The photo above was taken of me in 1995 — 25 pounds heavier than I am now-and still happy.
I was 8 years old the first time I remember being called fat. I started sucking in my stomach in photos from that moment on. I started exercising with the intention of losing weight when I was 10. I started my first serious diet (only eating tiny portions of whatever my mom served) when I was 11.
By the time I got to college I had been watching and burning calories for almost a decade, and I was exhausted.
Luckily I went to a very progressive college, one which had set up an “ExCo” –short for “Experimental College”-where students got to teach their own classes on a diverse range of topics.
You could take courses on everything from Beginner’s Sex to Advanced Klingon. As a freshman I immediately signed up for the course Women and Body Image. After I took it for a semester, I taught it for my remaining years in college.
That class taught me that when all personal motives for losing weight are stripped away — the desire to be attractive, to be loved, to be successful — what unites the women who seek to reduce their weight is the fact that they’re looking for an answer to life’s problems in the control of their bodies and appetites.
In other words, these women, having discovered that they couldn’t control the world around them, chose to exert a destructive control over themselves. When I made that connection, that was it for me. I decided I was no longer going to allow this specious, almost superstitious reasoning to determine how I felt about myself.
Fast forward 5 years and I was a full-time student with a part-time job and I ate on the go a lot. I also ate a lot at night just to give me energy to stay up late and work or study. And I gained and maintained 25 “extra” pounds.
Through it all I learned to love myself in spite of my weight, and I consider that one of the greatest achievements of my twenties. And then I met the love of my life — now my husband — and when he loved me back, even though I didn’t fit into a model’s size, I knew he was a keeper.
Shortly after my husband and I married we acquired a puppy, a very high-spirited Golden Retriever, and I learned that if she was going to be happy she would need to run at least once day.
So I started to run with her. I’m still not sure if it was her enthusiasm for the activity or if it was because I, like my retriever (and Bruce Springsteen), was born to run, but I loved it from the first time we set out on a trail.
And while I had exercised-sometimes to excess-throughout my teens, and always with the aim to lose weight, this time I never thought of running as a means to burn calories.
As a new health care provider, I also considered it my responsibility to inform my patients of practices in nutrition and exercise that were based in science, not the latest fad.
It was then, in my early thirties, that I lost those 25 extra pounds and I’ve never gained them back.
From working with many women who struggle with food and weight, I realize that figuring out how to escape that is really not about how smart you are or how much discipline you have (look at my brilliant physician friend!).
I’ve even come to believe that intelligence and willpower are irrelevant. The key is to believe that you can achieve a healthy weight. It’s just as important as following science-based guidelines for eating and exercising.
Now in my early forties, I no longer run long distances, but I still do 20 minutes of heart-raising cardio every day. I do this because I feel so much better when I do. In much the same way, I eat when I’m hungry and with pleasure.
And so, after over 20 years of research, study, practice, and, well, living, I have come to one simple, non-earth-shattering conclusion: the way we eat is simply a part of how we live.
Obsessing over our food and focusing on our weight keeps us from finding the joy that is available to us right here and now. But chances are good that if eating is doing that to us, then the way we approach other parts of our life is doing the same.
Fortunately, though, the same skills that help us to release stressful thoughts and bad feelings, those essential skills of staying present, valuing ourselves, tuning in to our bodies and emotions, asking for what we need, and keeping ourselves open to receiving what we need-all those things that enable us to live full and happy lives-will also help us as we struggle with issues related to food.
What I learned in the journey to self-acceptance and self-love made a huge difference in my life, and has helped me in so many ways. I believe it can in yours, too.