I had a complicated relationship with food and my body image in high school. Media played a part of it, but the needle that broke the camel’s back was when my dad told me that my face looked a bit rounder. In his way, he told me that I was fat. In his perspective, it was an innocent comment that he must have never thought about again, but that meaningless comment was the catalyst to my eating disorder and struggle with my body image for several years after that.
I already had a hard time with food to begin with. Since I was young, my mom would make us finish all the food on our plate or in our bowl––not even a grain of rice should be left behind. There was one time, I felt so full I thought the food was filled all the way up to my throat. I finished the food but had to throw up the food right afterward. I was less than 7 years old at this time. The rule of cleaning up a plate is why I lacked a sensor that would tell me to stop when I was full. My mom often commented that I didn’t have a sensor when I would eat a full bag of chips, but she didn’t realize that she had made me this way. Apparently, my sibling had the same problem of not stopping when full as well. I eventually learned in my early twenties that it is okay not to finish everything on my plate, and that it’s okay to stop when I don’t feel like eating anymore. I don’t always have to eat to the point of making my stomach explode.
I developed an eating disorder pretty quickly after my dad’s innocent comment. I didn’t know that binging and purging was a thing, but I got the idea from a scene from Miss Congeniality where the girls decided to party at a club before competition day with a giant pizza, and someone said something about “throwing it up” so the calories don’t matter. Needless to say, I became bulimic. It was perfect. I could eat all that I wanted, throw it up, and not worry about getting fat. I remember finishing Costco’s 12-inch pumpkin pie, which is around 3.5 pounds, in one sitting, and then going to the bathroom to discard the content from my stomach, up my throat, and into the toilet. It’s disgusting, but I couldn’t stop and didn’t stop for two years.
Having an eating disorder isn’t just physical. It actually takes a huge emotional toll on a person. How can you think for yourself and focus on anything else when your mind is occupied by the worry of getting fat, about what food to binge so you can get rid of it later, about how much calories remain in your body. I was depressed. I felt unworthy.
I think my parents knew––I haven’t confronted them about this yet––but they probably thought that I was just going through a phase. Luckily I was able to stop after going to college but I know that many other individuals who go through eating disorders get into extreme situations where they damage their health and require professional intervention.
When I finally stopped, it wasn’t because of any outside factor. It was because I finally decided I need to be nice to myself, that this is not good for me, and I can do better. It is an addiction. You try to stop, you stop. You relapse, then you try to stop again, and relapse. I have relapsed a few times over the years, but today, I’m in healthy relationship with food and also my body.
The truth about the old me was that I was not fat. Not in the slightest. My current weight is the heaviest I’ve ever weighed, but I like my shape, I love my body, and I am amazed by all it can do––I’m actually on a quest to lift 225 lbs by end of Jan 2021. Today, I can lift 180 lbs on my 114 lb frame.
I share this because it’s an important part of my past, but it’s also why the words we use with people is so critical. They can have a huge impact on a person, including yourself. Media plays a huge role on our self-image and body image, but how we talk to ourselves and the people around us about our body and theirs can have a positive impact if you choose to.
1. Start with You. Do a self-check on how you speak to yourself about your body. Do you criticize the reflection in the mirror? Do you call yourself ugly? If the words you choose are not ones you’d use on a friend, don’t use them on yourself either.
2. Positive Self-talk. It’s easy to nitpick your physical looks, but that is not helpful. Reflect on the great things your body is doing for you. Be grateful for the body that you have.
I have an athletic body type and I actually did not wear shorts nor sleeveless shirts until I got into my junior year of college. I was self-conscious about my muscles because it wasn’t a sign of beauty when I was growing up in Taiwan. I continued to have a love-hate relationship with my body-shape into my late twenties. Some days I’d like my muscles because they make me look healthy, other days I’d hate them because I feel too masculine and unapproachable.
Now, I tell a different story to my body. I tell my body that it is strong and resilient, and each day I surpass a goal at the gym, I learn that I am mentally and physically strong as well. My body has taught me that I can achieve so much more than I believe I can if I’m just willing to put in the time and push myself. I can take that determination and strength to other parts of my life.
3. Take the Focus Away from the Body. We all need words of affirmation and positive feedback, not only for looking beautiful, but other attributes that make us great. Make a list of attributes that you appreciate about yourself and that people have praised about you so you remember that you are more than what you look on the outside.
When you are encouraging your girlfriend, talk about attributes that make her great, such as how resilient she is, how smart she is, how dedicated she is. Take the focus away on just her looks because she is so much more than that.
4. Body Shaming Is Not Okay. Calling someone too skinny, or too fat, or too muscular, too anything is not okay! It’s their body and not yours. You do not have a right to put labels or define how they see their own body. Don’t call yourself any of that either.
5. You Have Control. If you’re unhappy with your body, that’s okay. It’s where you are now and there isn’t anything wrong with that. But if you aren’t happy about where you are now, you can change that. You aren’t stuck.
Just like how you make changes in other aspects of your life to improve your living situation, your financial situation, your job situation, you can take small actions that will make you feel better about yourself. Start bringing a little movement into your daily life, make more conscious choices about at least 1 meal during the day. By setting small, achievable goals, you’ll be able to get to larger changes that will bring you the difference you want to see.
At the end of the day, what matters is how you feel about yourself. Invest that effort and energy on yourself so you can feel your best self.
6. Sympathize and build resilience. If you know someone who is struggling with their weight and body image, be kind to them and listen to them without judgement. It’s not so easy for someone to just “stop obsessing about their weight.” There often is a deeper issue behind the behavior.
You don’t have to agree with their struggle, but they need to feel that they can come to you. Be encouraging. Help them focus on other things they have control of in their lives and help bring up their self-image by taking the focus away from the body to things they are good at and attributes you appreciate about them. Help them be kinder to themselves and plan activities that can encourage positive feelings to their bodies, such as walking dates, group exercise dates, or healthy-meal dates.
We all deserve to be loved, regardless what shape and size we are. Be kind to yourself and those around you when it comes to body image.