By Denise Varela, LMHC

I can remember a time in my life when things were much simpler.  A curly haired, wild, spontaneous little creature who imagined her way through life, creating stories and vivid realities for herself explored a world she was unfamiliar with.  She lived, breathed, and searched for joy.  What else could this world be offering but fun?  It was all around.  Fun games, fun people, fun food. There was a time in my life when I ate to eat.  I ate because I was hungry, or because it was mealtime.  Eating food didn’t drive me crazy, it fueled me.  I enjoyed it during celebrations, and I savored my favorites.  Each bite was guiltless and carefree.  That little girl that enjoyed a biological necessity without added emotional baggage.  But somehow, that child was told she was wrong and was forced into a deep, dark area of my heart.

Many of us still remember that little child inside of us.  The child that thrived with a bright fire before they were extinguished by a harsh criticism here, an abusive punishment there, or before the world imposed its cold and relentless message of “you are not enough.”  Sometimes, that child stands up and says “I am still here!” and defies the societal imprisonment he or she has been confined to.  She rises up when you chose to say no and stand by it.  She jumps up when she chooses to take a break despite the long to-do list.  When you listen to your body and heart and do something that brings you joy, you are honoring that child, and giving him or her a voice.

For some of us, it feels natural and freeing to have structure and a plan, as contradictory as that may sound.  Having a plan of action can help us move something like nutrition and fitness into a habit, and frees up mental energy to do other things.  For some, the process is fun, and they discover much about themselves.  Their walk is empowering.  For me, however, it is more complicated.  The lens of anxiety that has colored my world view prevents me from allowing this type of structure to help me.  It ends up becoming something else I have failed at, and I end up in the same vicious cycle I began at in the first place.  The little girl inside of my wants to push the stack of papers and products off the table and color in a coloring book with very little lines and a wide range of colors.

So I have made a decision.  A crazy, not-sure-what-will-happen-but-fuck-it decision.  I am going to go back to a simpler time.  Back to when I remember a little spark inside of me that loved who I was because I didn’t know I had the option of not loving myself.  That little, spunky, sometimes bratty, always assertive, funny, kind little girl.  The little girl that my first memories are made of.  The one that felt happy in jeans and a tee and didn’t enjoy wearing frilly dresses or getting her curly locks straightened.  That little girl that loved dancing, loved moving around, jumping, acting silly, walking around and exploring.  The one who ate because she was hungry, and not because she was anxious or depressed.  The one that didn’t know how to read food labels, and didn’t worry if something was allowed on a diet.  The one who wouldn’t worry about her body because it was her body and there was nothing to worry about it.  And I am going to choose to give her a voice.  An audible voice, because I am going to speak for her.

I am not saying that if I or anyone else does this, somehow magically they will overcome their eating problems.  That somehow, by loving that little child that the weight will fall off, or that we will have a positive body image overnight.  What I am saying is that maybe many of us have lost something over time.  An integral part of us that we have ignored and drowned out or that was told to shut up when we were abused and were made to feel “less than.”  By giving voice to that little child in our heart, we can heal some of the harm that has been done, and unchain ourselves from the constant “don’t eat this, don’t do that, only work out, this way, and only eat that way.”

If we are happier, the path to healthier will be much more fun.  Not less difficult, just more enjoyable.  Enjoyable enough that the little girl in me will feel free to dance again, and will shout to the world that she loves herself even if you don’t.  She doesn’t obsess about food or about the scale.  She takes care of herself because she loves herself, but she is alright with indulging from time to time.  She is powerful, healthy, active, vibrant, and free.

It is not an easy thing to let this little child’s voice rise up in us.  As it rises up, it’s going to be met with the other voices that occupy our minds.  The first step is to remember that little child’s voice.  We may have forgotten it, or perhaps it only got to speak a few times before he or she was shut down.  Try taking a moment and asking yourself, “What did that little me want to or used to say?”  Then, write it down.  Ask yourself how you might implement that in your life today.  We don’t have to try to figure out every unspoken phrase; just pick out one, and put it into action.  For me, the first phrase is “Make loving yourself fun.”  Just thinking about that evokes some anxiety and excitement, but I am going to consciously chose to act on this.  Maybe for you, it’s “the scale doesn’t define me,” or “I will do an activity that is fun,” or “I’ll eat something that shows I care about myself and am worth caring for,” or “I will wear something that makes me feel confident and beautiful.”  Whatever you decide, make sure that the result builds you up, brings you joy, gets you excited and holds the hand of that little child that has been hidden in the shadows for some time because she deserves to walk proudly with you.