Everyone’s relationship with food is a very personal and individual thing.
Sadly, for so many this relationship is not positive and health-promoting. Too many of us – women especially – go down the path of dieting, food restriction and weight cycling, whether this starts in our teenage years or develops as we age and bear children. I have seen how sharing these struggles and (for those in recovery) stories of finally making peace with food can be cathartic and inspiring. But today I’m actually NOT sharing my story of finally coming to a place of peace with my eating habits for one very simple reason.
I don’t have one.
As I’ve become more involved in the world of intuitive eating and the non-diet approach to health, I’ve realized how remarkable that statement actually is and I have become especially grateful for the circumstances that allowed it to become the case. I do not have a story of how I finally quit dieting, how I recovered from an eating disorder or even how I finally managed to stop obsessing over food and become an intuitive eater for the very simple reason that I never went down these roads in the first place.
But most American women have, which is what makes my story so unusual. A online survey conducted by Self magazine in partnership with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2008 found that 67% of women are actively trying to lose weight and 75% reported disordered eating behaviors. Seventy. Five. Percent. The vast majority of American women do NOT have a healthy relationship with food.
And this is why I’m so passionate about family nutrition. I now know that it was not dumb luck that allowed me to escape diet culture. Helping me cultivate a constructive relationship with food and a positive attitude towards my own body was a very intentional effort by my parents, particularly my mom. My mom, like many women of her generation, probably tried every diet in the book over the course of my childhood. And yet, growing up, I had no idea about any of it. I later learned that she very intentionally shielded me and my siblings from her body image struggles and dieting behaviors. She never pushed us to eat or not eat certain foods, never said a peep about our developing bodies, never lamented her dissatisfaction with her own and never discussed what she was or wasn’t eating herself in front of us. And although her size fluctuated throughout my childhood, I really never saw it. She was just mom! And that’s how it should be. Our sizes are irrelevant to our parenting.
I know now that my mom grew up very conscious of her own mother’s dieting efforts. Research has repeatedly shown that the children of women who diet and/or express dissatisfaction with their bodies are more likely to engage in dieting behaviors themselves, often starting at very young ages, sadly. I’m pretty sure my mom wasn’t up to date on the latest research on this topic back in the 80s when she was juggling me and three other kids, but somehow, she intuitively knew that my siblings and would be better off if she shielded us from her dieting and I can’t thank her enough for it.
But it’s also important for me to mention that I was a skinny kid. People didn’t comment on my body or my eating habits because I already fit the conventional norm, so I was never in a place of internalizing disparaging comments about my weight and eating habits or comparing my body in a negative way to the thin ideal promoted in popular culture. And that is quite a privilege; who knows how my relationship with food might have played out had I not already been living in a smaller body. We do our best, but we can’t protect our children from everything.
I think it’s pretty likely that my daughters will share my thin privilege due to their genetics and socioeconomic status so I acknowledge that, too. But the fact remains that I want to do for them what my mom did for me. As a dietitian, I’ve seen the damage that a life of yo-yo dieting and food restriction creates and I know how good life is when we are not burdened by our relationships with food. I was inspired to become a dietitian because these habits start at home and family eating dynamics are so incredibly important to me. My lack of a recovery story is what fuels me to help other parents set their children up to achieve the same through healing their own relationships with food and implementing the best practices of child feeding in their homes.
All good stuff, right? Well, here is where it gets weird for me.
Sometimes, because I don’t have a recovery story, I actually feel LESS qualified to work with clients on the subject I am most passionate about! Many dietitians working in this space sadly do have stories of recovery from dieting and food restriction (it may be the case that those who are fixated on food and nutrition are more attracted to studying it, unfortunately). I think it is SO powerful how these RDs employ their own past experiences and journeys to recovery to help others do the same. But because I don’t have those experiences, of course I can’t work that way myself. Instead, I draw on the eating behaviors that are already so natural to me and the experience of feeding my own kids in a way that is helping them develop into confident, competent eaters.
Now, let me be pretty clear. So far I have been talking only about my relationship with food, not how I see my body. I have written about my body image journey here but in a nutshell, I started out as a thin child and never thought much about my weight, surely because I fit the cultural norm. Then I gained a little weight throughout my adulthood but still mostly shrugged it off until after delivering my first baby. When my body didn’t return to its pre-baby shape, I definitely became very frustrated and unhappy with how I looked, particularly because it was all in my middle and I still looked pregnant.
So here, I do fit the norm because 90% of women experience body dissatisfaction. (Ninety!! Argh.) But I am not kidding when I say that day after day when my first daughter was a baby, I would change out of my work clothes at the end of the day, ponder my dissatisfaction with my jiggly midsection in the mirror, then ultimately think to myself, “Oh well, time for dinner. Yum!” My body dissatisfaction didn’t affect my food choices at all.
I want to live in a society where that 90% drops down to 0%, but effecting that kind of cultural change is a mighty, mighty task. Until then, I think that working to separate our body image struggles from our food choices and working towards making peace with them both is the next best thing. And now that I’ve had my second kid, I’m just as jiggly as before but I’m a lot more comfortable with it. I’m happy with my eating and exercise habits and the body they’ve teamed up with my genetics to produce. Modeling a healthy relationship with food for my girls (notice that I didn’t say “healthy eating habits”) is so much more important to me than what my body looks like.
How did your upbringing influence your relationship with food? Let me know in the comments!
Let’s work together to reconcile YOUR relationship with food and set your family up for years of happy, healthy eating. Visit my counseling page to learn more.