Everyone has a relationship with food, whether it’s smooth sailing or extremely rocky at the moment, the relationship exists.
Early Childhood Associations and Behaviours
Before I begin, I want to say that I do not place blame on any of the people mentioned below. Life is life, I chose to cope with stress in a very childish and naive way, because I was a child. My weight problem is not anyone’s fault, not even my own. Everyone with siblings experiences sibling rivalry, and many people grew up with working parents and did not come out with weight issues. But in my narrative this is what I feel had the most profound impact on my relationship with food and my body. I have let go of all resentments and anger towards anyone that may have affected my self-esteem in a negative way. This journey has made me the person I am today and so I am truly thankful for the challenges that have come my way and I do not wish to portray anybody in a negative light. This is simply just an analysis of the facts, the way I have perceived them.
Food as a coping mechanism
My parents fled war to a foreign country and then immigrated half way across the world to another foreign country 8 years later with 2 children, aged 4 and 8. In order to provide for the household they both worked from as far back as I can remember, my dad pushing 6 days a week for over a decade.
When we were very young my grandma watched us during the day and everyone knows a grandma’s favourite way to show love is through food. It’s a cultural norm, and through no fault of her own she was the one that likely established the association for me that food = comfort, security.
Once my sister started getting closer to middle school age my parents started leaving us home alone because the assumption is that she would naturally watch for and care for her younger sister. However, this was not exactly the case. Although, fair enough, she never threw me off a balcony or anything to that degree, her affection for me wasn’t exactly the most loving. At least not in the way that a mother, grandmother or a fathers affection would be. We were simply 4 years apart and at different stages in life.
I would get dragged by my backpack to hurry up on my way home from school, she would split our room in half so I couldn’t bother her and as we got older she became more independent and I became more sensitive. By the time she was in high school I had been given carpet burn, ignored and embarrassed in front of her friends for being fat. I think the saddest part was that I still looked up to her as a role model. I was a picky eater because she was a picky eater, She liked Britney Spears so I liked Britney Spears … I so badly wanted to be just like her and yet she saw me as nothing but an annoyance.
This time period where I was roughly 8-12 years old, what I needed is what any child needs, a feeling of security and comfort. With a sibling who wanted nothing to do with me and parents who were not home for 3-4 hours after school, I had a limited sense of that security and love. We did not eat dinner as a family during the week and food was made in advance so we could feed ourselves after school whenever we were hungry. So I chose to cope with what was at my disposal, what my grandma taught me could soothe and fix any problem in the world: food. So I would eat whatever portion 10 year old Elena thought was enough to numb whatever anxiety she was experiencing.
My weight sky rocketed rapidly at 2 distinct times in my life, when we moved to a house in the suburbs at age 8 and when I moved away from home in first year university. We moved into our house in February and so as not to quit school in the middle of the year, I lived with my grandma during the week, and with our parents on the weekends in our new house. A time when I surely felt stressed and there was some uncertainty. Similarly, moving away from home to pursue a degree gave me the similar feelings of uncertainty and discomfort (muliplied by 100).
Body Image and Self Esteem Development
As a girl your body image can be largely predicted by looking at what sort of relationship your mother had with her own body. Mine was overweight as a kid and spoke about her experiences and how awful it was for her. From as long as I could remember she spoke about weight gain in a negative way and still wishes she could be slimmer even though she is currently not overweight.
Family in general made it pretty obvious that I was overweight mostly because my sister was so obviously skinny and I did not look like her. As a matter of fact I didn’t look like a lot of the kids at school. As I saw all the female adults in my family comparing themselves to each other and to other women, I began to do the same at an extremely young age. I was always cute and chubby, never pretty or fit.
As a child it seemed to me that anyone that didn’t look skinny was destined to perpetually diet until they were. Almost every adult female I was exposed to at such a fragile age spoke about gaining weight on vacation, some new diet they just tried or are trying, how bloated they felt and how clothes from last year don’t fit anymore.
My Weightloss journey and how it backfired
The first 30-35lbs of my weightloss was pursued through self love. This doesn’t mean I was happy at my starting weight, what it means was that when I looked in the mirror, I would tell myself I was beautiful. pIt was an honest effort with minimal force. I genuinely did not feel like I was missing out on sweets and food because I had a goal in mind, a healthy body. I was pursuing this healthy body as best as I could through a healthy mind. This journey was so full of motivation and I was able to inspire myself week by week.
Then I hit a plateau. I could barely budge from 131-132lbs for nearly a month. I started to panic. My goal was 125lbs, this was unacceptable and so I decided to start tracking my food. It turned into weighing every food to the gram, exercising 6 days a week for 1.5-2 hours, while balancing a full time undergraduate course load, and living on my own.
The same weight loss journey that was motivated through self love became motivated through self loathing. I was angry that the scale was moving so slowly, I forced myself to eat only a certain number of calories, I measured my waist frequently and felt that no matter how low the scale was going, I could do better. Lowest recorded weight was 118lbs. hurrah.
…except now the family that shamed me for being fat was now telling me I was too skinny and I looked anemic. I still didn’t have any love interests (EVEN THOUGH I WAS SO MUCH THINNER, THIS IS PREPOSTEROUS!?), I avoided social situations involving unhealthy foods and I began to experience spontaneous binges because my body was begging for nutritional reform. I also lost my period.
By keeping strict control over my food I ironically lost control of my life.
I felt like a failure. Those extra 12lbs I forced myself to lose brought me no additional joy and instead put me in complete and utter misery, and I still thought I had weight to lose because my stomach jiggled.
I stopped tracking my food but unfortunately the fear of eating still lingered. I was terrified to put any weight on. I would go from overeating on days I deemed as “bad food days” to then restricting and avoiding certain foods to make up for it the next day. My diet was all or nothing. Either it was healthful perfection or completely haywire. I would have periods where I truly felt like I was on the road to wellness and peace with my body until something would trigger me and I would force some sort of diet on myself, whether consciously or subconsciously.
I struggled and still currently struggle with emotional eating, but I constantly pick myself back up because I refuse to give up. I have tried to stay in tune with myself as much as possible and listen to my body. This journey of trying to find peaceful middle ground has lasted 2-3 years.
Powerlifting is saving me
I still have aesthetic goals, don’t get me wrong. I am not completely oblivious to the fact that my body is able to improve, however, it does not rule me or my eating behaviours. I eat to perform, to be healthy, and nourish both my body and mind.
I try to nourish, I do not try to numb. I say try because I am not perfect, and this portion of my journey is still in its early stages.
I do not go into the gym excited about how many calories I am going to burn. I go in empowered and full of energy to not only lift the weight I am programmed to lift that day but also lift and empower myself. It is strengthening not only my body but strengthening my spirit.
You better have spotter if you think you are going to lift 95% of your 1 rep max in a state of self loathing and hate. Anyone who practices any sport knows the value of the mental prep, visualizing the movements, simulating the weight in their head, and feeling the strength and ability come through their body.
What is most interesting to me is that through my weight and strength gain journey I have found myself comfortably maintaining a weight of around 132lbs. The same place I had landed before i began to force weightloss on myself.
What I realize now is that my body was not ready or arguably not meant to weigh 120lbs. It told me all on its own when it was time to give up the weight loss and focus on health, but I failed to listen. I feel like I am finally on a sustainable path to healing myself after literally a lifetime of battling with my biggest enemies: food and body.
I love this body for what it can do and I love my food for supporting my body in all the things it wishes to accomplish.
Currently I am honing in on the small habits and behaviours still lingering from past experiences. I have always been a lightening speed eater. I am starting to become a lot more mindful and really slowing it down. I try to now eat in a relaxed atmosphere, I chew my food entirely and spend some time noticing flavours and textures. I am learning to listen to hunger cues and telling myself it’s okay to leave food behind on my plate.
With respect to body image and self love I am going back to what I did before. Instead of pinching my belly and asking myself why God created me this way, I tell myself I am strong and beautiful. My body serves me every day and supports me in all the things I need it to do. Sometimes it may fall ill and it may fail a lift, but it has resilience like no other. Shout out to my immune system for serving me loyally every day for 22 years.
This is what I vow to tell myself from now until my mind no longer needs the reminder:
I feel good, therefore I look good.
I am happy, therefore I am healthy.
…And no one can take that happiness away from me because it is a happiness growing within me and a happiness I am nurturing with my mind and spirit, not with anyone else’s perceptions and opinions of me.