“Wow! You’re really going to eat a piece of cake?”
This was a real sentence uttered to me a few years ago while I was in college. I was in a room full of friends celebrating someone’s birthday (my roommate’s I think) and everyone was chowing down on ice cream cake. Standing in a group with a few of my close friends, one of them said these words to me as I served myself a piece of cake. I imagine her thought was something in the realm of: “Isabel, the ‘healthy’ friend who never eats ‘junk food’ is going to eat cake??? This can’t be.”
At that time, I was really struggling in my relationship with food and movement. I restricted food and had an unhealthy, rigid exercise routine. Healing my relationship with food took time, effort, and a willingness to go against societal norms. But it was oh so worth it.
Health is a personal journey
Some people view health as the freedom to do what they want in life without physical or mental ailments getting in their way. Some people view it as being free from disease so they can be there for their family for as long as possible. Some people view it as feeling amazing in their bodies and having a positive relationship with food. With diet culture’s pervasiveness, many people view it as being thin. Regardless, the concept of health is not the same for everyone.
I grew up feeling like my thighs were too big and like I didn’t have muscles as defined as my soccer teammates. I didn’t face weight stigma—weight-based discrimination that research shows produces real harms on psychological and physiological health—in the way that too many kids and teens do from doctors, friends, family, and more. But I did feel like my body wasn’t good enough, like I wasn’t good enough. Like so many other college students, I feared the so-called “freshman 15.”
My mind (unlike my food) was fried.
Before long, I found myself in the throes of an eating disorder. The journey getting there was fraught with family dysfunction, loss, and feelings of inadequacy. My eating disorder, including the restrictive eating and obsessive exercise that came with it, became intimately tied to my identity. I became known as the “healthy” or “fit” friend despite struggling greatly in my relationship with food, my body, and exercise.
Before long, I knew something was wrong. I was tired of waking up every morning worrying about how I would continue following the arbitrary food and exercise rules my eating disorder created. My mind (unlike my food) was fried.
My road to recovery
If you’ve been through treatment for an eating disorder or worked to overcome disordered eating, you know that relinquishing control and achieving a healthy relationship with food and your body is not easy. It takes an incredible amount of work. You have to be vulnerable and confront parts of yourself you kept hidden or suppressed—consciously or subconsciously.
I was confronted with a dilemma: I realized that my identity had become so wrapped up in these truly disordered behaviors—not to mention that I was a dietetics student, so my identity felt even more tied to nutrition. Yet to reach recovery, I had to shed this identity.
You are not just one thing
The dietitian I worked with in eating disorder treatment said something to me that has stuck with me to this day. It was something along the lines of: “Just because you’re studying nutrition, doesn’t mean your whole identity has to be nutrition.” It seems so obvious now, but it blew my mind. And it can apply to so many people.
I can imagine the power of some people hearing the words…
- “Just because you’re a runner, doesn’t mean your value lies solely in your ability to run far or fast.”
- “Just because you like eating veggies, doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy cake or cookies too.”
- “Just because you’re an athlete, doesn’t mean your worth diminishes if you have to take time away from your sport because of an injury.”
In declaring such a huge part of my identity to be my (disordered) eating and exercise behaviors, I was dismissing all the other parts of myself that shape who I am. I was suppressing my Latinidad by trying to conform to the Eurocentric beauty ideal and avoiding my cultural foods. I wasn’t granting myself space to feel pleasure through enjoying food and basking in rest.
Furthermore, I neglected to see how my obsessive exercise and restrictive eating behaviors harmed my relationships. I didn’t let myself go for hikes and discover my love of nature because they weren’t easily quantifiable like my running and weight lifting routine. I didn’t let myself explore so many other parts of who I am today because of my obsession with maintaining an identity as the “healthy” or “fit” friend.
Oftentimes, we find ourselves with externally-imposed identities that we didn’t really choose for ourselves. I didn’t set out to be the “healthy” or “fit” friend, but that title ended up being a big part of my identity. Letting go of that was key to my recovery, even with the discomfort of pushing back. Recovery for me has meant shedding certain identities to make room for more authentic parts of myself to shine through, regardless of the way it’s changed how others view me. I know that I’m allowed to grow and evolve and I don’t need to justify my choices to others. Hence, the cake incident—I know I’m allowed to eat all the cake I want.
Building a healthy relationship with food and movement
Today, I still love being physically active, but my relationship with movement has shifted. I even took a few months away from exercise during my eating disorder recovery journey so my body could get the rest it needed.
Rather than exercise, which has a rigid connotation for me, I now use the term joyful movement. It grants me more flexibility to evolve my practice and reminds me that it’s meant to enhance my well-being, not punish my body. I don’t rigidly do the same workout routine everyday. Rather, I let my movement practice evolve depending on my mood and interests. I prioritize rest days as much as movement days. I’ve tried Zumba, hiking, biking, yoga, barre, and more. I remain open to letting my practice evolve.
When it comes to food, I not only practice intuitive eating myself, but as a dietitian, I help my clients embrace intuitive eating—a non-diet approach to nutrition that prioritizes using internal cues rather than external rules and restrictions to guide eating. It embraces the value of all foods from cake to veggies to rice and more.
I am conscious of my intention behind my movement and eating behaviors. Is it coming from a place of wanting external validation or from a place of wanting to have fun and feel good in my body? I try not to let other people’s judgements get in the way of my recovery.
I am conscious of honoring my body’s cues and making sure to eat enough. I often find myself eating more than the people I’m dining with, and that’s okay with me. I know how important eating enough is to my well-being. I know that eating enough and eating foods society looks down upon does not make me lesser than. And I don’t have to explain that to anyone for it to be my truth.
Health and wellness is such a personal journey. We each have different priorities and struggles that influence our decisions and behaviors. My journey showed me that to be most authentic to ourselves, we often have to tune out other people’s opinions of our eating and exercise choices to allow space to tune into what is best for our overall well-being.
By doing so, I’ve shed my identity of being the “healthy” and “fit” friend. Because I am so much more than that.