Don’t punish food with exercise… and other thoughts on dieting and body image

I’ve had a terrible relationship with my body and my self-image for almost 20 years. Since I was 15 years old,...

I’ve had a terrible relationship with my body and my self-image for almost 20 years. Since I was 15 years old, I’ve been on a diet. Starving myself, then letting myself go and gaining it all back, yo-yoing between having and lacking the willpower to do that to myself. It all began with a broken heart over a boy, a difficult relationship with my father, and a lack of (self-)love that I believed could be fixed only if I restricted myself.

As a result, I know the calorie count of almost everything that’s edible. I know a ton about fats, proteins, and carbs. I know about sugar and what it’ll do to you, and I know why processed foods are so addictive and so difficult to resist. But what I know most about, and what has been with me ever since I started my first diet, is guilt.

I don’t remember a time before dieting. It doesn’t matter how many times I try – I cannot remember a time where food was just that: food.

A time when eating didn’t make me think of the consequences and didn’t immediately make me question my worth by making me feel bad about my weight, the tightness of my jeans, or the circumference of my waste. Looking back, I realize how bad it was. But that was only the beginning. A few years into the all-consuming dieting practice, I discovered exercise. Not for the obvious benefits of living a fit and healthy life, but for the guilt relief it provided after eating.

From that point on, daily exercise became mandatory, especially after meals where I had let myself slip and had enjoyed something on the no-no list. And although exercising to stay in shape can certainly be a healthy choice, for me it wasn’t. I was not moving my body to keep it healthy, I was moving it to get rid of the food I had just eaten. It took me years to understand the difference. For the longest time, I was oblivious to what I was doing, and honestly believed that I was taking good care of myself, both with exercise and my diet!

don't punish food with exercise - dieting and body image

Since then, by focusing on other benefits besides weight loss that exercise brings to my body, I’ve learned not to punish myself with exercise, but to enjoy it for the benefits it brings me. But then again, since then, I’ve also learned a totally new way to relate to food – one that isn’t filled with guilt and doesn’t require me to count every single calorie that I take in. It was a slow process, and it took me a long time to get where I am now. And it all started with me treating myself and talking to myself as I would treat and talk to someone I really loved – someone I would only wish the best for, and who I would want to care for, always.

Once I started to see myself and my body through a lens of love, things slowly shifted and moved into place.

I stopped counting calories and started listening to my body instead, focusing on feeling hungry. A feeling that I had suppressed so much in the past, that it took me close to a year to get in touch with it again. Now, when I’m hungry, I listen to my body and I eat!

I stopped punishing myself with exercise, and started enjoying it instead. Instead of doing one after the other, eating and then exercising, I separated both activities in order to allow them to exist and be good for me on their own. And every time I felt I had to exercise, I forced myself not to, and chose a self-care activity instead.

I stopped buying clothes that were too small, and had everything fitted instead. When I was on my perpetual diet, I was always aiming for smaller. As a result, I never bought anything that actually fit me. I never tried anything on either, so I usually never got around to wearing the new clothes I bought at all. The only thing those clothes ever did for me, was help me to be harder on myself. Now, I have a closet full of beautiful things that fit me and make me feel wonderful. There is simply no better feeling in the world.

I stopped comparing myself to others, and learned to love my body instead. For years, I let myself be brainwashed by the media, believing all the paint-brushed pictures telling me there was still a lot to improve upon with my body. When I started to love myself more, I realized I had a wonderful body of my own that had been with me for forty years, and that I hoped would be with me for at least another forty. I found a deep sense of love for the physical me, and have been cherishing and taking the best possible care of it ever since.

I still am not there 100% of the time, but most days, I’m doing fine. I eat when I’m hungry, I exercise a few times a week (but only when I feel like it), I wear what fits me, and I like my body. That’s what loving myself has done for me. And I think that’s pretty fantastic!

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