I have had an ongoing struggle with weight and weight loss since about age 11. When I look back on that time, I realize that it was not because I was overweight then. Rather, it was I was entering a time when my body was changing. I gained some weight and the awkwardness of adolescence made me feel uncomfortable, uncoordinated and out-of-control. By that point, I was a bit taller than most of my peers, and beginning to put on some weight, as preteens do. I was not sure how to handle the confusing feelings of being aware of boys while at the same time feeling “too big” and like there was too much of me.
It was the 80’s and the height of the fitness and aerobics craze. It was the “me generation” and a time when Reagan was President, and image became key for our identities. Greed was considered good, and materialism was rewarded. Weight watchers had been founded in 1963 and was catching on, Jane Fonda released her first exercise video in 1982. In 1988 Oprah Winfrey walked onto the stage with 67 pounds of fat in a wagon to illustrate the weight she had lost on a liquid diet.
On a cultural level, women were told that the right way to BE in the world was to be thin. All the women in my family dieted together. Grandma, Mom, my Auntie and just about all the women I knew were always on some type of diet or another. Looking back, I realize I was not only responding to the messages around me, but I was just trying to fit in. Even my Dad had a regular exercise regimen, which I believe was partly stress-relief and partly body consciousness from the opposite framework. He had always been skinny in his youth, and he wanted to be stronger and more muscular.
So I dieted and I exercised. Looking back on it, I am glad that I saw exercise as important, and cultivated it as a habit. Today it remains a very important part of my mental health and stress-relief to run, do yoga, walk, or move in some way to calm my anxiety at times. But if I had to give advice to my young self it would be: accept yourself, and do not worry about what all others are doing. Stop dieting, stop trying to use food to control your anxiety about yourself, and exercise as a punishment for your “bad” overeating behavior.
Avoiding feelings and desires
I realize today that my emotional overeating came from that early attempt to restrict my food, to diet and to reign in those “bad” behaviors that I seemed so prone to repeat. Control of food became a way to deal with the anxiety that I had started to feel that I was “not enough” or “not right” or not the way I was supposed to me. I know that many girls and women can relate to this, and a lot of research shows that girls suffer from a large self-esteem gap during adolescence in comparison with boys.
The cultural messages we receive through movies and other media is that we are supposed to be beautiful and contained, princesses to be rescued by the prince. Also, in families we often we receive the message that we should be helpful and serve others. We do not receive a lot of guidance on how to pay attention to our needs, and to honor our bodies, or even how to embrace our feelings. Our mothers were often taught that their role in the family is to serve, not necessarily to honor their needs and desires. So many of us wanted to be “good girls” and to do the right things, and we were rewarded for this. I know I am not the first woman to confess to this time as being the origin of perfectionism.
Depression, perfectionism and insecurity
In college I struggled with some binge eating (though I was not into the purging part, which would have made that bulimia) when I would face periods of intense insecurity about my ability to succeed at a very challenging college, surrounded my peers who were very smart. In high school where I graduated salutatorian of my class, I had always known I was a “smart girl” and it had become part of my identity. I was rewarded for being “in my head” and not necessarily paying attention to my body.
When I went to college, my identity was no longer as the smart girl, while surrounded by so many talented people, so I felt a bit lost. Senior year, I went through depression as I struggled to figure out who I was, and what I wanted. I had a scary period of time in which I felt like there was a “fog” in my brain, and a Dean that I consulted to figure out what was wrong told me, “it’s not as if you’ve been struck stupid!” Actually, that’s exactly what it felt like, my cognition was disrupted and I literally was not able to think or use my brain the way I always had. Fortunately I had studied enough psychology to realize I needed help, and I found a kind an wonderful counselor, who helped me navigate this intense period of growth and change in my life.
In my early 20’s after college and after years of yo-yo weight struggles, I gave up on dieting, and focused instead on running, biking and trying to do things that made me feel good generally. I had moved to California after 4 years of living in Pennsylvania and graduating from Swarthmore College, and I was done (for a while) with trying to achieve academic success trying to earn high grades. One thing I realized was that my body seemed to be a barometer for how my life was going. When I relaxed and enjoyed my life, my weight and body seemed to normalize. I was never “skinny” but I did not struggle with my weight very much for a period of years.
Running to manage anxiety
From about 2007, when I joined my current company, I started running more regularly and doing yoga, which was offered on lunch hours at the onsite gym. I had been running off and on since I was 15 or so when I entered my first 5k. Running was a way to control my weight, but also manage feelings of anxiety and restless (and manage A.D.D. which I did not realize I suffered from until 2006 while trying to finish a master’s thesis, which is a story for another day). Off and one I had suffered injuries whenever I increased my running mileage too much, and it was not until I discovered yoga and figured out how to balance out both sides of my body, that I really was able to run longer distances than 10k without getting injured.
Coming home to the body – yoga and meditation
Yoga helped me become more balanced on both sides of the body and to become more aware. Practicing it 1-2 times a week helped me become more aware of my core and more balanced in my fitness, which is more difficult with running, since it is more about the lower half of the body.
About a year ago I realized that I was putting on some weight that was not coming off. Typically my weight tended to fluctuate 6-8 pounds up or down in a given year, depending on whether it was outdoor running season or winter, when I typically get less activity because I prefer to run outside, though I was using treadmills somewhat, because a sedentary lifestyle has never allowed me to manage my brain chemicals.
The weight struggle was starting to rear its ugly head again as I was promoted to a managerial role at work, and I was expected to show up in meetings, and be responsible for clinical operations for Latin America. I had wanted this role, and campaigned for it, and the new responsibilities and leadership really forced me to confront some personal challenges, and grow personally in my understanding of myself.
Compassion for myself, my body
I realized that I had begun using food and alcohol to avoid uncomfortable feelings, and that I had lost touch with my body. I had used running as a coping mechanism for my chronic anxiety but the problem was that I was not aware of what was causing that anxiety. I had blamed my circumstances: a micro-managing boss, a workplace with a workaholic culture, my own lack of focus and self-control.
While all of those may have contributed, I had not realized that my own thoughts were the cause of much of my bad feelings. When I began meditating and becoming aware of my “thought stream” I realized that that was a lot of negativity and self-blame occurring just below the level of my consciousness.
When I began to understand that I had been using food to calm my discomfort, and to push away those negative feelings, I realized I had a lot of work to do. But fortunately, the mindfulness practices, yoga and meditation were all beginning to start to integrate for me. With the help of a therapist who was kindly working with me on various relationship issues, and the practice of yoga with a favorite teacher Ruth Silva, and my growing regular practice of meditation, I began to gradually realize some changes I wanted to make in my daily practices. Geneen Roth’s book Women Food and God (I have the audio version), and also the podcast The Lifecoach School with Brooke Castillo.
This post is already becoming a bit longer than intended, so there will be a part 2 (and maybe even a part 3) for this exploration where I continue to tell my story and distill down some of the lessons I have learned on body awareness and compassion. Stay tuned for that on Thursday as I realize I need to wrap up and head to my “day job” now. Cheers! 🙂