Earlier this summer I arrived at a family cookout and one of my relatives said to me “Oh, look at your nice figure”. I was wearing a long fitted henley sun dress. Instead of just saying “Thank you.” I said “oh, it’s because I’m wearing too tight clothes! haha.” I cringed the second it came out of my mouth. The dress isn’t even too tight. It fits me perfectly and I love wearing that dress.
I have a tough time accepting a compliment without making a joke about my body or me. It’s what I do, what I’ve always done.
But it’s kind of a problem since I, you know, work with women who have emotional eating struggles and because I’ve come so far with my own. I’ve changed a ton but from time to time behaviors come to my attention that make me go “whoa! what is this?”
I’ve learned so much about myself the last couple of years. I finally feel like I’ve figured out how I can eat normally, how to not overeat, which foods work for me (and which ones don’t), how to move my body with exercise that I enjoy (instead of just whatever will burn the most calories).
I’ve become hyper aware of all the routines and habits I had created that kept me stuck in the same cycle of overeating and dieting. I no longer try to go as long as I can on as few calories as I can so I can eat a ton at night. I can sit comfortably with uncomfortable feelings without needing to eat to comfort myself. The negative self talk about my body that used to be a never-ending commentary in the background hardly ever shows up at all anymore. It’s quiet now.
I feel more confident in my body. Enough so that I find myself doing things like taking off a sweat drenched tank top in the middle of a busy NH state park parking lot after a hike, and switching it out for a clean one, without worrying who might see me in my bra or might see my belly. That probably doesn’t sound like a big deal but when you’ve spent most of your life changing in shower stalls or bathrooms so you didn’t have to have your body seen naked in public view it’s a big deal. A really huge accomplishment. I can go to the beach now and wear a bathing suit and not worry about my pale thighs or belly rolls. I’m there to have fun, not to look like a model. I’m sure some of that comfortableness comes with getting older and just not giving a fuck but I know a lot of it comes from the work I’ve done in coaching.
All of this isn’t to say, wow, look at me, I’m doing so well. This is so easy! Everyone can repair their relationship with food on their own! No. All of this stuff is awesome and I feel great but, what I’ve noticed, is that as far as I have come, and as more “real” as this feels as any of my previous attempts at a normal life with food and my body, is that sometimes shit I thought was behind me still comes up from time to time.
Occasionally eating more food than I needed? Not a big deal, especially when it’s an incredible meal at a restaurant that I’ve been dying to check out. Occasionally choosing to eat foods that don’t have any nutritional value? Really not a big deal, especially when I’m choosing to eat it because I really want it (and not because I need to hide from some feelings).
Something I thought I was over, that keeps popping up is saying negative stuff about my own body to other people!
If I see someone I haven’t seen in awhile and they tell me I look great, I tend to wave it off by saying “oh, thanks, but I’ve actually gained a couple of pounds.” If someone tells me I look like I’ve lost more weight, “thanks, but I’ve really been slacking lately!”. I’ll whine about clothing stores having weird sizing and billowy styles and how at Lucky Jeans I have to buy a size Small shirt, even though there’s no way I’m a Small! If someone tells me I’m getting skinny, I say things like “Nah, I weigh about 157 lbs!” (as if it would be impossible for someone at that weight to be slender or fit looking).
In my head, I feel good about my body. I wear clothes that I feel comfortable in. I think I look pretty fit. And I’m at a sustainable and healthy weight. But outwardly, I find myself projecting the thoughts that I may no longer consciously be having, but were a part of my repertoire for decades. Like tree ring patterns, the ways I navigated through my world have left a record of my history that can’t be washed away so easily.
I’ve always had a self-deprecating humor and made fat or ugly jokes about myself. When I was a kid, people would make jokes about my size in my presence and it stung, a lot. I remember playing the game “Taboo” once with my sisters and some of my cousins. Taboo was a game where you had to use words to get the other players to name a word on the card without using the 4 or 5 other synonym or related words on the card. Sort of like a riff on charades or pictionary but with without acting or drawing.
One of my cousins was trying to get us to say “fat” or “chubby” or something like that. I don’t remember what the actual word was. He was struggling to come up with words to give us hints because things like “obesity”, “overweight”, “large” were off limits. So, what he finally said was “Andrea”. My sister’s and cousin’s looked confused and shouted out things like “blonde?”, “girl?” and then finally someone said “fat!” and my cousin said “ding ding! That’s it!”. I was totally mortified (and pissed! This cousin had a bit of a weight issue at the time himself.). It certainly wasn’t the first time someone in my family had referred to me as fat but it was the first time it became clear to me that that was how most people would see me. That was how they would describe me. It was what I was leading with, even if that’s not who I saw myself as.
I think I started to make the jokes myself with the idea being that if I made sure everyone around me knew that I knew that I was fat, anything they may say or think about my weight couldn’t hurt me. That rational didn’t work out so well, it still hurt, but I adopted the practice as a form of armor. If they’re going to laugh at me, I’m going to be in on the joke dammit! They’re not going to laugh behind my back – they’re going to laugh with me!
Making these jokes about my body, in response to anything and everything was just how I operated. It became a part of my personality in a way. So much so that most of the time I don’t even know I’m doing it. It’s just “me” now.
The summer after my junior year in college I worked for the University’s department of housing. It was a physically demanding job – we worked long hours in sweltering heat painting dorm rooms and carrying heavy furniture up and down many flights of stairs. I remember a few of the other kids always wanting to be my partner in carrying furniture. I was strong and I made carrying steel bedframes feel easy for the other person, because as a “fat” person, I thought it was my duty to take on more of the weight, more of the work. I could handle it. Even the guys would rush to carry with me. And it felt good to be wanted. It felt good to be seen as useful and valuable. For once my fatness was a positive, not a negative. I made jokes about being built like a “brick shithouse” or I’d hold flex my biceps and say “Have you seen these guns?” and everyone would laugh. They thought I was so funny and down to earth and “real” (something that seemed rare on a college campus). I said what everyone else was already thinking. My roommates and I became regular hosts of parties at our apartment that summer for our coworkers. My fatness was valuable at work and the humor I used to detract from myself also made me a riot and people loved to party with me. I could drink almost everyone under the table. It was a joke but also a sense of pride that I took at the time being able to pound 12 beers with the guys on my work crew. I may be fat, but I can party! The fat strong funny girl was a party animal too. The more attention I got, the more the jokes came. I couldn’t stop.
I’m not that girl anymore. My life is really different from my college partying days. I can’t drink anyone under the table anymore (and nor do I want to). I’m still strong but you can bet I’ll let others do their share of the hard work (but I’ll still ask that you admire my biceps). I still make jokes, about my body, but also about really morbid stuff. I have a really dark sense of humor. I’m step over the line a lot. But I don’t want to be that person who makes negative remarks about their body all the time.
She’s still there.
And it’s really annoying because the negative self-talk about my body isn’t there so much anymore. I can walk by the bathroom mirror naked and look at myself and not think much of anything, other than “that’s me”. I don’t recoil in disgust.
In general, I don’t necessarily want to change things that are part of my core personality. I know that a lot of that stuff is what makes me “me”. It’s even part of how some people know me. Who am I without this stuff? Who am I if I don’t make these kind of jokes? Could I be someone who just says “thank you” to a compliment?
I’m not even sure what I’m trying to say with this post.
I guess just that even as far as I’ve come, there are still things that come out sometimes that surprise me. I thought this was behind me. I thought I was healthy enough to not crap on my appearance publicly and regularly. I have clients who get upset sometimes at old behaviors that they still find themselves doing sometimes and to them I say “I know how you feel”. I feel like a failure when this stuff pops up. How can I preach “self-love” and body acceptance when the moment you complement me I have to make a joke about the size or shape of my body? Ug. That’s horrifying.
I have come really far and I don’t see myself ever going back to the unhealthy place I was in in the past but there are still some things I’ll need to keep my eye on.
I have to work at doing this differently. Knowing that I have this behavior isn’t enough to change it. Awareness is a start but I have to keep going and do more. This was something I actually forgot that I did. And now that it’s on my radar, it’s my job to actively work to do better.
If this hits home for you, here are a few questions to explore for yourself. I’d love to hear some of your answers if you want to share them with me:
- Is there something that you’ve discovered about your personality or behavior that you believe is a result of your history with your weight or eating struggles? How does it impact your life? How does it impact how you view yourself?
- Why do you think you developed this trait or habit?
- Would you like to respond differently? If so, what would that look like?
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