We Chat to 3 Women Who Are on The Path to Overcoming Their Unhealthy Relationship With Food
For as long as I can remember, dieting has been a common conversation among women. I don’t think I have ever spoken to a woman who has never been on, attempted, or thought about a diet. I’ve certainly been on my fair share of them.
I used to think being smaller meant being healthy and happy; it wasn’t until I whittled down to the thinnest version of myself that I realised that wasn’t the case at all.
When I first discovered dieting as a quick fix, I felt a sense of relief knowing I could improve what I had grown into as a young woman.
Diet companies have a great way of brainwashing us to believe that we can feel better by looking smaller. That going on a diet will help us achieve optimum health and happiness and a bodyweight that will carry us through life perfectly. That this is what makes us as women attractive — even if it is not our natural size.
The irony is, consistently striving to achieve a desired body weight by limiting ourselves, can result in developing a poor relationship with food and a mindset that, without another diet, our bodies may never be good enough.
But at what point will society and diet culture stop glorifying thinness, and allow women to liberate themselves from feeling the need to keep the “perfect” figure?
I recently spoke to three women about what led them to develop a poor relationship with food and how they are working to overcome it. Caroline is a good friend of mine, Lyndi has an online program I discovered, and Varsha and I connected through The Butterfly Foundation.
Caroline’s disordered relationship with food and her body started when she was a little girl going through her parents’ divorce.
Caroline was unable to navigate her traumatic emotions and feelings, and, later in life, turned to romantic relationships in order to fill the absence of love she had experienced from the divorce. Through therapy, Caroline identified that she was attracting relationships that were a reflection of how she felt about herself. She thought that if she was skinny and attractive on the outside, she would be easier to love and stay with.
“It was never about the food, to begin with,” Caroline says. “It was about having control over an aspect of my life when everything else was falling to pieces around me. Food became escapism, however. It was a ‘drug’ that could numb the feelings I didn’t want to feel or address.”
Caroline says she’s grateful for what she has been through and believes she wouldn’t be the strong person she is today without the struggles. She has been able to look to her spiritual practice to help peel back the layers of her disordered relationship with food and understand what it was trying to teach her.
“Meditation, yoga, acupuncture, spiritual teachings, esoteric therapy, nature, friends and ultimately wanting more for myself in life, have all been key points in me being able to move past this,” she says.
“It’s so important to acknowledge and realise that the thoughts in your head aren’t real. Thoughts feed the way we feel and the way we feel feeds our habits, patterns, and way of choosing to live life. Addressing the inner dialogue through conscious awareness and mindfulness is really powerful, even if it feels forced to begin with; that’s ok.
“Most people have never learnt how to ‘be with themselves’. It’s a practice that takes time, but once you learn to be comfortable with sitting in stillness and any discomfort that may arise without the need to run away, that’s when you start moving forward towards a better life. Find people around you that can support you, hold space for you and love you through a difficult, but incredibly rewarding journey. You’ll need them on the days when you want to give up. And most of all, BELIEVE that you can and you’re already halfway there.”
Lyndi’s relationship with food changed completely when she hit puberty at 11.
At the time, Lyndi went to see a nutritionist who, after weighing her and despite the fact she had a healthy BMI, suggested Lyndi follow a meal plan. This was the beginning of a decade of disordered eating and obsessing over food.
Lyndi stole her mum’s calorie counter book and learned all the foods by heart. She was either being ‘good’ or eating ice cream and peanut butter straight by the spoon and devouring bowls of cereal uncontrollably. Dieting made her all-or-nothing around food. Lyndi had developed a binge eating disorder and the more she tried to lose weight, the more out of control around food she became. It is very common for binge eating to promote feelings of shame and lack of self-control. The act of bingeing is a normal reaction to dieting.
Lyndi’s body didn’t trust that food was always allowed and so when she got access to food, she would binge eat as much as she could in secret.
Lyndi controlled food in order to lose weight because she wanted to feel like she was good enough. People would say “You’d be so pretty if you lost weight”, making her feel as though she wasn’t pretty. That her weight was holding her back from her full potential.
“After studying nutrition and dietetics, I realised there was more to food than how many calories it contained. I realised that pursuing weight loss was causing me to binge eat and making me gain weight. When I stopped trying to lose weight, and instead, focused on trying to feel good in my body, then I stopped binge eating.”
When Varsha reached the age of 13, the negative thoughts she’d started feeling about food and body a year earlier became less temporal and more permanent.
It happened in small steps, and Varsha told herself it was in the name of health. Over time it became clear that her idea of health was distorted by diet culture, and her relationship with food and her body was unhealthy. This distorted relationship with food stemmed from the intersection of diet culture, racism, and cultural stereotypes that she could not fulfil.
“Since I was eight, I’ve had comments about my body from neighbours, extended family, and even friends, but that wasn’t the tipping point to my eating disorder. For me, my eating disorder was about fitting, or rather not fitting, into the binary I had created in my mind — the binary of the skinny white girl or the stereotypical portrayal of the intelligent Asian.
“Being in an environment where I was subtlety cast into the group of Asians at my school, noted for being studious, I felt I could not fulfil the academic standards so I aspired to fit the other side of the binary. I aspired to be the honorary white girl — an idea created by film, marketing and cultural stereotypes. Achieving this for me meant being thin because it would mean I was beautiful which would mean I finally had a purpose. I now realise I used my eating disorder to fill the void cultural stereotypes created in me.”
Varsha started working on healing her relationship with food after the BLM protests in 2020. “It was only through the work of Black activists that racism was discussed under an intersectional lens which allowed me to realise that it was never my weight or my beauty or my grades that was ‘not enough’. Since day one, it was always about my skin colour and unpacking the stereotypes and fatphobia that I’d been indoctrinated with.”
The process of healing a broken relationship with food isn’t easy and Varsha still has days when she hates her body and feels like there’s been no change to it.
“But the difference now is, I am fuelling my body no matter how I think,” she says. “I can stand up and pull myself out of the rut through journaling and speaking, and recognising that I am human. I will fail and succeed and cry, and sometimes the way I feel is not my fault because I cannot help that my skin is brown and my culture is ‘othered’, and my body does not meet the ideal beauty standards.
“I’ve realised that I do not want and cannot just spend my life trying to survive because I need and deserve to live.”
Varsha says the most important thing for anyone struggling with an unhealthy relationship with food or their body to do is to acknowledge they are struggling.
“Acknowledge there is no level of ‘sickness’,” she says. “No right weight or gender, or race validates your relationship with food. You are allowed to reach out no matter who you are and no matter how long you have been struggling.”
There are varying degrees of relationships with food and all are tricky to navigate. What saddens me most is that women often feel the need to change what might actually be a perfectly healthy body. The biggest question I often find myself pondering is, if it isn’t for health reasons, why do we feel the need to be thinner?
Through speaking with these three brave women, it was clear to me how powerful external forces can be, how quickly they can alter our mindset.
Over the years, I have learnt there is a big connection between what I eat and how I feel — my body just wants to be nourished. Not just with food —with everything! I try tuning into this when I am trying to quiet the dieting thoughts in my mind.
What I hope for the future is body inclusivity. The notion that women feel accepted in every shape and size, just the way they are.