Relationship with Food Series Part 3: Seeing our Food and Body Image Struggles Collide
Last week in our relationship with food series we talked about the importance of safely, and from a distance, going on a little exploration journey. I asked you to look back at some of your stories and personal history with food to learn from it and view it with as much kindness as you could muster. For me, the first step in improving my relationship with food was taking an honest look at where I was with food, acknowledging that I was struggling and where that struggle was actually coming from. The very next step was taking inventory. I had to look back at my history with food and all the damage that going on endless diets had done, understanding that so many of my struggles with overeating and emotional eating came from this self-imposed restriction and focus on control and perfectionism. Soon after going on this little self discovery journey, it was time for me to see a different side of the equation, and it’s what we’re going to talk about today.
Body image was what was usually behind many of my habits with food and exercise and yet it was so incredibly difficult for me to see. So much of my focus was on healing what I considered to be my only problem: I would sit down to eat and paid no attention to my body’s cues, I would overeat until the point in which I was severely uncomfortable, and I would emotionally eat using food as my only coping tool to deal with difficult emotions. Just as I hadn’t seen the negative role restriction had played in my relationship with food, I would only see food as the culprit, food as the problem, food as my nemesis, food as something I needed to gain control over. On the other side of the equation I would, post-eating, feel guilt and shame over food, over not “eating properly”, over not paying attention, over not being able to stop. When I had my rock bottom moment and everything was leading me to begin to heal my relationship with food, I became very aware of something I had taken for granted, and it’s that when we struggle with food, most of the time (especially as women in this day and age), what we’re struggling even more with is body image.
Like two peas in a pod
If we’ve been down a guilt-ridden/anxiety-producing/fear and control rollercoaster with food, we need to dig a little deeper and see what’s behind all this turmoil. For me it was definitely due to the fact that as being a woman in today’s world, I didn’t escape the message we get day in and day out, that if our body looks an inch different from what we see portrayed as the ideal, we need fixing. We are bombarded with messages that tell us that a certain body type equals happiness, love and belonging, and of course, we also learn pretty early on that our intake of food and our outtake of movement is associated with how our body looks (of course things like our socioeconomic status, access to food, our genetics, etc., are conveniently overlooked in mainstream messaging). Thus begins the battle of willpowers, the battle between living a normal life and one in which you need to be perfectly in control and perfect.
Because of the world we live in today, and I suspect even more so now with the appearance of social media and the fact that most of our friends have become paparazzis yielding tiny cameras in their pockets at all times, we also develop the core belief that everyone is watching, and that our value and self worth will be determined by what people see.
It’s gotten so bad that whenever I receive one of your lovely emails sharing your stories with me, it has more and more stopped being about how we feel, we’ve added how we will be perceived by others to the mix, and this is, as you can imagine, the worst case of the snake biting its tail, another battle where the illusion of control will always be lost.
It is therefore, in my opinion, impossible to heal our relationship with food, or with movement (more on exercise later in this series), if we don’t work on our body image issues along with it. We need to find that moment where our body image struggles and our food struggles collided.
A little peek at the past
I was going through old photographs the other day, and because I knew I was writing this series, I tried to remember what it was like to live in that little girl’s skin. What resulted was pretty eye opening. Back then (I’m talking pre-puberty days), I had the normal body of a pre-teenager who was fairly active thanks to swimming and dance classes (and nothing about these activities was even linked in my head to the way I looked). I was already struggling with emotional eating and occasional binges that resulted in the beginning of some of my stomach issues. I was however, a happy, active kid who loved food and eating with a passion. The only regret or guilt associated with my overeating was the stomach ache I would have after. Once the stomach ache was gone the guilt or regret went along with it and food went back to being a normal fun part of the day.
So what happened along the way?
What happened to take a kid who loved food, who certainly needed to find some other coping tools to help deal with the emotional turmoil she was going through, but who never felt remorse over buttering her bread at dinner, or having a second piece of cake?
Enter the realization of socialization.
After puberty I would begin to see my body change, and I would begin to notice subtle cues from people, the media, and the images I saw, all telling me things about the way bodies “should look”, as well as teaching me (enter fatphobia and diet culture) that gaining weight, or accumulating fat in certain areas was the thing to be avoided.
It took me years to realize that yes, my relationship with food needed some work, but my relationship and love and acceptance of my own body needed more. It was when I noticed that “bodies” were something to pick apart, analyze and tweak, that things started going downhill. It was when I began to see that people had opinions of other people’s bodies, and were “looking”, that all the questioning began to occur. When this stage of the process starts to take root, it’s only a matter of time for us to learn that our food intake and our exercise habits are where you go to “fix the problem” according to the very present and powerful diet and beauty industries.
Nowhere are we taught about body diversity. Nowhere are we taught that restricting food intake and dieting can be very harmful to both our physical and emotional health. Nowhere are we taught that there is so much more to our life and our value than just our appearance. In fact, the messages we receive, right around the time we’re at our most vulnerable, are exactly the opposite of kind and self loving. They are definitely the worst when it comes to actually finding some peace and acceptance of ourselves and the much needed self kindness and self compassion we should all be working on.
Going back to that pivotal moment
Today I’d love for you to think about that pivotal moment. That moment in which you started to see things shift from the blissfully unaware child, pre-teen, teen or young adult that simply saw food as food (aka nourishment, fun, joy and pleasure) and began to understand the social expectations surrounding bodies and how that linked itself to food.
This is a very important exercise because it’s that moment before that little piece of very negative socialization where we can see ourselves having a natural and peaceful relationship with food. A natural relationship we’re all born with. A relationship that can still have some issues where healing needs to happen, like using it as the only coping mechanism for difficult emotions (my case), seeing it as punishment or reward (in the case of many children who experienced a scarcity and abundance mindset from early on associated to food), struggling with food insecurity or poverty (a reality so prevalent in our world today and very rarely discussed which can also affect the way we experience the moment of eating), or children who were put on diets from very early ages, among others. These early life experiences certainly can be worked on and healed to have a better relationship with food as an adult who is safe and has access to it now, but imagine all the healing that would occur instantly, all the time saved before and after a meal in endless worrying, if we managed to separate the food struggles and body image struggles, and we took the latter out of the picture for a minute. It can be so helpful to see how this was how it was in the past and find an example in our own self, even if in just brief moments, in which our relationship with food was calm. We would eat, enjoy our meal, and head out to play without overworrying or overthinking.
Just like last week I asked you to ride your bike through your food stories from a safe distance, doing a little field work without getting stuck on any regrets, today I want you to find this little spot and stay there for a bit. What do you see? What was the moment of eating like? How is it different from our thought patterns now with body image issues attached to them? It can be so healing and hopeful to see that we might have all the secrets to a better relationship with food already in our experience and in our past, before certain beliefs came and stayed.
I leave you here for today in that little inner space with food as just food. We’ll take it up from here, next week as we continue along in the series.