By Andrea Wachter, LMFT
My earliest memory of “feeling fat” was when I was about 12 years old. Up until that time, I was not all that aware of having a body; I was pretty much just in my body, doing the things that kids do. I had not yet learned that I was supposed to look differently than I did. I had not yet downloaded the program that some foods were “good” and others were “bad.” I did not yet have exercise and movement linked up with calorie burning or self-worth.
Then I got teased about my size. I started to compare myself to my skinnier friends and I began what was to become a full-time job of feeling fat. I had no clue at the time that fat was not a feeling. I didn’t know that body obsession was a cover up for low self-worth, and neither did I know, at the time, I was not alone.
Millions of people battle their body: some full-time, some part-time. The truth is, we have an epidemic on our hands. An estimated 8 million Americans suffer from a diagnosed eating disorder. This does not include the millions that struggle with food, weight and body issues but may not have or admit to having a full-blown disorder. What other culture praises people for starving themselves? What other culture envies people who lose weight, no matter their means of getting there? What other culture asks people who are often sick, starved and obsessed, what their secret is?
This epidemic has no age limit. In my psychotherapy practice, I have seen clients as young as 6 years old who already think that calories and carbs are bad and know about feeling fat. I have worked with senior citizens who have no memory of not feeling fat. And I have treated every age in between. Whether someone is on the restricting end of the pattern, the overeating end of the pattern or bounces back and forth as I did, body dissatisfaction and food obsession are a very painful way to live. The good news is that there is help. There is a way out of the vicious cycle of undereating, overeating and body bashing.
Food, Glorious Food
The first step to overcoming food and body obsession is learning to put food in its proper place, and learning to eat what you like, in amounts that feel loving to your body and to let go of the “good” and “bad” rules we have all been taught. It is not easy to strike all of our culture’s food rules from our internal record, but it is possible.
We all have a part of us that knows what foods we like and what amounts feel good to our body. For most people that innate knowledge is buried under years of “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts.” I spent decades avoiding carbs and fats and then binged on them. It took me a long time to learn how to legalize all foods and learn how to eat any food in moderation.
Most people approach a meal with one of two options in mind. The first is deprivational thinking. This leads to an internal soundtrack that sounds something like this: What should I have? What is the least fattening thing on the menu? What has the lowest amount of calories, carbs or fat grams?
Others approach their meals rebelling from all those shoulds and this track is more along the lines of: Forget it! I am eating everything I want. I am eating all the stuff I never let myself eat and I will start again tomorrow.
And many bounce back and forth between the two.
Making peace with food involves a huge do-over. It entails approaching food from an intuitive place that sounds more like: What sounds good to me right now? What seems like a loving amount? If I am not physically hungry, what might I be feeling and needing?
Easier said than done? You bet. But walking around in food avoidance and/ or food obsession is no piece of cake either. (Pardon the pun!) With practice and patience, we can learn how to get back our natural relationship with food and eat what sounds really good to us in amounts that feel really right.
Beating the Body Image Blues
The next piece of the puzzle is often the foundation of what causes food obsession and disordered eating in the first place— body dissatisfaction or, in many cases, body hatred. Most people in our culture do not like their body. Many people despise their body and spend enormous amounts of time lost in that obsession. I know I did. I have memories of being in some of the most gorgeous places on the planet and all I could think about was the size of my thighs or how someone else was thinner than me. What a tragic waste of time. And yet, I was taught, like most of us, that the answer to my problems lay in losing weight and looking perfect. I did not know that many people who looked perfect on the outside also suffered on the inside (sometimes even more severely than others). I did not know that what I was seeking from my pursuit of a certain weight and shape could not be found in that pursuit because no matter how much weight I lost, I still did not like myself and I remained in terror of gaining it back. (Which, by the way, I always did, but only every time!)
Finding your natural weight range is a process. It unfolds as you learn to eat real food in moderate amounts and move in ways that you enjoy, also in moderate amounts. Most people begin their descent into the body image blues when they first start to dislike themselves or decide that they are not special enough, valuable enough or loveable enough. We were not born with these beliefs, by the way. We decide them when painful things happen and we cannot come up with a logical reason for the pain. So we turn it inward against ourselves. (More on that later.)
Then, rather than work on changing those unkind, false beliefs, many people latch onto the pursuit of trying to change and perfect their body. It’s an easy enough mistake to make since we live in a culture that teaches us at every turn, every mouse click and every check-out aisle, that the solution to all our problems comes from changing our outsides in some way. Our culture has been feeding us this message for decades … If you look a certain way, you will live happily ever after. Why do you think so many models, actors and famous people who seemingly look perfect, battle drugs, food and depression? The answer is because nothing outside of ourselves can change our internal tape (or CD for you younger readers!) We need to delete and upload new messages on the inside.
So many people spend their lives thinking they will love themselves or be loveable when they … (fill in the blank—lose weight, look a certain way, accomplish a certain thing.) But it isn’t until they start experiencing self-love and self-acceptance that they will have a modicum of peace. Does it sound a bit cliché? Self-love is the answer? Is it easier to think I’ll love myself when I get (fill in the blank) or get rid of (fill in the blank)? You bet! But then we spend our lives waiting. And for most people that day does not arrive because life will always have its challenges and all bodies change over time. If our means of weight loss is unnatural then we have to live unnaturally in order to keep it.
Healing Through Feeling
In the same way that many people think there are good and bad foods, most of us have been taught that there are good and bad feelings. Namely, happy is good, scared, sad and mad—not so good. And in the same way that we can have a big do-over with food as we learn to eat all foods in moderation, we can also have a big do-over with feelings as we learn that all feelings are natural and necessary and there are no good or bad emotions. We all have them because we need them all. We just get to decide if we are going to stuff our feelings down, blast them out or experience them in healthy ways. Sounds simple enough, right?
Unfortunately though, most of us are taught at a very young age to deny and/or stuff down our feelings. We are often fed or given a pacifier when we are sad or scolded and sent to our rooms when we are mad. In order to have a healthy relationship with food and our bodies, we need to learn how to have a healthy relationship with our emotions. We need to learn how to identify and express them in ways that do not hurt ourselves or anyone else.
Of course it’s not easy or fun to cry or to feel angry but it is the only way to achieve health and live a life without depression, anxiety or addictions.
All feelings are natural and need to be let out, just like having to go to the bathroom. If we have a feeling and we block up that natural process then we are not going to feel well or be well. Many of us treat our feelings as if they need to be figured out or fixed when what they really need is to be welcomed, understood and comforted.
Don’t Believe Everything You Think
Most people walk around in a trance. I know I did. When I was lost in food and weight obsession, I was basically a mind with legs. I was entirely cut off from my body and I spent the majority of my time fantasizing about the future or rehashing the past. I was either beating myself up for what I said, did and ate or I was obsessing about what I was going to get or get rid of.
Needless to say, I was a pretty unhappy camper. Using drugs and alcohol were my attempt at a solution (or so I thought!). I used them to try and get a break from my unkind thinking and although they led to more problems, it wasn’t until I learned other ways to quiet my mind that I could let all addictions go. Now I have the honor of teaching others what I learned so they, too, can climb out of the pit of addiction, depression and anxiety. Things like: challenging rather than believing every thought your mind thinks, using simple but effective mindfulness techniques, meditating or reaching out for help.
There is help out here and if somebody is one of the millions that are battling with their body or food, they are not alone. They could reach out for help, whether it is to a trustworthy professional, a safe person in their life or one of the many resources that exist in a community or online.
Once that person finds what they are truly hungry for, they do not need to look for it in boxes of cookies or bags of chips. Once they learn to be kind to themselves, they do not need to restrict and diet in the hopes that they will earn love. Once they learn how to welcome all their emotions, they never have anything to run from or stuff down. And once they learn to question their thoughts, they can experience more time here actually being here.