolat, but very much thanks to portion control and lots of walking.

For most of my life, I have allowed my surroundings to dictate my health and well-being.  Call it the clean plate club on steroids.  If there were pizza, I’d eat it.  If exercise were mandated, I’d do it.  Either way, I was game.  This behavior has been validated by a scientific theory that behaviors — like exercising and eating healthily, or not — pass from friend to friend almost as if they were contagious viruses.  Harvard researchers call it “the social network of weight,” and The New York Times asked, “Are Your Friends Making You Fat?”.

Moving into a studio apartment at 23 felt like the first time in my life where I was forced to make my own choices about my physical well-being.  Rather than simply add on to my brother’s nightly Seamless order, every night I had to decide what I alone wanted to eat.  Sometimes, this meant channeling my inner Martha Stewart with balanced meals of vegetables, complex carbs and a protein.  Other times, it meant Postmating Shake Shack.  And I was okay with that.  Some days, I’d enthusiastically march to a challenging HIIT workout or boxing class to tap into my competitiveness as a former athlete.  And other days, I’d lean into more restorative practice like yoga and pilates (or nothing). And that was okay too! 

Somewhere along the way, I have learned to embrace balance.  To release myself from expectations about how I should be and just be.  Because balance inherently requires a return to equilibrium.  That last night’s McFlurry can be this morning’s kombucha.  That life doesn’t require you to be an ascetic or a hedonist.  Some might call this "intuitive eating," a philosophy about food that suggests your body knows best. Eat when you're hungry, and stop when you're full.  And that food itself is not inherently good or bad. Those are moral characterizations.

This isn’t to say that I’ve solved all of my body image issues, that some days I don’t look in the mirror or step on the scale and think ughhhh.  But, I’m trying to be kinder to myself and more importantly, to listen to myself. 


1 comment

  1. Food, work, relationships, and more:

    “Somewhere along the way, I have learned to embrace balance.”



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