“How pleasant is the day when we give up striving to be young or slender. ‘Thank God!’ we say, ‘those illusions are gone.’”
~Alain de Botton
Are you high functioning at school, college, or in your career, but dysfunctional with food? I was.
I’ve always been ambitious. I see things, and I wanna do them too, even better!
It’s a powerful trait, but unruly—like living with a big dog. Sometimes it strains on its leash and pulls you along further than you thought you’d go. And sometimes it knocks you onto the carpet and stands over you, panting, with its balls in your face.
That’s what happened when I got ambitious about getting thin—it floored me.
I tried to mold myself into someone who’d look good in leather pants, and became obsessed and depressed around food.
Exhale. Part of me—that dog jumping up again—still gets excited about becoming supermodel-skinny. But I have to let it go.
Because when I was twelve, I tried to lose weight, even though I didn’t need to. Compulsive overeating entered my life, and dominated my teens.
Up until then, I had a great formula for success: Grades = intelligence + sacrifice.
For instance, I swore to become top of my class. So I holed myself up in my bedroom and made weekends into homework-ends.
The more awards I got, the more I believed self-punishment paid off. I worried if I didn’t push myself to extremes, I’d fall short.
One thing I sacrificed, other than fresh air, was popularity. My ‘A’ grades were social suicide. Other kids found me haughty and tried to bring me down, taunting me about my acne, and my ‘posh’ accent.
My only friend was the silent type—I suspected she was inwardly laughing at me. I was totally insecure.
So I relied on adults saying “Well done” to feel okay. Being average wasn’t enough. I had to be impressive; make the bullies sorry.
I wasn’t overweight, but I was lonely, and I’d started comfort-eating meat pies at lunchtimes. So I already thought “I should eat less.”
And since I couldn’t make my spots disappear, and friendship confused me, I reached for a ‘doable’ transformation: I thought if I could nail weight loss, that’d be like a fairy godmother’s magic wand.
So I deliberately poured all my ambition into one extreme goal: “I’m gonna get showstoppingly skinny, so everyone’ll be impressed.”
My mum was a hippie feminist. She would’ve been horrified. I already secretly ‘borrowed’ my dad’s razor to do my armpits, because she didn’t think women should shave; she didn’t agree with society’s beauty standards! So, what could be more rebellious than worshipping models?
Leather pants became my benchmark after I saw a particular fashion article, ironically titled “Chocaholic.” The theme was “how to wear brown,” and the model wore a white shirt and brown leather jeans.
She was blonde (like me), tall (like me), and leggy (not so like me). I was pretty sure if my thighs didn’t touch anymore, I could be her.
So I made a plan, and not just to stop yomping meat pies. I vowed to skip school lunch completely.
It made perfect sense in my head: No food, and nobody would know, or stop me. But… I hadn’t factored in my body! I wasn’t prepared for gnawing hunger.
That first day I tried it, I panicked I wouldn’t get through the day.
I begged my friend for pennies. She gave me 25p, with a wry smile. I bought chocolate biscuits from a shop near school. She thought they looked cheap and nasty, but I ate the whole packet.
That was the pattern from the off: I’d create rules and then cave in and eat whatever.
I found myself binge eating for the next seven years.
Sometimes I’d make myself sick. But mostly, afterward, I’d just be full to bursting, and feel so guilty I’d want to curl up in a ball.
Guilty, 24/7. Waking up guilty. Guilty about yesterday’s food, and guilty for wanting breakfast.
If I ate, I’d failed. And since I hadn’t had experienced much failure before, I took it to heart.
By the time I was nineteen that sense of failure had spread. I needed constant affirmation from my boyfriend, I hid under my duvet instead of studying for my college exams, I was competitive and jealous of my (luckily forgiving) friends, and I’d become too scared to audition for drama school, which was my dream for afterward.
I hadn’t stopped being an ambitious person—I still had sky high expectations—but that only made me want to eat more, because while I was putting food in my mouth, I was free from living up to my own standards for a few minutes.
I’d eat until I had to lie down, and I spent days and days in bed—stuffed, daunted, and depressed. I felt ugly, worthless, ashamed, and like I didn’t deserve love at all.
Something had to give.
I had to find a way back to ‘normal’ around food. Normal, which had once been such a boring, unexceptional way to be, now seemed wishful.
I thought: “I’d give anything, just to be able to enjoy food again, and not feel guilty.”
I leapt at my new ambition. Got books. Threw myself into the homework. Journaled, examined my beliefs about myself.
At first, I didn’t give up wanting to lose weight. I just committed myself to my new mission, and that sidelined my desire to get thinner.
But that was enough.
If you’d told me one day I’d enjoy eating a few meals and snacks each day, and not really think much about food in between, I’d have said, “Whoa. Steady on!” But here I am, and I’ve set my desire to get skinny aside permanently.
Sure, I still get that “leather pants thought” occasionally. But I don’t have to jump aboard every train of thought that passes through my head.
It doesn’t feel like giving up, or admitting defeat. It’s liberating.
I haven’t stopped wanting to be healthy, but I have stopped asking my body to leap hurdles it can’t handle.
I respect my biology now, and the powerful survival urges it’ll react with, if I starve it.
So if you’re struggling with your eating, maybe it’s worth weighing up whether you’re wasting precious energy trying to “be successful” with your body.
You don’t have to wait until you’re desperate before you get sane around food. Just reset the bar. Make smarter choices about what you pour your ambition into.
And if you’re thinking, “But I’ve wanted to be thinner most of my life—it’s part of who I am!” I totally get that.
I’m not saying it’s easy to change your own mind. Sometimes you have to coax yourself.
So here are four thoughts that help me stop wanting to be thinner. I’m pretty sure they’ll help you too.
1. I’m becoming my best natural weight.
So far, when I eat normally and look after my body and my sanity, I’m really happy with where my weight lands. I call this my “best natural weight.” It’s a great place to aim instead of trying to get thinner.
I don’t concentrate on my body size.
I have loads else to focus on. Like eating mindfully. And feeling my feelings.
I can focus on getting strong. That’s fun—I can enjoy movement, without worrying about how many calories I’ve burned.
I can also focus on thinking positive thoughts like “I really care about my body” so I feel encouraged to look after myself.
2. I don’t gamble with my natural confidence.
When I embarked upon my dubious quest to get skinny, it was the impulsive voice of my (over)confidence that urged me to do it.
But my naïve arrogance also has an upside.
It has enabled me to move abroad, make several theater shows, have children, and buy a hillside to build a house on. Without really knowing what’s involved, I plunge in and try things!
Sadly, by my last year of college, when my eating was at its worst, failure with food had destroyed all the optimism that usually goes hand in hand with my confidence.
We think getting a head-turning body will give us confidence. We don’t realize that for most of us, the quest to get that body will cost us our confidence.
My confidence is buoyant again now, but I won’t stake it on another body project.
3. I’m searching for a more meaningful life purpose.
It was trivial, and vain, and superficial, just aching to be thinner than I was made to be.
But it didn’t feel like I had a choice: I’d wake up, remember there was something I was depressed about, feel ugly and horrible, and then wonder how to stop myself eating today.
It didn’t make sense—I’d read feminist writers like Naomi Wolf! Although it was hypocritical, I still wanted to be thinner.
That’s because it’s impossible to tell yourself to not focus on something; it’s like trying to look away from a spider!
But the second I had a new focus—getting sane around food—everything changed.
I threw myself into friendships like never before. Started cooking meals to share. I had fun, and started exercising for fun too.
I felt like I had energy to start thinking about the world, and even annotated a global politics textbook. Which was taking things a bit far.
But the point is, for the first time in years I could think about what I wanted to do with my life.
What would you do with all that energy, if you weren’t dieting?
4. I think, “This food struggle isn’t a handicap. I’m OVERfunctioning.”
If you’re doing well in most areas aside from eating, it’s easy to feel like your food struggle is your Achilles’ heel.
Thinking like this makes you feel like a victim.
In reality, you don’t have a fatal flaw. You’re not missing a willpower gene. You’re just trying to exert your intelligence, talents, and strengths over something you can’t master—your body.
But no wonder you try to control it! Think about what’s expected of you at work or school.
When you work in a goal-oriented, intellectual way, it’s unsurprising you also try to boss your body, by making rules about what you should eat.
When you’re competitive enough to climb the hierarchy of your career, is it any wonder you compare your appearance to others? Or get tempted to copy your friends’ “you-gotta-try-this-juice-fast” transformations?
When you’re expected to be businesslike rather than emotional, is it any surprise that you’re skillful at keeping your feelings under wraps, even if it requires using food as a crutch?
When you work within a meritocracy, it’s easy to think if you’re not being successful with your body, it’s just because you’re not working hard enough. So you try and try again. But the body isn’t a blank canvas for you to make a masterpiece of.
Your body isn’t a job, either.
I know it sounds obvious, but we forget that it’s a living thing It has its own wisdom, and a mind-bogglingly complex—miraculous, even—set of chemical processes (including hunger, satiety, digestion, hormones, immunity, for example) that it performs without us handing it any to-do list.
Your food obsession might not feel like a good thing right now.
I’m not saying mine was fun either, but my struggle did stop me in my tracks, and it forced me to pay myself attention to myself.
If it nudges you to weigh up how you define success, create self-worth, and deal with emotional and stressful experiences, maybe that’s a tiny plus.
And I know it’s hard to let go of being thinner if it’s something you’ve invested years of your life trying to achieve. But when you stop trying to become someone you’re not, it’s easier to trust and believe in yourself.
That confidence pays off in other places. Who knows? It might translate into asking for a pay rise, sharing your feelings, having deeper relationships, or being brave enough to hit the high notes when you belt out “Let It Go” in your next audition.
Food and body sanity aren’t a consolation prize for people who can’t ‘make it’ to supermodel status, and have to accept boring old reality.
It’s a choice, for people who are smart and curious.
And P.S.: They make leather pants in every imaginable size.