Updated: Jul 20, 2020
My last blog post describes my new understanding of my relationship with my body – an understanding that had been there below the surface all along. What had become so clear was that I had actually been at war with my body, in one way or another, since I was a teenager. The most recent manifestation of the war had been my immersion in “wellness diets” over the last 4-5 years since becoming a health coach. Swimming in the waters of wellness culture, and functional and integrative medicine, I adopted the view that “food is medicine” and “we are what we eat.” Though pain control was the ostensible reason for my adopting food restriction, weight control was never far from the surface.
And yet I always had doubt about the single-minded focus on diet as the key to health. In my work with clients, I saw so much “resistance” to dietary changes – resistance which I now see as a healthy insistence on a full and rich relationship with food as comfort, satisfaction, joy and social connection. When I created my first health coaching website I was careful to avoid images of food (in stark contrast to most other health coaching and wellness guru websites that are all about “super-foods” and green smoothies, and the evils of sugar, processed foods and “bad” fats). I wanted my work to be about support and meeting people where they were, not telling them what was good and bad (to eat or to do). But people came to me to fix what was wrong with their bodies. They expected prescriptive plans, goals, and strategies to get thinner and healthier.
It wasn’t working for me or for them.
Since February I have immersed myself in the research and media on intuitive eating, health at every size, body positivity, anti-diet activism, and the movement to abolish discrimination and oppression based on body size. The more I learn, and hear women’s stories, the more committed I have become to peace and freedom with food and body image. And committing to trusting the body’s innate wisdom to guide our choices about eating, movement, relationships, work. This runs totally counter to “wellness culture” with its rules about clean eating and “fitness,” (which is really just another word for thinness but with muscles).
But there are limits to my transformation. I am fully committed intellectually to being at peace with my body. Emotionally, though, it’s been a hell of a lot harder. This is the part that we don’t hear about in the anti-diet books, podcasts, and Instagram feeds. It is terrifying – after a life of fearing becoming “fat” above nearly all else – to suddenly find myself in a larger body with no intention of shrinking it back down.
That’s hard to admit – that I am afraid of being fat. I’ve been conscious of the social and political implications of our oppressive beauty standards since I was in grad school in the early 1990s studying history and women’s studies. My PhD work focused on inequalities of gender, race, and class. I wrote a doctoral dissertation on the stigma and suffering endured by women who had babies “out-of-wedlock” in the decades before the “sexual revolution” in the 1960s and 1970s. In the terminology of the day, they were “illegitimately pregnant.” They had violated the conventional standards of moral womanhood and thus were not afforded the same rights and privileges as married mothers.
I taught women and gender studies for over ten years, assigning books like The Feminine Mystique, The Beauty Myth and The Body Project, showing films like “Skin Deep.” I wrote and taught about the exploitation and oppression of marginalized female bodies throughout history and in the present. I raised a feminist daughter who herself is now studying gender in college. I have grappled deeply with the implications of inequalities and oppression based on gender, race, class, sexual orientation. But it wasn’t until less than a year ago that I fully included body size in that consciousness.
As I have experienced the changes in my own body, I’ve been shocked and ashamed to see just how deeply afraid I am of fatness. Though I have stopped restricting what I eat, and exercising to change my body, the fear remains. It is not something I can reason away. It’s deep as well as ugly. It’s just going to take time.
There are some very important steps I have taken to help change the fear-based beliefs about my enlarging body. I’ve completely changed all of my social media exposure to non-diet, weight neutral, and fat positive messages. I’ve tried to stop “body-checking” every time I pass a mirror. I’ve bought new, larger clothes and purged my closet of anything too small, uncomfortable or restricting. I’ve focused more on what my body makes it possible for me to do, and less on how it looks. Most of all, I have resisted the urges – that are still frequent and intense – to go back to dieting or exercise to shrink myself back down to a more “comfortable” size.
And so my coaching practice has shifted to helping women (and men, but it’s different) find peace with their NOW bodies. The work feels radical and urgent and profoundly gratifying. They say we teach what we most need to learn. That is certainly true for me at this stage. I am in the middle of the great big mess of this work, inviting others to swim with me. I’m not sure where I am headed, but I know there is no going back.