At age thirteen, Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul told me being 5’2 and 115 pounds was overweight (who let them publish this?). My diet highlight reel includes: “Rogue Weight Watchers” aka binge eating carrots, dabbling with bulimia, and calorie counting. My period stopped for a bit, I was tired all the time, I didn’t get hungry or full anymore, and despite eating the exact same thing every day, my body started slowly gaining weight. With my metabolism revolting, I realized this was unsustainable.
At age 22 I entered the uncharted territory of retraining myself to eat without controlling or quantifying my food. To combat the barrage of New Year’s diet ads, I am posting this update of sorts to share how my relationship with food has changed over the last four years
While I never fit the exact diagnostic criteria for an eating disorder, in discussions with other dancers, particularly women, I have found that my experience is not uncommon. Comparing notes with other people who worked through their unhealthy eating patterns has helped me navigate my own. If you find yourself under pressure to start a diet this year, I hope my story can be filed away in your brain as you decide what steps are right for you.
Let’s talk food…
The biggest difference I’ve noticed is that I no longer feel the compulsion to track everything I eat. After a decade of dieting, eating whatever I wanted felt like someone hurled me into outer space without a tether. For a while, I wouldn’t write out what I ate, but I kept a running tally in the back of my mind: “Well, I’m hungry and could eat this now, but I’m going out to eat later so I’ll hold off… for five hours.” There was the occasional slip up, usually around food-centered holidays or stressful work weeks, when I would panic that my body would spiral out of my jurisdiction. I’d pull out my notebook, calculate everything I ate that week, and then go outside and run until My Fitness Pal told me I had burned it off.
It took me two years to stop tracking my food. What got the ball rolling was advice from my college dance teacher who told me that disordered eating is all about control. At the time I was like, “Definitely not. Disordered eating is about getting really skinny.”
I was half right. I did want to be really skinny. But I got really skinny by congratulating myself for my exceptional discipline in sticking to these unsustainable diets. When dieting, I didn’t feel anxious about my body getting out of control and my other daily worries about friends, family and schoolwork seemed to quiet down as well. When I stopped dieting, all of that anxiety came back. And working through it was harder for me than just running back to another diet.
While hurdling through this no dieting space, I began dating my partner. When they first came to my apartment, I offered to cook them dinner and presented them with (not kidding) a bowl of broccoli, with salt.
They looked at me, laughed, and said, “But what are we eating?”
I replied, “Well, there’s salt on this, it tastes great. You can add more salt if you want. I have lots of salt.”
By some miracle, they didn’t break up with me. They ordered a pizza. I still ate only broccoli, and a few bites of pizza, but this was the beginning of something.
My partner has the healthiest relationship to food I have ever seen. They eat a balanced variety of food, but every so often they will eat (and I am not kidding) A WHOLE BLOCK OF CHEESE while watching an episode of House Hunters. This astounds me. Somehow, this was the first time I realized that a person could make an effort to eat healthy and not panic that their body will spiral out of control after they polish off a block of cheese. I soon realized how many of my friends had super healthy relationships with food all along that included their own blocks of cheese.
Eventually, I caught on. I started eating heavier, tastier foods. Initially I was anxious about it, but this anxiety dissipated. Occasionally I still wake up in a cold nauseous sweat over how much sugar or fat I ate right before I went to bed, but those instances are further and further apart.
When I was dieting, I enjoyed eating certain foods not because they tasted good, but because they felt safe and maintained. My favorite “meal” was peanut butter and carrots because Weight Watchers says it is okay to eat an entire bag of carrots. Now my favorite meals taste good. I basically eat what I have a taste for and go about my day without further scrutiny. Obviously I think about SOME things, like how eating hot wings before a two hour ballet class is a bad idea, but for the most part I eat what I want.
Now I look at both sides of eating healthy. Everyone talks about the physical food we put into our bodies, what we ignore is our emotional relationships with food. No matter how fatty or caloric a certain food is, we shouldn’t be afraid to eat it. Food shouldn’t have to be “clean” or come recommended from someone advertising a “healthy lifestyle.” I eat healthy because I eat without judging my food. I eat healthy because I’m not anxious about eating a variety of food. I eat healthy because I eat fruits and vegetables and butter and hamburgers.
Has my body changed? Yeah. I gained 15 pounds and then my weight stabilized. I’ve had a few individuals tell me I should get thinner or trim up. This is insane because:
- I am thin.
- Being thinner doesn’t make me a better dancer.
I gained a lot of muscle. I love my body because it can jump high and do multiple turns and digest a whole pile of delicious french fries.
My wish for all of us in 2018 is that we eat as hard as we dance. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a date with a plate of delicious steak fajitas.
If you are struggling with disordered eating, food-related anxiety or an eating disorder, there are some resources on the web that can connect you to health professionals specializing in this area. Please visit the National Eating Disorders Association or the National Institute of Mental Health for more information.