I remember the first time I saw Down with Love, a silly romantic comedy with Renee Zellweger and Ewan McGregor. Renee’s character writes a massively popular book helping women say goodbye to needing men. Part of this simplistic and heteronormative worldview included using chocolate to replace a woman’s sexual drive. While chocolate has some of the chemicals that can alter the mind and create euphoria, it’s not nearly enough to create that kind of experience.
Yet, we have some weirder ideas about chocolate around us every day. You’ve probably seen one of the dozens of ads. A woman, usually white, young, able-bodied, closes her polished lips around a piece of chocolate. Rapture falls over her face as she savors the chocolate. The everyday becomes sensual enjoyment. It’s primal and looks a hell of a lot like sex.
You could say it’s just an ad, as absurd as any perfume or car commercial. Yet these ads use a puritanical worldview remade for food and the body. Fatty foods like chocolate are now the sins that replace lust and sloth. The pleasurable experience of eating chocolate tempts women from their saintly, healthy diet. The ads almost always imply the same thing. Go ahead, they whisper, enjoy yourself.
Hell and heaven exist here as well. When we are good devoted followers of denial against fatty food, we are rewarded with heaven on earth. For women, that’s having beautiful bodies. Then, we can finally go on dates. When we are thin enough, we can finally have the best clothes. We are only worthy when we can finally reach that coveted size 2. Chocolate’s fat and sugary nature undermines any ability to reach that place of thinness. It tempts us with pleasure now, keeping us from the heaven of later beauty.
So, the ads tell us to give in, give into temptation. Magnum recently released some ads for their double chocolate ice cream bars. In it, young and beautiful women of varying ethnicities walk around town. They eat these ice cream bars and boom! Wild animals show up beside them, alluding to a wild nature now unleashed. Suddenly, these women start to give into their desires, whether it’s keeping a man away or crashing a gated party. People respect (or fear them) more. If this were Star Wars, we’d hear Emperor Palpatine whispering ‘give in’.
For years, I knew this cycle of devotion and temptation. I exercised daily and worried about every morsel going into my mouth. By college, I could do mental math for the Weight Watchers points of most foods with my eyes shut. My mind would run over what I ate that day like a mouse in a wheel, running feverishly but going nowhere.
For a while, I didn’t think I had a problem. I was never bulimic or anorexic, just health conscious. My habits were healthy, setting me up to avoid weight gain I was certain the thin girls of my high school would hit in college. Running every day, however, wasn’t healthy. There were times I was so thin I no longer had enough body fat to menstruate.
Exercising to offset everything I put in my body wasn’t a good habit. It was my way of atoning. If I could purge those calories then maybe I wouldn’t be cursed with extra pounds, with extra weight.
Yet, like many women I also believed food was a treat. I deserved to have that pizza after a long day. I ran an extra mile so damn it I was having that mocha frappuccino with all the whip cream. Sometimes, I was just too tired to fight my desire for a cookie or an extra helping at dinner. Occasionally, I binged, my screaming at its limits. I gave in and yes, sometimes, it felt sinfully good.
These treats only make the cycles worse. A creeping guilt would always return. How many calories did I eat? What would I look like tomorrow? How long should I work out to make up for this? My mind was scrambling to answer the same old question: how would I atone for letting myself eat?
Finding my solution was realizing what the whole system does to women, taking us out of our bodies. The chosen ‘good’ ones are thin. The immoral ones are fat. It doesn’t consider how our bodies work or our natural shapes and sizes. All that matters is how we are seen.
What we should eat is also a series of messages from outside, often conflicting. Chocolate is decadent because we’re told it’s decadent. On the flip side, we should eat kale, or white meat, or gluten free because this diet will finally be the one to make us thin. It’s easy to get lost in a new diet or exercise regime, hoping to achieve the same, impossible ideal of beauty.
It took me years to realize that this system of obsession, exercise, and guilt wasn’t working. The beginning of my journey out was reading the book, Health at Every Size. In it, Linda Bacon explains that size does not equal health. Diets statistically don’t work and won’t keep people healthy in the long run. The real answer? Instead of listening to what we are told to want, we must listen to our bodies. What foods do we crave? How do we want to move? We must answer these questions ourselves.
Making this switch isn’t easy. It requires going against a society that has rigid and set ideas about what healthy bodies look like. For women of larger sizes, I know it can be even more complicated. Some have faced street harassment for simply eating an ice cream cone in public. It can mean that some doctors won’t believe you exercise regularly or can run an 8-minute mile for 5 miles.
On a personal level, intuitive eating has required me to trust myself. Instead of worrying about other people or outside noise, I tune into myself. What do I need today? What do I hunger for? This journey didn’t stop with food. It made me ask deeper questions about what makes me happy, what makes my life meaningful. The radical work of listening to our bodies means many women begin to defy societal expectations. We begin to have the mental and emotional capacity not only to challenge the diet industry but the subtler energies urging us to conform our entire lives.
It’s taken me years but as I’ve become more comfortable with intuitive eating I trust myself more. I work out because I enjoy it. I feel better, whether it’s a gentle yoga day or going for a 4-mile hike. Sometimes I eat ice cream out of the pint and some days I want a kale smoothie. Overeating has become rarer for me because I know I can always have more. There are days when the guilt and worry come back, but instead of atoning at the gym I ask myself what I need. Sometimes it is a walk and sometimes I just need a hug. Instead of cycles of sin and penance, there are various possibilities.
Have you struggled with body image like me? If so, then my wish for you this National Chocolate day is permission. You can eat as much or as little as you want, today and every day. Today, you can walk 10,000 steps or decide to sit on the couch for hours. Today, instead of claiming chocolate as your treat, decide to claim allegiance to yourself. It doesn’t have to be a giant movement today. Just ask yourself, what do you hunger for? What do you crave? I can’t wait to see where it takes you.