This article was submitted by Sarah Berneche, a Toronto-based Registered Holistic Nutritionist, Intuitive Eating Counsellor, writer, and body positive advocate.
Weight loss. Weight gain. Systems for weight maintenance. As an intuitive eating coach and anti-diet advocate determined to help women simplify eating and create emotionally neutral relationships to food, I’m clearly not a fan.
But as someone who knows what it takes to love her body and prioritize health over numbers, I know how goddamned hard this work is — especially because of our emotionally-fraught relationship to our weight. I mean, caught up in all of it is our sense of “enoughness”, our value, our beauty, our worthiness. Mindset shifts are shifts because they take time and patience. Self-love is truly more of a fermentation process than a recipe (I’ve totally turned my kombucha to vinegar more than a few times.)
So what happens if you’re already at your natural weight and can’t accept it? And what about the emotions that come up during recovery? I know what it’s like to check for morning abs and fall asleep feeling to make sure the thigh gap hasn’t filled — and while this is no way to live in the world, moving away from it feels unbelievably vulnerable. It feels, in a totally messed up way, like failing or giving up.
But something magical happens when weight loss is taken off the table. When you’re no longer spending time chasing after the perfect diet and the perfect size, you create space for self-love, self-compassion, and self-care. I started to view myself in a different light. A kinder light. “If this is the best I’ve got,” I thought, “then I’m going to find a way to make it work in this world.” I wondered what would change for me if I accepted my body for what it was, instead of picking it apart for what it wasn’t, and realistically, never would be. Instead of saying “I need to workout harder to get rid of this,” I thought, “hey, this isn’t so bad.” The answer to unconditional joy and freedom isn’t ever going to be found in a mental jail.
Today I’m delving into 5 things to consider when your perception of your body is making you feel like shit.
1. Self-Love, the Moon, and Your Body.
Archaic gender constructs and stereotypes aside, the moon represents the feminine (yin) principle. The Moon is not like the Sun. It’s not fixed. It waxes and wanes, fills to completion and empties out. Similarly, women’s bodies change not only throughout the years, but inside of the months themselves.
If you’re bloated, you’re probably not going to feel your most sexy kitten-y self, regardless of what size you are. That’s okay. But instead of dwelling on it, a) try to acknowledge its place, b) keep some loose-fitting, comfortable clothes around c) eat foods that make you feel good. This might mean a bowl of curry or a hearty salad. It might mean a cheeseburger. But the point here is: women’s bodies change.
I know the Instagram world is riddled with ripped, hard bodies and the impression we can get there, too. If we don’t, it’s insinuated we’re just not working hard enough, not dedicated enough, not disciplined enough, to get there. The message? We’re lazy and unmotivated. Our soft bodies are unacceptable. And while there’s nothing wrong (and a lot right) with weightlifting and becoming both stronger and fitter, the constant pressure to be more, work more, and choose more isn’t productive. And the reality is, most women are not going to be able to rock six-pack abs without seriously compromising their fertility. Even the models gracing the covers of fitness magazines don’t look that way for most of the year.
While it’s important to find movement you enjoy — fit people, regardless of size, statistically experience better health outcomes — there’s nothing wrong with having a softer body. And because soft body sounds a little too soft, there’s nothing wrong with having fat on your body or having a fat body. In fact, being underfat actually poses a number of health risks often overlooked by the media and even health professionals.
2. While on the road to self-love, get rid of “goal clothes.”
I still have a few articles of clothing from when I was thinner. I kept them thinking I would somehow find a way to squeeze back into them, once I was “really fit” and could stop “eating emotionally.” But all these clothes have done is remind me of my perceived flaws and inadequacies. They’ve taken up emotional and physical space — valuable real estate — and filled it with fear, anxiety, distrust, and self-loathing. I finally gave up the elusive dream of wearing them again once I realized they only fit when I was sick (either heavily restricting or recovering from bacterial pneumonia.)
If you’re still holding on to a pair of skinny jeans you’re waiting to lose weight for, I recommend selling or donating them. As you’re building a healthy relationship with food and your body — the first time, for many of you — these reminders can disrupt the process and make you feel as though you’re not enough. Instead, if you can, find clothes that make you feel good just as you are right now. Maybe you’ll lose weight. Maybe you won’t. Maybe you’ll gain more weight as your body heals. But the sometimes difficult truth of the matter is this: your natural weight should not require extraordinary effort to maintain. Intuitive eating isn’t easy. But if you have to watch every bite of food you put into your mouth and exercise compulsively to maintain a certain weight, that’s not your weight.
3. Remind yourself that you are prioritizing health and self-love over weight.
I’ve received so many mixed messages over what “health” really means. When I shifted from being weight-focused to truly health-focused, it was the first time I thought about what it would feel liketo be healthy as opposed to what it would look like. While I’m still pursuing “optimal health”, I think of it as dream living. A strong body is definitely part of this, but so is restful sleep, abundant energy, and elevated mood. Clear skin, easy digestion, and balanced hormones. And most importantly for me, self-love, self-care, and self-compassion.
Prioritizing health over weight means actually asking myself what would make me feel the healthiest at any given moment. Sometimes this means exercising even though I’ve got a long to-do list in front of me, and sometimes it means staying in and indulging in some R&R. Mostly, it means gentle guidance without rigidity or expectation.
When I first started working as a nutritionist, I was bombarded with images of gorgeous women with long, flowing hair who ate whole food vegan diets, practiced yoga, and had perfect kitchens. My life was not that. It’s still not that. Health is not necessarily that, either. It’s totally okay to eat a protein bar because you’re busy, to grab take-out because you’re tired, and to cook in a dark, dingy kitchen. I love cooking and eating whole foods, but I also feel our expectations for what constitutes a “healthy” life are sometimes too high.
Sometimes prioritizing health over weight means eating something processed because that was the only thing available. Sometimes prioritizing health over weight means eating Mom’s lasagna, the one that tastes like love and care and home, because you value your emotional health as much as you do your physical health.
4. Because fixating on a “perfect weight” is an archaic and counter-evolutionary practice.
The Paleo diet is commonly criticized for its inauthenticity, but you know what else Palaeolithic people didn’t do? Obsess over their weight. In fact, carrying a few extra pounds would have been useful during lean times when food wasn’t readily available.
Wanting to slim down or reach an “ideal weight” is similar to using bleaching creams, tanning lotions, corsets, and waxing. It almost never has anything to do with health. But what’s the big deal with wanting to lose weight to feel good? And I get it. But I also don’t think we’re lacking in self-esteem because we’re ten or fifteen or twenty or whatever pounds above the elusive “ideal weight.” The pursuit of it, then, becomes more of a distraction, preventing us from acknowledging and working through issues of shame, abuse, trauma, not feeling “enough”, anxiety, depression, and/or indecision.
It’s also a slippery slope. It’s amazingly terrifying how a goal weight can shift from reasonable to completely unrealistic in a very short period of time. How a single diet can mark the beginning of a pathology. How a pathology can become a partial- or full-blown eating disorder. How an eating disorder can survive for years. Decades. Detected, undetected. And to be honest, we’re bombarded with so many impossible images that I’m not convinced we even know what’s achievable.
5. Surround yourself with inspiring people — even if they’re mostly online.
I met with another holistic nutritionist and body positive person this week. We ended up talking about intuitive eating and our own relationships with food for over two hours. It was totally amazing and inspiring, and we both left better for it.
Once I stopped listening to diet and conventional nutrition talk and started reading up about body positivity, health at every size, and intuitive eating, things changed in a deep, irreversible way for me. But even my profession is riddled with triggers, diets, and disordered eating advice. So I listened to Ashley Graham’s Ted Talk on making it as a model and self-love. I read Linda Bacon’s books, Health at Every Size and Body Respect. I listened to Food Psych. I unfollowed anything that smacked of diet culture on my social channels, and discovered a community of body activists, anti-diet dieticians, and feminists. What I found was a football field’s worth of compassion, connection, and comfort. Stories layered upon stories. Truth. Authenticity. Transparency. Honesty. Insight. Revelation.
I often think about young girls. Young boys, too, but mostly young girls. I think about what legacy we’re leaving them, what I’d like for them, what I can give to them that I so wish had been given to me. And I know I want them to have goals bigger than weight loss. I don’t want them to attack their bodies, to loathe their bodies, to waste energy and time on “fat talk” conversations. I want them to feel beautiful, valuable, wildly intelligent, and so enough. And because I want that for them, I have to want it badly enough for me, so that I can muster the courage to do whatever it takes to make sure they never have to fight for it.
So how do you love your body during the weight gain? Make a list of everyone who will benefit from your self-love. And then make a list of everyone who benefits from your self-loathing.
If you would like more support, I’d love to invite you over to our Riots Over Diets Facebook Group, where I’ll be hosting informative and inspirational Facebook Live sessions & offering up a good dose of encouragement. Join us. 🙂
Sarah Berneche is a Toronto-based Registered Holistic Nutritionist, Intuitive Eating Counsellor in training, writer, and body positive advocate who inspires high-achieving women to ditch the diets and eat with joy so they can stop fighting their bodies. She has had the great fortune of delivering 50+ workshops and programs on mental health and general nutrition topics to businesses across Canada, including BMO, Starbucks, KPMG, Flight Centre, LEAGUE, RioCan, Barreworks, and more.