ASK LESLEY: How Do I Stop Hating My Body? (Part Two)

Some further steps on the self-acceptance path. Bonus: Nutella!
Publish date:
November 17, 2011
self esteem, self acceptance, radical anti-diet extremism

I requested that Emily update me on how things had been since she was feeling all self-loathe-y for gaining five pounds [OK, it was 10 -- Emily] and she said:

Since your last advice, I have been doing a little bit better. I haven't lost any weight or gained any more. I still don't feel good about that, but I am not actively loathing myself like I was when I first reached out. I keep playing a mantra in my head to accept myself just the way I am today. I didn't weigh myself for about a week, but now have gone back to stepping on the scale every few days. OK, the only reason I didn't weigh myself for about a week is because I had a bunch of bags of clothes blocking my way to the scale. But I am thinking about getting rid of it, maybe destroying it in a spectacular YouTube video.

Overall, I recognize that I am eating to comfort myself through a time of emotional upheaval — since I no longer drink, use drugs, or act out sexually, and totally healthy ways to self-soothe kind of suck, food is all I've got right now. So I am working really hard to be OK with that. It does help to familiarize myself with my body, because when I look at my naked body at home, I think that it is sexy at this size. I just seem to lose all that self-love once I leave the house.

Dear Emily,

Man, coping mechanisms are a bitch; seems like everyone I know, myself included, has either too many, none at all, or the “wrong” ones.

Comfort eating is always tricky for me because while I want to respect that it is dangerous for lots of people, part of me also wants to defend comfort eating as a not intrinsically bad action to take, sometimes. Food is comforting, and that’s not a negative thing; it’s a biological thing, which makes the comfort it offers really difficult to ignore or dismiss.

There’s loads of highfalutin medical research demonstrating that food -- most often the foods we culturally label as “bad,” those high in fat, sugar, and starch -- chemically affects our moods and brain function, making us feel better, literally. So the response to it is not purely psychological, but also biological; it’s in your head, but it’s not “in your head,” if you get what I mean.

I want to ask whether it’s possible that the problem here is not so much the comfort eating you’re doing -- making a distinction between comfort eating and out-and-out bingeing, which is pretty much uniformly destructive -- as it is the associated self-directed doubt, guilt and recriminations that come along with it. These are feelings (and I know you looooove feelings) that are far more likely to make you feel badly about yourself than a piece of cake will. Indeed, the piece of cake is probably making you feel happier, which you then feel badly about, because the happiness (and, ostensibly, additional pounds) came from cake.*

I agree that if comfort eating is the least destructive of the self-soothing outlets you have, then it MUST be OK for you to do it, without feeling guilty about that. You’re familiar with harm reduction? Harm reduction is a public health approach to drug abuse that seeks to minimize the risks of drug use, arguing that many of its dangers (such as disease, or the use of illegal substances of unknown origin or purity) stem from the criminalization of drug use. Needle exchange programs are a form of harm reduction, in that by supplying intravenous drug users with clean needles, they hope to reduce the spread of disease caused by people sharing needles in the absence of a safe and reliable place in which to procure fresh supplies.

It’s a controversial idea, for sure, but there is something in the idea that since we can’t always totally prevent folks from engaging in potentially self-destructive behaviors, we should at least help them to do so in ways that are LESS dangerous. In many cases, helping folks to be safer in their risk-taking is the best we can hope for. Just a little food for thought.

The other critically important thing to remember in all of this is that no matter what you do, over time, your body is going to change.

Change is unavoidable. Some of us can mitigate the changes, and some can intervene on a temporary basis, but all of these efforts are staving off the inevitable, and I am of the opinion that doing so makes us less happy with ourselves, not more. Because it’s understandable that we might resent the work we must put in to make our bodies seem “normal,” when “normal” should be something that comes naturally.

This is why body-love, or body-acceptance, or even just body-tolerance, is always a process -- often a life-long one -- and not a destination.

I know that you think I have FEELINGS OF STEEL and that’s actually kind of true, most of the time. It wasn’t always the case, though -- my teflon-y toughness is a two-layer system, half of which I earned consciously, by the hard work of self-acceptance, the other half of which I developed out of necessity, because when you’re chronically writing about being a great fatass in public places like this one, you either learn to shrug off the abuse (both internal and external), or you spend your days fetal and sobbing.

Most of us who haven’t won the genetic lottery are forced to learn this, because it’s hard out there for a lady (or anyone, really) with a nonstandard body size, shape, and/or composition. Part of the reason why it’s hard is because we so rarely speak openly about these experiences, or show each other the unvarnished truth of our midsections, or support one another in self-acceptance instead of in impossible aspirations to perfection.

Like you say above: You’ve got today. If you can accept yourself today, then tomorrow will be easier, and the next day, and the next. And when you backslide -- which will happen -- you won’t fall as far, because now you’re landing on a cushion of self-acceptance, making it less of a struggle to get back up again.

Your homework this week? Try making a pledge to yourself that you will appreciate and respect and know your body no matter what it looks like, whether you’re three pounds up tomorrow or 50 pounds up in five years or 10 pounds down in six months. Do it in the mirror, self-help positive-affirmation style: “I WILL APPRECIATE AND RESPECT AND KNOW MY BODY TODAY AND TOMORROW AND FOREVER, NO MATTER WHAT IT LOOKS LIKE.” If you can develop this idea, the inevitable changes won’t phase you, won’t be able to play havoc with your self-esteem.

Also? GET RID OF YOUR SCALE. Seriously, your body is awesome for what it can do and how it feels, not for what it weighs or how it looks. Remember it.

xo Lesley

* I know you are already a part of the powerful pro-cake lobby; this is just my favorite example of a guilt-causing food.