Throughout my life I have been both overweight and underweight. I have loved how I looked and hated how I looked. If you’re like me, the holidays are an especially difficult time for body image and food guilt. You might be exercising a little more or plan to immediately start dieting in January. However, I just want to send a gentle reminder that food is not the enemy. What you eat fuels your body and mind. What you say to yourself about your body fuels your soul. You are not what you eat, not how you look in a bathing suit, and you are not defined by your clothes size.
To be completely honest, I never cared about my weight until college. I was a competitive swimmer since I was eight years old and on three swim teams during the year in high school. I grew up in a bathing suit and never gave my body shape too much thought. I didn’t grow up with an older sister telling me how I looked or what to wear. My parents never said anything about my weight. I also had practice five to six days each week so I felt like I could eat whatever I wanted. Every Sunday morning after practice I had McDonald’s for lunch as a treat. Whatever I ate was pretty much burned off the next day. Michael Phelps ate over 10,000 calories/day while Olympic training so whatever I ate didn’t compare in my mind haha. I still eat fast food at least weekly and don’t diet. However, I want to make it clear that I never struggled to be an average weight. According to 23andMe (which has been ~95% accurate), I am predisposed to weigh less. I point this out to say that it is not miraculous for me to be average or on the thinner side. I don’t have a great weight loss story and don’t intend to.
My body image journey began around the time I was applying for nursing school. I was struggling with some classes and began seeing a therapist for inattentiveness and OCD-like behaviors. Like Meghan Edmonds recently said, I too am a “stress non-eater.” In combination with a new med I started that had ‘loss of appetite’ as a side effect and drinking coffee for the first time in my life, I began losing weight quickly. I didn’t notice or care at first. However, I decided I was going to try out for the dance team, so I started wearing a leotard again. I would regularly look in the mirror and began enjoying seeing the ribs in my back show. My thighs were thinner than ever and I loved how my leggings looked. The following fall, a friend in my dorm had a scale in her doorway. I truly never tracked my weight until then. I began weighing myself several times a day and panicked if I was over 105. My dorm also had the calories listed for every meal and food item. While this a University initiative to be more transparent, it actually made it a lot easier for me to eat less. I tried to make sure I wasn’t eating more than 1,000 calories a day. This is about half of what someone in their twenties should consume. In addition, I was going to the gym every few days, something I previously hated to do. I tried to wear bigger clothes and hide it as much as possible. My friends and family would make comments about my slim figure, but I usually blamed it on the stress and the questions stopped.
Then, I started dating and began what would turn into a four-year relationship. I slowly put the weight back on. I was eating out a lot, snacking, drinking wine, and pretty much just enjoying life. I didn’t have time to go to the gym and didn’t want to. I started a nurse assistant (tech) job and had a bagel and an Iced Cap every morning before work. I didn’t have my calories listed in front of me anymore, so I lost track of how much I was eating. However, I did have access to a scale. One day at work I decided to look and see. At my highest that summer, I was up to 127. It was surprising, but not enough for me to do much about it. My self-esteem was probably better than at my thinnest. Yet, this weight was not a healthy one for my height. I had a few extra pounds than a “normal BMI” but I was happy. Interestingly, it was the end of this relationship that threw me back in the opposite direction again. I stopped eating, as many people experiencing a trauma do, and lost over 20 lbs. I did not have the intention to lose this amount of weight and I acknowledge that large weight shifts in a short period is not healthy. This is especially true for someone barely over five feet. However, I started to like how I looked in a bathing suit again. I was getting compliments and I felt my self-esteem come back after what was a truly traumatic summer.
As of today, my weight is somewhere in between. I still have my self-conscious days of course, but I am happy with how I look right now. I still occasionally weigh myself, only because I have such easy access to do so at work. I don’t own a scale and never plan to. I don’t think knowing your weight is a bad thing. What is bad, is fixating on the number and affiliating your self-worth with what it says. If weighing your self is good for your own personal goals, then go for it. We all know how to calculate a BMI, so I encourage you to diet or exercise if reaching a healthy BMI is your goal. I don’t belong to a gym but do go to yoga every few weeks. I also have a personal home exercise routine that I do every few days. I try to limit my sweets but treat myself whenever possible. I have been lucky to be able to eat whatever I like since I AM predisposed to weigh less. However, I still try to eat healthy and exercise because it makes me feel strong, healthy, and confident. That is my goal now.
In nursing school, we are taught basic nutrition. In grad school, we have honed in on specific nutritional needs for newborns through young adults. I could tell you all about different formulas, enteral/parenteral nutrition etc. What we have not been taught enough is how to respect your body’s own nutritional needs: how to love and care for yourself in a way that enables you to care for others. We must take care of ourselves before we can effectively take care of our patients. Nurses and other healthcare workers neglect our bodies the most. This has to change or our patients suffer. You have to eat because your brain needs food. Read that again. Your brain cannot survive without food. If you are thinking about skipping a meal because you don’t like what the scale says, don’t. Your body is your prized possession. You will only be hurting yourself, and ultimately your patients, in the long run. Enjoy your holiday potluck without guilt, it’s the best gift you can give yourself.