Thursday, February 23, 2012

Breaking Free From the Diet/Binge Cycle

There are many words one could use to describe me.

I’m a mother, a student, a homemaker, a vegan.

I’m African-American, short, funny, and smart.

But the word I’ve let define me for the past 20 years is this one:


My name is Khadija Brewington, I’m 37 years old, and until very recently I’d been on one diet or another since the age of 13.

My dieting began with puberty.

Along with breasts and hips, I began to develop a sense of self-consciousness, born from the public scrutiny and criticism I was now subjected to from family and friends.

Suddenly my body was no longer my own.

Well-intentioned aunts commented on all of the men I’d be able to attract now that I was filling out.

Less developed friends lamented their lack of figures in comparison to my own, and boys I’d known since childhood began to look at me in new ways that made me feel uncomfortable. Ill-equipped to handle this attention the only thing I wanted was to disappear.

Dieting seemed the best way to do just that.

But as most of us know by now the flip side of any diet is overeating. By the time I got to college I’d begun a cycle of dieting and binging that didn’t stop until I realized that I had “dieted” my way up to almost 200 pounds.

Although I eventually lost the weight by learning about nutrition and exercise I still maintained a fairly stringent diet.

I counted calories or carbs or points depending on which “lifestyle program” I was following at the moment.

I worked out five times a week without fail and kept track of every bite I put into my mouth.

I didn’t think there was anything wrong with my behavior because, after all, I was just being careful, making sure I never gained the weight back. Because contrary to what my 13 year old self had once believed, there are worse things in life than being stared at admiringly.

There are the jeers and stares of disgust that are leveled at the fat woman.

My goal was to never be that fat woman again and I was doing just fine until….

I got pregnant.

Suddenly, I had to gain weight.

But for the first time since puberty I wasn’t afraid of being fat. My job was to grow a baby. A healthy, happy baby and I couldn’t do that if I were restricting my food intake.

During my pregnancy I was careful to eat healthy foods and to exercise as much as my body allowed, but my goal was no longer to see a specific number on the scale.

For the first time in my life I just wanted to be healthy.

In one of my favorite books, Life Inside the “Thin” Cage, author Constance Rhodes discusses the body image issues American women face at different stages in our lives. “For many women, pregnancy is the first time weight becomes an issue. Even those who have never been concerned about how they look can’t help but get a little nervous as the numbers on the scale continue to climb with each passing month.”

I am grateful that this wasn’t the case for me. And upon talking about this issue with a couple of my girlfriends, I am happy to say that they also found pregnancy to be a catalyst for freedom from the confines of restrictive eating.

According to my friend Ruenan de Guzman: “It’s not like this in my country. In the Philippines we damn sure don’t starve ourselves like they do here. Once I had Lauren I was glad to be able to start jogging again but that’s about it. I don’t have to be thin, not for my husband, or anyone else in my family.”

And Megan Murphy, another mother in my daughter’s playgroup, echoed Ruenan’s sentiments: “I was 120 pounds all throughout college and I maintained my weight on a steady diet of Diet Coke and cigarettes. Now that I have Joey I’ve gained 40 pounds but I’m so much healthier. I stopped smoking and I actually EAT real food. This body was able to maintain a healthy pregnancy and nurse my daughter for over 2 years. I don’t need to be skinny anymore; there’s so much more to my life now than just being able to say I can wear a size 2.”

Today, I’m in a much better place than I was at 13 or even 30. At 37 years old, I’m well on my way to making peace with the reflection that I see in the mirror each day. I no longer use the scale as a measure of how successful I am in life. I no longer count calories or track my meals. And while I have finally reached a healthy weight for my height and gender, this is no longer my proudest accomplishment.

I am still a mother, a student, a homemaker, a vegan.

I’ll always be African-American, short, funny, and smart.

But I am no longer fat and even more importantly, I am no longer a dieter.

And that’s what I’m most proud of right now.

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