How I Overcame Yo-Yo Dieting and My Bad Relationship With Food
After a lifetime of dieting and body dysmorphia, health problems led me to change how I saw myself and food.
The first time I experienced body shaming was at a pool party when I was nine. I was wearing a new, hot pink one-piece bathing suit that my mother had bought when suddenly one of the boys splashed water my way and yelled, "Hey, Big Bird!" At first, I didn't understand the reference until he pointed to my stomach and said, "Skinny legs, fat stomach—just like Big Bird!" He squawked and flapped his arms before returning to a group of giggling kids by the pool steps. I glanced down at the wet, pink fabric that clung to my bulging stomach and was reminded of a brightly dyed Easter egg.
Clinging to the rough edge of the concrete pool, I waited until the group of kids moved toward the diving board to make my escape from the water. Once inside the house, I quickly changed into dry clothes, then sat by the refreshment table where I stuffed fistfuls of potato chips into my mouth to numb the shame.
I never wore that bathing suit again.
My parents were always picky about my looks—they often poked my puffy belly to remind me I needed to stop snacking. I resented it but accepted it because I assumed it was their job to judge me. Weren't all parents concerned about their child's appearance? But being teased by my peers brought on a whole new level of shame that I was not emotionally equipped to handle.
Around this time, I started really studying myself in the mirror (specifically the way my clothes fit) and rethinking my wardrobe. I hated that I was the tallest girl in my class, the last picked for relay race teams during recess and the first to rush home because I didn't want the boys yelling "Big Bird" or "Fatso" when I ran down the cracked sidewalk to my house.
Yo-Yo Dieting Led to a Period of Disordered Eating
By the time I reached the sixth grade, I had begun the first of many diets. My sister and I did it together, counting every calorie we consumed and carefully measuring our food on a tiny kitchen scale. To my surprise, I quickly lost ten pounds, and the adrenaline rush I felt from my parent's compliments outweighed any cravings I might have had for junk food.
But like many dieters, I found calorie counting too restrictive after a while and was quickly sucked into years of yo-yo dieting. As a result, my body became a human accordion; sometimes, I was thin, basking in the attention of high school boys. Other days, I felt fat and hid behind oversized clothing.
The war with my body continued through my college years as I allowed the numbers on the bathroom scale to dictate my mindset. If the numbers were higher than I considered acceptable, I'd live on 600 calories a day. If I lost weight, I rewarded myself by binging on ice cream, hamburgers or whatever fried food I could get my hands on. It wasn't long before I discovered that I could eat as much as I wanted as long as I purged afterward.
During this dangerous time, it never occurred to me that I was torturing my body in my quest to be thin, allowing this self-destructive behavior to continue for years until I finally met someone special and got married.
My Unhealthy Relationship With Food Resurfaced After Having Children
My husband was always generous with compliments, assuring me that I was beautiful and loved no matter what size I was. His easy acceptance of my appearance made me feel comfortable in my own skin for the first time since childhood. So instead of obsessing about my body, I focused my energy on starting a family and hit the gym regularly as a healthy alternative to control my weight.
But nine years and four children later, the pounds crept back on. When I looked at my reflection, I hardly recognized myself. I thought the excess weight was muscle mass from my workouts. Still, there was no denying the swollen belly that triggered the same insecurities I felt at the elementary school pool party.
Terrified of gaining more weight, I increased my cardio workouts and persuaded my doctor to prescribe weight loss medication. The drugs worked—I completely lost my appetite and dropped 40 pounds in two months.
Certain my days of compulsive overeating were done, I reveled in my new smaller size and never tired of hearing people tell me I was getting too skinny or that I needed to gain a few pounds—this just fueled my desire to continue cutting more calories. Being thin was unchartered territory for me, opening new doors to a life I never knew existed. People smiled more at me, men flirted and women complimented my appearance. The anxiety I'd felt when I was overweight disappeared, replaced by a sense of confidence that I'd never experienced before. It didn't matter that the medication made me extraordinarily thin and jacked up my heart rate; all that mattered was that I looked skinny.
My Obsession With Body Image Rubbed Off on My Daughters
My obsession took its toll—the self-destructive cycle repeating itself in my daughters, who also had an unhealthy obsession with weight. As teenagers, they frequently examined their bodies in the mirror, tugged at their jeans and lamented the numbers on the scale. Their behavior reminded me so much of myself at that age, and I couldn't bear to think that they might spend the majority of their lives obsessing over their weight as I had. I felt as if I'd failed them by allowing them to grow up watching me criticize my appearance and for letting them see how my weight had defined me. I wanted them to focus on what was more important—their character and their health, and they needed to learn it from my example.
I stopped cold turkey on the pills, and within weeks, my heart rate returned to normal as my weight increased. I tried not to panic when my clothes became a little snug, reminding myself it was best for my health.
And it would have been if I hadn't let the old habits of compulsive eating creep back into my life.
I Became Naive About My Yo-Yo Weight Gain, and My Body Paid the Price
A series of events occurred that triggered me to numb my feelings with food. First, it was the grief of my mother's passing, which resulted in a falling out with my siblings. Then, I saw my son hospitalized for an addiction to nootropics. After that, I felt as if I was unraveling one pound at a time. In those four years, I gained 70 pounds and stopped caring how I looked. My life was in chaos, and the only solace I found was in the comforting arms of food.
Despite the weight gain, I still embraced body positivity no matter how scary the escalating numbers were on the scale. I kept reminding myself that true beauty came from within and that it shouldn't matter how large or small I was, or what people thought of me, as long as I was happy with myself. So instead of staring at my expanding waistline in the mirror, I focused on the physical features that I felt were positive—good skin, nice eyes, a pretty mouth and a great smile. My mantra was, "If I feel good on the inside, then I'll look great on the outside!" But even though these words were repeated in my head daily, I was subconsciously disguising my body in larger clothing and avoiding full-length photos on social media.
My body wasn't going to let me get away with that unrealistic way of thinking. It started first with my feet—they ached if I stood for too long during the day. Next, my doctor diagnosed plantar fasciitis and had me wear shoe inserts in addition to sleeping with special boots for my feet. After the foot pain subsided, I decided to exercise outdoors and trekked the mile trail near my house, only to limp back home after my left knee gave out.
I was also exhausted all the time, falling asleep at my computer when I should have been working. The nights were worse—I couldn't get comfortable in bed because no matter what position I chose, the excess body weight pressed heavily on my chest, making it harder to breathe. My husband complained about the loud snoring and finally moved out of our bedroom and onto the couch. I thought of the people who used CPAP machines to help them sleep and vowed that would never be me—yet I continued to fool myself into thinking I was still at a normal weight. I believed that a few extra pounds wouldn't affect my health and that only people with morbid obesity had serious health issues. I wasn't at that point…yet…so why worry?
My Wake-Up Call to Break the Yo-Yo Diet Cycle
There were other problems occurring: A mammogram ordered by my doctor revealed two cysts inside my left breast. After doing a little research, I discovered that the statistics for breast cancer were higher for women my age who were overweight.
More tests were ordered—blood work that indicated I was pre-diabetic and needed cholesterol medication. An inconclusive urine test required an ultrasound that later revealed that my gallbladder was loaded with stones—most likely from years of drinking alcohol and eating high-calorie foods.
I woke one morning and stared at my puffy reflection in the mirror, no longer recognizing the dull-eyed, pasty-faced woman before me. Instead, what I saw was the face of my older sister, who had died years earlier from complications of her obesity.
It was a moment of sudden clarity; my inability to face my obesity was costing me my health and leading me down the same destructive path that had taken my sister's life. It was the wake-up call I needed to change my unhealthy eating habits.
I'm Finally Learning How to Have a Healthy Relationship With Food and My Body
Oddly, during the years I was thin, I suffered from body dysmorphic disorder, believing I was too fat despite being dangerously underweight. And then the reverse occurred once I became obese—there was a complete disconnect between myself and my body. As a result, I thought my weight was average and continued to give in to cravings for fattening, sugar-laden treats as a reward for my positivity.
The only way to stop letting food control me was to think in terms of getting healthier, not "skinnier." I joined a popular weight-loss program that included a special meal plan and worked with a coach who helped me think of food more as a way to nourish my body rather than blocking unwanted emotions with large amounts of fattening snacks that did nothing to sustain me. Whenever I felt like straying from the plan, I called my coach or read inspirational stories on weight loss, which helped me to stay on track.
I also joined a support group of people just like me with body image issues and eating disorders that helped give me the courage to stop my dependence on food for numbing myself. With support from family and close friends, I dropped the extra pounds in six months and no longer feared the allure of fattening foods. Instead, there was a sense of relief that was more freeing than the weight loss itself. By changing my life, I added more quality to it.
I look better now, but more importantly, I feel better. The bodily aches, snoring, heartburn and pre-diabetic conditions have all disappeared with my weight loss. I am not too thin or overweight, but I am the best version of myself. I'm right where I need to be: healthier, stronger and happier—and currently the proud owner of a hot pink bathing suit.