I just pulled out a box in my house filled with my journals from college and young adulthood. I moved a year ago and I haven't been willing to face the diaries until now because of how sad and irritated they make me. In them, a young woman has a marvelous life: great education, travel, parents, friends, and relationships. But those are just the backdrop in front of which she obsesses over her hatred of her body.
In the entries, I repeatedly analyze how many pounds I need to lose per day in order to get to my goal weight by a particular date. I felt like I didn't deserve to enjoy my good fortune unless I weighed 135 pounds, the way the official BMI charts instructed. Descriptions of a year I spent in Florence, for instance, flow around lists where I inscribed everything I ate and every exercise I undertook.
If I felt like my eating had derailed (which, according to my standards, it did every other day) I wouldn't exercise, and if I didn't make the time to exercise, it was an excuse to eat whatever "bad" food I could get my hands on. Exercise was an activity that only "good" people took part in, and if I was eating "bad" I wasn't "good," and if I didn't exercise I wasn't "good," either, so I might as well binge.
Later, but still in my early twenties, I confessed to a primary care physician that my eating felt out of control—not that I didn't know about diet and exercise (quite the contrary), but that something in my brain constantly derailed me (or else maybe I just lacked "willpower," a criticism I often leveled at myself). The doctor diagnosed me with binge eating disorder and referred me to a therapist who practiced cognitive behavioral therapy.
Contrary to my grand plans for rapid weight loss that would shock everyone who knew me and make my enemies regretful and ashamed, we took reasonable baby steps, first to reduce my bingeing by breaking down some of the weird superstitions and habits I had formed over the years. I was to eat a (small amount) of ice cream every night in order to get past the idea of certain foods being "forbidden." And, for a time, I was to stop exercising so that I could break the connections I had built between food and exercise.
Getting a free pass not to exercise was as liberating as you'd think it would be. Up until this point I never truly wanted to exercise, so an order from a doctor not to was like getting a prescription to hang out and watch TV. I found that it was easier to focus on my moderate eating goals, too, when they were the only "assignments" I had each day.
The experiment lasted a few weeks before I was brought back down to earth and reintroduced to exercise goals, this time in the form of walking. Hitting 10,000 steps on a pedometer was a much more relaxing way to exercise than gearing up to go to the gym, while the goal-oriented part of my brain responded well to those five digits popping up on my dorky large step counter (this was before the heyday of the FitBit). Sometimes, at the end of the day, if I hovered around 9,000 steps, I'd pace the halls of my apartment building to get to my goal.
I then began to work out with an encouraging personal trainer and started to feel pride in gaining strength, pushing myself, trying to get in one last sit-up before a minute was up. She showed me how to enjoy jogging, an exercise I had always hated yet suspected was the key to physical perfection. I learned to appreciate the experience more than the time or the distance. I then experimented with early-morning boot camp (lowercase, no Barry) classes, muay Thai kickboxing, Jillian Michaels videos and Werq dance sessions, phasing them in and out when they grew inconvenient. Instead of feeling like a failure each time a routine faded away, I just told myself that I'd come back to it if and when the time was right.
I realized at some point that I am an exercise person now. I pack workout clothes for vacations and use them. But I could only get here by divorcing exercise from food. I will work out whether the previous night's dinner consisted of a salad or three slices of pizza and some Oreos. I will even work out after I've had a beer.
Ultimately, I ended up losing about 50 pounds; the first 30 were from being healthy, perhaps the last 20 were more for vanity. I put it back on again with each of my pregnancies and am, I hope, close to losing it one more time. I would never have been able to do it any of these times if I hadn't finally been able to downgrade the psychodrama that my weight, food, and exercise all performed in my mind.
I will probably never weigh 135. But I'm so relieved to have made friends with exercise and am no longer enemies with food. When I look back on the journals from this part in my life, it will be more about what I did than what I weighed.
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