Finding Peace with Food this Holiday Season
Yesterday was Thanksgiving. I enjoyed the day with my family – whipping up apple crumble, sautéing green beans and enjoying a meal with all six of us around the table. This morning, I woke up and tried to figure out why it was such a good day. Then, it hit me.
For the first time in almost seven years, I enjoyed Thanksgiving with my family without thinking obsessively about the food.
I didn’t make myself run six miles yesterday morning, or fast until dinner to save calories. I laughed with my brothers. I cuddled the kitten. I wrote and read and cooked and at not one moment did I think about the food we were eating that night. What was once a meal filled with stress, fear, frustration, hunger, and binging became just another dinner. And it might sound silly, but I’m ridiculously proud of that.
For almost seven years, I fought my body religiously. It started in 2014, when I came home from my freshman year of college and realized my clothes at home fit differently. I threw myself into an aggressive diet and exercise regimen. Every day, for years, I logged every single calorie and workout in my phone. On days where my calories were under my goal, I had a good day. But on any day where that wasn’t the case, I was devastated. My worth hinged on the amount of energy flowing in and out of my body – even though I knew that these apps weren’t accurate, they still held the keys to my joy.
And, as restricting food and excessive exercise often does, it worked. I returned to college that fall to choruses of sorority sisters telling me how great I looked. I felt seen, loved, and affirmed. The spiral continued. I started training for half marathons because I thought it was a good way to keep myself accountable to daily exercise. The next January, I competed in my first pageant with a swimsuit competition. I still remember standing in front of the mirror right after competing in swimsuit, at my lowest weight ever, and picking apart parts of my body I needed to fix if I won and went to the state pageant.
I won, and the training intensified. After the state pageant was over – it was a marathon that my weak and overworked body couldn’t handle – I realized that I wanted out. I didn’t want to track my calories anymore. I didn’t want to wake up every morning at dawn and exercise. More than anything, I was sick and tired of thinking about food constantly. But I couldn’t fathom the thought of gaining weight. And so, the dance continued.
The next spring, I started getting really sick. If you’ve ever seen Hitch, there’s a scene where Hitch eats cinnamon and his face blows up. That was happening to me on a semi-regular basis. I didn’t know what was going on, and I was terrified. One particularly bad night ended me in up in the emergency room – I’ve never felt more excruciating pain in my life. After months of blood tests and allergy tests, it was discovered that my body had been under so much stress that the hormones had shifted and my body could no longer handle wheat or peanuts. At 21, I became gluten-free and developed a dangerous peanut allergy – not in small part because of the terror I was dragging my body through.
I spent that summer in DC doing my dream internship. It was the best summer. I deleted the calorie counting app, I enjoyed my time with my friends, but there were still associations in my mind differentiating “good” versus “bad” foods. If I ate too many dark chocolate açaí berries at work, I’d run four miles as soon as I got home. The cycle continued.
That winter, I decided to compete again in a pageant. I didn’t know anything else, so I downloaded the calorie counting app again and climbed back on the hamster wheel. For the next three years, this was the cycle: I’d begin intensive exercise and restrictive eating, I wouldn’t lose weight fast enough, I’d get more intense, I’d finally lose weight, I’d compete, and my body would collapse. Just when I got to a better routine of eating and moving my body well, it would be time for the next pageant season to begin. Year after year, the process got harder. My body stopped trusting me. It always thought I was about to starve it, so it would become harder and harder for me to limit my food and exercise at the same level. By the fall of 2019, I was done.
And this was the best thing that ever happened to me. I competed in my last swimsuit pageant in September of 2019, and then I moved across the country. I deleted my calorie counting app, for good. I read Intuitive Eating by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Reisch. I didn’t care if my body changed – I was so, so desperate to be free from obsessing over food, once and for all.
I will not sugarcoat it (lol) – re-establishing a healthy relationship with food and my body was one of the hardest things I have ever done. There were constant triggers. I hated seeing photos of myself. I began giving away clothes that didn’t fit my new, healthy body. I cried in a few dressing rooms. I had to stop and focus on food, enjoying the meal instead of shoving it in and racing to the next thing. I was terrified about what people would think of me. For so long I had held up my body and my diet as trophies that alluded to my “goodness,” and now that those were changing, would anyone think I was good enough? My first four months in DC were so hard. I told myself over and over and over again: you were created by God, who made you perfectly. Trust in Him.
It’s been over a year now, and I have far more good days than bad. Sure, sometimes I see a photo or myself in the mirror and think, “hmm, I could fix that,” but then I have to remind myself: it’s not worth it.
When I was restricting food and punishing my body, what I really wanted was for people to see, love, and know me. But disordered eating makes that impossible. Instead of going to dinners with friends, I would skip to make it to an early workout. Instead of enjoying a happy hour, I drank water in the corner and left early because I was out of calories. Instead of spending time with friends on a Saturday, I was running long miles by myself. My longing for connection was trumped by my need to look a certain way.
I know I’m not alone. I know that most women struggle at some point in their lives with disordered eating. I also know that I wouldn’t have found healing or had the courage to walk away if I didn’t have a best friend who had paved the path and done it a year before. I remember looking at the way she ate and lived and moved with such jealousy. I wanted her freedom, and after over a year of fighting, releasing, and healing, I have it.
If you woke up this morning determined to run off last night’s dinner, I have a message for you: you don’t have to do it. Our bodies are perfectly crafted by the Creator, the one who knows you and loves you and wants what’s best for you. When we spend our time focused on our bodies, we don’t have time to love others. You deserve to be free from constant thoughts of food and exercise. Life is so much better on the other side, I promise you.
And, contrary to what I used to believe, life on this side doesn’t mean eating seven cupcakes a day and sitting on the couch. I’m more active and eat more veggies than I ever have, because now I actually listen to my body. In my old way of thinking, I never would have turned down dessert – but now I’m free to do that because I know I can have ice cream whenever I want. Food isn’t the enemy – the Enemy is the enemy, and he’ll use whatever he can to distract you from the purpose God has on your life.
Let’s make this the holiday season where we focus on loving and serving one another in freedom. I’m rooting for all of us.
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Jane Kennedy lives in Washington, DC. She is a graduate of UC Santa Barbara and works in criminal justice reform. When she’s not working or writing, she’s probably catching up with friends on FaceTime, getting lost in Rock Creek Park, quoting C.S. Lewis, or trying to recreate Salt and Straw ice cream at home.