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Respect Your Body

            The hardest lesson for me in my Intuitive Eating journey has been: Respect Your Body. I’ve been dreading this chapter in the workbook (by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch) since I started working with my nutritionist seven months ago. But as we ran out of other chapters to read, and re-read, she suggested going through this chapter one page at a time – in small bites – to keep it from becoming too overwhelming.

Small bites…of chicken?”

            One of the basic steps of learning to respect your body is the acceptance of your “genetic blue print,” because we have these fantasies that a five-foot-tall woman can transform herself into a willowy, long-legged model, if she just tries hard enough. In the Respect Your Body chapter of the book the authors write that, “Just as a person with a shoe size of eight wouldn’t expect to realistically squeeze into a size six, it is equally futile (and uncomfortable) to have the same expectation about body size.”

            But I do have these expectations. Literally, I’ve often felt guilty for how big my feet are, as if I kept growing on purpose just to take up more than my fair share of space. I don’t know how to accept that it’s okay to have big feet and big bones in a world where, up until recently, I couldn’t find many shoes in my size. But an even bigger part of the problem, I think, comes from the extreme size difference between my parents: my father is 6’4” and my Mom is, maybe, 5’1”, so being big automatically makes me feel like I’m on the wrong side of the parental divide. My father is a bad guy, and I feel bad by association for being tall and big-boned like him, instead of petite like Mom.

            I remember going to look for a watch when I was a teenager and trying on one women’s watch after another until it became clear that the bands on the watches meant for women were universally too small for me. And this was when I was skinny! I had to choose from the men’s watches even though they all looked so masculine and made me feel like I had cooties.

            I have a lot of stories like that: like when I was ten and needed new sneakers and none of the girls’ sneakers came wide enough for me, so I had to buy the ones for boys (aka blue). I wasn’t overweight, just built on the wrong scale for a girl my age, so there were no pink sneakers for me.

“Who needs sneakers?”

            I remember an episode of the Oprah Winfrey Show, years ago, when Oprah compared her “food addiction” to men who were “addicted” to domestic violence. She sat down with a group of domestic abusers and likened their inability to stop beating their wives with her inability to stop eating pasta. She really seemed to believe that this was a fair comparison. The underlying assumption, that wanting to eat a regular-sized serving of pasta qualifies as an addiction, went unquestioned, of course, but Oprah’s analogy pushed it further, implying that being fat is a character issue similar to beating your wife.

            I don’t know if there was any pushback against her assertions, because this was pre-social media, but her message resonated with a lot of other things I’d heard and seen by then. It was clear that, in our culture, dieting is considered virtuous, and choosing to eat just because you are hungry is a character flaw. But I am tired of dieting, and it has been a relief to give myself permission to eat over the past six months, and yet I haven’t been able to give myself permission to stop beating myself up for eating.

There’s a theory that we hold onto these dehumanizing and degrading ways of talking to ourselves because they serve a purpose; because we get something from these behaviors that we don’t want to give up. But I don’t think that’s true. I think certain types of thinking, especially abusive ones that start early and pervade society, stick to us for neurological reasons, not because we choose to keep them. And blaming me for “holding onto” these negative thoughts is just one more way of blaming the victim, and it sucks.

It’s hard to change thoughts that are so well supported by the people around me, like my doctors. They keep saying things like: if you’d just eat less you’d lose weight; or, your health depends on losing thirty pounds; or, exercise will make you stronger and therefore your perception that you are exhausted and in pain after exercising is false.

            How can I change internal messages that are constantly being reinforced by outside people who I am supposed to trust?

            I want these thoughts to change, but I wish someone could tell me how much more work I should put towards the goal of changing my thoughts, before it’s time to work instead on accepting that I will always have these thoughts and finding a way to give them less power over me.

            As I was reading the Respect Your Body chapter one page at a time, I came across a fact that stunned me: “The majority of American women (67%) wear sizes 16 and up, yet the majority of clothes available for purchase only go up to size 14.”

“Who needs clothes?”

            I have always assumed that I was a mutant for wearing a size sixteen as a teenager. And I felt that way when I wore a size fourteen, and a size twelve too. The only time I felt sort of normal was when I was a size eight (and anorexic). But what kind of society makes the majority of women feel like mutants? And how does the fashion industry even survive by aiming its merchandise at such a small percentage of the overall marketplace? Is the prejudice against larger-sized women so deep that clothing designers are willing to forego profits in order to continue stigmatizing women overall? All my life, I’ve thought that my sizes (of clothing, of shoes, of watches) were rare, and that’s why I could only find them in catalogs or online or in separate stores altogether, where the skinny people wouldn’t have to be contaminated. And now I find out that I’m actually in the majority?!!

            No wonder the Intuitive Eating book needs a whole chapter on respecting your body. It’s a shock that any woman over a size two feels acceptable as she is. And really, maybe no woman feels acceptable, because if you are led to believe that something you have no control over (your height and body type) determines your worth as a human being, why would any woman feel good about that?

            There’s so much work left for me to do on this issue, and the Intuitive Eating book doesn’t even address the body shame resulting from childhood sexual abuse. Even if I can work through the many layers of abusive messaging that come from societal expectations, or childhood bullying, or comparing myself to peers or to people on TV, underlying everything there is the fact that my body was not a safe place for me growing up.

            I want all of this to be easier. I want my doctors to stop being part of the problem, and I want the media to be more realistic about what can be expected of the human body, and I want Anorexia and disordered eating to stop being accepted as the cost of being a woman in our society. I want help, basically, because I don’t think I can do this work successfully without a lot of other people changing their minds with me.

And yet, I still desperately want lose thirty pounds, even though I know from experience that I will be just as unhappy with a thinner body, because I’ve been skinny and it didn’t fix anything. But I can’t let go of the hope.

“I hope for chicken. Always.”

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

Intuitive Eating Hits a Roadblock

            I’m not losing weight from Intuitive Eating. In part, that could be because I’ve been feeling really sick to my stomach lately, which clouds my ability to judge when I’m hungry and when I’m full. And I know that part of my inability to lose weight comes from my health issues, because I don’t have the energy to exercise enough to burn extra calories each day, and because some of the medications I take impact my weight. But, according to the Intuitive Eating workbook, it could also be that my body believes it is at the right size already, and I hate that idea. I’d prefer to believe that I’m unconsciously cheating in some way, allowing myself to eat past fullness and just telling myself that I’m still hungry. That would be a relief, because then I could hold onto the hope that when I do everything right I’ll lose weight.

            I’m still working my way through the Intuitive Eating Workbook (by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch), and one of the biggest blocks I can’t move is that my brain still tells me that in order to be a worthy human being I have to lose weight, and preferably have a smaller frame, including smaller feet. Because I am too BIG.

“Do I have small feet, Mommy?”

            The workbook characterizes thoughts like these as part of the Food Police – a set of destructive voices (picked up from diet culture, societal beliefs, and family rules) that try to keep me dieting and believing that I’m not okay as I am. These are the voices that yell at me for eating a piece of chocolate cake, or for buying 2% milk instead of fat free, or for eating carbs or fat, or for eating anything at all.

“I’m the sheriff!”

            One method the workbook suggests for how to deal with these internal messages is to question whether the beliefs are reasonable, and supported by scientific evidence, or not. For example:

            Distorted thought – I have to be skinny to be loved, to get a job, or to be successful in any other way.

Has this proven to be true? There is some evidence that love and attraction is conditional on body size, but it doesn’t really seem to hold true for work or friendship, so this is at least partially untrue.

That method did not feel especially helpful. Another method they recommend for combatting these negative thoughts is to answer them with a more positive, ally voice, like what you’d say to a good friend:

            A destructive statement – I am a glutton and selfish and eat too much and try to get away with everything and never hold myself responsible.

            Ally response – None of that is accurate. You often think too much about others before thinking of your own needs, and many of your needs have gone unmet because you are afraid of taking up too much space, care, attention or money.

            That seemed a little but more effective, so I kept trying:

            Destructive statement – I’m accomplishing nothing and annoying everyone who believes in my potential. I’m not writing enough or losing weight or getting a real job and they will all give up on me.

            Ally response – It would be impossible for anyone to meet all of those goals at once, and making long to-do lists can overwhelm your ability to get anything done. In reality, you work very hard at everything you do, and you’ve made an enormous amount of progress. You are creating your own path and the people who know you well are proud of you.

“Yeah Mommy!”

All of that sounds good, but the destructive voices keep coming back and telling me that I’m making excuses and lying and being a Pollyanna, and they get more creative and more stubborn with every attempt. This is not what the workbook tells me to expect, and I resent that the authors don’t acknowledge that this is a predictable response for someone whose Food Police voices are so deeply ingrained.

“Grr.”

I’m doing my best to keep doing the work anyway, even if I can’t shut down the Food Police or lose weight, but it’s frustrating that even though I stop eating when I’m full, I still feel empty and wish I could eat to fill the emotional void. I started doing a writing exercise from the workbook in the moments when I know I’m full but I still want to eat: I’m supposed to take five minutes to sit with my feelings first and then write down anything that comes to mind, but I don’t have the patience to sit first, so I just do the writing. Sometimes I list the foods I want to eat: like spaghetti and meatballs, or a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, or chocolate chocolate chip ice cream. Sometimes I just rant about how angry, guilty, frightened, frustrated, sad and hopeless I feel about the state of my body. Sometimes I actually try to figure out where all of the feelings are coming from, and what underlying need they are trying to tell me about, which is the stated purpose of the exercise.

Most of the time, just the act of writing seems to be enough to stop my momentum and prevent me from overeating, in that way, the exercise has been successful. But I’ve never finished the exercise and said to myself, aha, now I know what I really need to do in order to feel calm/comforted/satisfied/relieved/finished. There’s some relief in being able to acknowledge that something is missing, and I’ve learned that I can sit with the feelings of pain or loneliness or confusion or anger or sadness, or even hopelessness, and keep breathing. But not for very long. I still want to feel better and lose weight, and I still want the Food Police to go away, and figure out what it is that makes me want to eat more than my body needs.

            My Nutritionist thinks that the real battle behind all of this is that I struggle to respect my body as it is; that the destructive messages and the feelings of not-enough come from an underlying belief that I don’t deserve to be loved as I am. And she wants me to move my goal from weight loss to body acceptance, but I’m reluctant, because I don’t think that goal is reachable. Weight loss, at least, I’ve been able to achieve before; body acceptance sounds like a fantasy to me.

            But I worry that my Nutritionist is right, and that’s bringing up a lot of hopelessness, and I don’t want to feel hopeless. So I’m going to put the goals themselves out of my mind, or off to the side, and just keep going through the workbook and doing the work I can do; and I’ll see where it takes me.

“On a walk?”

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?