Like so many women, I’ve had a less than forgiving relationship with body image.
The wider hips and fuller thighs adolescence brought about meant that heading to the changing room to try on an outfit for the weekend was no longer a treat, but a pain-staking analysis of my body and its’ flaws.
In a society where girls as young as 12 are valued for their aesthetics alone, and women loathing their body is something that is capitalised on, my fraught self-esteem was hardly unique.
And, like for most women, my weight became something I desperately wanted—needed—to control.
So arose the issue of food.
Every food became enveloped in its own distinct veil of morality; there were good foods, there were bad foods. A portion of chips would still be ate, followed by days of feeling guilty. I’d gorge on junk food, only to be consumed by thoughts of how I could get this enemy, this substance, out of my body afterwards.
Meals didn’t become about the meshing of ingredients or the variety of flavours, but became about the fat, salt and sugar content, and this persisted for years. I labelled foods as good or bad, placing me in a permanent diet mentality that I’m sure so many women can relate to.
The bad food was always good—like the best things always are—and inevitably led to instant feelings of guilt and gluttony for indulging myself; which of course managed to override how good the bad food tasted.
Life’s pleasures, like heading out for food with friends, became a gnawing source of worry.
If I enjoy the food, will I overeat?
How will I balance this out tomorrow if I do?
How can I punish myself adequately for having a good time?
Eating became bound up with my own body image and weight anxieties. With eating being a part of not just everyday life but of so many social activities, it truly became the enemy that I had to grapple with every day.
It became difficult for me to reconcile with how something that we all need to do—a form of self care and nourishment—became the source of so many of my anxieties; and how I could ever see eating as something fun and pleasurable again.
This is, of course, all wrong.
Eating shouldn’t have to be a constant course of stress. Eating is not the enemy; food brings people together, food connects us as human beings. It can be a hobby or pastime and it can bring us closer to our culture and community. Trying new food can be adventurous; exciting. Cooking for friends can be homely, warm, a true bonding experience.
When you are constantly restricting yourself, when you’re calorie counting and punishing yourself, food only serves as fuel and discomfort; all its’ potential lost in a sea of your own self-criticism.
It’s absolutely vital to give yourself permission to enjoy food.
Why do we have to lose or gain weight? Why do we have to not eat a certain amount of something, or overeat something else, constantly existing in a cycle of too much and too little?
Will my self-esteem improve if I do this? Will my life magically get better?
It’s only by letting go of the have to, I should and I can’t that I finally began to conceive of food as it’s own separate entity; and not something that existed for me and managing my self-image alone.
Shifting how you think about food takes time and practice, and of course is a radical choice in a society so fixated on “fixing” women and promoting the “perfect” body ideal.
I began to start seeing food and its consumption as outside of my own insecurities; a source of nourishment, fun and pleasure. I began cooking slowly with fresh ingredients, picking out each one and understanding each individual flavour. I ditched the diet rules and regulations.
Eating became something not just for my body, but for my mind too.
I made an effort to eat away from the screen and electronics, considering the pleasure my food brought me in that moment. By cooking from scratch, I was able not to focus on the calorie intake on a packet but on the ritual of cooking itself. By exercising this I was able to begin the journey of practicing mindful eating; taking in the tastes, textures, sounds and flavours of food and truly gaining pleasure from this.
For those who’ve had chronic issues with food, mindful eating is a radical rethinking of what we see food as. Not fuel, not calorie intakes, but a source of joy in so many ways. I didn’t have to binge, I didn’t have to starve. I could just enjoy.
More than recalibrating how we think about food, we need to recalibrate how we think about ourselves.
Your worth is not determined by your weight, by how those jeans fit, or by how your body matches up with the current decades’ arbitrary and unachievable beauty standards.
We don’t become our best selves when we’ve lost a few pounds; we become our best selves when we nourish our body and our soul with kindness, self-compassion and intention.
On that note, eat what you want today, and enjoy every bite.