When I first started punishing my body, I was a middle schooler. I'm not sure why, but I stepped on the scale for the first time and decided the number I saw was way, way too high. I started my first diet that week. Middle and high school were a succession of one diet after another. I counted calories, went low carb more than once, and started a long cycle of restricting myself then overeating or overindulging when I felt too deprived. Along with the diets came extreme exercise regimens. I'd follow impossibly hard videos online or run long after my body told me it was time to stop. Then I'd hobble around for weeks, sore from pushing my body too hard and punishing and hating my body too much, and then I'd give up when I grew frustrated with a lack of results.

I never reached what I felt was an "appropriate weight." In fact, I never lost more than a few pounds before I gained each one back. By the time I reached the end of of high school, I was steadily gaining without a clear explanation for why. More importantly, my relationship with my body was seriously damaged. I never felt OK in my own skin or with the way I looked. Repeated failed diets chipped away at my self-esteem and I started to hide behind clothes that didn’t fit right. I dreaded the pool and overdressed in long pants and layered tops even during the hottest summer months. I had punished my body for dieting, and when dieting failed, I started punishing my body by hiding behind clothes. But I'm done punishing my body.

Nothing I could do would make my body look the way I thought it should.
Courtesy of Mary Sauer

Shortly before my wedding, I lost about 20 pounds. I should have loved my body at that point, but found myself tugging at my wedding dressing in the mirror and wishing I'd worked harder to look my best for my wedding day. After my wedding, I started dieting again only to find I continued to put on weight. I was miserable. I couldn’t eat the food I enjoyed and I couldn’t punish my body into obedience. Nothing I could do would make my body look the way I thought it should.

It wasn’t until I had my first daughter that I started to reconsider how I was thinking about and talking about my body. I had this new, beautiful life to care for and I kept wondering how I would feel if she picked up on my cycle of self-sabotage: punishing my body and then overeating when I got tired of dieting. I wanted my daughter to grow up knowing her worth was based not in her looks, but in her character. I wanted her to understand that she was loved, not because of how she looked or performed, but because she was my daughter and I loved her simply because she was alive.

Every time my body changes, it's a difficult adjustment for me.

Shortly after her birth was the first time I began to consider what it would mean if I stopped punishing my body. Honestly, it wasn’t until she neared her first birthday that I even thought about what my life would be like if I wasn’t constantly trying to fit my body into an impossible mold.

Courtesy of Mary Sauer

I would like to say it was an easy switch, moving from a life of body punishment to body positivity, but it wasn’t. I’ve since had another child and I am pregnant with my third and I've watched the shape of my body stretch and shrink and grow again. Every time my body changes, it's a difficult adjustment for me. Because I'd made it a point to ignore my body’s natural cues for so long, I still find it difficult to hear the signals my body is giving when it's hungry or when it's full. So I still let myself get too hungry from time to time, eat more than is comfortable, and I indulge in foods that don’t taste good simply because they used to be "off limits" to me.

Giving up on punishing my body has been one the hardest things I have ever done.

My success has been small and slow. First, I read two books about the damage repeated, restrictive dieting can do to your body. I regularly consult a book called Intuitive Eating, which has become my bible for body acceptance and is largely responsible for my steady move towards a happier relationship with my body. And found a lot of helpful advice from a book called Eating Mindfully. Secondly, I've made friends who are on the same journey as I am. We chat online about our recovery, some have past in competitive fitness while others has battled hardcore eating disorders for much of their lives. When I'm feeling frustrated or discouraged by my body, I know I can turn to them for encouragement and some commonsense advice on avoiding old habits. Lastly, I see a therapist fairly regularly and we hash out what lies beneath the negative thoughts I have about my body.

Courtesy of Mary Sauer

Honestly, I can say giving up on punishing my body has been one the hardest things I have ever done. The world around me is consumed with diets and extreme fitness, and it feels lonely at times to opt out of the chatter of calories and workouts so many women bond over. I may not be 100-percent free of criticizing my body or punishing myself when I eat something I used to believe was off limits, but I'm happy to say I am well on my way. I'm done letting myself be consumed by someone else’s beauty standards and I can finally see the beauty in who I am, exactly as I am, without the help of crunches, calorie counters, or restrictive diets.