“Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you,” I look up to see my friends crowded around me, “Happy birthday dear Marina, happy birthday to you,” a cake that I would later feel bad about eating is brought out, “Are you one? Are you two?…” We count to my current age and everyone cheers. I smile, close my eyes, and blow out the candles, thinking, I wish I was skinny.
I’ve always wanted to be small. It’s what I would wish for anytime I threw a penny in a fountain, whenever I saw a clock read 11:11, and every single year on my birthday. I wanted to have visible collarbones and a thigh gap. I wanted to be able to wear tank tops, bikinis, and white pants. I wanted to fit into tight spaces, sit on people’s laps, and let boys pick me up.
Thinness was hammered into my head since I was a child. The most important thing for a female in an Eastern European family was be attractive to the opposite sex. I was taught to clean my room, to cook meals for men, to dress feminine (but not wear too much makeup, lest the men mistake you for a whore!) and to make sure I was a certain size.
Weight loss and diets were constant topics of conversation in our household. There was no junk food or dessert allowed. Bread, sugar, and a myriad of other foods were the enemy. I was told to “suck in” anytime we took a family photo. I learned how to calorie-count alongside learning how to swim. I read diet plans in conjunction with Harry Potter books.
My mom sometimes tried to hide her fatphobia behind a concern for my “health” by constantly telling me she was scared I would get diabetes if I got any bigger. She took me to multiple pediatricians, begging them to tell me I needed to lose weight. The doctor’s response was always, “She’s healthy, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with her.”
At first, I was outraged. And for a while, I fought back. I threw tantrums, I refused diets, and I ate junk food at friends’ houses. But when your main caregivers keep telling you that there’s something wrong with you, that you need to change, that no one will love you the way you are — you start to believe it.
From age 10, I made lists of all the things I would change about my body. My notebooks contained full-body self-portraits with bright red circles around all the parts that I didn’t like. I tried exercising. I tried diets. I tried eating 500 calories a day. I tried throwing up after meals. I tried not eating at all.
For around a decade, the majority of my thoughts revolved around food or how much space my body was taking up. I begged the universe to give me an eating disorder or physical illness — anything that would make me lose weight. I learned to hate my body so ferociously that it took over my entire life. I felt helpless and hopeless. I felt like a failure.
In 2014, I finally realized something had to change. I didn’t want to go through my entire life hating myself. I started working on my issues with food and self-image, and through diligent practice, my opinion of myself began to change. I was able to look in the mirror and not always hate my reflection. I stopped being scared of carbs. My binge and purge cycles were few and far between. I began to see food for what it was — fuel for your body, and something to be enjoyed.
However, it’s not easy to fix a lifetime of negative self-talk. There was still some part of me that wasn’t ready to fully accept myself. A part of me that kept dieting and restricting, imagining myself in a thinner body, and feeling disgusted by the way I looked.
In early 2019, I was listening to an episode of the Diet Starts Tomorrow podcast in which special guest Jared Fried says, “This is the rest of our lives. This is called ‘Diet Starts Tomorrow,’ and then it should also be called ‘…and it never ends.’ And that’s the problem, you have to do this the rest of your fucking life.” My heart sank. I started to spiral. Was there really no other way? Would I have to fight with my body forever?
My grandma is 84 years old and still tries to diet. She’s lived over eight decades on this earth, and still worries about eating “too much” or “not the right foods.” I’ve seen so many of my amazing, beautiful, intelligent, powerful, and badass friends tear themselves down because they ate an extra cookie or didn’t make it to the gym one day.
A few months ago, I brought up my body image issues to my therapist. She told me that I had two options — either my body had to change or my thoughts had to change. She asked which option I would prefer. I told her I knew that “thoughts” was the sensible, body positive answer. But I didn’t think it would be the truthful one. I told her I believed in body positivity in general, but not for me.
But I was exhausted. I’d wasted so much headspace on this bullshit and I didn’t want to do it anymore. Anytime one of my friends mentioned dieting or said something negative about their bodies, I wanted to scream. I was done being hungry. I was done feeling bad about taking up space. I was done trying to change my body.
This past year, I had already started doing things that my younger self would be horrified at — dancing in sexy clothing, going on dates, having sex, and even wearing the occasional tank top. A variety of catalysts brought me here. I was pole dancing regularly, I was consuming more body positive content than ever, and I started going out with a guy that I’d been crushing on for the past two years.
The final push actually came from that Diet Starts Tomorrow podcast. In December 2019, I listened to two episodes that changed my life. The first was an episode from June 16th, with special guest Jessica Knoll, author of the New York Times article, Smash the Wellness Industry.
Ms. Knoll decided to see an intuitive eating dietician because she was sick of feeling like she couldn’t control herself around food. At first, she was wary. Letting herself eat whatever she wanted made her feel like she was lazy, like she wasn’t disciplined, like she had failed. But through hard work and perseverance, her mindset started to change.
She realized that her idea of health was skewed by what the diet and wellness industries had been hammering into her head her entire life. In reality, a very small percentage of the population genetically has that “ideal” body type we’re all striving for. Most likely, they’re doing something unhealthy to achieve it.
Intuitive eating helped her separate health from thinness, and let go of her preoccupation with food and her body. Anything she previously restricted from her diet lost its allure, she was able to trust herself around food again. I felt a small spark of hope manifest deep in my gut. Maybe there was another way.
The second episode was from July 7, with recurring guest Dr. Tracy Lockwood Beckerman, who is a big proponent of intuitive eating. She acknowledges that it’s hard work, but the rewards are so worth it. You’ll stop scarfing down food, you’ll stop feeling like you can’t control yourself, you’ll stop constantly thinking about your next meal.
Intuitive eating is all about unravelling the toxic relationship and emotional connection that you’ve created with food all these years. It’s about trusting your body. It’s about listening and connecting with your hunger cues. Eventually, you’ll get rid of the anxiety you feel around food and actually be able to enjoy it. I felt that spark of hope ignite and fire flow through my veins.
All the shame I felt my entire life transformed into anger. Anger at the blatant fatphobia present in many aspects of our daily lives. Anger at the normalization of diet culture talk everywhere you go. Anger at the lack of representation of different bodies in the media. Anger at the limited clothing options for plus sizes. Suddenly I understood what body positive influencers have been fighting for all this time.
Along with the anger, I felt an overwhelming sense of relief. I finally realized my body was never the problem. The ideal body is arbitrary. Just as different fashion trends go in and out of fashion, so do beauty standards. Are you any less of a person because you aren’t wearing crop tops and high-waisted jeans? No. Are you any less of a person because you don’t have the ass of Kim Kardashian? No.
But like with anything out of the “norm,” you’ll get backlash. You’ll get questions and angry retorts. Many people don’t even consider the possibility of not subscribing to diet culture. For the past four years, when someone offered me a slice of pepperoni pizza, I’ve had to say, “No, thank you, I’m vegan.” Now, when someone makes a self-deprecating joke about their body or diet and expects me to join in, I have to say, “No, thank you, I’m body positive and I eat intuitively.”
Loving yourself will make people uncomfortable because it is radical. Because it is rebellious. Because it is revolutionary. Because it makes them question their own beliefs. Loving yourself is a response against consumerism and capitalism. Loving yourself is a big fuck you to industries that make money off of people’s insecurities.
So are we doomed to diet forever? Fuck no. Not if we change our narrative. Not if we stand up and fight. Not if we take back our bodies. I still have many miles to go in my self-love journey, but being thin isn’t the most important thing in my life anymore. This year for my birthday, I’ll finally wish for something different.