It took a long time for me to feel good about my body, at least, from the outside. Growing up, I was stick thin, my pants falling off my slim body as I ran around with my siblings and neighbors. Leggings splattered with random shapes and flowers were the go-to in my wardrobe, their elastic waistbands a true respite for my mom's tailoring abilities. In middle school, I was still petite, wearing girls-sized clothing while many of my friends moved on to the juniors sections of stores. In high school, I started gaining curves, and all of a sudden my body was something I didn't really know. In college, I fluctuated in weight—my body a thing to now navigate and figure out, like some sort of riddle. Being Mexican-American and growing up in a minority-majority neighborhood, I wanted curves. But at a college with a completely different demographic, I noticed everyone wanted to be thin. It was like two different parts of me were combatting at different times, and I was in the middle. Not curvy enough, not thin enough. Not enough.
But the one thing that remained constant was my love of food and how food made me feel. I grew up in the Midwest, with Southern and Mexican ties, so family meals were big deals and big on portions. Stewed potatoes, cornbread, and black-eyed peas. Enchiladas and tamales and refried beans. Casseroles topped with French fried onions or cheese or potato chips. Salads? Romaine lettuce topped with ranch dressing, cheese, tomatoes, tuna, eggs… You get the gist.
We ate vegetables, of course, and a life lived well was filled with action—days were spent out running around, gardening and fixing up the house, or working in the garage. You were always moving. As a petite kid, I was never forced to clean my plate by my mom (a true departure for Southern moms), and I learned quickly how to stop eating when I wasn’t hungry. Food was meant to nourish, yes, but it was also meant to be enjoyed among family and friends.
When I moved to New York and started jobs in editorial, I realized quickly that many people had unhealthy relationships with food. Here we were surrounded by some of the top restaurants in the world, and I had co-workers counting out how many raisins they were eating that day and then recounting it to others. We were sent doughnuts and cakes and candy, but then made to feel bad about actually eating them—or "pay" for it later by not eating a real lunch. Salads were praised, other foods scorned. My brain was confused. My body was confused. I was confused.
Eating things you enjoy shouldn’t feel like such a radicalized act. But in today's climate of wellness buzzwords and keto diets and gym selfies, it absolutely can feel that way. As I thought more about what I ate and put into my body, I began to feel resentful. I ordered salads for lunch and ate takeout or cheap pasta for dinner. I didn't eat breakfast. I didn't know how I was supposed to nourish my body. I had no idea what the fuck I was doing.
One week turned everything around for me. I felt lethargic—too tired to move. I went to urgent care; nothing was wrong. Yet, I couldn't shake this sick feeling. After seven days and being too tired to cook, I broke my budget and ordered delivery, opting for comfort food of a cheeseburger and fries. Twenty minutes after eating, I felt like a new person. I was an idiot—I needed the protein.
But it wasn't just the protein I needed. It was the old joy that I derived from food. This was when the lightbulb went off—I needed to take responsibility for my intake. Who cares how your body looks if it doesn't do the things you want it to? Who cares what everyone else is doing if it doesn't make you a nicer, better, happier person? I needed to eat things that made my body feel good but also made me, as a person, feel good. I needed to stop listening and taking in the disordered behaviors I saw and do things the way I needed to. So I did. I learned about nutrition and what my body needs, but I also really, truly listened to it.
I now give it good things, and I also give it things that aren't traditionally seen as "good." (But they can be.) I don't dwell on labels, but I don’t ignore them either. We have one life, and you want to feel good. And for me, that means I'm going to order the burger.