Healthy eating habits that support a balanced lifestyle, healthy relationships, and a nourished body, mind, and emotions.
How many of you have had a period of time in your life when you struggled to know when, how much, what, and how you felt about eating? Essentially, when any of the particulars in the previous definition were out of kilter? If I have learned anything from the privilege I've had of working with numerous wonderful women, it is that disordered eating is not new, it is not unique, and it is not uncommon. Most noteworthy of all is that it is present in the most health-aware people.
To provide context for this article, I thought it might be helpful to briefly mention that my own relationship to food and the body was disturbed from my teens to early twenties. One day food was a curse, the next day it was a blessing, and all the while, no matter what was going on at the time, the idea of 'eating' was never far from my mind. I loved food, I loved to cook, I loved being slim, and I felt trapped. Some days I would avoid breakfast to "make up" for a late night binge of sweet food, only to find that later that afternoon I would have the very same binge to "make up" for my restrictive eating during the morning. This was often followed by intense exercise to "get rid of the calories" - an incredibly flawed understanding behind the science of weight loss. It felt as though balance was too difficult to attain. I didn't understand how people who ate three regular meals a day, with snacks in between, could manage their weight. I looked at others and thought that they overate. Thinness was a subconscious goal - a snare on my way to freedom. Like many women, I went through this journey alone, not wanting to let people in on how I really thought about my body and eating, believing that I was supposed to be a person who "had it together."
It feels as though a life time has passed since then, when in reality it has only been a small fraction of time. A small fraction that has enabled me to work alongside incredible women, supporting them towards a change of self-perception and to regain order within their own eating habits. In my article The Impossible Pursuit of Bodily Perfection I explore how we came to this place of body dissatisfaction and disproportionate attention paid to what and how much we eat. Unlike that article, the purpose of this one is to suggest another way of understanding that could lead us away from thinking so much about what we eat and how our body looks, back to focussing on who we really are; our value.
The regard that something is held to deserve; the importance, worth, or usefulness of something.
What Story Am I Telling Myself?
More often than not I find out that when my clients look at themselves in the mirror they see 'chubby,' 'short,' 'dull,' 'masculine,' 'lumpy,' 'soft,' 'not-hot,' etc... Without realising it, they are telling themselves a story about who they are and what they are worth. Without realising it, they are prioritising their aesthetic characteristics over the very essence of who they are.
Let's do an exercise. Think of a woman you really value; it may be your mother, your best friend, your sister, whoever you love and adore. What do you see when you look at this person? If I was answering this question, I would think of my mother and I would want to tell her; "beautiful,' 'generous,' 'loving,' 'full of kindness,' 'wise,' 'sacrificial,' 'strong,' 'bold,' 'amazing,' and 'pure.' Why is it then that when we look at ourselves we point out everything that isn't perfect? I would suggest that we need to become more gentle on ourselves, have more grace for our flaws, laugh at our imperfections knowing we are not called to be perfect, and that we need to see our real worth and value. If we do not choose to see it in ourselves, we will encourage others to see the worst in themselves as well - is this the kind of people we want to be? One who doesn't bring out the best in others? This is a question that really helped me through my own disordered eating habits.
What Do My Eating Habits Say About Me?
It is incredibly easy to become preoccupied by what we eat when we idolise the body, find worth in being a certain (thin/tonned) body type, or when we find value in being part of the health and wellness community that is forever revered on Instagram. When our food becomes a means by which we achieve our end goal, whether that be a washboard stomach, skeletal thinness, or to be admired by men (and women), we have begun to abuse food and own our bodies.
Philosopher, Andrea Borghini, says;
"Eating mirrors the making of a self, that is, the array of decisions and circumstances that bring us to eat the way we do. In them, we can see reflected a detailed and comprehensive image of ourselves."
When we consider that food "mirrors the making of a self," what do our eating habits say about us? In my late-teens and early twenties, eating would have said that my body image largely controlled my behaviour, that my body was more important than my character, and that the way I was aesthetically-viewed by others was more important than how I viewed myself, or even my own physical and emotional health.
What Do I Want My Eating Habits To Say About Me?
One way to answer this question is to think of how we would want our children, nieces, or nephews to see us and what we want them to learn from us. The answer may be, "I want them to see a woman who values her body with what she puts in it, who is relaxed around food to the extent that she can enjoy treats and celebrations, who values character over and above appearance, and who enjoys food with those she loves."
Borghini makes a key point when he summarises that food is relation. And yet I have encountered so many situations where food no longer has anything to do with relationships at all, but is entirely about the self; a self-focussed means to a self-fulfilling end.
I don't write these things to make anyone feel uncomfortable. I do not want to make judgements, but to create an open space for self-reflection. It were these very ideas that helped me on my own journey away from restrictive eating to becoming more balanced, healthy, energised, and joyful. These thoughts will continue to walk beside me every day of my life, as I firmly believe we must hold on to the insights we've had that have brought about positive change in our lives, instead of letting go and forgetting them.
The Fear of Gaining Weight
Most of us can look back to when we were younger and see a "chubbier" version of ourself. Some of us may look back at that girl and cringe, feel sympathy for her, or even commit to doing anything in our power to never be her again. Often it is this fear that is keeping us from finding freedom in our eating patterns and prioritising our character over our bodies.
There are a few things to mention here:
Firstly, it is highly unlikely that we will ever go back to that stage of life because we have a newfound wealth of knowledge around how to eat well for our bodies. Also by our late twenties it is likely that our hormones have become more regulated, therefore decreasing puffiness and erratic weight gain (however, if you are in your late twenties or over and still experience puffiness, bloating, and unmanageable weight gain/loss, I suggest you seek out professional help as this is not normal and can be cured).
Secondly, the fear of gaining weight is very real. It's best to be up front right away here and acknowledge that many people, including my younger-self, will fear letting go of their tight grip on trying to maintain a certain body type to become someone who is free around food and body image. This is because of how their body may change in the process. To be honest, I have found that as I have supported women through their own journey away from disordered eating and towards freedom and orderly eating, they do tend to gain weight for a period of time until their weight regulates itself again. In my own journey, I gained a few more kilos than I had previously felt comfortable with for around 6 - 9 months while I changed my thinking away from restrictive eating towards nourishing my body and prioritising my emotional and mental health over my appearance. My weight now is higher than I would have felt comfortable with back then, but I couldn't care less today because I am a healthy women who not only feels healthy with optimal energy, a baby in my belly, and manageable weight, but who is also filled with joy. My husband is also relieved that I don't care so much about my body anymore and he finds my freedom around food very attractive...
So, the question is, where to from here? I have found that a large part of moving towards ordered eating comes from healing our emotional and mental thoughts and feelings around food and our bodies. This of course must be paired with a good understanding around nutrition and how to value our bodies with what we point into them. One can not be separated from the other. Current research even shows how different foods effect our emotional and mental health.
I implore you to have a good think about the questions asked in this article, and be courageous enough to dare to look at yourself in a new light; one that may not 'fit in' with culture, but that will leave you knowing how valuable you really are.
I would love to hear any feedback around these words, or to even hear what has helped you in your journey towards healthy eating habits and body image - please do comment below. If you believe you need support in this area, then please do consider contacting me to see whether I can help you. You do not need to go at this alone and you can be free from this burden. But mostly, please remember to...
Feed, nourish, and value yourself.
Image sourced from indecision-and-reveries.blogspot.co.uk