How I changed the way I think about my body

It all started around the age of eight. That’s when I remember sneaking into the kitchen and climbing up to the cupboard where my mom kept all of the sweets, taking what I wanted before stealing away to my bedroom. There, I ate waaaay more than I needed in peace before stuffing the wrappers into a hole at the base of my bed—the place where I stashed the evidence, away from questions and judgement. I had begun to comfort-eat, but being eight, I obviously didn’t know this. I had not yet made the connection between food and feelings. I was more interested in playing on the farm with my siblings and reading the latest Harry Potter book than in self-diagnosis.

Now at 23, I have struggled with my weight and a healthy perception of my body for most of my life, but it was only this year, after a period of counseling, that I actually began to question why this trigger to comfort myself with food had been activated. That took a lot of concentration and revisiting memories that weren’t exactly very pleasant.

So, when forced to think back to the start of my comfort-eating, I remembered two distinct feelings; momentary satisfaction, immediately followed by guilt. The guilt, however, only lasted a while and by the next day, it was forgotten and the habit continued: wash, rinse, and repeat, for years and years. I never focused on why I had these feelings because I just presumed I had a sweet tooth. Chocolate tastes gooooood—why wouldn’t you eat it all the time if you had the chance, right?! But then, I had to really question why I felt comforted by food in the first place.

It has taken me 15 years to realize that my trigger had been emotional trauma in my childhood. That summer of ’98 was a roller coaster for my family and I as a dispute with relatives changed everything. Being the eldest of four, I remembered more than my parents give me credit for. I remembered the neighbors babysitting us a lot, all of the late-night phone calls, whispered conversations, relatives not visiting, not seeing my dad for weeks, all while being carted around the country with a very sad mom.

This scene in our family history is now very much part of the fabric of us all, and life has gone on, but it never occurred to me that I was still carrying emotional wounds from that far back or that it could explain my unhealthy relationship with food. It didn’t occur to me when I would be too self-conscious to eat in public. It didn’t occur to me when my mom had to bring me to a dietician at the age of 12. It didn’t occur to me when I dropped down to a size 10 and still thought I was too big. It didn’t occur to me when I was at a festival in really hot weather and I refused to switch from jeans into shorts because I felt my legs were too big and unsightly. It didn’t occur to me the million times during my adolescence when I felt ugly or confused about myself. It didn’t occur to me until now.

If I was ever going to be successful in having a healthy body attitude, I needed to first deal with the underlying causes. Finally, I’ve been able to identify my trigger and I now have the power to change things. You’ll note I said healthy body attitude and not “the perfect body”—there’s no such thing.

Nowadays, I’m still no size 10, but I don’t have any ambition to be. I’ve finally realized that a healthy body is one that I feel good in. Powerful, active, confident; that’s what I want my body to be. I’ve learned to pay less attention to clothing sizes too, particularly considering that most sizes aren’t even standardized in most retail stores. Now, it’s more about how I feel and look in clothes than about being concerned whether the tag is in single or double digits. That should apply to everyone, whether you’re tall, small, skinny or curvy, straight or round—whatever.

Don’t get me wrong, that doesn’t mean I don’t still need to eat right or go cycling more often; but it also doesn’t mean that I’ve banned sweets from my week. I’m still human—I’d go crazy! However, by being aware of my trigger, I can stop a vicious comfort/guilt eating cycle from even starting when I find myself reaching for a bag of 24 chocolate bars after a tough day.

With this revelation fresh in mind, I have used these past few months to change a few things. I went swimming publicly for the first time in years and nobody’s eyes bled. I’ve stopped covering my arms all of the time (an area of my body I’ve always been self-conscious about) and guess what? Nothing bad happened, I also had an opportunity to face memories I had suppressed for a long time as we had our first family reunion in 15 years. . .and you know what? We all had a really nice time.

Sarah Murphy is from the Emerald Isle of Ireland and will resent you asking her whether she is a leprechaun. The answer is no. As a recent Languages and Culture graduate, she has no idea what she is doing with her life but hey, she’s enjoying the ride. While her big loves in life are books, her mongrel dogs, music festivals, traveling, speaking on the radio, general life pondering, and eating the icing off cupcakes first, this does not compare to her frankly worrying passion for ’80s music and bad puns. You can follow her irregularly updated blog here and tweet her puns here.

(Image via Shutterstock)

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