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Confession: I care too much about how people judge my food choices

Justina Huddleston is an editor and the head writer for TDmonthly Magazine. She has been a freelance writer for several years, though her real passion is cooking. You can see the recipes she creates on her vegan food blog, A Life of Litt...

How I'm learning to reject the cycle of food-shaming

Vegan? Low-carb? Paleo? It seems like no matter how you eat, someone's going to judge you.

I'm a body-positive feminist, a food writer who eats a plant-based diet, and I'm still sensitive about how other people react to what I eat.

My insecurity started when I was much younger, as it does for many women. I had been inundated with messages, both subliminal and explicit, that food was the enemy. It was the '90s, the era of no-fat, low-fat, step aerobics and heroin chic.

"I could barely think about eating without having a wave of anxiety wash over me. What if, horror of horrors, people saw me eating? They would think I was fat!"

I was always taller than my peers, and I hit puberty earlier too. I was 5 feet 7 inches and a C-cup by the time I was 12, got chubby and definitely stood out from my group of mostly petite friends. Because of this, I was intensely aware of every extra curve, and I wasted hours wishing I could fit into a Delia's bikini like the popular girls could.

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I trimmed down a lot in my junior and senior years of high school, but it came with a price. I could barely think about eating without having a wave of anxiety wash over me. What if, horror of horrors, people saw me eating? They would think I was fat! And to me, at the time, fat was the worst thing in the world. There was even a time when I broke down in tears at the grocery store with a friend because I was afraid to eat a 110-calorie Pria bar in case I, I don't know, immediately gained 40 pounds, burst out of my clothes and disappeared into a sinkhole in aisle 12. The panic I felt was really that extreme.

"I had been brainwashed for years, thinking that women's bodies could look only one way and that food was nothing but a gateway to becoming an outcast."

My freshman year of college was rough too. I lost more weight, people were effusive with their praise, and I was so afraid of eating in front of other people that I would sneak food out of the cafeteria and eat it in my dorm room, where no one could see me.

It was all irrational, but it felt so, so real. I had been brainwashed for years, thinking that women's bodies could look only one way and that food was nothing but a gateway to becoming an outcast.

Luckily I soon discovered feminism, and with it, body positivity. I realized I was worth so much more than my physical appearance, that being fat is not an indication of one's moral fiber or worthiness as a human being. I became a plus-size woman who, for the most part, is very confident in her overall life and appearance.

And yet.

Even though I’ve studied feminist theory, have read oodles and oodles about body positivity and eat a largely nutritious and plant-based diet, I still sometimes feel intense anxiety over what other people think about my food choices. (The fact that I felt I needed to justify my eating habits in the previous sentence? Yeah, that’s exactly what I’m talking about.)

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Part of it is the unsolicited advice. "Do you know how many calories that has?" "Did you know that X is actually worse for you than X?" "I read that vegans are actually less healthy because of X."

Most of this advice comes from well-meaning people who may not realize how triggering their words are. But these comments still make me burn with shame. It feels like the implication is that I'm doing something wrong, when really, I'm much happier with myself, my body and my diet currently than I ever have been in my life. Can't a girl ever win?

I just get caught up in old patterns. When you're being alternately peppered with advertisements for the latest fast-food product and miracle diet pills, "cool girl" imagery of super-fit women in bikinis noshing on burgers and close-up video of fat bodies just trying to live their lives paraded across the evening news for being the root of all our country's problems, it's hard not to struggle with body image.

At the end of the day, I've learned that the best way to deal with this outsider and media input is to just ignore it. When people bring up diets or their zeal for a particular branch of nutrition, I just smile and nod or say I'm glad they've found something that works for them, just as I've found something that works for me.

"I refuse to perpetuate the cycle of food- and body-shaming that led to so much pain earlier in my life."

I don't read mainstream women's magazines at all anymore. They'd only made me feel bad about myself. I'd much rather read an insightful piece online than another "Lose 20 Pounds by Summer" article any day.

I also try really hard to not engage in negative body talk with my friends. This was challenging at first but has become such a blessing. Instead of going back and forth saying what we hate about our bodies, my friends and I spend our time laughing with one another. We don't pick apart other women's appearances and food choices, and in turn, we feel better about ourselves. I refuse to perpetuate the cycle of food- and body-shaming that led to so much pain earlier in my life.

I still feel really insecure sometimes. I'm a work in progress, and that's OK. I just hope that by sharing my experience, it can help other women not feel ashamed of their self-doubt. If we all can be more sensitive about the way we broach the topic of food and nutrition, with both others and ourselves, we can alleviate some of the pressure placed on women by society at large to conform to certain unattainable ideals. But I also want women to feel OK admitting that they still have self-doubt and insecurities. Until we all feel comfortable talking about these problems, we’ll have a hard time addressing and, hopefully, solving them.

What other people put into their bodies isn't my business, and if I find myself judging them, it may be time for me to step back and examine some of my own learned prejudices. I can only hope that others give me the same courtesy, and in the meantime? I'll be over here, doing my best to not give a damn.

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