Writer Julie Peters talks about a past eating disorder, how she overcomes feelings of food obsession, and how she frees herself from internal oppression.
Please note that this post discusses eating disorders.
Weight—the loss of it, the gain of it, the way our bodies fill out our clothes or take up space in public—is a concept that can completely occupy our thoughts. For some of us, obsessing about weight is a daily reality. The perfect size seems ever out of reach, and I don’t think there’s anyone out there who truly feels their body is the perfect size and shape.
I struggled with an eating disorder when I was in my teens. I never felt thin enough—even when my BMI was in the flashing-red-lights-get-this-girl-a-sandwich-before-she-passes-out range. As long as I had soft flesh anywhere on my body, I felt somehow vulnerable and out of control. The harder and smaller my body was, the safer I felt on some level. I found a way to sublimate hunger pangs into a kind of willpower practice that could make me feel a little high.
I felt strong and in control when I could ignore my body’s most basic needs, but I was neither. It’s hard to be strong when your muscles are disappearing into your body to try to keep your brain functioning, and it’s hard to be in control when your brain is in alarm mode because you are starving. In order to be strong and healthy, to focus on my work, to love my partner and family and friends, I need fuel. I need food in order to think.
It’s natural that during some periods of your life, you put on weight and, at other times, lose it. Hormonal changes, pregnancy/lactation, medications, times of grief, stress, or change—these are all phases where your body might cling to more or less weight. These fluctuations can themselves be stressful, and they can be triggering if you have a history with an eating disorder. Thankfully, even here, you can use mindfulness tools to manage these changes and love yourself all the same.
One tool I use is to continually return to how I feel on the inside, not what I look like on the outside. Bodies can be healthy within a huge range of sizes, and studies have shown that it’s generally healthier to be a little overweight than underweight. Whenever I get into a panic about whether or not I’ve gained weight and how much, I try to focus back in on how I feel in my body. Have I been giving my body healthy movement that it likes? Have I been feeding it nourishing foods? Have I been sleeping enough? These questions remind me that my priority is not looking good for someone else, it’s feeling good so I can live the life I want to live.
Another tool I use is to remind myself of what I’m not doing when I’m obsessing about weight. For many of us, food obsessions allow us to avoid feeling our feelings pretty effectively. I want to be a present and engaged person, to be able to think critically and serve my community. I can’t do this well when I’m busy worrying about how many calories a dried mango has. Food obsession is a kind of internalized oppression. It might feel like power to vanquish my hunger pangs, but true power comes with freeing myself from that internal oppression.
It’s normal for our bodies to be bigger or smaller at different times in our lives depending on what we are going through. When we can return our focus to self-care and nourishment and let go of the external result, we return to a loving relationship with the bodies we do have.