I decided to write in this post about belly fat because of something that happened to me this week.
Here’s what happened.
I was in a space the other day that had the potential of being body positive and accepting. But in this space, I heard a woman comment that she had to exercise extra hard and restrict her eating the next couple of months to be ready for the summer. This was right after I had read a statistic suggesting that 75% of women suffer from some kind of disordered eating. (I apologize that I forgot the source in which I read this statistic.)
And then several days in a row, some version of the same thing happened: I overheard women criticizing their bodies or saw advertisements (weight-loss related) about women feeling panicked about the summer and their bodies.
I was struck with a truth that I realized about a decade ago: “Women are terrified of gaining weight. We often feel that the very worst thing that could ever happen to us is to gain weight or fat.”
We are Terrified
Women often feel that if they gain weight, they become unlovable, morally reprehensible, gross, and doomed to a terrible life.
On the flip side, we often think that if we lose weight or are thin, we are magical, lovable, a good girl, beautiful, desirable, worthy of love, able to succeed, worthy of a good life, etc. etc. etc.
And I understand this line of thinking because I used to struggle with these thoughts all the time, and I still sometimes do, although I have largely been able to let go of this kind of conditioning.
It is understandable why women think these things. These are the messages we receive all the time from the media, from well-meaning loved ones, from bullies and people who wish to control us, and from that mean little voice in our own head.
Without realizing it, we are conditioned from an early age to believe we must punish, deprive, and shrink ourselves so that we are worthy to be seen and loved. (And I believe men are increasingly facing this pressure, too.)
So, this week, after hearing things like this, I thought to myself, “It is like women have lost or have never learned the ability to just let go, accept, and enjoy their bodies right now in the moment.”
And that is why I decided I need to write this post: Belly Fat: A Love Story.
First: A Story about My Belly Fat
First, I am going to tell you a little bit about my belly fat, which feels very vulnerable. But here we go.
I didn’t really start thinking about belly fat or any fat until the fourth grade, the first year my school had a weigh-in in PE class. Growing up, I was a medium weight, muscular girl. But there was another girl in my class, Lily, who was an unusually petite girl. The main thing I remember from that day is that kids found out that Lily weighed 48 pounds.
Note: I don’t care about weight or size, but I have to include a few details like this for this post to make sense.
Everyone thought this was amazing and magical, and Lily became a delicate fairy. I, on the other hand, weighed a good deal more than this. That day, I suddenly felt like I was a giant ogre.
My Worries Begin
This is the first time I remember worrying about fat. Around this same time, some girl told me that my bottom and belly stuck out. I started worrying all the time that I was too big—something I had never worried about before because I had been far too busy drawing, reading Nancy Drew books, watching Brady Bunch, riding bikes, and playing hide-go-seek.
In fifth grade, my family moved, and I was the new girl in school. Kids were not nice. I was still a medium-ish, muscular girl, but I developed earlier than some of the girls. That is the first time I remember boys in my class calling me fat.
It wouldn’t have mattered if I was fat (because fat is just a descriptive term, not a moral one), but the point here is that I wasn’t (bullying is always about the bullies and not the bullied). But fifth grade boys can be stupid and mean, and unfortunately these boys were.
And, of course, these boys also happened to be the popular, cool boys in class that everyone wanted to “go with” (whatever). I began equating the size of my body with my lovability.
I Equate Size with Lovability
My family moved again in sixth grade, and I was, once again, the new girl in school. There were a lot of good things that happened in sixth grade, but unfortunately, I was also threatened physically twice by some older girls.
Given that I was already really self-conscious about my physical self, my sixth grade brain translated these threats into the following message: “You are being bullied because you are too fat. You need to be small.”
One of my bullies also told me I had a smart mouth and would get the *&^% kicked out of me if I wasn’t careful.
The Shrinking Endeavors Begin
And thus commenced my zealous endeavors to shrink myself—mainly my body but also my spirit. I felt more in control and safe this way.
I started to exhibit some symptoms of body dysmorphia, a condition in which people’s perceptions of their body are really distorted. At this time, I was still medium size—on the small size of medium, actually. But I often saw my body as huge and ogre-like. (Please note, once again that I don’t care about size, and the only reason I mention size here is to highlight my distorted thinking patterns.)
Not the Only One
I bet many of you have a similar story. Perhaps you also have suffered bullying instances like this, and that is one reason I want to write about these instances from my life. Bullying behavior can lead people, especially with perfectionist tendencies, to develop obsessive body behaviors and thoughts.
And all the TV shows and movies I watched seemed to confirm the messages bullies in my life communicated. The heroine, the good girl, on TV shows was almost always thin and petite. On the other hand, the seductresses were always voluptuous. And everyone else was mainly ancillary or a laughing stock.
Dreaming to Be the Heroine
I really, really wanted to be a good girl. I really wanted to be the heroine. Thus, my shrinking endeavors continued.
I am lucky that I never developed eating disorders like anorexia or bulimia. However, I did become over-focused, and sometimes obsessed, with eating the right food and exercising consistently. Luckily this was balanced by the fact that I actually loved eating good food (my mom is an amazing cook), and I loved how exercising made me feel. I started aerobic dance class at this time and thought it was amazing.
It Got Worse as I Got Older
But the older I got, the more I used my pursuit of thinness to try to control the world and prove that I was worthy. This led me to cut out foods from my diet. I stopped eating all fast food and cut way down on processed food. Next, I became a vegetarian. Then I became a vegan. (And by the way, it is very possible to be a healthy vegetarian or vegan—I just wasn’t a very mentally healthy one.)
And one year, I cut out all animal products, as well as fat, caffeine, and sugar. That year was super fun. I was exhibiting symptoms of what is now called orthorexia—an obsessive-compulsive disorder that causes a person to fixate on clean and healthy eating, to the extent that it begins to interfere with her (or his) life.
And by the way—this is not a commentary on any one else’s food choices. This is a commentary on food choices that I personally made from fear and a misguided understanding about how to be a good friend to myself.
My Obsession Interfered with My Happiness
My health obsession was definitely interfering with my life. I mean, certainly I had less belly fat, but I was tired. I was anxious. My blood sugar was volatile. I felt out of control, and I felt terrified of gaining weight. To make matters worse, I constantly felt self-conscious and insecure. I started to hate exercise, and I didn’t want to do it anymore.
Something had to change.
And it did.
I Gained Weight, and My Life Didn’t End
I finally decided that I couldn’t live my life obsessed with food and terrified of gaining weight anymore. At that point, I decided there had to be a better way. About this time, I discovered Intuitive Eating, an eating philosophy which encourages people, among other things, to…
Pay attention to their hunger and fullness signals.
Make peace with their body wisdom.
Give themselves unconditional permission to eat.
Find non-food ways to deal with painful emotions (although emotional eating sometimes is certainly normal and expected).
Engage in playful and joyful movement because it feels good, not to lose weight.
Adventures in Intuitive Eating
I began trying to incorporate these rules into my life, and to be honest, I did gain weight. And I also lost weight and stayed the same. I repeated this process several times. Because all of this is a pretty normal thing for our body to do.
I found myself enjoying food more. Enjoying my body more. Feeling less self-conscious. And feeling beautiful and free. Deciding that I wasn’t willing to shrink myself for other people.
I vividly remember thinking one day, “I gained weight, and the world didn’t fall apart. People love me. I’m happy. My life is good.” In retrospect, it seems obvious to realize I could gain weight and my life wouldn’t come crashing down, but at the time, it seemed like a profound revelation.
I’m Still Working on All of This
It has been over a decade since I made the decision to stop trying to shrink myself. Please know that my life is not perfect.
I have days in which I feel gross, unworthy, unattractive, and unlovable. Sometimes I still struggle a little bit with body dysmorphia. In addition, a few times in the past decade, I have become fixated on my weight and, briefly, have gone on various diets or eating plans in order to feel more in control.
Generally speaking, though, I have given that up now because diets and rigid plans are bad for my mental health.
Other Good Changes
But in the last decade, I have learned to accept and love my body just as it is and to consistently find ways to be a good friend to myself and support myself. As I have done this, here are some of the cool things that happened, even though I have more belly fat than I used to. I now . . .
Have more confidence.
Dance more and with greater joy.
Stick up for myself and call out bullies because while I respect the dignity of all people, bullying behavior sucks.
Have better relationships with both men and women.
Feel more consistently comfortable, beautiful and awesome in my skin.
Started drawing and painting again.
Went back to grad school and earned my PhD in philosophy, a dream I had since seventh grade.
Stopped consuming media that makes me feel bad about myself.
Became more compassionate and encouraging.
Became a long-distance walker.
Took up hoop dancing.
Love exercising again.
Can have candy, ice cream, potato chips, cheese, fried chicken, French fries, and pretty much any food in my house and not worry about it because I can eat it when I want, and it’s not that big of a deal.