Last Tuesday, The Sugars responded to one more letter about trusting the body in their New York Times column, The Sweet Spot: Is Avoiding My Body an Issue? Cheryl Strayed and Steve Almond answered the letter with so much wisdom that The Answer Was Crunchy probably feels pretty satisfied. We found ourselves wanting to respond too. Here’s the letter:
I’m the overweight 42-year-old child of a tiny mother who hates her own body. She has always attributed moral value to weight. I know I’ve lost weight when she exclaims how “healthy” I look. I know I’ve gained weight when she “encourages” me to exercise. (I’m a fit gymgoer.) I watch as she congratulates friends who are three weeks postpartum on how it looks as if they were never pregnant. I see the constant calculations she does around “good” and “bad” food, both for herself and others.
For a long time, I thought I’d escaped her obsession because I refused to monitor, calculate or obsess over food. I prided myself on eating what I liked, when I liked. But recently I’ve realized that what I’ve actually done is swing to the other end of the spectrum. Where she obsesses, I avoid. I can’t plan meals because it involves thinking about food. I can’t track food for weight loss because I get highly anxious even writing down what I eat. I don’t binge, but I know that I’m compulsively unthinking about food. Someone recently asked me what sort of food texture I liked best: Crunchy? Smooth? Creamy? Chewy? It saddened me that I didn’t know.
I’ve begun untangling this with the help of a good therapist, but my question is this: How do I repair my relationship to food in the shadow of a mom who will never change the way she understands weight? I want to do this for my 5-year-old daughter. I delight in her own delight in her body. I talk all the talk — she will grow up hearing nothing but pleasure in what our bodies can do, and celebration of health and beauty at every size. I just want to believe in what I tell her.
The Answer Was Crunchy”
Dear The Answer Was Crunchy,
Your words about what you want for your daughter are so incredible – a real vision of what is possible for future generations. But, can you believe that this is the same thing we want for you too? Just as much. This form of peace and liberation is possible and those who see the need for a very different relationship to bodies and weight are the ones going first. Changing our lineages. Standing our ground. Doing deep healing work. Revolutionary work.
The struggle you’ve found yourself in after all of these years is not surprising to us – it’s actually very common. Feeling the parental presence of the food and body police leads most people to a disconnected relationship with food and their bodies. The reactionary behaviors you describe are, in many ways, a healthy response to diet culture. This rebellious voice protects our boundaries. It is a way we say NO. And yet in all of that saying NO, many end up not knowing what a yes means. Making embodied choices about what, when and how much to eat is difficult for many, and a focus on weight loss makes this virtually impossible.
There is a sweet middle path—a place where we can land when we’ve taken time to explore our body story, understand how we lost trust in the first place, externalize the shame, blame and bias, and return to the wisdom we were born connected to when we came into this world. We call this the process of reclaiming body trust.
We’ve seen that it is often the birth of a daughter that brings people to this healing work. Watching these living, breathing beings that have not had their embodiment disrupted helps us see that this obsession with food and weight is not our nature. Children have reverence for their bodies—they celebrate them—and eat according to their internal cues of hunger and fullness when given the consistent access to enough food at regular meal and snack times. They trust their bodies. And if the adults around them trust their body, they grow up to be competent eaters.
It can be inspiring, fearsome, and maddening to be able to see our children’s bodies with fresh and inclusive eyes and also have to let that little body mingle with the world. You want something different for them. We like to believe there are ancestral lineages of nurturers who wanted that for all of us too, but instead they taught us to do otherwise in an attempt to protect us from weight stigma. They couldn’t quite see how to get there given the limited access to resources, expression, and agency. In truth, we are in a crisis of imagination still, if we cannot prioritize safely including all bodies over the shaming and othering of some, which is far more commonplace.
Together we are creating a new world with the needs of those who came before us in mind. It’s an issue of finding our way into a liberatory frame. It’s an issue of trust. Can I trust my knowing over the roar of the voices amplifying the urgency of health behaviors? Can I trust my body to find comfort in being as it is, even if I’ve internalized the idea that no comfort can be found there? Ultimately, can I trust that my voice is wise enough to believe in, and that the more I listen, the more will become available?
Diet culture has made food and health a performance. Healing from diet culture and weight stigma means untangling from the performance and finding your way into a place where your needs, wants, desires and boundaries are louder than the externalized rules that demand adherence in exchange for worthiness.
But when you’re healing, that’s not where we usually start. In the beginning we often start from a place of fear, frustration, or even defeat. A place where you might know that you don’t want to go back but you are really uncertain about how to move forward. That’s a starting place, if you can believe it. We start before we are 100% ready. We start because the old path has failed us and we aren’t going to do it again, even if there is a voice within us begging us to try just one more diet, plan or program.
You’ve known all along that what was being served in your home was not what you wanted. NOPE. You get to redefine what health and healing look like and feel like. You get to set boundaries. You get to ask for what you need. You get to explore pleasure. And in all of this exploration, you get to look with kindness and curiosity. Focus on small consistent acts and over time, you’ll rebuild trust.
Can you imagine the fruits laboring for body connection and trust might bear?
Can you hold that up against the demoralizing, consuming project of weight loss and its maintenance and answer the call to claim your agency and vitality?
Follow the way the truth reveals itself to you in your body. Trust in the physicality of resonance with the truth.
Envision your freedom; assume it is for you, your daughter, and everyone else. Allow the softness to come. Find a community of people who support your liberation. Together, we can reclaim what it means to occupy and care for a body.
We all have to step into the skin of the fiercely body compassionate to be free. This will be an alarmingly bold conversation in the current paradigm, but for those of us who hunger for truth and can intuit the path to freedom, it will be an ecstatic unveiling. We will go first together. It’s time. It’s beyond damn time.