“Owning our story can be hard, but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it.” Brene Brown
While training to be a therapist and coach, I was told that I didn’t need to share my personal story with clients, and while that may be true, I always ask the question “is there anything you would like to know about me?”. Nearly all my clients ask me why I do what I do, and because I value honesty, openness and authenticity, I am happy to share my story.
Have you ever wondered what would need to happen for you to stop feeling the way you do now about food and your body?
To be able to eat ‘normally’?
To stop waking up every morning hoping you can make it through the day without breaking your diet for the umpteenth time?
To happily buy/eat a cake or an ice cream without thinking that everyone is judging you?
To go to sleep at night without telling yourself you’re going to be ‘good’ tomorrow?
I used to have thoughts like this all the time. Every day in fact, for twenty-five years.
If you have similar thoughts too, I hear you and I see you.
I kept hoping there was a solution for me, and at the same time I believed, deep down, there probably wasn’t. I thought this was going to be my life, forever.
I wanted to be thin, or at least ‘not fat’ – and everyone else in the world seemed to want me to be thin or ‘not fat’ too. So, I dutifully followed the rules of diet culture and kept on trying. Every day! Over and over again – for twenty-five years! Tenacity could be my middle name.
But I couldn’t stop myself eating. Not for long anyway. I ate when I was bored, when I was lonely, when I was sad, when I was angry, when I was stressed or when I was tired. I didn’t recognise what I was doing because I couldn’t pinpoint all these emotions. I just knew that I felt trapped and unhappy. I hated my body, I didn’t trust myself around food and my eating was chaotic and out of control.
In 1980 I started to dislike my body.
I don’t remember when I first started to become body conscious. It probably happened gradually during my childhood as I assimilated the beliefs of older women in my family. By the time I was fifteen, I already thought I wasn’t good enough because I didn’t look like Olga Korbut (the Olympic gymnast) or Olivia Newton-John (the star of the movie Grease). I didn’t know that I wasn’t biologically built to look that way – and in Olga Korbut’s case, neither was she!
Chronic yo-yo dieting, chaotic and disordered eating, or even clinical eating disorders, can start at any age and for many reasons.
We might be susceptible because of our personality, the culture or environment we live in, family dynamics, body consciousness, lack of confidence or even trauma.
Sometimes going through difficult life events can trigger a change in our relationship with food and our bodies – puberty, illness, job loss, financial difficulties, marriage, childbirth, divorce, menopause or the death of someone close. Food and emotions are inextricably linked.
Emotional eating is not a ‘faulty behaviour’, it’s something humans are designed to do.
As a highly sensitive perfectionist, my own disordered eating was triggered by a number of things including childhood trauma, puberty and a broken heart. Even if I felt my body was ‘wrong’ and I didn’t deserve love, I always had food. Food became my best friend and my greatest source of comfort. Eating became an act of ‘self-care’.
I learned how comforting food could be when I was a very young child.
I have enduring memories of sitting cross legged on my bedroom carpet after school with half a can of coca cola, a packet of crisps and my favourite comic, Bunty. If I close my eyes and imagine I’m back there, I can relive those wonderful moments that gave me such a sense of peace. Whatever kind of day I’d had, good or bad, all was well with the world when I was alone in my bedroom with my coke, crisps and Bunty comic.
I’ve always loved food. It’s normal to love food. We’re designed that way so that we keep eating. If we don’t eat, we will die. But I was also aware that food could make me fat – and I didn’t want to be fat.
In our fatphobic culture, nobody wants to be fat.
Fat girls got ‘left out’, they got publicly and privately ridiculed and shamed. In those days it was acceptable to make fat people feel bad. It still is today although it’s less obvious – unless you’re on the receiving end. Cultural norms are changing, but very slowly, despite body positivity and health at every size (HAES).
So, at 15, I was terrified of being fat.
In 1980 I started dieting.
The 1980s was a wonderful time for dieters! There were so many diets to choose from, we could deprive ourselves of our favourite foods in a multitude of ways. There were also dozens of punishing exercise videos on the market to ensure we kept moving and burned off the excess calories we were trying not to eat. Jane Fonda and Olivia Newton John were my role models. I even had a shiny blue lycra leotard with matching tights. After several periods of severe restriction and countless hours in my local gym, my body eventually resembled theirs – closely enough that I felt proud of what I’d achieved!!!
How did I learn that being thin was something I should be ‘proud’ of???
Jane, Olivia, Rosemary Conley, Susan Powter, Dr Herman Tarnower (Scarsdale Medical Diet – do not try this at home!), Weight Watchers, Slimming World, my doctor and the entire beauty, fitness, diet and food industries, all taught me that I could never be ‘good enough’ because, unless I starved myself, my body didn’t come close to the cultural female ideal which, incidentally, changes with the seasons!
In my generous moments I like to think they meant well, but chronic yo-yo dieting and disordered eating will never make anyone happy. Being thin doesn’t make anyone happy either! Nor does it guarantee your health or longevity as we’re still being led to believe.
During the 80s, I learned that fat in food was bad for me, even though it tasted good and stopped me getting hungry. Like every good dieter, I switched to unsatisfying fat-free yoghurt and skimmed milk, which is little more than white coloured water. I developed cravings for sugar because food manufacturers overused it to make low fat foods palatable.
By the time I went to University, I was starting a new diet every Monday, and every Saturday. They usually lasted for a maximum of three days, sometimes less. While I was waiting for the next Monday or Saturday to come around, I would buy a stash of biscuits, crisps and chocolate to eat in secret in my bedroom. Everything had to be finished before my next diet so that I wasn’t tempted to eat anything ‘bad’ when I was trying to be ‘good’.
“If you hate the journey to a healthier you, that isn’t healthy”
I must have been able to restrict my food for long periods because my weight yo-yo’d up and down for decades. I just couldn’t eat little enough for long enough to stay a size that was considered ‘normal’ or acceptable. So, I would try again, every Monday, every Saturday, every first of the month and every New Year. I didn’t allow myself any ‘bad’ foods after midnight on 31 December. On the morning of 1 January I was always so full of hope. This was my internal torment.
To the rest of the world, everything appeared rosy. I married my childhood sweetheart, had a good career, a lovely home and wonderful holidays. The only clue to my inner battle was my ever-changing (and ultimately increasing) size, which some people felt they had a right to comment on at regular intervals. I was full of self-loathing – ashamed of my body and my lack of control around food. I wouldn’t eat in public in case someone thought I was greedy. In my head I didn’t deserve to eat because society told me I was too fat and therefore ‘not good enough’.
Remember the question I asked at the beginning?
“Have you ever wondered what would need to happen for you to stop feeling the way you do now about food and your body?”
Maybe you have wanted to change for years but you can’t see a way out.
Dieters usually keep dieting as long as they believe they are ‘on the right track’. They try lots of different diets and if their weight doesn’t change, they blame themselves for cheating or having no willpower. If only they could find the right diet (the one they can stick to) they will achieve their dream goal, such as not worrying what others think, feeling good in a bikini or attracting the perfect partner.
What if ‘dieting’ is actually the problem, not the solution?
What if everything diet culture teaches us is wrong?
We have more diets available to us today than ever before so, in theory, we should all be ‘slim and healthy’. In reality we have what our governments like to call an ‘obesity crisis’ and our mental health is deteriorating. Eating disorders are on the rise, especially in younger people, and they have the highest mortality rate of all mental illnesses.
Eating disorders start with dieting.
“To heal our relationship with food and our bodies, we must first stop dieting”
I stopped dieting in 2005.
When I turned 40, I was physically and mentally at the lowest point in my life. I was recovering from post-traumatic stress disorder, after my husband and I were abandoned on a remote reef while scuba diving in the Red Sea in April 2000. Our dive boat had left us behind and we’d spent two hours alone in the water wondering if we were going to survive.
Fortunately, we were rescued, but I needed long term therapy to recover. In the process, I ‘accidentally’ began to heal my relationship with food and my body. I had thought I was going to die, and now I wanted to live –without obsessing about food and my weight.
This is how holistic therapy and coaching works. When you start to address one thing that’s out of place in your life, you will often find other things begin to shift too. Everything is connected!
As I began to let go of the need to be thin, I also let go of the need to diet – and once I stopped dieting, I found I had a lot more energy to start living. I learned how to reconnect with my body and how to intuitively eat in a way that made me feel good, both emotionally and physically. I began to enjoy my food and allowed myself to eat whenever I was hungry AND I stopped worrying about what other people thought and started making choices that were right for me and my body.
It wasn’t an overnight process but by the Summer of 2006 I was free from yo-yo dieting and disordered eating, and I wanted to share it with the rest of the world.
In 2006-2007 I trained as an NLP Master Practitioner and Clinical Hypnotherapist.
I began my therapy and coaching career by helping women to ‘lose weight without dieting’. My body became smaller as I stopped bingeing and compulsive eating. I didn’t have to diet anymore, so I thought I’d discovered ‘the holy grail’ of dieters. I loved helping my clients to feel better about themselves, but I still had a lot to learn.
It was several years before I fully understood how our societies cultural beliefs and behaviours are impacting our mental and physical well-being. We are told that being fat is a fast track to ‘obesity related illness’ when the reality is, we are in more danger of damaging ourselves, both physically and mentally, by chronic dieting and disordered eating than we are by being fat.
You will never find me congratulating anyone for losing weight these days. Being a smaller size is not an achievement to be proud of.
In 2020 I became HAES aligned
During the pandemic I did postgraduate training in eating disorders and completed my fourth-year training in Psychotherapy. I also studied more about intuitive eating and body image and began to understand how fatphobia and diet culture affects our eating habits and self-esteem.
As long as we are told that there’s an ‘ideal body’ to aim for (an ‘ideal’ that is not even consistent!) we will always believe we are ‘not good enough’. We will keep reaching for that unachievable target. The more we dislike ourselves, the more the diet and beauty industries thrive.
“Body shame flourishes in our world because profit and power depend on it.”
Sonya Renee Taylor
It’s ok to want to be smaller. You have the right to body autonomy, and you may decide that being smaller is more important to you than anything else. Especially when the whole of society is telling you that you’re not good enough because of your size. You have the right to continue dieting forever if that’s what you choose to do.
For me, dieting was a soul-destroying nightmare. I wish I’d found a way to wake up from it a lot sooner. I wish someone had told me I didn’t need to be smaller – that I had a right to take up space in this world.
You have a right to take up space too. You deserve to treat yourself with kindness and compassion, whatever your size or shape.
“Self acceptance, self compassion and kindness are the roots of self-love.”
If you’ve been battling against your body for years, as I did, give yourself grace for all that you’ve been through. You are strong and brave. You have been doing your best with the information and resources you’ve had available until now. It takes courage to leap into the unknown, especially when the rest of the world wants you to stay right where you are. Just remember you don’t have to diet forever. You have a choice.
Take care and be kind to yourself.