After twenty-five years of disordered eating and a poor body image I think I can finally, ultimately, safely say…I’m over it…for the most part, anyway. I’ve had a few false starts before, but something would trigger me, and I’d go right back to restricting or overeating, obsessively weighing myself, and glaring at my reflection with dismay as I pawed at my flabbier (and much despised) body parts and somehow hoping something had changed overnight.
I got pretty stressed out this year, as did everyone else since we all know 2016 has been a shitstorm. When I get stressed out, I turn inward and become more self-destructive. Anger and anxiety about what was going on around me morphed into self-loathing and hyper-criticism. I turned to comfort foods and would then punish myself with restriction. I hadn’t forgiven myself for putting on a few pounds since my black belt test last fall. I further isolated myself so I could spend more time at the gym but got antsy and depressed when I missed a workout. I told no one. There was no point. No one has ever believed me when I complained about my body, and many have been annoyed and flippant with me on the subject, so I learned long ago to deal with this problem alone.
At one point I was finally so tired I couldn’t take it anymore and willed myself to be grateful instead of hateful. I’m too old to still be dealing with this crap. I’m an adult with a job and a mortgage. I will turn forty in a few short years. Why am I still wasting my time and energy on something that has haunted me since I was thirteen years old? Why am I letting it ruin my life? I turned to sports to help boost my body confidence.
Every time my eyes (or thoughts) drifted to the parts I didn’t like I would remind myself of how badass my body was: Look at you doing box jumps like a ninja! You just swam 1.5 miles and you still aren’t tired! You can do more push-ups than the teenage boys in taekwondo class, Black Belt! You are standing on your toes and doing leg lifts in ballet barre class like a boss, and look at how strong and graceful you are! You. Kick. Ass. If I can do all those things despite my soft middle or cellulite-studded thighs then I must be doing something right.
I realize I may be using my athleticism as a crutch. Taekwondo has helped immensely in improving my confidence and overall happiness level, but it’s not a magic bullet. If I weren’t fit or had sports as an outlet I’m not sure I could just be with my body and accept it. I don’t know if I could love myself in a larger body, and I have thoroughly convinced myself that no one else would either. I try to remind myself that when I am sick or injured or just plain really old I’ll probably give anything to have back the body I have right now. (Whatever, I’mma still be kicking ass at ninety.)
Body acceptance (or lack thereof) aside, there’s nothing wrong with exercise and in fact, in my opinion, exercise is crucial to staying healthy mentally and physically. Bodies are meant to move whether it’s running a marathon or simply walking. Movement keeps the body healthy and functioning. I’m at the point where I don’t exercise to try to lose weight anymore. I just happen to like it, and I really do prefer exercise over shopping, watching TV, or other activities. That endorphin high can’t be beat. I have fun when I work out, and I only do sports that I enjoy. I’d still swim, do taekwondo, and go to my ballet barre class if there were no health benefits. To me exercising is like recess for grownups, whether it comes from a healthy mental motivation or not.
Appreciating my body for its athleticism helped me, but what really gave me the final push was, of all things, a Mario Puzo novel. During the Thanksgiving break I read a copy of “The Fortunate Pilgrim,” a story of a family of Italian immigrants living in New York in the late 1920s. I had picked it up out of curiosity after hearing director Francis Ford Coppola mention it in an interview. Coppola worked with Puzo to adapt his most famous novel “The Godfather” into the movie we know and love today.
I was especially interested in the book because my maternal great-grandparents came to the United States from southern Italy around the turn of the 20th century. I’ve always been curious about their experience and thought Puzo’s novel might give me a little insight into what their daily lives in America might have been like.
“The Fortunate Pilgrim” wasn’t the easiest book to read. It had a good storyline, but the dialogue was very stilted. Chapters were bloated with sentences like, “Today you are not going to your beautiful school!” or “He gave us our bread. He protected us all when no one but Zia Louche would even spit on our doorstep.” Who talks like that? What’s with the formality? Was it because English was their second language? Imagine if the entire “Godfather” movie was filled with stiff lines like, “And you come to me on this, the day of my daughter’s wedding, to ask of me a favor.” No…just…no. And if I had to read one more sentence about a man having to earn his “bread.” Ugh.
Cardboard-y dialogue aside, what really caught my attention was the food. The main characters were poor so they ate simple but hearty fare: homemade pasta, eggs, beans, leafy greens, freshly grated cheese, a cherished piece of fruit, bread slathered with olive oil and vinegar. I wanted that food. I craved it. That’s typically how I cook anyway, meaning, I can make marinara sauce in my sleep but I still don’t know my way around a good stir fry or platter of enchiladas, nor do I care to try. I cook everything in olive oil. I’ve been known to toss an egg or a half can of beans in a bowl of pasta and call it lunch. Hell, I even put olive oil on my SKIN at night. So I decided to eschew peanut butter sandwiches, frozen food, and my weekly pan of boring roasted vegetables for something a little closer to home.
Gnocchi to the Rescue
The Tuesday after Thanksgiving I spent over an hour at home preparing potato gnocchi after I got home from work. I hadn’t made gnocchi in years, and when I had made it I usually took short cuts like substituting a blob of ricotta cheese for the potatoes. This time I went old school. I had peeled, boiled, and mashed the potatoes a day or two before, and when I was ready to make the dough I plopped an egg into the center of the potatoes, added a cup of flour, and got to work. Eventually I got into a meditative rhythm kneading the dough, rolling it into ropes, and rolling the individual pieces with my finger, just like my grandma (daughter of the aforementioned immigrants) had taught me to do. I didn’t have the TV on for background noise. I didn’t even listen to the radio. I was completely in the moment. Just me and my gnocchi. I was very proud of my work.
After my gnocchi triumph I began to incorporate simple but delicious Italian-inspired food into my daily meals: fettuccine with butter and hot peppers, farfalle with asparagus and olives, fresh fennel and escarole with oil and vinegar for my side salads, small squares of fresh pecorino and mozzarella cheese nestled in my refrigerator. If I was in a hurry to make my lunch for work I would boil a cup of quick-cooking brown rice pasta and toss in sun dried tomatoes, oily roasted red peppers, and artichoke hearts. I excitedly dug into my Mario Battali cookbooks and frequently updated my half-Italian mom on what I was making. After Christmas I plan on making lasagna with homemade marinara sauce, and for New Year’s I’ll make (or attempt to anyway) ravioli al uovo, or ravioli with egg….yuummm.
Something about being away from my daily routine during the Thanksgiving break kick started something in me. I just ate when I was hungry and didn’t put much thought into food other than when I was daydreaming about a recipe I wanted to try. Sometimes I used whole wheat or alternative grain pasta, but much of it has been the good old-fashioned white flour kind. It’s not like I ate big ridiculous Olive Garden-sized bowls of pasta covered in obscene amounts of piping hot cheese. The more love, care, work, and pride I put into my meals made me slow down, appreciate, and feel satiated with the food in front of me, even in smaller portions.
I let myself eat sweets when I felt like it–turns out I didn’t feel like it all the time. I kept a stash of peanut butter crackers in my drawer at work when I needed a snack, and I’m still making my way through the package. I didn’t save up for a “cheat day” that would inevitably morph into a “cheat weekend.” I stopped cringing and feeling resentful when I felt full. I just ate, no strings or meanings attached. I envy people who have always eaten that way.
And what do you know…I stopped glaring at myself or frantically looking for a minuscule change in the mirror every time I passed by. I continued with my fun playtime sports, ate my pasta, and enjoyed them both immensely. To my surprise (and bewilderment) I noticed I was looking leaner, and after a few weeks of hiding the scale in my closet, I discovered I even lost a few pounds. I realized that I just wanted to be happy, and wasting my time obsessing over my body and all its made-up flaws was going to hold me back even further. I don’t care anymore. I can’t care anymore.
I’m not out of the woods yet. The void of body image troubles has been filled by the realization that a sense of contentment and optimism I’d had for a while has been sneakily replaced by an overall sense of unease, emptiness, and unhappiness, as I’ve hinted at in some of my other blog posts. Or maybe my mind is just whirling like an endless roulette wheel, looking for something to criticize or hate, and it’s panicking that the opportunity is dwindling. It’s not quite sure what to do with this newfound freedom.
Either way, I’m glad to have this weight (no pun intended) off my shoulders.