The holiday season is a time filled with family visits and, inevitably, uncomfortable questions and observations. I wish I could count the times I have heard “You’ve lost weight!” or “You look so skinny!” or some other commentary on the state of my figure over the past few Christmases. Since graduating high school three (eep!) years ago, I have lost some weight (about 15 pounds for all those dying to know). It wasn’t something that I planned on or even necessarily wanted, I just gradually started adopting healthier habits and weight loss was just one of many results.

In high school, I was always on the go and in between commitments, sometimes leaving little to no time to feed myself– when I did have time to spare, I often turned to something quick, easy, and most likely pretty unhealthy. I ate a lot of Little Caesar breadsticks, french fries, and candy bars because that’s what was there and that’s what was fast. I didn’t have enough time to spare to consider or notice any negative impacts on my health, so convenience continued to win– plus, salt and sugar taste really good when you’re in a constant state of high stress like I was.

When I started college, I was totally on my own when it came to my food choices… and completely at the mercy of what the on-campus dining halls had to offer. For the first time in what felt like forever, I had time to slow down and enjoy parts of my lifestyle like mealtimes because I was no longer rushing from point A to point B at quite so high a velocity. I experienced a lot of freedom and independence within the dining hall in my dorm, and 24/7 access to a fountain pop machine somehow inspired me to start choosing water instead of Sprite for lunch and dinner. I somewhat unconsciously made small changes as I began to enjoy my meals instead of rushing through them, and found that I preferred my pasta with more vegetables and that taking an extra apple to class gave me a built-in midday snack that satisfied my need for something on the sweet side.

I am not the poster child for health and fitness, and you will most likely find me curled up on the couch after class instead of at the gym. I can’t pretend to know all the secrets about how to create the perfect plate or workout regimen, nor would I want to. I still indulge in the occasional spoonful (or two) of cookie dough, and an extra slice of pizza here and there. What I learned after starting college wasn’t how to give up those bad-for-you comfort foods altogether, what I learned was how to enjoy things in moderation. I learned how to listen to my body, and found that it really did want more water, more vegetables, and less french fries (even though my taste buds would beg to differ, as french fries are pretty delicious).

I didn’t realize I was making changes as I made them, because they were gradual and responses to what my body wanted from me. Even something as simple as taking one cookie instead of two made me feel a heck of a lot better, because most of the time I only need a taste of something “bad” to feel satisfied. It’s okay to take a taste every so often (big or small), because sometimes that’s what you need… trust me, if you try and take away my chocolate bar during a certain time of month, you will regret it. I’ve found that making those kinds of foods sporadic occurrences rather than daily ones in my diet allows me to enjoy them more, because chocolate and pizza both taste a heck of a lot better to me if I only get them once in a while.

When I was little, my diet basically consisted of pasta, more pasta, more pasta, and ice cream… but when you’re a 7-year-old with an active imagination and more active metabolism, you really need the instant rush from lots of carbs and lots of sugar, right? I never thought too much about my food choices because I didn’t have much reason to– I knew what tasted good, and I was active enough that simple fuels and excess sugar didn’t wreak much havoc. Choosing to change my relationship with food is not something that arose from a desire to look a certain way, it was just something that happened because I found myself craving a more sustainable form of energy. I’m an almost 21-year-old woman whose metabolism is still pretty high, so I figured learning better habits before the bad ones lead to long-term health problems was definitely worth the investment.

As I moved away from that 5-year-old girl’s old diet, 18-, 19-, and 20-year-old me began to feel a heck of a lot better. I was less tired, less stressed, and less hungry throughout the day… but then there was the quantifiable, everyone-can-see-it weight loss result. I hadn’t ever had too much of a problem with the way my body looked overall, but new insecurities arose once people started making a point to notice the change… people who meant well and meant to compliment: “Have you lost weight?” “You look great!” “You look so skinny!” Many of these comments came from people who not a year or two earlier were complimenting me on how I had finally “filled out” and “got some meat on those bones.” To be completely honest, I hadn’t even really paid attention to the weight loss I’d experienced until those moments because that wasn’t the point of the lifestyle changes I’d made.

I’m pretty good at shaking awkwardness or discomfort off, but then one particularly unforgettable comment came: “You’ve lost some weight! That’s good, because you were getting a little pudgy there.” That’s when the mildly obsessive part of me exploded outward and all other parts of me shriveled up into whatever I was wearing, begging to die from humiliation. Wait, what? Pudgy? Really? Obsessive-me began an ill-fated search through old Facebook photos from the “pudgy” period as many times as necessary before all I could see was a clearly pudgy 17-year-old. Despite recon that assured me my BMI had always been in the “healthy” column, I couldn’t shake this awful feeling that it had taken losing weight to gain so many people’s praise. People who had praised that “pudgy” body not so long ago… so which was it? Was my old body or my new body the “right” one? Which was the time when I had been lied to? How could I ever trust a compliment on my looks ever again?

I decided it was probably the “skinnier” body that was most acceptable, with any kind of praise directed toward the “pudgy” one most likely the result of pity or appeasement. Once I made that decision, my relationship with food was no longer about listening to my body and being kind to it… it was fueled by the desperation to remain in the “proper” version of my body. For the first time in my life, I began to meticulously focus on calories and I began to feel guilt when eating certain, “bad” foods… more than I few times that guilt made me contemplate some truly unhealthy “solutions” to the problem. I worried about what would happen if I indulged in a piece of birthday cake or in late-night Insomnia cookies, and suddenly anything remotely fitted around the stomach was an article of clothing I was determined never to wear again without washboard abs.

Counting calories did not encourage positive choices or a positive mindset– if anything, it was a massive step backward for me. As I stressed about my caloric intake, I found myself reaching for comfort in junk food much more regularly; the only difference between my junk food indulgences in the past and the junk food indulgences of that period were that I obsessed about the number on the side of the box, indulging in as many calories as were “allowed,” barring myself from healthier options after exhausting the allotted number for the day. Normally, those indulgences were followed by repeated vocal shaming for being such a pig with no self control. Many days, I still overindulged because that’s what happens when you’re stressed out. I overindulged, and I completely hated myself for it.

Food began to be something that upset and confused me, rather than something to give me energy through the day. My body wasn’t something I wanted to take care of anymore, it was something I was infinitely more angry at every day for not looking “right” and for betraying my confusions through decimal inflections on the scale. I went from only getting weighed at the doctor’s to weighing myself, often multiple times a day, in the secret of my bathroom. Each move upward made me feel sick at myself and often led to a counterproductive binge because who cared, I was already getting “fat” again anyway… each move downward simultaneously felt like a celebration, and felt like a warning– don’t mess up now, or else you’ll be right back where you started.

I’m not sure when I began to feel the weight of my unhealthy relationship with food enough to change something about it, but I am thankful every day that it didn’t take me a lifetime to realize it. I didn’t want to look at food as something scary and punishing, nor did I want to look at indulging every now and then as something deserving of shame and guilt. Whether I liked it or not, food was a necessary part of my life, and whether I liked it or not, I was human and therefore bound to indulge at least once or twice. It wasn’t the food that was my enemy, it was my mindset toward food: I was reducing it to a number and reducing my choices to something that would affect the way my body looked, rather than making choices that would affect the way my body functioned, felt, and sustained itself. I was tired, stressed, and hungry all the time again… slightly smaller in size, but still just as unhealthy as the girl in high school who scarfed down a large fry before going into dress rehearsal for the play.

Focusing on the numbers made me lose sight of how to take care of myself and how to be healthy, because all that mattered was the number on the scale. As a young woman, it can be difficult to remember that your value does not come from your looks alone– in fact, I would hope looks barely factor in when compared with things like creativity, kindness, and compassion. It can feel as if you are always being told how your body is supposed to look, and none of those voices stay consistent for very long– stick skinny, full-figured, big butt, big boobs, flat abs, long hair, tan skin… and it can all change in an instant.

It can be hard to remember your self worth when you’re more concerned about whether your stomach is flat enough, whether your teeth are white enough, or whether your hair is long enough. No one wins when you try and fit into a premade model of what “everyone says” you’re supposed to look like. I’m still learning how to stop playing the comparison game when I see other girls whose bodies seem to fit that mold better than mine does, because each body comes with a mind that carries just as many insecurities as my own. We learn to focus on the numbers and focus on how whatever we see in the mirror compares to whatever arbitrary beauty ruler we choose to measure ourselves against. We praise things like weight loss by shaming the way a body looked before that weight loss, forgetting that the old body was just as much a person as the body in front of us now.

It is never okay to shame a person for how their body does or does not look, despite how well the observer feels it does or does not fit any beauty standard. It is not okay to shame another human being, period. It is not okay to skinny-shame, fat-shame, blonde-shame, brunette-shame, anything else-shame, because that physical identifier belongs to the body of a human being. A person’s body is absolutely no one else’s other than their own, and it is never anyone else’s place to tell that person how it should or should not look. Some days, I get caught up in those external judgments and pull out the scale or beat myself up over eating that extra cookie. Some days, I think it’s okay to pick apart how my body looked before or does look now and make mental notes and corrections. Some days, it is really hard to think of food as an ally rather than an enemy. Every day, I must remind myself that it is more important to treat my body with kindness and listen to what it’s telling me, rather than working it too hard or feeding it improperly so I can control it to fit into some arbitrary mold.

Treating my body right is a full-time commitment. It has taught me how to moderate the foods I only need sometimes (like chocolate and pizza), and how to find every day joy in the foods my body wants more often (for example, I’ve come to really love brussels sprouts with garlic which is something I never, ever thought I would say or type). I have learned that an active lifestyle does not have to mean spending every moment at the gym or pushing myself to run more miles than my knees can handle… my active lifestyle is playing with the cat, walking around campus, dancing in the kitchen, and biking when the sun is out.

There is no lack of miracle weight loss pills on the market, boasting that lifestyle changes need not be made because this pill flushes the fat right out of you or suppresses the cravings or does some other magical pill thing so the weight will just melt right off… but are those solutions really solutions? Weight and body image are emotional, difficult, and often terrifying subjects. Many times, the number on the scale is vastly more important than how you got there, making fast solutions seem miraculous, perfect, and necessary. Feeling as if your body does not “fit in” with society is a real fear that almost all people experience full-force– men, women, and everyone in between.

Instead of teaching people that they need a get-skinny-quick solution to be accepted, we should teach them how to love the body they are in and take care of it so it lasts the lifetime it should. I speak from the viewpoint of a woman whose body is tall and on the thinner side, which can make my struggle appear easier in some eyes… but there is no set of requirements for who can or can’t experience body shame, and none of those experiences are easy. From each viewpoint, we see how the people around us can have it easier. I’ve done it too: “well at least she has the right kind of hair” “at least she has flat abs” “her legs are longer” “her skin is tanner” “she’s way curvier than me” and whatever else my body does not possess but hers does (whoever “her” is). No body possesses all the pieces to be impervious to insecurity or judgment, so in place of those insecurities or judgments, we should remind each other that those differences are okay.

I have been told that I am lucky because I’m skinny, so I “don’t even need to deal with body image issues,” but that is completely untrue. It’s not okay to undermine a person’s emotions toward or struggles with their body image, because in doing so you rob them of their self-authority. In that moment, you tell them they do not have as much a “right” to experience the pressures of body image as you do. In that moment, you assure them that they are less than you. It’s time to stop fighting with our bodies and fighting with each other, and it’s time to stop measuring worth based on calorie intake, hours spent at the gym, or pounds on the scale. It’s time to start remembering that a person is more than their body’s conformation to an arbitrary measurement and more than the calories they burn in a day– we need to remember that a healthy body is much more important than an ideally beautiful one. Changing perspective is hard, and at times it’s felt impossible for me… but sometimes, it’s the things that are most difficult that are the most worthwhile.

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