If I grab my second helping of mashed potatoes quickly, hopefully no one will notice, I thought, quietly scooping some spuds onto my plate from the Thanksgiving spread. Calories don’t count on holidays, right? Whatever. I’ll exercise harder tomorrow.
The year was 1998. I was two and a half months post-delivery, and 35 pounds heavier than my pre-pregnancy weight. But I was in a cute sweater and jeans, and I was feeling more like myself than I had in a long time.
Still, I thought I felt people side-eyeing my plate. Check yourself, Susan! I shrugged it off as paranoia.
As we ate, the conversation soon turned to diet and weight loss, my family’s favorite topic. What diet is everyone on? What’s working? Who’s gained weight? Anna Wintour told Oprah to lose 20 pounds ― maybe someone should tell Susan the same thing,I imagined relatives saying to each other.
Sensing some shade thrown my way, I voiced my own thoughts and experience. I was working toward my pre-pregnancy weight, I said. A family member turned to me and said something that’s still burned into my brain, 23 years later:
“At what point do you stop blaming your pregnancy weight and take on the responsibility of losing weight as a woman?”
I was shocked. Embarrassed. Angry. Ashamed. Oh, so it isn’t all just in my head, I thought. Everyone really is judging me because of my weight gain.
Caught in a whirlwind of emotions, I quietly muttered “I don’t know.” And as waves of shame rolled over me, I felt extremely conscious of everything. The way my 5’3” body sat, my curve-hugging jeans that were digging into my belly, the gravy on my plate.
I’d gained 70 pounds during my pregnancy and lost at least 35 pounds soon after delivery. Can’t they see that I’m trying? I wanted to scream.
Afterward, I felt the anger boiling within me. How dare they make such comments about my body? My body, my business! I was not my pre-pregnancy size, but I was healthy. Still, despite telling myself these things, I started the doom spiral.
I entered a harmful cycle of restricting my food intake for weeks before allowing myself to binge on holidays. This would then be followed by excessive workouts, and the cycle would continue again and again and again. My weight yo-yoed all over the place.
My love-hate relationship with food continued for the better part of a decade. At the time, I was stuck in a real estate job I hated, I was dealing with the aftermath of sexual assault, and I had two small children. Food was what I turned to for comfort.
If I felt like a terrible mom? Wine and brie was my happy place. Long, soul-paralyzing day at the office? Chips and cookies made everything right in the world. Food soon became the answer to everything — a treat, an act of self-care, a solution to a shitty day, and even an activity to occupy me if I was bored.
I knew I needed help. At a friend’s encouragement, I signed up for a Weight Watchers program, but I soon found a way to cheat the system. I stayed away from the “bad” foods and focused on gorging on the “zero point” foods. It worked. I lost a little weight. But it came at the cost of my physical health.
I felt and looked like crap. Blotchy skin, excessive hair loss, sallow complexion, bloating — you name it, I had it. This continued for a number of years. I was miserable, but I held out hope that soon I’d be at the weight I wanted to be. Soon, I’ll feel good. Soon, I can start living the life I want.
“Soon” never came.
One day, when my daughter was 6, she secretly snapped a picture of me in my swimsuit. As she proudly showed me her work of art, I felt sick. My inner mean girl went into attack mode and barraged me with one insult after another.
Lazy slob! Cottage cheese ass! You’ll never look good again…
This was my rock bottom moment. I realized that I needed help. Serious help. I managed to find a coach to help me work through my issues.
“Please help me,” I begged the coach during our first phone call. Before she had a chance to respond, I broke down crying. Through my tears and snot, words came tumbling out ― words that I desperately needed to say.
I told her about the gruesome sexual assault. About my anger, my grief, my confusion, and the subsequent spiral into compulsive overeating. I told her how I felt powerless in the face of food and confused about what I was supposed to be eating and when. I told her how ashamed I felt. Ashamed of myself for gaining weight. Ashamed for not being able to get it off.
My coach listened patiently. Then she asked me a very simple question: “Susan, what would feel like ‘love’ right now?”
She went on: “The next time you are feeling stressed, angry, bored, lonely, or full of grief, instead of automatically opening the fridge and searching for a snack, I want you to ask yourself: What would feel like ‘love’ right now?”
Maybe a long walk would feel loving, she explained. Or a bubble bath. Or a great book. Or snuggling with the kids. If you’re truly hungry, maybe a nourishing plate of food would feel loving, rather than an entire bag of Cool Ranch Doritos.
I was skeptical, but nothing else had been working for me, so I gave my coach’s approach a shot. And to my shock and awe, her advice worked.
When I was deciding what to eat for breakfast, or when I was feeling stressed and craving a distraction, I asked myself: “Susan, which choice feels like love?”
Whenever I paused long enough to ask myself that question, my body’s intuition would point me in the right direction. Every time. Without fail.
I added my own twist to the process, deciding that no food is off-limits. Food doesn’t have a moral value. It isn’t sinful or naughty or evil. We don’t need to run from carbs like a character in a horror movie.
Instead, I looked at food as falling into one of two categories: power, or pleasure. Power food is packed with nutrients, making you feel strong, alert, and energized. Pleasure food might not be particularly nutritious, but it’s decadent and fun! A caramel-infused latte, milk chocolate, a melty grilled cheese sandwich on white bread ― yum!
Dieting, I learned, was never the right answer. It’s always a temporary fix, and it was only after I began to approach my food mindfully, and listen to what my body was asking for, that I began to shed weight naturally. Diet culture stole years of my life. It kept me miserable and insecure.
Last year, the diet industry reached a value of $71 billion. Every year, nearly 45 million people in the U.S. decide to go on a weight loss journey. Ninety-five percent of them fail. Why? Because dieting isn’t pleasurable, realistic, or sustainable.
The diet industry took my money, my energy, my confidence, and countless hours of my life. The time we spend trying to make various diets work is time we will never get back, time that could have been spent doing something else ― writing a novel, hiking across Thailand, learning a new trade or skill, strengthening our careers.
Choosing to stop dieting is one of the most empowering decisions I have ever made. And now, after a decade of punishing myself through harsh words and cycles, I choose compassion over perfectionism.
I am more than my weight, more than my plate of food. My self-worth has nothing to do with the number on the scale. If I overeat, it isn’t the end of the world. I don’t deprive myself of food or excessively work out to burn thousands of calories to make up for it. I just take care of myself by asking: What is the most supportive thing I can do for myself right now to feel better?
I’ve gone from viewing food as an afterthought, or an activity, to listening to what my body is asking for. Does it want its greens? Or is it a craving a blueberry pie? Feeding my body is an act of self-love.
At Thanksgiving, I no longer sit silently and let my relatives judge me. Instead, I gleefully get that second helping of mashed potatoes with gravy, because I know it’s what my body wants.
And if someone makes a crack about my food? I set them straight and make a scene. They can “Bah humbug” while I’m out here savoring my cornbread.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.