Why is this such a difficult post to write?
For about two days now, this screen has been up on my computer, and I have been struggling to say what I am trying to say. I guess it is because this topic is so interwoven and because it is still, in some ways, a painful topic to bring myself to return to. But it has happy endings, and I think it’s relevant to many of us, so here goes:
Curled up in the Poang chair in my bedroom, I read this month’s O Magazine, which is focused on women’s relationships with their bodies. The issue contains a variety of articles that include statements women make about complex, intertwined relationships with their parents and with food. As I read, I ruminated on my own relationships with food, family, and body. I didn’t cover much new ground last night, because these are topics I’ve given a lot of thought over the last few years. But I did decide that the thoughts I’ve had and the conclusions I’ve drawn are worth sharing in a blog post.
How I view myself and how I take care of myself have become much healthier in the last couple of years. I spent much of my life up to now fighting what felt like a losing battle with myself: trying to cut calories (or cheat the system), feeling bad about my body, feeling judged by others, etc.
Some of that experience was just what being an American woman provides. Studies have shown that immigrant women from other (particularly less Westernized) countries often arrive in the United States with little sense of body issues; but it only takes one generation to change: their children experience the same body image problems as your typical American (if not more, I would guess, from the added stress of often being an ‘exotic other’). And in terms of how much of a sponge I was for the cultural climate in the United States, I was no exception: I grew up as Teen Magazine/tv/movie-addicted as anyone else. So some of what I experienced was probably just inevitable, given our current social/political/economic/educational/etc. times.
But some of my negative experiences were at least partly avoidable. And I can make the choice now to avoid them, as well.
I grew up in a family that is typical of many American families, I think, in many ways. In the arena of food, we ate a typical American diet (what is often now referred to as the Standard American Diet, or SAD): every meal contained a meat-based protein component, 1-2 vegetables (often one regular and one starchy), and 1-2 carbs. Dessert was common, though not always formal—a bowl of ice cream, a slice of frozen pie, or cookies. One of my favorite meals that my mother made consisted of hamburger patties in gravy (a canned version of gravy, sometimes doctored to be nicer); potatoes mashed with lots of salt, margarine, and sour cream; green beans (canned); and a dinner roll (refrigerated, from a can). I usually ate two servings of mashed potatoes (with extra margarine!) and two dinner rolls. Another favorite meal was her chicken salad, for which she was locally famous, and which contained enormous gobs of mayonnaise in addition to a few spices and typical veggies thrown in. We ate the chicken salad on white bread with sliced tomatoes and lettuce tucked inside; that alone could make a meal, but potato chips were a common side item. We ate like many people eat. My mother was always good at making the main portions of meals very tasty, especially given the limited budget she utilized to feed our family of six. But the green/orange/yellow vegetables tended to be very limp and undesirable to me, and the food overall wasn’t very healthy.
Emotionally, we didn’t win many points for being a healthy family, either. There were many unspoken sentiments in the house. There was fierce competition among the children. There was a history of alcoholism on one side of my family; and though neither of my parents were alcoholics, the emotional crap from that was carried down. In a word, we had issues. There was a lot of love in my family, no doubt about it, but there was a lot more than just love and acceptance, too. It took until college for me to realize how common such major issues are among different families. Ours was just no exception.
I grew up with a black-and-white mentality about a lot of things. I struggle with that still, because most of this world actually falls into a vast range of shades of gray, and I need to focus on those shades and not try to label things with overly simple, incorrect, judgmental categories. But partly of how I was raised from a religious and political perspective, and partly due to my parents’ own issues from their life histories (for which I now have sympathy), I was raised to see things as wrong or right, wise or foolish, perfect or hopelessly imperfect, great or terrible, friend or enemy. Not everything fit into simple categories, of course, but most things: that was the general worldview. Of course, I wanted to be right, great, perfect.
Scholastically, I excelled immediately upon entering school. Top of my class without having to work terribly hard. That fit into my worldview: I was good at academic learning; it came naturally to me. I fit into the “perfect” for that category of life. For most of my early childhood, I ran around on the playground and played a lot of sports. I flew across the monkey bars; I pumped my legs on the swing; I played endless rounds of chase. But then I got a bit older, and a bit pudgier, and realized I wasn’t naturally perfect at those things. And I didn’t get the approval or attention of coaches that some kids got. I fell into “hopelessly imperfect” in that category. (Remember, there is no gray area to work with; putting a lot of practice in to be middling-good wasn’t an option.) I didn’t one day think, “I’ll just never play sports again,” but the competitive, perfectionist part of me pulled away from those types of activities since I felt sure I would never be great at them.
Meanwhile, I had a terrible, awful group of classmates. The teachers at my school (my mother taught there, so I heard the backstage gossip) said that, overall, it was one of the meanest groups of kids they’d ever seen come through the school. Starting in second grade, I realized I didn’t fit in. And that didn’t feel right; as an adult, I’m perfectly fine with not being an average person in many ways, but in elementary school, I wanted and expected everything to be great, so when I didn’t fit in, I didn’t know what to do. I was picked on about being pudgy. I was picked on for a variety of other things, as well. My parents didn’t pay for me to have manicures and expensive rings; we didn’t live a high-style lifestyle. Hell, I forgot to brush my hair (I still brushed my curly hair then, poor me) sometimes and would come to school with it sticking up. The me inside me didn’t care, but the me who felt rejected did. It was overwhelming and confusing.
When I was in third grade, my parents called me into their bedroom to have a private conversation with me. When they shut the door, I knew I was in trouble. They told me that I had “too much baby fat” and that I needed to watch what I was eating. I was, in a word, crushed. I felt utterly rejected by my parents. And I had no sense of when to eat or not eat, so their advice meant nothing to me; in fact, i had discovered that I could have some solace in the pleasant tastes of various high-calorie foods, and my meeting with them pushed me further into these indulgences. It’s only been in reading other people’s weight-loss blogs and reflecting on my life that I have realized how dysfunctional my childhood eating was: I would sneak mini-binges of food (3 bowls of ice cream, or a whole row of Oreos, or a whole bag of chocolate chips), and I would absolutely stuff myself, to feeling ill, at meals. I didn’t feel better after I ate, but the pleasure of putting the foods in my mouth meant a lot to me while I was tasting it.
When my best friend, my one true friend, moved away after fourth grade, I lost my sole connection to a loving classmate. I was devastated and terribly lonely. I was fairly overweight at that point, and that fed my misery. I would come home from another lonely, sad day at school and cry. Though I loved school itself because I loved learning and loved making art, I cried after school nearly every day in fifth grade from my sense of rejection.
By the time the end of the school year rolled around, I had convinced my parents to let me switch from the private school I attended to the public school in our town. I ended up much happier there, and my sneaking of food decreased some. But I still overate at meals, and I didn’t know how to slim down. As my overall physical exertion decreased, as I left organized sports behind altogether and drove places instead of walking or riding my bike, my weight inched up. There was a brief period of time in 10th grade when my weight tumbled downward a bit; I had fallen head over heels for my boyfriend, and his attention left me in such a euphoric state that I wasn’t drawn to food in the same way I had been. But when that relationship ended, I went back to my old patterns.
Oh, I dieted, of course. What woman doesn’t? But my diets didn’t last long, and the bits of success didn’t last long. I spent a lot of time and effort trying to exert mental and physical control over myself to make my diet ‘perfect’ (however perfect was defined in the various diets), and when I failed to do that, I would give up altogether.
When I got to college, as many of us do, I added late-night snackfests to my overall consumption pattern. My weight gain continued; at one point, my long-term boyfriend told me, in tears, that he thought maybe he was attracted to me anymore. I was livid but, again, crushed . . . to feel the sting of rejection over my body as I had throughout my early childhood.
When that relationship ended, when college got hard, when my parents divorced, when I got sick over and over again, when I was too poor to afford what I needed, when I fell short of my own ideals . . . food was one of my comforts. I tried will-powering myself into a low-fat diet, Weight Watchers, Sugar Busters, South Beach, the pH Diet, an Oprah diet, etc., but I always switched back to my regular eating habits over time. I wasn’t some lonely, miserable person: I had good friends, I had decently good grades in college, I had professors who loved me, I had work I was passionate about. And as I grew older and learned about nutrition and food, what I was serving myself to eat did improve somewhat. But my core understanding of the role of food was unhealthy food (whether sugar-free diet food or full-calorie food) as sustenance and comfort. That was my fall-back plan. I didn’t see it that way at the time, but it was part of the truth of how I lived my life.
It took a variety of changes to move me from that point to where I am now. I had cancer, and that was part of what put me on this path. I met a generous, giving man who became my loving husband, and that was part of it. I fixed my horrendous financial state by taking baby steps, learning how to accomplish things gradually, and that was part of it. But the synthesizing of all that and other things came together at the beginning of 2007 when I was exhausted from trying to whip myself into perfection. After a period of holiday reflection, I decided it was time to nurture myself starting in 2007 and going for the rest of my life. Not punish myself into shape, not build up my will power just to crash and burn again, not focus on the scale to the exclusion of my life–none of that. It was time to actually, really take care of me. That meant listening to my body’s needs–nutritionally, yes, but also emotionally, psychologically, physically. It meant an entire change in my worldview. It meant accepting that sometimes good or even just okay is good enough, that I don’t have to be perfect. That perfection, truly, is over-rated, and that striving ardently for perfection can lead to extreme, negative emotions that only ultimately lead to dissatisfaction. Dissatisfaction inwardly, even if the outward results look great, is not worthwhile.
So what lessons do I think I (and some others) can glean from these various life experiences I’ve discussed? These are some of the lessons I want my future children to learn (verbally, yes, but primarily from my actions) from what I’ve gone through:
1. The whole family benefits from a healthy diet. When my parents told me I was too fat, they were both overweight! The whole family could have used an overhaul of our diet and exercise. If you find yourself on a diet now, trying to keep obesity and/or various diseases under control, you can consider yourself the canary in the mine for your whole family, and you can help your loved ones avoid the same issues. (Even if they aren’t overweight now, that doesn’t mean they don’t need healthy habits to avoid the ravaging effects of various illnesses later.) You can change the path of your family’s future. Do you want your children and spouse, if applicable, to learn to have a healthy body image? To eat healthy foods? To enjoy sweets in moderation? To avoid diseases related to unhealthy eating and lack of exercise? Do you want that for yourself? Then it’s up to you to change what you keep in your house and what you serve yourself and your family. One thing I’ve learned in the last two years is that taste buds and attitudes do change over time; I love healthy foods now as much as anything and more than most things. When my (formerly super-picky) husband and I arrive home from trips where we have eaten out and eaten richer foods than usual, we are both craving simple, vegetable-driven meals—these days. That’s a change from the past. Also, I think it’s important to note that your children do absorb what you do; you are primary to what they grow up considering important, and you help determine their core tastes about what is good in life. Even though they were athletic when they were younger, my parents didn’t exercise (until I was an adult, anyway–now they both do somewhat), so I didn’t think exercise was an important part of life to devote time to. But it is.
2. On a food note: as far as flavor and texture go, fresh vegetables are preferable to frozen, which are preferable to canned. Canned vegetables have to be doctored with a lot of gooey mayonnaise/butter/Ritz crackers/fried onions/etc. to be palatable. Fresh vegetables just require that you not cook them to death (which, if you aren’t familiar with them, often takes some Googling to learn and multiple attempts to get it right) and that you add some herbs and maybe a bit of oil or butter for flavor. Herbs make healthy food worth eating; if you think healthy cooking is bland, your palate may need some adjustment over time, but you also have to step up your use of herbs and spices in your cooking.
3. Developing a habit and taste for whole foods is important. Whole foods are foods closest to their natural state—how they came from the earth. They sometimes take a bit of effort to make, but they are way better for you nutritionally (often in terms of calories, but also in terms of how your body recognizes them and copes with them), and having knowledge of them and enjoyment from them sets you up to be able to make healthy, great-tasting foods much more easily than processed foods do. We can literally alter our neural pathways over time to make ourselves more likely to enjoy healthy food by repeatedly consuming it and making those experiences enjoyable. For our health, it’s important we take the time and energy to do that.
4. I follow some intuitive eating practices in my life, though I didn’t read about intuitive eating until I was already on the path. I don’t count anything or restrict anything (well, except things I know make me sick); I just focus on eating a lot of vegetables, little processed food, and mostly healthy food overall. One problem I think many people have with intuitive eating is that they take it to mean (and maybe it’s supposed to mean?) that your body will automatically tell you what you really need to eat. But for many of us, that’s not going to be the case initially, because we have deep patterns ingrained in us where we eat emotionally. We don’t hear what our bodies are saying because we have learned to listen to our emotional voice inside us telling us to fill a void. And when we go to fill that void, we turn to classic unhealthy foods to do so. Spending some serious time and energy on emotional work—learning to tune in to my needs and respond when I understand them—has been paramount for me learning to take good care of myself and to allow an intuitive eating process to work. That’s meant making myself and my needs a priority in a way that I had not previously done, and that’s a big change.
5. Taking care of myself overall includes everything from my doctor’s appointments to my work routine to my shopping habits to my reading choices. It covers a vast range of things, and I’m still learning to tweak my life as I go. It’ll be a life-long process, and that’s a good thing, because my needs will evolve. The latest thing I’ve added is that I now have an alarm that goes off on my computer once each hour to remind me to take a break and walk around my office or shut the door for a minute of exercise. I stay more alert, rest my often-typing arms, get more done overall, and feel less desire to stress-eat when I give myself that regular break.
Taking care of yourself can fall in a huge range of activities from tiny (like my earlier post about flossing) to middling (adopting a new exercise routine) to huge (realizing that the misery at your job is sucking the life out of you, and changing fields to one that suits you better). Taking care of yourself can require stepping out of your comfort zone for the long-term benefits of doing so. (For many of us, starting to exercise is like that.) Though of course things you do affect other people, you are the sole person who has to inhabit your life, and it is therefore your responsibility and privilege to make this life one that provides meaning and sustenance for you. Taking care of yourself, nurturing yourself, is how you do that, and healthy eating and exercise fall much more gently into your life when you take the time to evaluate your life’s patterns to find greater fulfillment from your life as a whole. One of the biggest changes for me has been to learn to stop and listen to my needs when I get a specific food craving or when I feel the urge to eat at an odd time. If I stop, close my eyes, and think, “Body, what is it you really want?” I usually discover that it’s not food. It may be sleep, or snuggle time with my husband, or alone time, but it’s not usually actually food, and so food usually actually won’t fulfill the need inside me. If I make the effort to go do what I need to do to take care of me, my life improves greatly, and my craving fades. (And if I really do just want a cupcake after I’ve checked with myself, having a cupcake is okay, too.)
6. Doing something I’m not good at (like running) can be one of the best ways to grow as a person. I’m not going to be perfect at anything, but I am pretty sure I’m also never even going to be a great runner. Being one of the slower people out on the path wasn’t easy originally, but it’s been a challenge to myself for me to base my expectations of improvement only on myself and not on other people. I’ve pushed myself some (within healthy bounds) and have also allowed myself some breaks (with no guilt) when I’ve been sick or injured. It’s taught me that doing something without doing it well can still be fulfilling. If you have kids, I think letting them see you do something you’re not great at can be a way of giving them permission to do the same thing themselves. It’s very freeing: I want this for myself, so I’m going to do it, and if I’m not good at it, that’s okay.
7. Joy—there should be joy in life, and there can be joy in life. But that doesn’t mean that any of us will have a life without problems, because it’s just not possible. I cannot eat gluten, soy, dairy, or eggs; I have unpleasant scar tissue from cancer surgeries; I may not be able to have biological kids from the same cause; I am worried about a lot of my friends; I really struggle with my relationship with one of my siblings; I feel torn about several elements of my life. I can let these things be what define my life, or I can figure out how to look at my life positively, take those things in stride, give them their space (not ignore them), and still give myself the space and permission to experience the joy, pleasure, contentment that life has to offer. Attitude and perspective are incredibly important. My husband says I’m someone who takes the ordinary and makes the beautiful out of it; that’s certainly not always true of me (I’m not perfect, and that’s okay), but when I strive to figure out how to approach life inquisitively rather than dolefully, I always discover that life improves along the way.
We have all struggled; we have all hurt; we have all stumbled. The patterns that have existed in our lives may not be what we want for ourselves, and if they aren’t, we have to work at overcoming them, learning to love ourselves as we go. We can set up healthy patterns for ourselves. We can choose to learn and grow throughout our lives, and that is my aim. That is one of the most important lessons I want to remember and pass on.