When I was 5-years-old I was acutely aware that my stomach “went straight down,” (translation: that I was thin) and that if I wanted it to stay that way, I couldn’t eat too much. I have one memory, in particular, where I can almost hear my voice say to my sister, “My stomach goes straight down.” I didn’t have a grasp of the proper nomenclature, yet, but looking back, that was the beginning of a very painful journey for me.
Growing up, I was aware that some of us were “skinny” and some of us weren’t. I am number 7 out of 10 kids. There are 8 girls and 2 boys. I have always thought I was “lucky number 7,” because I have not had to deal with many of the health-related issues my siblings have. I have perfect eyesight. I do not have diabetes. I have very low blood pressure. I do not have celiac disease. I have a healthy gall bladder. I am not allergic to anything but black mold and sometimes pollen. Until a few years ago, I had never broken a bone. Nor had I ever gotten stitches. I am not afraid of people or social situations. I do not have asthma. And I have almost always been within a normal weight range.
(That doesn’t mean I’m not a hot mess in many other ways.)
I still believe I simply lucked out when they were doling out alleles. Because I grew up in a family that struggles with weight, I know, for sure, that there is something biologically different about me. I was spared the battle with obesity, but I had my own dragons to slay.
My Mother is the most intelligent, sophisticated, creative and pure soul I have ever met. There is not a single ounce of meanness inside her. But that doesn’t mean she wasn’t afraid. She was afraid. She gave birth to, and raised, more kids than her body probably wanted to. I think she started to gain weight after I was born, but by the time I was of cognitive thought, I knew my mother thought she was fat. And she hated it. She hoped to help all her kids escape the same fate. But fear has a way of seeping through the cracks, and it rubbed off on me.
Mormon Culture is largely centered around food. I suppose one might argue that American Culture is centered around food, but Mormons take it to new levels. Mormons don’t go to coffee shops. They generally don’t meet for tea and nosh on cucumber sandwiches. They don’t sip aperitifs and they don’t skimp on the fat. They even have their own cuisine! “Funeral Potatoes” are very popular as well as assorted jellos and mayonnaise-themed salads. When Mormons get together there is ALWAYS food. It is customary, in every situation, to prepare and bring large amounts of food with you to most events to share. Family gatherings center around food. Church meetings almost always have refreshments afterward.
They are also obsessed with sex. I promise I am not picking on Mormons! I love Mormons. I had an idyllic childhood, full of adventure and unconditional love from my family. But I am also determined to speak what is the truth for me. Growing up in Mormon Idaho was a little like growing up at a special camp where every day you are reminded of sex and not ever to have it. I didn’t have any idea what it was, and I felt guilty about it at 8 years old. On Sundays, we were regaled by stories of girls who had, or had not, remained morally “clean.” My young mind heard that my worth was completely tied to how chaste I was. I was told repeatedly that my worth was only valid in relation to a man. In fact, I didn’t have to make any decisions at all! My husband would be held accountable for our actions and be wholly responsible for my passage to heaven.
An onslaught of lessons were delivered on: not having sex; not dressing in a way that might “turn on” a boy; using disgusting associative imagery to discourage masturbation; terrible consequences of small indiscretions; and (it bears repeating) our worth, as women, being tied directly to our chastity. Psychologists have known for many years that the BEST way to encourage someone to think about something, is to tell them not to think about it. By CONSTANTLY telling us not to think about sex, we all thought about it constantly. I was a spectacularly good kid, and I felt more shame and guilt, on a daily basis, than any kid should have to bear.
(Again, this is only my experience. I am positive there are many women out there who had very different experiences.) For me, growing up in that context, a repressive and anti-feminist community, and within a family who was gripped by the fear of food and gaining weight was… tricky.
I know my sweet mother felt shame about her weight, which transferred to feeling shame every time she ate anything. And I could see it in some of my sister’s eyes as well. This shame felt like the same shame I felt when I had any thoughts of a sexual nature. This tied food, sex, weight and shame all together in a neat little bow for me.
Most of my life I didn’t really have to worry too much about weight. Besides the luck of the draw, there is one other reason for this, and that reason is named, Nan. My sister, Nanette was 7 years my senior, and without a doubt, my hero. I remember vividly that day in 1978 when she brought me in to the parlor to teach me how to do a cartwheel. I was 5-years-old. By then I had already decided that Nan pretty much ruled. She was only ever nice to me. I can not remember one single incident where she brushed me off, or made me feel sad. One time, she decided she was running away. I think she was 11-years old, so I would’ve been 2 or almost 3. She packed a suitcase for herself and one for me, and we set off to make our way.
I remember that day so clearly. I was a little confused as to why we didn’t have sticks with bandanas tied to them carrying our loot (like the hobos in cartoons) but I knew she had probably thought that through. We walked to the end of the lane that stretched from our house, past the big oak tree, the corral and the horses and sat down on some hay bales lying near the main haystack. I wasn’t even tired. I felt like we should keep walking. Imagine my bewilderment when it started to get dark and we returned home. In my mind, it seemed like a perfectly reasonable idea to run away. Nan and I, off to see the world.
So when she showed me the magical wonders of a cartwheel, I was hooked. I went directly outside and said to myself, “I am not going back inside until I do this cartwheel perfectly.” It took a long time that night, as I recall, but I did it. Thus began a mutual obsession that, for the next 10 years, would provide 75% of our entertainment. We lived and breathed gymnastics. We played “add-on” constantly. For the uninitiated, add-on is an awesome game that requires its players to remember and perform a growing number of “tricks,” in the order they were introduced. When done so accurately, that player then “adds-on” a “trick” (which could be anything from a handstand to a dance move) and it’s the next player’s job to remember and replicate the series.
We did cartwheels down the hall, tumbling runs in the living room, back handsprings in parades and layouts on the trampoline. Constantly.
By the time I was a sophomore in high school, she was married and we moved away. I basically stopped doing gymnastics. I came back to Idaho to go to finish high school and we hung out all the time, but then during my junior year she moved to Oklahoma City. I was so sad about it that I blocked her from my mind for a time. About that same time, I started to gain weight. I was gaining it fast. I had always weighed around 105 pounds, but suddenly I was 125.
I started throwing up. I had hoped that by getting rid of the food I’d eaten, I’d get rid of the weight and shame I had. The throwing up reinforced the shame, however, and on top of that, I was a TEENAGER and wanted to make-out with boys constantly. More shame.
I starved myself that summer and returned to school back at 105 pounds. I would constantly vacillate between starving and/or binging and purging. I would run for miles and miles. I did EVERYTHING I could to keep from having sex with the boys I went out with. I was SUCH a good girl, but despite my efforts, I was still pretty sure I was going to hell. I knew I wasn’t being good enough. I would confess every tiny transgression to my bishop. He finally told me to quit coming to see him. In hindsight, I can see that he was a smart guy who knew I was a good kid and wanted me to relax. I, of course, just thought I had tricked him into thinking I was a good kid. Ridiculous!
There was a community dust-up at the end of my senior year that knocked us all off balance and by that summer I had decided that trying to be all the things my church leaders said I should be was literally killing me. I moved in with some friends and we proceeded to rabble rouse. We drank beer, dated sailors and swore openly! When ALL of your morals are tied to a religion, and the religion betrays you, the danger is that the proverbial baby gets chucked out with the bathwater. It was a big time of sifting for answers to questions like, why black people couldn’t hold the priesthood before 1979; why the church is so anti-feminist; why the church had lied to us about J. Smith being 14 years old when he went into the sacred grove, etc. etc. etc… these discrepancies fueled our disillusionment and we just tried our best to help each other get through it.
I felt like I was just getting my footing when a friend of ours from Ricks College stopped by. An hour later, my virginity taken from me, all the shame I had been breaking away from came flooding back, triple-fold. I was totally unprepared and felt wholly responsible. I ramped up the throwing up to every time I had a single bit of food and I quit eating altogether about 8 months after that. By Christmas, 1992, I was down to only 87 pounds. I hated food. I was scared of men.
I hated to talk about food, think about food or listen to people eat food. I felt the EXACT SAME WAY about food as I felt about sex. It was dirty, bad, gross and to be avoided at all times. This crossover of disgust and shame about food and sex carried over to my young marriage and was probably, ultimately, it’s demise.
Enter Jenny. My sister Jenny is about 9 or 10 years older than me. She was enough older than me, that I don’t have a lot of memories of her from when I was little. I also think she hid out in her room with her guitar, trying to find some peace! But after Nan moved away (my junior year) Jenny really stepped in to be my surrogate mama. She was putting herself through college, as a single mom, and was poor. It was a trial for her to find the gas money to come up from Pocatello to Rexburg and support me in my plays and concerts. I spent vacation time with her in her tiny one-bedroom apartment and we had a great time. Jenny has such a calming affect on me. I usually fall asleep within an hour of walking into her house. It’s one of the few places in the world I feel completely safe in. My sister, Sarah, also tried her best to include me in on her life as well as my brother, Dave. My sister, Melinda, was there when she could be. She was at BYU being exceptionally brilliant.
But it was Jenny that first saw signs of an eating disorder. And it was Jenny who lit the fire inside the family that led them to finally getting me some help. My mother drove me twice a week, an hour each way, for individual and group therapy for about two solid years. It helped. A ton. Having Hannah helped me the most. But my war had only just begun.
Over the last 20 years my struggle to rid myself of the crushing shame I have always felt surrounding all things sex has been more successful than my fight to accept food as something other than my enemy and my body, no matter what size, as my ally. I have waffled between 100 lbs and 149 lbs over and over again. My answer to the scale reaching the 140s? Starve. Quit eating. Quick. The initial disgust reaction I have had to food makes it relatively easy for me to do so. But when I feel sad, or lonely, I just want to eat. I haven’t made myself throw up in years, but I do still have periods of binging and over-eating. After my second divorce, I just wanted to numb out and food provided that outlet for me.
The divorce-induced dining and drinking resulted in the aforementioned 149 lbs. I stepped on the scale and saw that number (the same number I saw the day I gave birth!) and knew I had to change. I also knew I had to change in a better way than I used to. I knew I had destroyed my metabolism and that my body couldn’t take another starvation year. So I meditated. I meditated my way into a miracle.
Every day for 4 or 5 months I mediated for hours in a state of gratitude. Specifically gratitude that I had a body with such a spectacular metabolism that I could eat anything and not gain weight. I made myself believe that I always maintained a perfect, healthy weight. And suddenly, I was thin again. You can ask Hannah. Seemingly overnight, I let go of the weight and felt free.
Unfortunately, this liberation coincided with the market crashing and me no longer being able to support myself through the foundation I had started. The fear started to seep in and by the time the end of 2009 came around, I was in a state of terror again about food. I lived off of diet soda and pretzels. I was tired, worn out and week.
The year I spent as an insurance agent harkened in another saga into a less dramatic, but very real, emotional eating period. And then the next year, when I found out my sweet daughter had tried on being a smoker, I thought to myself, “Well. You’ve already fucked it all up.” I started smoking again (after many years of abstaining) and the emotional eating got worse, as well as an obsession with the TV. I was in the business of keeping it together. I studied, spent time with Hannah and put one step in front of the other. (We also managed to fit in a lot of fun.)
And then Hannah and I went to Outlook Development’s Power of Choice Seminar. My friend, Doug, gave a presentation on falling in love with our bodies. I silently groaned. I thought the word, “gross” in my mind and prepared myself for what I was sure to be another icky display of someone telling me to love my body. But he said some things that triggered the dam and somewhere in the middle of his presentation I just started sobbing.
I realized, suddenly, what an ungrateful BRAT I have been for the last 30 years. My body is awesome. It is my greatest ally. It has allowed me to dip my toes into 7 seas, climb through jungles, play the guitar, sing, dance, skydive, play the piano, smell the spices of Morocco, run, do backflips, feel the heat of Costa Rica, sweat my ass off in Indonesia, basque in the sun in Turkey and more. I have climbed tall mountains with this body. I have truly loved a man (or two). I have given BIRTH to my beautiful daughter. I have played roller derby, taken up kick boxing, died my hair a million times and performed in front of hundreds of people. I have over 200,000 road trip miles under my belt and many more to come.
My body has done all this for me, and I have treated it like shit. I walked out of that meeting determined to change my ways and haven’t touched a cigarette since. I never will again.
The next week I watched “Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead.” It was so inspiring. It motivated me to add a 10-day juice fast in to the project I had developed for the ongoing Outlook Development program Hannah and I were planning to do. The “Excess Emancipation” project, at that point, was just to get rid of 50% of my shit. It has become so much more. As I prepared to do the juice fast, I started thinking about other times in my life when I have successfully stuck to a healthier way of eating. The time I went vegan came to mind. I got SO SICK of bean burritos. I was beginning to think the juice fast would be enough of change when I started researching raw food diets.
The accounts from devotees about their entire outlook changing along with their overall health were amazing to me. I decided I’d commit to a 90% all raw-food diet until March 21st.
It was a difficult transition. Really difficult. I went through a listless period with NO energy. But about two weeks after beginning, I was on cloud 9. The benefits of going all raw were already showing. I began to have more energy and mental clarity than I ever have before. I realized at about week 3 that I was enjoying myself in the kitchen. That was astonishing. Then I noticed I was willing to talk about the food I was preparing. And then I realized I was savoring each bite. I have been anti-savoring my whole life, it felt dirty and gross to discuss it, let alone do it. And then last week I had the biggest breakthrough, yet.
I started an all-green smoothies 10-day plan on Dec 27. After that I moved into an all raw foods diet. The day of the great epiphany was January 27. Exactly one month after beginning this 101 day journey. I was at Omar’s Rawtopia in Sugarhouse. I was doing a little writing and musing over all the changes in my life. I was laughing about how earlier that day I caught myself chatting up the dude in the raw food isle of Whole Foods.
And then. And then the waitress brought me my dessert. It looked so pretty. It was a cashew, lemon and raspberry “cheese”cake. I took a bite and laughed out loud! It was so good! And it was pretty. And suddenly I had the overwhelming urge to take a picture of it! I can not tell you what a crazy move that was for me. I would liken it to me wanting to walk around the house naked… unfathomable. And yet, here it is.
I have a theory that because I now KNOW that the things I am eating are good for me, there is no way for my mind to twist it into something ugly. In my life, I had expected to get over the old “sex is dirty” script. I wasn’t even all that surprised when I realized that I DO love my body (thanks, pal!). But me getting excited about shopping for food, researching recipes, chatting with strangers about flax seeds and getting so excited about a dessert that I take its picture has been, by far, the greatest present of this 101 day journey thus far.
Thank you, Doug Phillips. Thank you Hannah!
And to my sisters in food and body loathing: Get ready, suit up, it’s going to get all foodie up in here!