There is a picture of me as a young child, making mud pies in my grandmother’s garden. I am two, maybe three, half nude and covered in mud, my face intent upon my creations. The sun shines brightly and I can still imagine how the warmth must have felt on my bare skin, how the mud stuck to my fingers and belly. I sit there, absorbed in my work, blissfully unaware that I should be wearing a shirt, that my hair is matted with my baking, that my tummy is round, most likely with handfuls of Mamo’s haystack cookies. At that age the idea that my body is inadequate, that I should feel any shame about how I look or what I eat has not yet entered my joyful, simple world. It is just me, the sun, and the mud, and the joy of a day making mud pies.
I don’t remember exactly when I started thinking differently about my body. It came in bits and pieces I guess. A magazine image here, a comment there, ill fitting styles that I “had” to wear, arbitrary sizes not based upon my height, or my earlier-than-others sprouting curves. I was taller than everyone else by 5th grade, it took years for the boys to catch up. The clothes other girls wore didn’t work on my sprouting hips and breasts. Bits and pieces, tearing down the innocent confidence of a girl as she too quickly became a woman.
I do remember being told I looked 3 months pregnant, I remember the exact weight I was at the time. I wasn’t heavy. Not that it matters, but I weigh more now than I did then. I was 12 or 13 years old and that was the first time I consciously started a diet.
Many other diets followed, eating lots of soup, filling up on puffed rice crisps, anything low fat, anything low calorie. Lying about how much I ate at lunch so that I could make excuses for how little I ate at dinner. I wasn’t a coordinated kid, so I avoided sports. But controlling what I ate gave me the outlet I wanted, it allowed me to be in control, and it carved my maturing body down to a younger shape. And when I came back from being very sick in 8th grade, and a teacher told me I was looking thin, I was thrilled. I hated that being well, having a normal appetite, might make me fill out again. There was a sick pleasure in looking 2 sizes too small, and I relished it.
At the time I didn’t see it, although now I look at those pictures and cringe. All knees and elbows, a too large shirt belted tightly into my shorts. Paired with my naturally thick hair, made thicker by early 90s bangs, I look like a bobble head. Gangly, where just a few years before there had been curves. I remember thinking I needed to loose just 5 more pounds, and then 5 more after that. I am not sure where the bottom would have been.
I don’t really know how I turned around. To this day I can’t pinpoint a specific change. I remember visiting the doctor and being aghast at the weight he said I should weigh. No one said anorexia, but I think we all knew. I remember my mom immediately buying me any food I would mention that I wanted, an ice cream shake, pizza. It was a fairly quick road back to a healthy weight, still thin, but healthy. And once I looked healthy, people stopped worrying, stopped pressing me to eat. They moved on, but I knew I wasn’t cured. It was a much longer path back to a healthy mindset.
Most of high school and college I ate, and I looked healthy. The physical effects of an eating disorder had subsided. But mentally I still struggled with disordered thoughts around food and my body. I obsessed about every calorie, I measured and calculated. I stressed about a pound gained or lost, my mind was constantly filled with food and restriction, weight and “goals.” I started running in college, but it was not joyful or stress release or a way to challenge myself. Running was a way to make up for last night’s binge, to punish myself for the second brownie, to maintain an ideal thin.
And I thought this was normal. Most girls I knew talked about food to the extreme. We all concentrated on eating “healthier,” which was code for loosing weight. We removed whole food groups. We lamented our poor self control, even as we devoured salads and baked potatoes to an extreme. I was normal, I thought.
However, I was starting to find my way back, even then. When I moved to my first apartment, I experimented with cooking and baking. I still didn’t know much about nutrition other than calories, but I was preparing my own food and enjoying eating. As I graduated and moved into the adult world, I began to educate myself on carbs, protein, good fats, macro nutrients, and truly sustainable, healthy eating. I still counted calories, but I focused on fueling my body nutritious whole food within those calories, instead of calories alone. And yet, I still would be plagued with gnawing hunger, and guilt over being hungry when I had already eaten “enough.” I would hate my body for asking for more than I had decided it needed, and I would play my food choices over and over in my head.
It took years, but I slowly learned to stop counting calories, to trust my body, to eat until I was full. For so long I had eaten what my mind calculated I needed, not what my body asked for. It took a long time for me to trust my body to say when it needed food, and when it had enough. But as I learned to listen, I found the gnawing hunger that had followed me for most of my adult life faded into distant memory. And I found a satiety in good foods that I had never known growing up.
I read many books about nutrition and intuitive eating, I learned to love whole, natural foods and not fear fat. And by the time I started running again, I was well on my way to peace with food. This time when I ran, I ran for joy and the challenge, to see what I could do. And I ate to fuel my running and my recovery. I ate what I loved so I could do what I loved.
My body has changed as I let go of food control, but not as much as I feared. My curves returned, but now I love them. My weight stabilized at a natural set point. A point at which I can eat, and run, and be active, and just live without worrying about maintaining a certain physique. It fluctuates, 5-10 pounds up or down based upon my training. But never far. I am heavier than I was when I was told I looked pregnant as a young teen, but now I feel sexy and own it. On days when I feel sluggish and fluffy, I know it is hormones, anxiety, and stress, and not really my body or my looks that are bringing me down.
I wish I could say I never struggle with thoughts about food. That I never think about the calories in a meal, or that I never feel a twinge of guilt. I would be lying. I am lightyears beyond where I was 10 years ago. I try to make choices that will support my body through the miles I ask of it. I indulge, I splurge, probably more than most. But sometimes I still hear that little nag in the back of my mind, telling me I don’t deserve food, that I must earn what I eat. Telling me that I must control everything that goes into my mouth, that I must obsess, and count, and analyze, and weigh, and stress about food until the food controls me. And yet I’ve learned to recognize that voice for the liar that it is. That little voice may sound reasonable, seductive even. But I know that voice will only pull me down a rabbit hole of anxiety and self-harm. A place where the joy in life and love, family and friends, is tainted and discolored by a hazy filter of food obsession. And so I label that voice as a deceiver, not a friend, and I do my best to turn away, to trust my body, to trust my soul. To trust instead the quiet voice of the preschool mud pie maker, a voice growing ever clearer, whispering of a full belly… full heart… full life.