This content may contain triggers involving, but not limited to, disordered eating.
Four years ago, I found myself in the office of a government-funded weight loss clinic for the last time. After almost a year of heavily restricted, low carb dieting, I was smaller but exhausted.
For months I had subsisted on a diet centered around lean cuts of meat and bitter greens, internally wracked with guilt on the hot summer day I had an ice cream with some friends. I ate turkey bacon at the movie theatre, and the day I was allowed to eat red peppers again felt like I had seen the face of a higher power.
I tried to fill the void of the countless foods I wasn’t allowed to eat with highly processed substitutes, my gut often aching. Some days I tested how little I could eat without feeling ravished by hunger. Other days I wanted to eat the world. It was expected that I would eat this way for the rest of my life, but I hoped and dreamed that if I could get down to some ambiguous, magical number, that I would finally be able to stop.
On this day, in that clinic, I eagerly sat down across from the doctor. I knew I had a lost a couple more pounds, and the positive feedback I was expecting was one of the only things that had been pushing me forward.
But that feedback wasn’t coming – the doctor was disappointed, telling me the two pounds I had lost in three weeks should have been more like three pounds lost in two weeks. I nodded, surprised and meek, and walked out with my head hanging low.
Over the next couple weeks, I started to get angry. Mad that my weight loss still wasn’t enough. That after almost a year of restriction and 60 pounds lost, I was still fat, and that my body was resisting getting thinner. At the smallest I had been in years, I received accolades from those who knew me, but the rest of the world still saw my body as too big.
I never returned to the clinic, furious that they would push such an unhealthy weight loss agenda, but without yet understanding the deeper issues at play; the problems with most weight loss agendas, and with my lifelong obsession that the world encouraged.
Over the next year and a half, I wove in and out of my own extreme, low carb diets. Feeling proximate to thinness, and desperately searching for the approval I had gotten as I took up less space, it seemed like I just needed one highly restrictive, joyless diet to stick for my life to change. Isn’t that the story we’re told?
But the thing was, I didn’t lose weight. And food continued to rule my life. It was all I could think about, obsessed about whether I would be able to find something in the “rules” when I was out and about during the day. Then, breaking down, I would binge on whatever I could get my hands on, barely tasting the food as it hit my lips.
Most of the time, I was eating sugar-free Jell-O at lunch, trying to tell myself that it brought me joy, or at least some approximation of it. Guilt ruled my life, and with each new period of dieting I found myself more exhausted and less hopeful.
The thing is, these years of low carb life were nothing new. I had been dieting, or thinking about it, obsessed with both food and making my body “better”, since I hit puberty at 10. I had lived a great life, don’t get me wrong, but the cycles and shame were with me every step along the way for 16 years.
Finally, in the spring of 2017, something started to break. There were things I was waiting to do, things I was waiting to feel about myself, holding out for the day my body would be small enough. But I was tired of just wanting to feel smaller, I wanted to feel stronger.
Suddenly, clear as day, I could see a life where I challenged my body to feel good, not just small. All along, I had been told those two things were inseparable. I started to move my body in ways that had felt impossible. I lifted heavy weights, hiked a difficult leg of the Bruce Trail, and ran my first 5K.
My shift in perspective didn’t happen all at once, and I can’t point to any one thing that got me there. I’m not done, and I highly suspect I may never be. As our bodies change – as we get older, have children, explore the world – we will continue to change. It’s one of the best and most challenging parts of being human.
What I can say, is that I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for the slow but steady exposure to diverse bodies and fat acceptance. Consuming content powered by individual makers and advocates (rather than exclusively corporate media) shaped the way I see the world.
For the first time in my life, I heard other fat women’s life stories, some very similar to mine and others completely different. I realize now, that I had only ever heard weight loss stories from them. Instead, these people were sharing all the intricacies of life we experience as humans, sometimes alongside and sometimes apart from, the fat experience.
Clothing, careers, love, family, mental health, activism – these women, like me, were complicated and fully formed humans that I had never been exposed to. And the clothes! Suddenly I was flooded with well-dressed fat women in fantastic clothing. Creativity in fashion seemed accessible to me in a way it hadn’t in years.
If there’s one piece of advice I can share, it’s this: stop following people and engaging with media that makes you feel bad. Maybe it’s that “perfect” influencer whose bone structure makes you feel like an amorphous blob, or a brand that pushes fad diets. They may not be malicious, but they’re not serving you.
Then, if you have the space, start engaging with media that makes you think critically and challenges the way you see things. For me, that was Christy Harrison’s podcast, Food Psych. She breaks down the science behind intuitive eating and critiques around diet culture while interviewing guests that range from dietitians and authors to personal trainers.
At first, I was defensive. I was calorie and macronutrient tracking, and it felt like Christy was questioning my entire way of life. “That’s great for her,” I thought, “but I’m fat and this is the only way to correct that. I’ll stop dieting when I’ve hit the weight I’m supposed to be.”
Within that defensiveness, I can now see so many misconceptions that I didn’t want to let go of. I was afraid. If I stopped dieting, surely I would just eat junk food all the time. How much weight would I gain? I’m not supposed to be fat. How could I possibly be healthy? But the more I listened, the more I learned and questioned my own thinking.
I started searching out other resources, and seeing an intuitive eating and addictions counsellor who helped me explore some of these feelings. Over many months of hard work, I started feeling less shame around my food choices.
Yes, at first I ate a lot of sweets. I did gain weight. But as I listened to my body instead of externally imposed restrictions, I started feeding my body to feel good for the first time in my life. Now, that sometimes looks like ice cream, but most of the time that looks like more vegetables and less binging than ever before.
Everyone’s experience is different – the beliefs and hang ups I had (and some I still have) might not be the same as yours. But you can start by looking at the media you’re consuming, and listening to diverse perspectives. Search out joy.
I’m not perfect. I’m still navigating what it means to live in my body, but I also feel less shame. I am at ease with myself in a new way, and I have freed up so much space in my head previously allocated to obsessing over food and criticizing my body. I’m finding acceptance, and this feels like the right place to be.
Anna Cunningham is a marketer and writer from Kitchener, Ontario. You can usually find her on Instagram or her blog talking about life in a big body, from fashion to fat acceptance, as La Studio Banane. She’s happiest in a lake, hanging out with dogs, or watching bad movies with pals.