The Secret Psychosis of Poor Body Image and How I Made a Change
By Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez
I’ve always struggled with my
weight—no, wait. That’s not right. I’ve always struggled with everyone else’s opinion of my weight and what they thought it should be, rather than what it is, and the poor body image I was brainwashed to believe I had. I was a kid—a healthy kid who had a little baby fat. It had started that way, at least.
The Unnecessary Comparison
My younger sister, on the other hand, was a scrawny little thing with a lankiness that later blossomed into a slick machine of inexplicable, accelerated metabolism. Me? I just looked at food and bam!—I suddenly turned into a round blue whale whose voracious appetite was far too persistent to leave any room for dessert. (Yet, I ate the dessert anyway.)
I was what kinder people would call, “cute” and “chubby.” And I agree. I was cute. But, only a tad chubby.
While my sister was consistently praised for her beauty, I was consistently told (and indirectly programmed to believe) there was something wrong with me because of my weight.
Aside from incessant criticism of my looks (or lack thereof) especially in comparison to my sister’s size; family friends and relatives often liked to comment on my weight, scrutinizing me with an audacity that never refrained from saying things like:
“WOW! You GAINED some weight!”
“Boy, you’ve grown…but not this way…but THIS way!”
“Oh,…you got bigger. What happened? Maybe you should cut down on your eating…”
Public Humiliation and Early Puberty
This kind of berating and public humiliation began at the age of 10. And looking back at old photographs now, I can clearly see that I wasn’t an obese child. I was, instead, a healthy girl whose baby fat had not entirely been shed yet.
And then I became a preteen who happened to develop curves overnight—and horrifically ahead of everyone else in my class—and was also the first girl to get her period and have her breasts slowly start to come in among her flat-chested peers whose only plausible, worst fears were if they missed an episode of She-Ra, or whether the cutest boy in class would ever look their way.
It was a frightening and overwhelming time for me without the much-needed support from friends and family so many girls are now encouraged to receive when they reach the confusing time of puberty.
The Curse of Being an Emotional Eater
If there’s anything that I’ve learned about myself and my eating habits over the years, it’s that I’m an emotional eater. I have had the tendency to want to eat when I’m bored, sad, depressed, extremely anxious, or angry—and I don’t usually stop until I feel satiated, or even sick—as if all the hope I had was rooted in the taste of food that I had consumed to somehow suppress the intensity of my emotions.
But, it never did.
Instead, the fill I so desperately sought, only became a larger vacuum in which I swallowed guilt, shame, and self-deprecation, which in turn, left me starving for praise, love, and positive affirmation—all of which, I lacked, and very rarely received.
It was because of these constant, negative messages that I received as a young person about my body that I not only internalized being overweight from a very young age even though I wasn’t really overweight—but that I also began to subconsciously and systematically overfeed myself because of this negative misconception that I was constantly berated with, which then eventually manifested itself into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
I believed I was fat even though I wasn’t –and so I overfed myself often enough until it eventually became true.
The Secret Life of Diet Pills
Since then I went through a yo-yo of crash diets, fad diets, and a personal battle against bingeing and bulimia. I had become a child product of Dexatrim and laxatives, having been first exposed to them at the age of 11.
The very first pack of diet pills I had purchased, I bought at a local Hy & Zel’s store after school, worried out of my wits that the cashier would either refuse to sell them to me, or somehow rat me out to my mother, or someone else that I knew at school.
How the cashier would do that exactly, was a mystery to me, but when you’re desperately focused on preventing yourself from gaining an ounce of weight even after starving yourself, paranoia isn’t far off from your list of newly gained peculiarities.
The guilt of buying a pack of diet pills made me feel both like a dysfunctional eater (or rather, non-eater) and a covert, fraudulent criminal breaking a law only others abided by—eating regularly and with ease of conscience and pleasure.While others could eat normally without fear or distress; eating, was for me, a constant source of anxiety.
Food was everywhere and ready to consume in excess. Taste and consumption seemed far more important socially than it was to eat a healthy and balanced diet. Marketing surely made it so. And people were hungry. Hungry to consume what it could get its hands on. Buffet restaurants meant one flat admission price for an All-You-Can-Eat menu with people saving money, while filling their bellies. Why would people opt to eat an over-priced organic meal at a restaurant if they could eat as much as they wanted in one sitting even if it meant the food was laced with MSG and deep-fried in batter? I certainly did.
It was a dark and secretive time for me. It was my own private and toxic battle against an invisible, but subversive enemy—one that I could not and would not name at the time.
The Bulimic Track Star
In high school, I polarized into a track star, running obsessively around my school track at lunch time—without ever actually eating lunch.
I trained six days a week with Sundays off and starved myself until I secretly binged like a vampire with blood lust—a natural Edward Hyde—only to induce vomiting in secret in a bathroom hours later. Once the toilet was flushed and the door open, the Henry Jekyll in me, was able to deceive my family and friends into thinking that I was fine. I was for the most part.
Except I literally could not “stomach” the idea of having food inside me.
Whatever I ate, however large or little, it was, it seemed to me, always too much and too dangerous. The very sight of food made me feel excited and nauseous, a strange anxiety that did not stem from the food itself, but the idea of the excitement and danger food would pose if I actually ate it.
I felt there was a high cost to eating. That eating would only and inevitably make me gain weight. That regardless of how little or how much I ate, food had an invisible power to ruin my body in a way that I felt I was always powerless to change. And as much as it tasted great, it would only cause me problems. I sincerely believed that. I loved food—but, I hated it, too.
Of course, these were lies I illogically internalized. Lies that would be the catalyst to a vicious cycle of overeating, starving, and overeating again, and the psychosis associated with an extremely poor body image, self-deprecation, self-doubt, and insecurity.
No matter how much or how little I ate, I was never “skinny enough” nor “beautiful enough,” but rather a person who was compelled to over-criticize myself constantly in the mirror, often miserable with what I perceived, rather than what was actually in the mirror.
This was my life for a few years until I gave in to eventually eating again—never quite normally—but enough to get by so I wouldn’t collapse in a corner and be sent to hospital in fear that my secret would be revealed.
In college, I continued running long-distance until I discovered the dangerous, but seductive lure of coffee and cigarettes, which soon became my staple diet—and my only diet—until I was an unhealthy, foul-smelling, over-caffeinated, high-strung, exhausted, and undernourished individual on campus.
Not only could I no longer run long-distance as I had done in high school, I no longer had the desire to lead an athletic lifestyle because I could no longer sustain my breathing or run with ease! How could I expect my lungs to empower me during my solitary jogs when they were far too busy choking on nicotine and turning black? I could barely make it around the block.
My bulimia worsened.
I ate less. I binged. I threw up. I rinsed my mouth of any evidence. I ate less. I binged. I threw up. And I rinsed my mouth of any evidence…
And I did it again and again…and again—until I met the man I would later marry and have children with.
Marriage, Motherhood, and “Letting It All Go”
A few years after graduation, I met my future husband.
We dated. We ate—well, he ate, while I hesitatingly and privately coerced myself to force food down my throat in the hopes of appearing like a well-adjusted, potential girlfriend with healthy and “normal” eating habits.
What other choice did I have on these dates that often involved the “excruciating” act of eating? I couldn’t possibly sit there across the table from him and not order food from the menu in front of me without suspicion. The excuses would run out pretty quickly. It was either food and the fraudulent act of enjoying eating it, or the high risk of further rejection, potential ostracization, or perpetual loneliness.
I bit the bullet, so to speak, to avoid the latter, even though I really, really wanted to put two fingers down my throat and hurl everything I had consumed, only to fill myself up again with everything I could smell, taste, and see.
Luckily for me (but, not so lucky), I also had cigarettes to fall back on. The drug effectively curbed my hunger and dulled my taste buds so that I couldn’t even enjoy the freshness and vitality of food available to me if I had wanted to. My fear, anxiety, and dark secret of starving and overeating was hidden for a while behind a large cloud of nicotine smoke.
After getting married, I really did let myself go, no longer able to deceive my husband into believing I was eating healthily when I tried hard not to eat at all, or else eat everything in sight.
So, rather than work towards creating a healthy-eating lifestyle, I, in conjunction with often being told by my co-workers and friends that a little weight gain is completely natural to the “contentment one feels during the honeymoon period,” I did the exact opposite of what I worked so hard to habituate—I over ate.
And I did it with the excuse that it was okay to let myself go; that my husband loved me no matter what (which is true of course, but no reason at all to over feed myself).
The honeymoon period lasted for two years until real life began to settle in and require more of my attention, energy, and responsibility.
I had become emotionally stressed with work; anxious about my finances; insecure about my social life; and disappointed with where my life had led, and how I felt it somehow didn’t measure up to the expectations and plans I had made for myself years ago—especially when I compared it to others around me who seemed to have more success and control over their lives than I did.
So, I continued eating…and eating…and eating—chronically—until I no longer recognized myself.
I ate myself into a lethargic state of painful heaviness until my body weight almost matched the weight of the burden I always carried with me: my feelings of depression, insecurity, and helplessness when it came to my appearance, a lack of control over my body, and my self-loathing, as well as my unhealthy relationship with food.
In trying to somehow fill that gap aside from the food that I continuously gorged down; my husband and I decided to try our chances at having our first baby.
My pregnancy was high-risk, my labour difficult, and my child born an extremely preemie at 25 weeks gestation (out of the full-term of 40 weeks), weighing only a tiny 1 lb. and 8 oz., less than the size of a pop can.
Needless to say, it was a trying time. The stress associated with his three-month, premature birth led to a strain in my position at work, an emotional toll on my marriage, and raised more insecurities about my body and its inherent failings as a woman who could not conceive easily, but could not carry a baby to full-term in a healthy way.
What was my answer? My coping mechanism? More food.
The first four years of my son’s life meant three-to-four visits to hospital a year, on account of his chronic lung disease (in the form of asthma), and a high-risk to influenza and Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV), which could cause severe illness, and even death.
While my son’s body was often fighting to get stronger and healthier; my own body ballooned in size until I weighed in over 215 lbs. I could barely breathe. And I didn’t walk—I waddled. Slowly.
I also waddled in the excuse that it was okay to be fat because I had just birthed a baby. My health wasn’t important because I had different priorities, I told myself. My baby has to come first.
That excuse lasted for a good five years until I got pregnant again! Yes, I didn’t just go through the risk of pregnancy once, I decided to go through the madness twice for the sake of my boy, who my husband and I believed desperately needed a sibling.
While I was better prepared with the knowledge of my medical condition, my second pregnancy was not any easier. I had to have cervical surgery to help carry my baby further along in pregnancy with the hope of carrying to full-term, but even with surgery, my daughter still came out two weeks early.
It wasn’t nearly as devastating as my first pregnancy, but still an affirmation of my “failings” as a mother who couldn’t bring her babies to full-term—even with medical help.
I suffered postpartum depression and continued to feed myself excessively with the excuse that I was eating for two, and that getting healthy had yet, to take the back seat in taking care of my newborn daughter.
My weight gain seemed to be more excusable and acceptable because I had recently given birth…again.
Six years later, after the birth of my second child, three back surgeries, countless migraines, and a diagnosis of a heart condition, and a number of emergency hospital visits—I decided to make a serious lifestyle change.
That was it. I had had enough.
I was overweight, over-tired, over-stressed, and clinically unhealthy. It was either I make a serious lifestyle change—or die.
I chose life.
And so, I signed up for a local gym membership, started working out three times a week, and educated myself in the ways of proper eating. And then I began eating again and eating healthily.
It was a chance to start over. To cleanse my body from the inside. To subvert any feelings of self-loathing, and not only shed pounds of fat, but also shed the excess weight of disappointment and limitations I had placed on myself for looking and feeling the way that I did.
No more bad carbs, trans fat, processed, and foods high in sugar. I said goodbye to pop (Coca-Cola was my favourite and I drank it like water) and junk food.
Instead, I welcomed in the taste and sustenance of fruits, vegetables, dairy, protein, and fibre into my diet.
I also started to control my portions and take inventory of what I was eating. You’d be surprised what you eat and how much you actually eat when you’re not mindful of it.
With dedication, discipline, consistency, and hard work, I lost about 60 lbs. over the span of six months!
It wasn’t easy. At first, I went through a sugar-withdrawal, missing its taste, feeling desperate and deprived of the “sweet” taste of food that I grew accustomed to.
But, once that craving passed (as did the number of weeks and months that went by), my palette for sweet and sugary foods almost diminished.
After a few weeks, I had become accustomed to a lighter and healthier diet, one filled with fruits, vegetables, dairy, protein, and fibre.
And surprisingly, it filled me up. I no longer experienced the highs and lows of a high-carbohydrate diet. While I did not eradicate carbs from my diet completely, I was smarter in my food choices.
Rather than have unlimited helpings of white, baked bread, I ate multi-grain. Rather than pile my plate with heaps of regular spaghetti, I portioned my wheat pasta, and refrained from dousing it with heavy sauce. My ice cream became frozen yogurt. Whole milk became skim milk. Chips became wheat crackers. Milk chocolate became dark chocolate. And candy and artificial sugar? Well, that turned into honey, apples, oranges, blueberries, and strawberries, and whatever fruit was on-hand.
But, my battle plan at winning the war on obesity, poor eating habits, and even poorer health, also meant that I could no longer be passive about my physical activity. If I wanted to win at losing weight and getting healthy, I couldn’t do it by diet alone. I had to move. I had no choice, but to incorporate more physical activity into my daily living. Not sometimes, but a little, every single day.
Since August 2015, I have not deviated from my workout schedule with the exception of a one-week holiday where I had no access to a gym while out-of-country visiting relatives.
Aside from that, I’ve been to the gym consistently at least three times a week, to a maximum of seven days in a row, with light workouts and gym classes in between, and rest days to allow my body to recuperate.
Now, I’m no longer addicted to unhealthy food, but working out!
Because I work out so often now, if I actually miss a scheduled workout, my body craves activity! It actually wants to run cardio, lift weights, or do an entire session of circuit training! It loves Body Combat classes, Spin classes, and Yoga!
And do you want to know what the best feeling is? (Aside from a well-deserved sit in the sauna and a hot shower after a workout?)
Achieving my goals. Finishing a workout. Dripping with sweat after an hour of going strong. Meeting and beating a personal challenge. Running further. Running longer. Running faster. Lifting more.
Surviving a hardcore workout class I could barely breathe through the last time I tried it. Trying on old clothes only discover that they are now too big for me and fall off when I put them on. Then trying on new clothes while window shopping and discovering that I am now 10 sizes smaller than what I was before!
And the greatest achievement of all?
(Looking) and feeling great about myself and my personal success especially after so many obstacles and past failings.
Not only do I look and feel great now, there’s an ease and freedom in the way my body moves and the positive attitude that comes from achieving my personal goals.
I’m not only half the size I was when I first started my journey towards better health and fitness, but my energy is up, and my health is far better than it has ever been.
I confess, I have more energy and feel stronger than most women half my age and it’s outstanding! While I’m not always perfectly happy, I’m happier than I have been in years.
So, the journey continues…
I do my best to eat regular, healthy meals (without skipping, without overeating, without vomiting, and without the seduction and torment of a lot of sugar, shame, or anxiety) and work hard to work out regularly in order to live a healthier, balanced lifestyle.
There are no gimmicks. No tricks. No magic. No shortcuts. And no mystery.
Just a decision.
A few small changes.
And even more small victories.
And the ongoing commitment, discipline, and hard work to stay the course, and stay strong.
If a woman with two children who has battled depression, overeating, bulimia, and poor body image all her life can lose 60-something pounds, and turn her body into a tight, lean, strong, flexible, and healthy muscle-machine over the course of six months, why can’t you?
The answer is, of course you can!
If you’ve ever struggled with poor body image, low self-esteem, obesity, poor health issues, or would like to make a change in your lifestyle towards better eating, better health, and fitness—by all means, join me.
There’s nothing stopping you. You simply have to decide to do it… and then start! It really is that easy.
Don’t delay. Wherever you are in your life right now, whatever your health; it’s never too late to start again.
You can do it. You just have to want it bad enough to begin.
Excuses won’t get you there. Neither will procrastination. Only you can move yourself forward. It’s your body. It’s your life.
Don’t you think it’s time to earn and love the body you live in? It’s yours. No one else can do it for you.
Whatever your decision, I’m here, and will be continuing on in my journey.
All I can promise you, is that I hope for you the best of success in yours. I certainly look forward to cheering you on as you go!
To health, fitness—and allowing ourselves to love ourselves honestly, soberly, and just a little bit more.
Take inventory of what you eat in a week.
Do you eat a lot of bread and pasta? Or do you have a sweet tooth? Do you have enough fruits and vegetables in your diet? How many glasses of water do you drink in a day?
See where you can make small changes in your diet and implement them today. Start small, but you’ll see the change.