I deserve to be nourished and fulfilled. I deserve to be abundant. I needed to stop thinking of exercise as a punishment for the way I look.
CW/TW: This essay contains discussions of fatphobia, forced exercise, weight loss, and disordered eating.
I joined the basketball team in the 8th grade so my mom wouldn’t force me to exercise with her or in front of her after school anymore. I wasn’t fat (yet), but I also wasn’t thin enough for her to see value in my body. During the basketball season, I unintentionally lost weight from the long, physically-demanding practices we had multiple times per week. She praised me when my jeans became a bit too big and I needed a belt to keep them up on my hips. Her enthusiasm about my shrinking body made me feel like shit. Of course, at that age, I didn’t have the language to talk about it, or a proper understanding of the insidiousness of fatphobia to be able to articulate why it made me feel so bad about myself. I’ve been cringing at compliments ever since and engaging in certain types of exercise can still be somewhat triggering for me, especially doing them in front of other people.
My mom’s attitude, along with being bullied and isolated by many of the girls on the team, kept me from even trying out for basketball in high school for fear of it continuing or even worsening. I joined marching band instead and took extra P.E. classes that weren’t required by the curriculum. None of this was ever enough for my mom because I had gained the weight back, and then some. She still pressured me to exercise more, and would often wake me up early on Saturday mornings to make me go walking or running down the road with her. Or I was made to follow one of the many home exercise tapes she had collected, all of which were basically an hour of cardio, and I would be shamed for not being “in shape” since I was unable to make it through a session without breathing heavily and struggling more than she felt acceptable (as an adult, I would learn that I may actually have exercise-induced asthma). It was painful and I hated it. I wanted to move and celebrate my body and its athleticism in ways that felt good and affirming to me—I wanted to play football, and wrestle, and climb trees, and lift weights, things that made me feel strong and confident even while they were challenging—but those things weren’t appropriate for someone of my assigned gender. They were “boyish” and off-limits.
She never forced me to go on a diet from what I can remember, but she certainly never hesitated to make comments about how much food I ate. She would watch me like a hawk and it gave me so much anxiety about eating, especially in front of other people, which I continue to struggle with. In the evenings, I would be so hungry, but I would rarely eat because she believed that eating after 6 PM made people fat, and she would make disparaging comments to/about me if she saw me eating at a time that she considered to be “too late” in the evening. To compensate, I would sneak into the kitchen at night and eat while she was asleep when I couldn’t stand the hunger pangs anymore. Because I have always been a sleep-deprived, nocturnal creature, 6 PM was beyond arbitrary as a designated time to stop eating for the day. But every time I ate, whether or not it was before 6 PM, I felt immense guilt about it. Eventually, I got to the point where I would only allow myself to eat once or twice a day, and this would sometimes lead to late-night binges with a heaping helping of guilt. The disordered eating patterns and forced deprivation that I created for myself followed me into college, and then into adulthood.
Last year around Christmas, I had a simultaneous throat, tonsil, and ear infection for the second time in my life. It made eating very painful, as well as drinking and talking. So, I ate even less than usual. When I did eat, it was only brothy soup or soft foods, and in very small portions. I sat down in my mom’s kitchen one evening, around 7 PM, to eat for the first time that day, my body very low on energy and my throat still feeling like a Jigsaw contraption. My mom was in the next room, and she said to my sister—probably thinking I couldn’t hear her because she never learned how to whisper properly, but still has unearned confidence in her whispering abilities—”She might lose some weight if she keeps eating like this.”
I told myself this very Millennial joke to help myself cope:
My throat: *gets infected, make everything feel like gargling shrapnel*
Me: “Joke’s on you, you raggedy bitch. I already have disordered eating!”
My mom: *thinks I should be on a diet of loose soup, soft mush, and ginger ale like this all the time so I will lose weight*
Me: “Oh, right. Joke’s on me. This is why I have disordered eating in the first place.”
I told myself this joke and I laughed as hard as my infected throat would let me. But first, I had the most painful anxiety attack of my life alone in my childhood bedroom. Before this point, I hadn’t realized how easily and how badly my mom’s fatphobic comments could still trigger me. And I knew something needed to change. I had to acknowledge that I still had disordered eating patterns leftover from childhood and directly address how they connected with my feelings towards exercise. For the past year, I have been working very hard to unpack and dismantle harmful ideas I’ve carried with me for a long time about eating and exercise so that I can reform my relationship with them, as well as my body.
I haven’t talked about this to such an extent before, and certainly not in public, and I’m hoping that venting will help me be able to get through this. The truth is that I have spent years feeling a complex hatred towards and longing for both eating and exercising. I needed to stop feeling guilty for eating until I am full and satiated. I deserve to be nourished and fulfilled. I deserve to be abundant. I needed to stop thinking of exercise as a punishment for the way I look, as something that I just have to accept as a painful, uncomfortable experience filled with shame.
There are many things I have to continually remind myself of during this process because, FUCK, they are so easy to forget when you’ve spent your entire existence being told the exact opposite:
– There is no such thing as bad food.
– Exercise should never be a form of punishment.
– Your body knows when it’s hungry. Listen to it.
– You never need to earn your food with exercise.
– You never need to pay for your right to eat with exercise.
– Please do not feel guilty for eating.
– Please do not feel guilty for being full.
– You never have to pay for your right to rest with exercise.
– You are always allowed to be still and relax.
– You are always allowed to move your body in ways that feel good and affirm you.
– You are always allowed to be fat.
– Please do not feel shame for being fat.
– Please do not feel shame for eating while fat.
– You are always allowed to celebrate and glorify your body.
– You are never required to be perfect at the exercise you choose.
– Eating and exercise are never in competition with each other.
– Never blame yourself for where you used to be.
– Always be proud of how far you’ve come.
I know my mom did her best with the tools she had. She, too, is a product of the racialized and gendered fatphobia aimed at Black womxn and kept alive through both Black patriarchal and white supremacist ideals. But I also know that it does me no good to not fully acknowledge the ways she has contributed to my difficult relationships with my body, but especially eating and exercise. As I am working to reform and improve each of these relationships, it’s imperative that I tell the truth about where I learned the lessons that have left me stagnated and held me hostage for so long.
Christmas time is approaching again, and I know it will offer up more opportunities for conversations, both familial and cultural, about “earning” and “working off” holiday meals. There will be a heightened sense of shame around food and rest for everyone, particularly for visibly fat folks who hear and read this type of rhetoric in excess year-round. I have made significant progress this past year, but I know I still have a ways to go. Even as I work through my own process, I will always hold space for other fat folks, other folks with disordered eating patterns, exercise anxiety, and trauma from fatphobic abuses. These lessons I have learned and will continue to learn, are yours, too. This season, I hope you will be gentle with yourself and take from these reminders whatever you need to help you get through the holiday and any other day when it all feels like too much.