Yesterday, my co-workers decorated my little work cubicle for my birthday. A chocolate cake was waiting, sitting on a pretty, white platter. I hadn’t eaten breakfast, and it was almost noonish, so I cut myself a slice and ate it with relish. When I offered a piece to a twenty-something year old down the way, she kindly refused and promptly said, “I’m on a really strict diet.” Four or five years ago, I would have said and done the very same thing.
I have struggled with negative body image for a greater part of my life. For many, many years, I bought into dieting, fasting, body shaming, and generally wasting lots of energy on trying to look as thin as possible. I have a small frame, as most Asian women, yet in high school, all of the southern fried comfort food I grew up on caught up with me. I put on a few extra pounds, and others began making comments about it.
In college, I struggled with orthorexia. That term was not around at that time, and although it’s not in the DSM V, it is currently recognized as an eating disorder. “The term ‘orthorexia’ was coined in 1998 and means an obsession with proper or ‘healthful’ eating. Although being aware of and concerned with the nutritional quality of the food you eat isn’t a problem in and of itself, people with orthorexia become so fixated on so-called ‘healthy eating’ that they actually damage their own well-being (National Eating Disorders Association).” It was not unusual for me to exercise 3-4 times per day when I was at the height of my orthorexic tendencies. I binged then starved myself then went to the gym or popped in an exercise video to burn off the calories I consumed. I was also enrolled in multiple dance classes throughout college. My weight fluctuated across the years. When I felt too heavy, I dieted. Slim fast was my usual go-to. Needless to say, deprivation was something I practiced regularly.
Until recently, I continued to feel unhappy about my body. I discovered a podcast, Food Psych, hosted by Christy Harrison, a Registered (anti-diet) Dietician and Intuitive Eating Coach, that has turned my understanding of how diet culture perpetuates unrealistic and unhealthy body image. She advocates strongly for ending our culture’s stigma against heavier-bodied people and our society’s obsession with thinness and six-pack abs. The term “fat” is also not a bad or dirty word. It just is. I have fallen in love with Christy’s podcast and listen to it regularly. I highly recommend it.
I’m certainly not where I’d like to be. I still sometimes obsess over my body not looking the way that I’d like it to, and I’m not the healthiest eater anymore. In the past, I watched everything I ate and had what I called “self-control.” No gluten, no red meat, no nitrates, no sugar, no salad dressing, no sauces, hold the carbs, no sweets, no chips, no bread, no movie popcorn or popcorn at all, small portion sizes, nothing processed…But I’ve become much more aware of how damaging these habits are, and I stop myself when toxic thoughts enter my mind. I used to obsess over going to the gym, or lack thereof. I’m typically too exhausted from work to hit the gym these days, but when I do go, I try to be as mindful as possible, working on feeling stronger and healthy rather than losing weight or being thinner. So the piece above came out of making a break from diet culture and body shaming. I have to take it one day at a time. It’s my birthday, so yes, dessert is on the menu.