When I took on Intuitive Eating a year ago in May 2018, I thought this would be a bit of a messy year with a very neat ending. Okay, actually, here’s what I thought/ hoped for/ fantasized about: Effortless weight loss. The magical experience of not dieting and yet still shrinking my body to fit into an acceptable size. And that word, my friends, the word “acceptable” is key here. What I really wanted, what I’ve always wanted, is to feel physically acceptable. Between being teased (“bullied” is probably the more accurate term) as a child about my weight, which, looking back, was so NOT a problem, and being raised in a diet culture that permeated every system I belonged to on every level from the macro to the micro, I felt one hundred percent unacceptable. I got feedback from peers and family that there was something wrong with my body and the only way to be accepted was to change my size, that no matter what I else I did, as long as I was perceived as overweight, I was unacceptable. There are many, many painful memories associated with this faulty core belief and they all stacked up to convince me: I was not, am not, and will never be acceptable.
Fast forward to January 2018. I was gearing up to embark on what had become my annual “get healthy” kick. Getting healthy is what I told other people I was doing. Dieting is what I was actually doing. A 25-year-old desperate need for acceptability via weight loss is what fueled it all. I started running regularly in addition to my usual spin/yoga/walking routine. I downloaded the calorie counting app I’d used before. I weighed myself every morning and sometimes more than once a day. And all I felt was exhausted. Emotionally, mentally, spiritually exhausted from two-and-a-half decades of hating my body. Because even though I’d succeeded with weight loss in the past (eight times from ages 13 to 31), that weight loss had NEVER, not once, led to loving my body. Just like desperation fueled my dieting, fear of weight gain took over once I started to get attention for weight loss. The last time I lost a significant amount of weight, I had also just started a (very teeny tiny) baking business for fun, and when I saw a family friend and told her about it, the first sentence out of her mouth was “How will you stay thin with all that baking?” I immediately felt the cold chill of dread. Deep down, I knew I would gain some of the weight back, like I had EVERY SINGLE TIME I’d dieted in the past. And I knew with that would come the unacceptability. It was inevitable. I had learned to never let myself feel acceptable, because I knew that feeling, like the weight loss, wouldn’t last and I’d have to start all over.
By 2018, at age 32, the fear of weight loss had soaked into me so deeply from the culture and people around me and it had lodged itself INTO my being. I could not begin to fathom a life without either seeking weight loss or dreading weight gain. And at the same time, I was so, so tired of riding that ride. I felt so done with it. I started to think I would be fat, miserable, and, worst of all, unacceptable for the rest of my life, because I could not do dieting anymore.
Sometime in Spring 2018, I heard about Intuitive Eating. I think it was from finding Tiffany Roe online, but I’m not sure exactly. Somewhere along the line, I started to see there was a third option I hadn’t ever considered. Instead of choosing between fat and miserable or dieting and miserable, I could choose to get off the ride. I wasn’t ready to do it, not yet, but my mind started to open to the reality that there were women out there, women a lot like me, who weren’t slaves to their weight or size or body image. I’m not sure how it all started, but I know the seed was planted by Mother’s Day weekend 2018.
The Friday before Mother’s Day, I did what a did most weekdays. Got my kindergartener to school, took my younger two to the gym for a workout, went home to shower. Before showering, I stood on the scale. I don’t remember what the number was (thank heavens), I don’t remember what I thought, but I do remember the feeling. I felt gross, hopeless, disgusting, out of control, and, yep, you guessed it: Unacceptable. And then, this totally ordinary thing happened, something that happens to all parents everywhere: My kid copied me. My almost two-year-old daughter, without an ounce of awareness of what she was doing, stepped on the scale, paused as she looked down at the number, slumped her shoulders, dropped her head, and pouted with her whole body as she stepped off the scale.
It was then that I decided this ends with me. Right then, in that second, I saw the reality of what had been done to me and what had been done to generations before me and what was being passed down to my daughter, and I told myself, No. Hell no. This stops NOW. I picked up the scale and put it in the trash and held my girl. I deleted the calorie counter app and the macro counting app from my phone and I unfollowed the diet-promoting accounts on Instagram and followed more Intuitive Eating accounts and I took a shower. And then I freaked out.
I knew what was about to happen. I was going to gain weight. It was inevitable. And yet, for the first time since I was eight years old, that wasn’t the scariest thing in my life. It was still scary, hellishly scary. But you know what was scarier? Imagining my child stepping on that scale ever again. Imagining her trying to throw up after meals the way I had when I was thirteen. Imagining her starving herself to lose weight before her wedding like I had. Imagining her spending the first several months of her new baby’s life counting calories and crying over stretch marks. I decided then and there to not only offer my daughter a different option but to live that out for her, to show her how it’s done.
It sounds so easy when it’s written out in a few sentences, right? Just “do it differently and show her how it’s done,” Caitlin! This is where the freak out happened. I knew what I wanted to do but had no idea how to do it or what to expect. I flailed around for weeks and weeks. I read the book and followed some Intuitive Eating accounts and took it step by step, and it still was a few months before I felt like I was not a complete failure. I remember telling my sister-in-law that summer that I felt like I was doing something morally wrong by not striving for weight loss, like I was breaking a law or violating an oath. I felt unmoored, floating along in unknown territory while familiar landscapes lay behind me, just out of reach.
By fall, the weight gain was noticeable and, predictably, the first thing I noticed every time I looked in the mirror. My brain had been trained to track my size as THE standard of acceptability. When I reached what in the past had been “totally unacceptable,” e.g. the size at which I would buckle down and crash diet and do disordered things, it became very tempting to diet again. Very, very tempting. I always knew I wasn’t willing to go back there, and yet I fantasized daily about weight loss and thought weekly about what life would be like “when I’m at my real size/ the size I’m supposed to be/ a healthier size.” I realized I was viewing Intuitive Eating as a) another diet and b) the answer to prayers (I literally prayed for weight loss nightly from ages eight to 11, at the height of the bullying). I was confused and in pain, and so uncertain about how to live a life based on intuition if it involved so much suffering. I started to resign myself to the fact that I would never, ever find peace with my body. I started to think that maybe the best thing I could hope for was to show my daughter she doesn’t have to diet.
And that, right there, was the problem: I was trying to show my daughter. I was doing this all for her, for someone else, for someone who wasn’t me. My childhood prayers to be skinny, my adolescent starvation and purges, my college sugar fasts, my postpartum Weight Watchers membership, my three rounds of Whole30, all the calorie tracking and macro counting and “research” reading and desperate fantasies of magically losing thirty pounds… it was ALL for others. All about how other people saw me. None of it was for me. None of it was about me. None of it was what I really wanted, it had absolutely nothing to do with my intuition. And I had carried over that tendency, that external locus of control, that off-centered/ other-centered approach into Intuitive Eating. Because I was doing it “for my daughter,” it would become something I would do to my daughter.
This was early 2019. I am well-practiced at giving myself permission to eat whatever I want, whenever I want. I’ve gotten good at not complimenting other people’s weight loss or engaging in diet talk with friends and family. I’m more open, at a deeper level, with a few trusted people about how hard it is and how great it is. I’m feeling less and less tempted by dieting. I’ve gone several months, almost nine, without weighing myself. I’m focusing on raising my kids to be intuitive eaters, undoing some of the damage that was done in the first seven, five, and two years of their lives. So much has changed and is changing.
And yet. That faulty core belief, that certainty that I am physically unacceptable, is as strong as ever. I dread visiting my hometown and seeing people I haven’t seen for months, knowing they will notice the weight gain (these are the people who FREAKED OUT, they were so thrilled when I lost weight in college). I think about visiting old friends and don’t book the trip because I know they’ll notice the weight gain. I hesitate to see friends and family when they come to where I live from out of town, worried they’ll see me and see failure. The other-focus is still there, still fighting to be in control, still creating a lot of internal tension and unnecessary suffering.
Which takes me to my most recent wake-up call: When my grandfather was sick and getting sicker in March, and then dying and buried in April, I didn’t take many pictures with him or other family members. My first reaction to seeing a picture of myself had been the same since I was eight years old: Crossing my fingers (literally as a child then figuratively as an adult) and thinking to myself, “Please look skinny. Please look skinny. Please don’t be fat. Please don’t be fat.” These sentences roll through my brain so easily, such a well-trodden neurological path, so familiar and comfortable. These desperate hopes had evolved since I started practicing Intuitive Eating, but not healthily. Instead of wishing to look skinny, I accepted I was fat and therefore avoided taking pictures. Which meant that I don’t have any pictures of myself with my grandpa from the last time we were together on Earth, or the last time we sat and talked about books, or the last time he could stand when I walked into the room. Fear of being fat has robbed so much from me. It has robbed so much from so many people I love. It has robbed so much that we can’t get back. Enough is enough is enough.
Here’s where I am now: Reminding myself constantly that my mental health is not worth sacrificing for anything. Fighting hard to retrain my brain with the help of Jessi Jean’s Conquer course. Using radical acceptance to let go of deadlines or expectations or fantasies. And all of this alongside grieving with my inner child, forgiving myself and others for not knowing better, and true self-care. I don’t know how long this will all take or if it will ever end.
Are you in a similar struggle? Do you have a history like mine? I’m genuinely curious and hopeful you’ll share in the comments below; I could use all the camaraderie I can get. Thank you so much for being here.