Alternate title: Cats in a Basket on a Rainbow*
I found myself unexpectedly frustrated and sad this weekend when I was reading the comments on a blog post about cats**, of all things — I guess that’s what they mean by “triggering”: when you encounter something that sends you spiraling into reactions you can’t completely control, angry and hurt by something that isn’t about you at all, feeling misunderstood and guilty and isolated, sending you back to that place where food and your body were your enemies.
Jen wrote about taking her cat to the vet, and as an aside, mentioned that one of her cats is borderline too-skinny while the other is too fat, and did anyone have any feeding suggestions for this situation? The commenters — all of them trying to be helpful, concerned about the health and well-being of these two cats — replied with a range of creative solutions (“Put the food up high where the skinny cat can get to it but the fat cat can’t jump up” and “Put the food in a box with a hole big enough for the skinny cat to get in but too small for the fat cat” were typical) designed to encourage the skinny cat to eat more food, but keep the fat cat from eating more than a prescribed amount.
What was jarring to me was how reflective the comments were of the accepted beliefs about food and eating and size — the context of animals provides the distance necessary for people (actual well-meaning human people, not troll-people) to candidly say what they really think about bodies: that those with fat bodies need to have their food intake limited, and can’t be relied on to regulate their own food intake. As one commenter said: You really need to moderate -how much- the cat is eating, don’t just toss some in a bowl for them and leave it there all day (That would be like tossing us in a buffet with no time limit haha). Because it’s about health: The last thing you want is to end up with a cat who has diabetes and needs insulin shots every day, that’s hard enough on a human who understands the concept behind them, but to a cat you’re just poking them with a needle and they don’t know why.
As far as the situation with cats goes, here’s my experience: I have two cats — Orla, a chubby (not quite fat, but definitely big) cat, and Shrodinger, a skinny one. Both are happy kitties, both are active, and both see the vet regularly because they’re positive (but not yet symptomatic) for FeLV. They’re allowed free access to their food dish, and their food intake is not regulated or monitored in any way; but from observation, I can tell you that Shrodo spends much more time at the food dish, eats about twice as much as Orla, and is prone to stalk me around the house, nipping at my ankles, if the level of food in the dish drops below a certain point. Both cats are healthy, neither cat over- or under-eats, they just have very different body types, is what I’m saying.
But mostly, my reaction to the post was one of sadness and frustration, because my perspective on food and size issues has shifted irrevocably away from “normal.” Lately I make it a point to immerse myself in fat-acceptance blogs and minimize my exposure to pro-dieting, anti-fat sources, so when I’m unexpectedly confronted with so much “normal” about food, when I’m reminded of just how deeply enculturated these disordered eating habits really are, it makes me realize just how far from “normal” I’ve turned. I’ve taken several giant steps away from “normal.” I realize there’s no way I could comment on that post that (in the absence of other unhealthy factors) cats can be trusted to eat the right amount of food for their bodies, just like humans can, yes, even at an unlimited buffet — that’s so foreign, it would sound like nonsense. Saying that my two cats of wildly different sizes are both healthy would sound just as insane as saying that I don’t restrict my food intake in any way and yet most of the time I wind up eating mainly produce because that’s what my body is asking for, not because the food pyramid told me to (and sometimes I don’t, but that’s okay too).
And frankly, sometimes I miss being “normal.” When I started dipping my toes into fat acceptance and health at every size, I didn’t set out to create a schism between myself and “normal,” but it’s there now, and there’s a grief about realizing how far I am from everyone else. Yes, I used to hate my body, but at least I was on the same team as the rest of society, united in agreement that my big ol’ body was hateworthy and untrustable and wrong. Now that I’m on Team My Body Is Rad instead of Team “Normal”, I can see that my new normal is better, healthier, saner than the cultural “normal” — but it’s a little depressing, too, knowing that I’ll never again be on the same side as the majority, when it comes to bodies. Because the new normal is isolating, even while it’s healing.
I’m just glad my cats can’t read internet comments.
*Yes, this is a 900+ word post about cats. I’m feeling very Debbie Loves Cats as a result. I just — sorry, I’m getting emotional — I really love cats, is all.
**I think Jen is fabulous, by the way, and I totally recommend her blog for girl-geekery and gentle humor. I was just caught off guard by the comments on this particular post, which were in no way mean-spirited, just totally reflective of how society treats food and weight.
This post is the first in what I hope will be an ongoing series of updates about what I’m learning about intuitive eating and how to best feed my body. I’m posting here not only to share what I’m learning with others who may find this information useful, but also to document this information for myself to refer back to as I work on building a better foundation of healthy eating for myself and my family.
Also, please note that I’m really, really new at this and still learning what it’s all about – baby steps.
Exploring intuitive eating makes me feel like a scientist. I can’t remember a time when I haven’t been influenced by other people’s judgments about food — broccoli good, Twinkies bad; skinless grilled chicken good, fried chicken bad; spinach good, carrots bad (that one from when I did the Carb-Addict’s Diet); beans good, rice bad (South Beach); Triscuits good, Wheat Thins bad (Sugar Busters); fat-free sugar-free ice cream good, grapes bad (thanks, Weight Watchers). Intuitive eating means I wipe the slate clean with all of those judgments and I eat like a researcher: I’m observing the effects that different foods have on my body, making hypotheses, and then testing those hypotheses to see if they’re valid. It’s the scientific method, y’all!
For instance: I’ve long been a big diet soda drinker — Diet Coke with Lime, specifically. I got hooked on Diet Coke with Lime the last time I did Weight Watchers, and then I kept drinking it because (a.) I felt I could drink it without feeling guilty, and (b.) honestly, I liked the taste. (It’s the Lime.) But about a month ago I finished up my 12-pack and decided not to buy more, because I was trying to limit highly-processed foods so I could better tune into my body’s signals.
Then last week, Aaron brought a 12-pack home from the store, and I drank a can with lunch. That evening, after we got the kids to bed and collapsed on the couch to watch Criminal Minds reruns, I realized I was starving – despite eating a dinner that had left me feeling full only a few hours before, and despite eating normally all that day, I was ravenous. So I fixed myself a plate of leftovers from dinner and ate them…and it was like my hunger hadn’t even been touched. Even though I could feel that my belly was full, my brain was convinced that I was famished.
I wondered: Were the Diet Cokes with Lime affecting my hunger/satiety mechanism? So I went a few days with no soda, maintained my normal eating pattern, and then tried a Diet Coke with lunch again — and the same thing happened that evening: a feeling of starvation that I couldn’t shake, even though I knew I was full.
So I’ve concluded that artificial sweeteners may affect my body’s ability to feel satisfied by food, and it’s something I’m watching for now. That’s not to say Diet Coke with Lime is completely off-limits to me now; just that I’m aware of the likely effect it will have on my body if I do drink it, and so I’m making an informed choice. (And frankly, I’m far less likely to choose to drink one if I know I’m going to be feeling unsatisfiably hungry later, because it was not a good feeling.)
Other things –
1. Breakfast: For a couple months now my breakfast has been the same items, varying only in quantity based on how hungry I am that morning: whole wheat toast with peanut butter, a grapefruit, and a latte. It’s a good breakfast for me because it provides me with plenty of energy that lasts until lunchtime, and the foods are ones that I really enjoy. And eating the same thing for breakfast every morning gives me a feeling of security that I don’t have to be making food choices before I’m fully functional, and provides a morning ritual that I find soothing.
2. Salad: It turns out I really like salad! This is surprising! Salad has always been a staple of any diet plan I’ve been on (from the salad you’re required to eat every night at dinner on Carb Addict’s Diet, to the year I gave up everything except fruits and vegetables for Lent), but I never actually enjoyed it. But here’s what’s changed salad into something I look forward to eating instead of a chore: regular salad dressing. Also the occasional croutons or shredded cheese. Thanks to those couple of tablespoons of full-fat dressing, I’m eating plenty of leafy greens and raw vegetables, because I want to. It’s been revolutionary!
3. Lentils: I wasn’t a huge lentil fan until I took an Indian cooking class last week and learned to make dal. A few days later I made a batch of dal and brown basmati rice for lunch. It was yummy, but it didn’t necessarily seem like anything extraordinary — until the next day, when I realized that — well, when I realized that apparently I hadn’t been getting enough fiber in my diet before then. Because I went to the bathroom, is what I’m saying, and y’all, it was miraculous. So now that I know what the, ahem, results can be of an increased fiber intake, I’m more aware of finding other ways to incorporate it into my diet. (I just can’t go back to the way things were before. Once you’ve gone like that you you cannot go back, if you get what I am saying.)
So that’s where I am with intuitive eating so far. It’s hard for me to take a neutral approach to food, but practice, practice, practice, right?
(This post is going to be rather rudimentary HAES 101, but I need to spell it out because I’m still trying to work out what a lot of this means for me. Apologies for the tl;dr.)
A friend told me she’s just started a group Bible study using the book Made to Crave: Satisfying Your Deepest Desire with God, Not Food. I’ve been on a hunt for HAES-type books written from a Christian perspective, so I did some flipping through this one with the Look Inside! feature on Amazon and on the book’s website, but I ultimately rejected it as being somewhat problematic. Here’s why (and if you’ve read the book and find my interpretation to be off base, please let me know):
Foremost, it looks to me like the book emphasizes weight loss, even without saying so directly. Although it says it’s not a “diet book” but a “lifestyle book,” nearly all of the “success stories” featured on the website recount participants’ weight loss as a result of following the study. Weight loss in this case seems to be equated not only with physical health but also with spiritual closeness with God; the book jacket (at least in the online copy) even says, “Reach your healthy goals and grow closer to God through the process.” That’s fine if the “healthy goals” are simply to adopt healthier behaviors. But if the “healthy goals” the book is trying to help the reader reach are in any way weight-focused, then the writer is conflating spiritual maturity and weight, and that’s problematic.
Then there’s the whole issue of food cravings — which in this usage seems to be shorthand for “cravings for foods that have low nutritional value.” This sentence from Health at Every Size has really stuck with me: “If you’re treating your emotional needs with food, you don’t have a food problem, you have a self-care problem.” Everything I’ve believed up until this point was that if I’m craving foods as a way to fill (or more often, muffle) emotional needs, then it’s the eating that’s unhealthy; when in fact, I’m discovering it’s the opposite. If I’m doing a good job of caring for my emotional and spiritual needs in healthy ways, then I’m not likely to be using food to fill that role, and the problem of emotional eating pretty much solves itself.
(I’m not claiming that this is true for everyone’s experience with food cravings and emotional eating; my experience is only my own, and I can’t speak for anyone else.)
Sometimes, too, we tend to describe behaviors as “emotional eating” when in fact they aren’t based on emotional reasons at all. When we diet and deprive our bodies of the food intake it needs, we may be able to override our bodies’ drive to eat for a time; but there comes a point where, biologically, our body begins shouting so loudly for food that we can’t help but eat. We attribute it to a lack of willpower or to emotional eating, but in fact it’s a result of the rush of hormones our bodies release that are designed specifically to make us eat. What and how much we eat is not entirely under our conscious control.
Within the environment of intuitive eating, I can eat whatever I want, because those wants are based on mindfully gathering feedback from my body; I know that my cravings are biological, not emotional. My body is learning that I’ll give it the foods it asks for, so it responds by asking for the foods that it needs; and I’m honoring God by trusting Him to use the body He gave me, made in His image, to take care of me. When I divorce chocolate from the connotations of guilt and food-sneaking and forbiddenness, and I’m not using food to fulfill an emotional need, then the only cues telling me to eat chocolate are my body’s physical hunger needs for that specific food. And once I’ve had as much as I need, I can set it aside and go on with my day, not carrying guilt for eating the chocolate, and not thinking about the next time I’ll get to sneak away and eat more of it. My relationship with food is no longer obsessive, but simply to meet my needs.
When my cravings aren’t colored with scarcity or guilt, I find myself craving nourishing food much more often; because while the way a specific food tastes is desirable, what’s more desirable is the way a food makes me feel. We spend a lot of time thinking and worrying about what foods are best for us to eat, which ones are good and which ones are bad, but in the context of intuitive eating, this pretty much resolves itself. In the context of intuitive eating, the Food Guide Pyramid becomes not a prescription for how we’re *supposed* to be eat but a description of the foods our bodies are naturally craving, with individual variation for each unique body; the foods we crave are the foods we need to be healthy; the foods we choose are the foods we need, not because we have to, but because we want to.
(This is kind of an oversimplification of this whole process, which I hope to address in more detail later, but it’ll do for now.)
Food itself doesn’t have a moral value. The act of eating a Twinkie, in and of itself, isn’t sinful. Paul responded to the Corinthians’ question about the morality of certain foods by saying, “Everything is permissible — but I will not be mastered by anything.” With intuitive eating, I’m not being mastered by out-of-control cravings, but am able to mindfully respond to my body’s needs.
Because I know that eating releases serotonin and endorphins, I can recognize that it is intended to be a pleasurable activity and not feel guilty for enjoying food. When I’m eating only what I know my body needs, I can be satisfied that I’m not turning that pleasure into idolatry. Caring for our bodies is a moral issue, but I’m learning that caring for our bodies is incompatible with dieting — intentional weight loss defies too many of our biological processes and is contrary to how we were designed to function, and it decreases, not increases, our bodies’ health.
So, when a Christian book promises to teach me how to “Replace rationalization that leads to diet failure with wisdom that leads to victory,” I’m wary, because what it seems to be saying is that “rationalization,” not biochemistry, is what leads to diet failure and that there is Biblical “wisdom” that will result in diet victory — i.e., being able to maintain permanent weight loss. This sounds to me like it’s not only promising something it can’t deliver — because our bodies are designed not to achieve diet “victory” — but that it’s intertwining it with our relationship with God in a way that I believe could lead to further frustration and spiritual depression. For me to find a book about food cravings and Christianity useful, it would need to acknowledge that food cravings are, to an extent, valuable biological feedback from our bodies about what they need, and not impediments to a closer relationship with God.
One of the things I still haven’t figured out is how to teach this concept of intuitive eating to my children (especially since I only have a tenuous grasp on it myself). Already my kids are bombarded — from school, from PBS Kids, all over the place — with this dichotomy of “good food” and “bad food.” This seems wrong to me, for them to be taught to make moral judgments about food in their preschool classrooms; but on the other hand, their teachers are right, that candy bar isn’t good for their teeth.
But putting intuitive eating into kid-terms for children who are already programmed to think of food as either good or bad is eluding me. For that matter, I’m still trying to defeat my own knee-jerk reaction to classify food as such: broccoli good, pasta bad. But my goal for my kids is for food to be just not that big a deal, and that’s going to mean a rejection, to an extent, of the things they’re being taught about food outside the home — and in the home, a more intense focus on modeling healthy attitudes toward food.
This post on the blog Spilt Milk provides a good framework for shifting my kids’ beliefs about food, although her daughter hasn’t already been taught the conflicting messages about food that my kids have learned. I’m having trouble finding much about this topic of shaping kids’ attitudes about food from a HAES perspective, though.
What do you think? What do you teach your kids (or what would you teach your kids, if you had them) about food? Or, have you found others writing about this topic that I’ve missed?
Sometimes it’s hard to stay positive about my choice to abandon dieting. The past couple of weeks, I’ve had midterms to study for and a major project to complete, things that turn me into a bundle of stress and trigger the perfectionist in me to go into hyperdrive. I struggle a lot with the need to be perfect – a major recurring theme of my past four years of therapy has been the struggle to accept myself as good enough, to embrace and reveal my authentic self instead of hiding behind a faux-perfect false self.
So when it comes to mainstream diet culture and the societally-embraced notions of diet and exercise, of what a woman’s body is supposed to look like, of the requirement to self-flagellate when we “fail” at dieting, of the equation of thinness with health — it’s awfully hard to choose to reject these; because even though I believe I’m making the best decisions for my body and my (physical, mental, and emotional) health, I worry that to everyone else, it looks like I’m failing. I worry that people will see me and think, She REALLY shouldn’t wear those pants. Or I can’t believe she just ordered french fries, when she looks like that. Or I hope I never get that way.
Success at dieting — even though it’s statistically elusive, temporary, and unhealthy — is at least visible. Success at rejecting diet culture — I’m not sure it looks like anything. Sometimes — like now, when my need for perfection is going full-speed-ahead — I want success others can see.
In our culture, people give compliments for losing weight. People do not give compliments for having a great self-image.
Right now, I’m feeling surrounded by reminders that I’m “doing it wrong.” This morning, a well-meaning friend added me to a Facebook group for “healthy moms”; I clicked through to find a lot of women criticizing themselves for not sticking to their eating plans, or not making time to do their daily 100 crunches, or caving in and having a snack after the kids were in bed. I immediately went abort abort abort! and closed the page, but I’ve been thinking about it all day, and I’m feeling pretty vulnerable to these sorts of messages right now.
A lot of this vulnerability right now is because I haven’t been making time for good self-care this week. I spent eight hours sitting in a booth at Panera yesterday, drinking too much coffee and pounding away at a research paper, while my husband and kids were out at the park, enjoying the first glimmers of spring. I’ve been staying up too late studying and worrying about making an A+, I’ve stopped making time for exercising, I’m letting myself eat food I’m not hungry for to medicate my crabbiness instead of dealing with the things that are making me crabby and stressed.
So I’m taking time, right now, to do some things just for me. I’m going to re-watch the body-positive Emma Thompson video that Fat Heffalump posted this morning. I’m going to turn on Adele and dance around the living room. I’m going to set my homework aside and snuggle with my boys. I’m going to eat a grapefruit, which is sounding amazing to me right now.
And if all of that doesn’t work, I’m going to re-post this tweet from @sween on the “healthy moms” facebook page:
This is a new blog for me. I write a personal blog about a little bit of everything, Closet Narcissist, but lately wrote several posts in a row about my new perspectives about size and weight loss and health and food, and I decided to give myself a separate outlet for this topic. I think I’ll have a lot more to say about it, and this is a better place, away from the posts about my preschoolers and my husband and the rest of my life. Partly, I wanted to give myself some distance from some earlier body-shaming posts I’d written (and since removed). Having a whole new blog on which to do so is symbolic of the new start I’m giving myself with food and my body.
Here’s more about me, from my shiny new About page:
I’m Abi. I’m nearly 30 years old, and I can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t think something was wrong with my body.
I’ve been dieting in one form or another — monitoring my weight, measuring and limiting my portion size, counting calories and Points, eliminating entire food groups, or just straight up eliminating food altogether — since preadolescence. I’ve hated myself, my body, my shape, my size. I’ve felt guilt and anger and regret over my lack of willpower.
I’ve spent an awful lot of time thinking about food, trying not to eat food, exercising off food, obsessing about food. I’ve believed that nothing tastes as good as being thin feels. I’ve bought clothes that were too small because I knew I was going to lose weight, and then they’d fit perfectly. I’ve donated the same unworn clothes to Goodwill.
I’ve spent excessive amounts of energy trying not to be fat. And I’m still fat.
So I’m beginning to recognize that the problem isn’t with my willpower — it’s with the goal. Through the amazing community of Fat Acceptance writers online, I’m learning about how my body is designed, and I’m discovering that what it isn’t designed for is shrinking.
So I’m working on this. I’m practicing loving myself as I am, as a creation of God — instead of assuming He created me to be thin, and blaming myself for destroying His creation. I’m practicing listening to my body for what it needs, instead of trying to eat according to a system of external regulations that aren’t designed for my body. I’m learning to trust that God made me in a fearful, wonderful way that’s as capable of regulating food as it is of regulating my breathing and heartbeat.
I’m learning that being thin or fat doesn’t have to feel like anything, any more than being tall or short does. And I’m learning that sometimes, food tastes really good.
I believe that a thin body is not necessarily a healthy body, and a fat body is not necessarily an unhealthy — that a person’s health cannot be determined by just their size. I believe that a person can be healthy in any size body, and that intentionally trying to lose weight is nearly always unsuccessful, and leads to a less healthy body, not a healthier one. And most importantly, I believe that hating one’s body is completely antithetical to improving one’s health. I’m writing this blog as I try to integrate these beliefs — which I believe are validated by scientific research — into my lifestyle.
For more information and the science behind these beliefs, please read:
Thank you for being here, reading this. I hope we can get to know each other a little better.
This was originally posted on my other blog, Closet Narcissist, on March 7, 2011.
I spent the last of my Christmas money buying the book Health at Every Size (and also a Tai Chi dvd; more about that later). The book is by the ironically-named Linda Bacon, Ph.D., and she writes about the myths surrounding our culture’s obsession with dieting and weight loss and our equation of thinness with healthiness. I’ve only barely started the book — midterms are this week and reading for fun is out of the question — but this bit from the introduction especially resonated with me:
Food is simple now. I appreciate the sensuality and pleasure of eating. When I am full, I typically lose interest in food. After a few magical bites of chocolate, I am satisfied and the drive to eat dissipates. When I finish eating, I rarely think about food until I am hungry again. I don’t feel guilty afterward.
And I take pleasure in my body. I move because it feels good. I enjoy being touched. I dress in clothes that I like and don’t consider whether or not they hide my fat.
As wonderful as food is, it is only one of many pleasures in my life. I am no longer waiting to lose weight before I live my life fully. Having freed up all the energy and time that I spent on dieting or obsessing about my weight or food and having let go of my shame about these, I have greater depth and fulfillment in my life, including deeper intimacy with others.
These few paragraphs have become an ideal for me, the goal I’m longing for but almost afraid to hope for. Not obsess about food? Not feel guilt and stress and shame about eating? That’s so completely outside my experience of food as to be in another zip code – no, on another continent. I almost cannot even imagine ever feeling that way.
And yet. The more I tell myself I’m abandoning dieting and efforts at weight-control, the more I practice listening to my body to know when and what and how much to eat, the more I try to focus on my beauty and okay-ness, right-ness as a creation of a perfect God instead of my wrongness according to the narrow social ideals of beauty — the less foreign it gets. The more I choose to love and nurture my body instead of abusing and depriving it, the more natural it feels. The more I practice believing that it is okay to wear clothes I love, to dress up in ’50s pearls and liquid eyeliner and Bettie Page bangs (self-cut at 2am, after drinking — perhaps not the wisest method for hairstyling but I do love the result) instead of doing my best to disappear in boring neutral clothes and makeup, the more I find myself being honestly, truly happy with the me in the mirror. Or is it the other way around?
Maybe so. I don’t think I’m over my obsession with food. But it’s shrinking. And as food lessens its grip on my emotions, as I discover more and more that my body manages my eating choices quite well when left to its own devices, I’m becoming happier with my body — the wonderful biology of it, and its appearance too. It’s easier to love the way my body looks when I can trust the way it works.
Which is why, when I was trying on bathing suits this week (my old suit is hideous and saggy and worn through, so I ordered several different styles and sizes to try on, hoping to find one that I could live with) I ended up having difficulty choosing between two bathing suits, one to keep and one to return, and being frustrated because I love them both — the cut, the fit, the way they enhance my curves; they way they make me look at my body and think sexy, not dumpy.
In fact, given how staggeringly awful it used to feel to put on a bathing suit, and given how fully, couch-jumpingly in love I am with how these two bathing suits make me look, I think it’s not the bathing suit at all that’s making me feel beautiful. So maybe I’m already closer to my faraway goal than I thought.