In September, we hear a lot of that "back to reality" talk: back to school, back to work, oh right — back to the business of getting skinny. All summer long, it's about your bikini body. The second fall hits, it's all, "OMG, get your lazy ass off the beach and back to the gym. Did I see you eat a hot dog?" Every season is a new chance to shed your gross, last-season body. The phrase "back to reality" is just "bikini body" in a sweater.
But this fall, I must admit, "back to reality" rings true for me. It's not because I've been lounging on the beach with a platter of hot dogs all summer — but because I've been working my ass off for a year and a half. In the spring of 2014, I got a book deal to write a memoir, which was essentially the greatest, most thrilling achievement of my life. Then, I had to write the damn thing (while doing my real-life job, too). It wasn't until this past August that I turned in my final, final, final draft, and looked up from my laptop to see if the world was still spinning. It was — phew! Then, I looked in the mirror — AAAH!
Here is the thing about writing a book: It's not exactly good cardio. My gym routine went from five days a week to three, to two, to whatever workout I could squeeze in during pre-dawn, panic-fueled bouts of insomnia. I'd been used to walking everywhere, but now I took cabs like crazy, just to have those extra minutes for writing. I sat typing at my desktop all day at work, then I sat typing at my laptop every night and weekend. I hated feeling so utterly sedentary, but what was I gonna do? Write my memoir on the StairMaster?
The other thing about writing a book is that it's kind of stressful, especially when you're digging through some of the most painful parts of your personal history and presenting them for public consumption. All those old instincts about self-soothing with food came creeping through the back door while I wasn't looking. I wasn't binging — who had time for binging?! — I was just eating on auto-pilot.
There was so much irony that I just couldn't summon the will to roll my eyes. I was writing a book about my struggles with food, my body, and how I'd finally learned to heal them, but the writing process had taken away all the time and energy I needed to focus on things like mindful eating, self-care, and taking a fucking walk. Things started out relatively manageable, but as the writing and editing process advanced, it got harder and harder for me to maintain balance between work, book, and, like, everything else.
Here's an example of a weekend book-writing day: I'd get up at the screech of dawn and buy a big breakfast sandwich, jammed with as much real-meal food as I could: eggs, grilled vegetables, mozzarella cheese. I'd write until I got hungry around mid-afternoon and then maybe have lunch, but more often than not, just forage for whatever nuts and fruit I had in the house (or worse, on a Starbucks writing day, I'd spend like $90 on their nuts and fruit — plus a titanic iced coffee). Then, I'd write until evening. At that point, the thought of cooking just sounded too damn hard. I just needed to shower and watch Netflix. I'd eat whatever you put in front of me (but could it be mashed potatoes, because my tummy hurts?).
It wasn't that I didn't care about my body anymore. For the first time ever, there was something more important to focus on. In my dieting past, I'd fallen off the wagon and into the mashed potatoes many times before. But, this wasn't that. I wasn't rebelling against a restrictive diet or sublimating every feeling with a tube of cookie dough. I was occupied with the most important work of my life thus far and all the life-changing challenges it brought — the body-changing challenges, too.
So it wasn't a great surprise to look up and find my body changed in this last year and a half. Of course it did. My life changed and my body came along with it. Now, here we both are, having created something new and wonderful and more dear to me than anything else I'd done. And now I have some book-baby weight.
To be clear: I've never been pregnant or had a baby and I'd never sit here and say making babies and making books are the same thing. But I know that creating my book took a natural toll on my life and my body like nothing else has. And if I'd just had a baby, I wouldn't sit around beating myself up for eating mashed potatoes while pregnant or carrying a little extra chub around the middle after giving birth. I'd be like, "Whoa, thanks for getting us through that, body. Now, let's take care of you."
That's the attitude I'm trying to take in this season of "back to reality." My body carried me through a strenuous period and now it's my turn to nurture it the way it deserves. That doesn't mean hiding inside in sweatpants until I've dropped the weight. It doesn't mean going back on some strict meal plan or trying a brand-new (really intense) exercise regime. And it definitely doesn't mean looking in the mirror and screaming at myself. All that was a response the old me would have had — hide and punish this body into submission. The new me knows what my body really needs right now: respect.
No, I don't like my body right now. It is uncomfortable and a bit strange to me. But I can respect it. I can thank it for being there for me. Now I needed to be there for it in a way that I wasn't able to for a while.
Now that I have more time, I devote some of it to a renewed focus on mindfully eating my meals. I've begun doing a food journal again, paying attention to my hunger, cravings, and fullness. I weaned myself off the taxi habit and got back into the rhythm of regular exercise, and my, oh my, how my body loved that.
Gone are the stomach aches I had for weeks last winter, now that I realize eating certain rich foods too late in the evening just doesn't agree with me. I sort of knew that before, but I was all, "Fuck it, there's no food in the house so I'll order a burger." Now, I've rediscovered the experience of eating the food I want — mostly, that's the food that tastes good and feels good, too. Again, I feel my body respond to this eating change and begin to feel better. I have made changes to the way I move and eat, but I haven't made these changes out of shame, panic, or punishment. I've made them out of respect and gratitude — and that's why the changes are working. By that, I don't mean instant weight loss, but just feeling healthier, more present, and comfortable, inch by tiny inch.
I even picked up my old copy of Intuitive Eating just to refresh myself on the basic principles I used to start this life-changing process almost two years ago. Along with tenets like permission to eat and respecting your fullness, I was reminded of how this process is both more simple and far more difficult than dieting. Yes, intuitive eating is common sense. But unlike dieting, it exists in the reality of living our lives, which can be wildly, wonderfully thrown into chaos at any time. Maybe you'll have a baby or write a book — congratulations! To expect your body to be unchanged by these big events is, really, a little bit silly.
These photos were taken just days before I turned in my final manuscript, when I took a brief step away from the laptop to go on a weeklong trip. They will always be both painful and precious recollections of me just before my very first book was finished. Here I am, wiped out and bloated, so ready for this to be done so I can move on to the next phase (whatever the hell that may be). But I refuse to look at these photos and cringe — or worse, not show them at all. That element of respect is crucial. Without that, none of this works; it's just the old diet mode without the diet. Walking down the street, I turn my head toward my reflection rather than away, telling myself, "Love you. Thank you," even when it's hard (it usually is).
I am proud of myself and proud of my body for getting through this. I won't apologize for either of us, because we have nothing to apologize for. None of us do. You don't need a book or a baby to "excuse" your body, even if you absolutely cannot stand it right now. It's not about excuses. Sometimes there is just something more important and you make the trade-off. You willingly throw yourself into something monumentally difficult because the payoff is worth it. Part of finding true balance means knowing that sometimes things will be wildly off-balance, and you have it in you to ride that out.
No matter what's going on in our lives, we all have the right and the choice to treat our bodies with the respect they deserve. If that seems impossible, think of it this way: When did you ever hate yourself into looking or feeling better? When has that path ever led somewhere you want to be? Remember this — and I'll try to remember it, too: It is just as easy and just as hard to turn and walk in another direction.
The Anti-Diet Project is an ongoing series about intuitive eating, rational fitness, and body positivity. You can follow my journey on Twitter and Instagram at@mskelseymiller or #antidietproject (hashtag your own Anti-Diet moments, too!). Curious about how it all got started? Check out the whole column, right here. Got your own story to tell? Send me a pitch at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you just want to say hi, that's cool, too.