Diet Culture Made Me Hate My Body. 'Intuitive Eating' Saved My Self-Confidence

Courtesy of Victoria Welsby (Photo: HuffPost UK)

I remember folding the empty crisp packet and stuffing it behind my bed, hoping my mum would never find it. Minutes before, I had quietly snuck downstairs, opened the kitchen cupboard and gingerly taken the crisps with cat-like stealth, careful not to let the packet make a single noise. 

I was just a child but believed I must be addicted to food. Why else would I think about it constantly, hide it, sneak it, cherish it? What I didn’t know at the time was that my behaviour was totally to be expected. I was not a food addict – it was my relationship with food that was disordered.

At ten years old, I may not have been a chronic dieter yet, but I had learned all the rules that dieters live by: crisps are bad and unhealthy. No one really likes eating it but eating broccoli is good. Don’t eat past 7pm. Chocolate is a treat for when you are well behaved. Having a smaller body makes you desirable, healthy and worthy. Being fat is a personal failure.

Growing up, my family were very poor – we didn’t have access to an abundance of food, especially not the delicious variety that I was told not to eat too much for fear of being labelled greedy, or worse, get fat –  but we also were loyal subscribers of diet culture, like many, if not most, families across the country. 

To my naive mind, my bigger-than-others body was clear evidence that there was something seriously wrong with me. It would take me years to unlearn all of the unhelpful messages from diet culture. I religiously followed diet plans, one time losing so much weight I began weighing in fellow devotees at the weekly diet club meeting, giving advice and encouragement depending on what the number read on the scale. 

At the times when I managed to get thin I gloated, judging those who weren’t dieting as lazy and not dedicated enough. If only they’d just try they could be like me: slim and worthy.

The sad truth was it didn’t matter how much willpower, dedication and desperation I had; significantly changing your body weight is not possible for 95-97% of the population, for that’s the failure rate of dieting.

The other sad truth was that even when I did have a smaller body I still didn’t feel attractive or loveable. I still wasn’t confident and happy. My actual worthiness had not changed one bit. I’d also picked up a ton of new ways to be disordered around food and eventually the weight crept back on (and more), as it does for two thirds of dieters.

Bigger than ever, feeling deeply ashamed of my failure to control my body I took to the internet to find a solution. I thought I needed another new shiny diet that would actually work this time, but luckily instead of stumbling on the new craze of eating only celery and dust, I came across something incredible: intuitive eating.

Courtesy of Victoria Welsby (Photo: SALMAN ALI KHAN)

Coined by Elyse Resch and Evelyn Tribole in the 1990s, teaches chronic dieters to have peace with food. It wasn’t until I learned about intuitive eating that I realised how problematic the way we view eating and body size is as a society. 

Intuitive eating is, to me, eating in a way like I had never been messed up by diet culture. We are all naturally intuitive eaters when we are born, but society robs us of that skill, instead teaching us to mistrust and reign in our ‘out of control’ diets.

We insult and lecture our bodies, when what we should be doing is listening to them, honouring what they want and need. Our bodies are incredibly wise and will give us the information on what we need – we just need to get out of the way.

The truth is we can trust ourselves. Our bodies just need to know that it can have anything it wants and in abundance and we can then stop exalting certain food.

So now I eat what I want when I want. When people hear this they get nervous at the prospect, presuming that if they try then all they will do is only eat all the ‘bad’ foods forever, 24/7, get really fat, get sick, and die. 

In reality, it doesn’t actually work like this. Instead, imagine your favourite ‘naughty’ food is chocolate. You wake up one morning and find your kitchen cupboards filled to the brim with chocolate: all types, all your favourites, and all ones you’ve never tried before. You open the fridge and that too is filled with delicious chocolate cakes, chocolate mousses, chocolate pastries, chocolate eclairs. You run the tap and outcomes a never-ending supply of chocolate milk. And every time you eat chocolate it magically reappears, the supply never dwindling. You eat chocolate for breakfast, lunch and dinner. In fact, if you don’t eat chocolate, you are insulted and told you should stick to your chocolate diet. The excitement soon wears off and you begin to start dreading your next meal. You notice that you’re craving other foods, but eat chocolate because you ‘should’.

You would do anything for a fresh crisp salad right at this point, but everyone tells you you’re a bad person if you eat vegetables, so you sneak to the salad bar and get a massive bowl, filled with sinful tomatoes, carrots and cucumbers. You eat it quickly, hide the evidence and feel guilty. Tomorrow you’ll be extra good and eat more chocolate to make up for ‘falling off the wagon’.

This may seem ridiculous, but this is exactly what we are doing to ourselves by denying ourselves certain foods. If only we allowed ourselves limitless supplies of chocolate AND salad AND any kind of food in the world, maybe we wouldn’t desire ‘bad’ foods so much, wouldn’t dream about it, fantasise about when we will be reunited with it again. That’s intuitive eating.

I ask my body “what do you want for lunch today?” and it may tell me that some greens is what is really needed, or perhaps a warm bowl of soup. I do things now that “food addicted” Victoria would never have dreamed possible, like having a bite of a donut and feel satisfied and content and not wanting to finish it. Or perhaps I do finish the donut because it’s really hitting the spot. But I don’t berate myself afterwards.

Intuitive eating has lots of other positive side effects apart from improving your relationship with food. It increases your self-esteem and body satisfaction. It improves your overall health as well as your mental well-being. To name just a few: a decrease in blood pressure, cholesterol, disordered eating behaviours, improved body satisfaction, a decrease in depression and increase in self-esteem and an increase in physical activity.

For me, no longer having that imbalanced relationship with food opened the door to look at my fat body with a different lens. My body isn’t this unruly, beastly thing after all – it was there with me keeping me alive, despite my deep hate for it. Even though I starved it, punished it with brutal and dangerous exercise routines, even when I squeezed it into shapewear embarrassed of my folds and couldn’t stand the sight of it in the mirror. It was there, giving me life.

Having a healthy relationship with food has helped me have a healthy relationship with my body and I will always thank intuitive eating for guiding me along the path to body acceptance and self-love.

Victoria Welsby is a body image and confidence expert, TEDx speaker and best-selling author. For more information, visit fiercefatty.com

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This article originally appeared on HuffPost.