HOW I CHANGED MY RELATIONSHIP TO FOOD BY FIXING MY BODY IMAGE
A shortened version of these answers was included in an article for Women's Health Magazine written by Emma Pritchard which can be read here: "How 4 Women Finally Found a Better Relationship with Food"
Tell me about your personal journey with food and body image. When did your poor relationship with food start and how did it present itself for you? How did you feel at this point? I can remember getting called fat and ugly in primary school. Those are the standard insults which cut deeper than those throwing the words around realise. Unfortunately because fat is such a 'weighty' word (excuse the pun) in our culture I already, mistakenly, correlated 'fat' to being just the most awful, disgusting thing. And even though I was only about 7 or 8, I was already aware of the rather gendered importance of my looks. So the fat AND ugly labels really imprinted themselves on my psyche for a very long time.
I was always a little bigger than the majority of the other girls in my class. My family had a good diet, we ate dinner together at the table every single night, I wasn't fussy and enjoyed a wide variety of food thanks to my mum and dad being very casual about food and encouraging us to explore it. When I was that young there was absolutely no reason for me to be pre-occupied about anything to do with my body but those comments made me alter my attitude towards myself.
I was a rather sensitive kid so my mum made it her mission to make sure I was protected as much as possible when it came to critical comments about my body. As grateful as I was about that, her protection can't extend to the school playground and mean words from unknowing classmates.
I started comfort eating and hiding food. Completely disengaging from my body's needs or listening to it at all. And I started getting bigger. Then there would be more comments and, as I would get bigger, the knowledge that fat was the worst thing ever made me look at my body as if it was worthless. And what happens when you feel like your body is no good, shameful or worthless? You ignore it, you abuse it, you forget about it. I rotated through all three.
The shame and embarrassment didn't ever jolt me into altering my body. It just pushed me further away from it. I think I had given up on it.
How quickly did these issues spiral? Describe the impact they had on your life and your feelings towards yourself throughout this time.
That process continued for another 8 years and I just got bigger and bigger. At 16 years old, due to a suggestion from my mum that we do it together... my mum, my sister and I joined Weight Watchers and I lost weight for the first time in my life. It felt like I was a bit more in control around food. A common misconception with diets.
Everything has a points value and I studied what was in all foods religiously. Even now I can 100% tell you how many points are in anything I put in my mouth based on the points system that Weight Watchers used around 1999. Now I realise that is not a good thing but back then it felt like such an accomplishment. I felt proud of myself and because of the weight-loss I got praised constantly. Due to my eagerness to please other's stemming from the massive insecurity I had around my body, that praise was like nectar.
But the negativity I had and the rift I had created with my body was still there. That was some deep stuff, it wasn't going anywhere.
And I didn't get thin. I lost weight but I also lived a busy school/ uni/ social life and that gets in the way of focussed weightloss. In my head I never properly 'fixed' myself. In my head I was always fat, always would be so I was always not good enough. It makes my heart ache and my eyes stream and my nose have snotters to remember that I lived with that. That feeling of worthlessness because of a body shape that society told me was the worst. It makes me so sad. At what point did you realise you needed help and what happened next? If you had met me a few years ago I was this bubbly, confident, loud person. I love attention. I yearn for it. But underneath all of that I suffered from low level anxiety about my body. I hadn't grown out of any of the thoughts about my self worth and the confidence I exuded was just a way I had decided I could navigate this world effectively. The insecurity had affected every aspect of my life to some degree including my behaviours, my relationships and the choices I made.
I went on some self development courses in 2016. I told people I was doing them to learn more about myself, perhaps become a nicer person but the real reason I did them, which I didn't let on to anyone, was because I wanted to get skinny and figure out why I had never been skinny. Maybe the courses could help me figure out where the diets and exercise had been failing. Where I had been failing.
The courses were life changing but not for the reason I expected. They worked in a two pronged way. The first was that they helped me change the perspective of my life. Before the courses I thought my body was my life and in a simplistic way: because my body didn't look beautiful and therefore wasn't good enough then my life wasn't ever going to be good enough. After the courses I realised that our lives are huge big things filled with words, actions, emotions. Your life includes the contribution you make, your experiences and every person you have encountered. Your life is not your body, your body is the incredible tool you have been given to live that big old life.
It also helped me with the consuming fear I had about what other's thought of me and my body. Through the courses I recognised how thoughts are formed. Why some people are racist arseholes, yet the next person could be a Mother Theresa. We are all a product of external stimuli. What we think is right or wrong or good or bad completely stems from what we have told or what has happened to us. I realised that the experiences and lessons any other person has been taught has absolutely no bearing on me, my life, my body or my choices. It helped me let go of, in fact, I completely stopped creating the fanciful stories I used to make up about what was going on in someone else's head. It was so freeing.
Those two things helped me recognise how awesome my body really is and I started to be extremely grateful that I had one which worked so well. After that realisation I started a project to see whether I could help some friends and family think differently about their bodies. I mean, if I could do it, it was definitely possible for other people to do it too. That's where The Chachi Power Project came in.
It's a Body Positive and body confidence project I started in January 2017 and it's grown past just helping friends and family and now I run retreats, events and workshops all centered around improving your own body image. The events all take place in Scotland (I live in Edinburgh) but perhaps one day I'll go further afield if there is call for it.
I spend my days figuring out handy tools people can use or habits they can adopt to change the negative mindset they may have towards their body. I blog, write articles, visit schools and youth organisations to talk to kids and go into businesses to work with adults. Mainly I want to draw attention to the reasons this global phenomenon of universal negative body image exists and step by step, help people flip from seeing their body as a burden to seeing it as the wonderful gift it really is. Doing so really free's them up to achieve more and make a bigger and more beautiful impact on the world.
It's been a rollercoaster since it started but it's been the best thing I have ever created. And it's helping people, so that's nice...
You mention you now have a healthy relationship with food - how did this happen? What practical steps did you take that might be helpful for readers in a similar situation?
When I started the project I officially committed to loving my body and showing it love every day. That means different things to different people but for me it meant I had to practice self compassion daily. It also meant I had to look after my mental health and nourish and move my body effectively.
This meant I stopped punishing myself with exercise. I stopped forcing lonely gym routines which I hated every moment of and I started choosing sports and practices which I did with others and which I actually enjoyed. I still do full on workouts but the focus is now on clearing my head, hanging out with a friend and mainly recognising how powerful and incredible my body is.
Thanks to reading more and more about the Body Positive and Health at Every Size Movements I have had my eyes opened to the destructiveness of diet culture. How diet's make you think you are in control but in reality they are dictating how, when, what and how much you should eat. It's the opposite of control and it's the opposite of doing right by your body. I started to learn about Intuitive Eating and how it's about removing all the rules and restrictive guff that diet culture and experience has forced into your brain and it's about making peace with food and learning to trust yourself and your body.
I'm totally at the start of my journey with it and I love reading about it (The Intuitive Eating Book by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch is available from different booksellers) and listening to podcasts around it (especially Christy Harrison's Food Psych Podcast, or any podcast where Isabel Foxen Duke features). It makes so much sense and when I talk about it to people it makes so much sense to them too. It's kind of unbelievable that so many of us have lost this very basic understanding of how our bodies need to be nourished but when you read about how pervasive diet culture and fatphobia is and start recognising it everywhere, it makes sense.
So I've started running little evenings in Glasgow and Edinburgh where I get people together, we eat a delicious family style dinner and discuss the basics of Intuitive Eating. The stuff that comes up is so fascinating because everyone is bringing all their years of dieting and issues with food to the discussion. I haven't quite cracked Intuitive Eating yet but I'm on my way there and I can guarantee you, you will never see me on another diet. I'm not sure if you know this but diets don't work... in 95% of cases... Tell me more about The Chachi Power Project?
The Chachi Power Project is a Body Positive project so I don't just talk about weight or size or food, I also discuss disability and body hair and post-partum bodies and disabled bodies and self care and mental health... whatever comes up which I think is valuable to draw attention to.
The Body Positive Movement is about raising the voices of those who live in bodies which are marginalised by society whether that is to do with age, gender, race, disability, size, shape or health status. Living as a cisgendered able bodied white woman I have realised I need to be better at making space for other less privileged bodies whilst also remembering that it is my right to take up some space which I never thought I was entitled to before. Just gotta stay mindful.
I run my own events and collaborate with others and I always like to be challenged to work with different groups of adults or kids who may want to explore the issues around body image so they can feel a bit freer. It's an ongoing learning experience and it's also really powerful to be immersed in the world to stop my own old habits from creeping up. It's truly fascinating.
The project can be found online here. You can also find me on Instagram here, Facebook here and Twitter here. If you fancy it I am running my second retreat in the gorgeous Cairngorms in November 2018... you are very welcome to nab a place. Here's the link.