More Than Just a Number
My name is Nalini and I’m a cognitive scientist, educator, and health and wellness advocate. I spent many years in school studying the arts and sciences. I love learning, and by virtue, teaching. Life never stops providing knowledge, and I think it is one of life’s greatest gifts.
I haven’t always had this outlook on life, though. In my late teens, I started my undergraduate degree, and all was well. I was excited to start my postsecondary education, but I had to work two jobs to keep up with it. I would wake up in the early hours of the morning to start my shift at the airport, knocking back two cups of coffee and espresso to make sure I could handle the day. After my shift, I’d make my way to the university and happily attend my classes. Then, I’d often go to my second job, getting home quite late, doing it all over again the next day.
During this time, I started losing quite a bit of weight, at first, unintentionally. I suppose with all of the running around I was doing, and keeping a little too busy, I was making less and less time for meals. With the weight loss came tons of compliments. “Oh, you look great!” people would say, and follow up with “what’s your secret?” I never really thought about the weight I had lost probably because I didn’t notice at first. After the ego boost and as my undergraduate degree continued, I began to fit exercise into my schedule, and my friend and I would go to the campus gym on the mornings I wasn’t working. I began to see more and more results. Then, I became obsessed.
I started counting every single calorie I ate. On my way to class, I’d grab a cup of black coffee. Okay, that’s five calories, I told myself, and later made a physical note of it. I can’t even remember when this actually started happening or when it ended, but I know that it lasted much too long. At the end of the day, I tallied up my calories, and then I’d recall my workout that day and how many calories I’d burned. If I didn’t burn close to what I ate, I felt disappointed and would lessen my calories the next day. By then, I was in my early twenties, and getting ready to apply for graduate studies. I remember after the winter holidays, I had a peer who said, “most people seem to be gaining weight over the holidays, and you seem to be losing!” Mission accomplished, I thought.
I remember at one point, I was eating less than 600 calories a day. I literally counted every bite: Half an apple, okay, thank goodness I didn’t get the full calories. When invited out for social gatherings, I’d eat very light, usually a salad with balsamic vinaigrette since I ate a vegan diet at the time. I felt weak, tired, and nauseous most of the time. At the time, I didn’t realize that I had become obsessed with calorie counting. Many of the people I knew did it, and the obsession with being skinny was unfortunately normalized by society in the 2000s. Had my younger self been living in today’s era, I would have known so much better and would have treated my body with a lot more care—but, more on that later.
I remember going on vacations and posing for photos, usually with food in my hand, to avoid people asking why I look so thin. I almost fainted at my cousin’s wedding and blamed it on heat exhaustion. I was so happy because I was so skinny, but in hindsight, it was probably the worst years of my life. If I had known just a quarter about brain functioning and living well then that I know now, I could have saved myself a decade of body shaming myself and potentially causing my body serious medical harm.
It took me years to change my mind about body perception—close to a decade. While the obsession with counting calories ended roughly 5 years after it started, the way I thought about weight, size, and food didn’t change until roughly another 5 years later. I was “struggling” with my weight for those additional 5 years. I put struggling in quotes because again, had I known then only a fraction of what I know now, things would have been quite different—there would have been no struggle at all. I kept comparing myself to what I looked like in my undergrad days, and it didn’t help that many people I surrounded myself with also did that. I had gained a bit of weight during graduate studies, but I was still considered “skinny” and under my weight range according to my BMI. Although I didn’t count every calorie, I compared every photo I took and meal I ate to how I looked and what I was doing years ago. Because of this, for five years, I didn’t enjoy my meals, taking photos, or much really, because everything I did was always compared to ‘what it was like for me during undergrad.’ I really hope that this message sinks in with people who are now doing what I did then: do not waste your time comparing yourself to your old self and what you wish you could be. You’re wasting precious years of your life that you could be enjoying.
Flash forward to now, 2020, four years after graduate school, in a job that I love, eating what feels right for my body, and not caring about the number on the scale, the size of my jeans, or the number of calories that I ate. This is not to say that I don’t care for my health. In fact, quite the opposite. I completed my 200 hour Yoga Teacher Training in 2019. This helped me become more mindful of my food choices, as well as understanding the dangers of obsessive number counting. The journey of graduate school and obtaining my doctorate helped me cultivate the knowledge and skills that I need to live well, holistically. This means that I’m concerned not just with body weight. I’m concerned with how well my brain functions, which includes things like: memory, sleep, motor skills, making decisions, and performing daily tasks without fatigue. I also make time for a daily yoga and meditation practice, which helps improve brain functioning (there are sufficient studies in neuroscience and psychology that make a connection with meditation and brain functioning, such as decreasing depression and anxiety), as well as boosts my mental health and spirituality. I exercise because I want to, not because I’m obsessed with fitting into size 2 jeans. And most importantly, I’m living in the present moment, and while I sometimes compare myself to my size when I was a lot thinner, it’s mostly just to see how much my mental health and wellbeing has improved, and to take note of how good my body feels now on the inside.
Luckily, I didn’t do myself any severe medical damage while I was obsessively counting numbers, so I did not seek medical advice. However, in hindsight, it could have been very dangerous and I encourage anyone who experienced or is experiencing struggles with body image to seek medical help if it is effecting their day-to-day activities. I was lucky enough to have a strong support system: my two best friends, along with other close friends, some of cousins, my sister, and some other family members, really helped me along my journey, encouraging healthy eating, positive body image, and just feeling good overall. They never judged me or made comments about my weight, when I started regaining weight, behind my back.
Today, I am healthy, joyous, and I eat to nourish my body. I care a lot less about the number on the scale, the size of my jeans, or the fact that a small avocado has about a lot of calories. Instead, I listen to my body and what it needs from me. My body, everyone’s body, is working hard to keep them healthy and alive. It’s about time we start appreciating and thanking our bodies for all that it does for us. I thank my body by drinking enough water, limiting caffeine intake, eating foods that make my body feel good, and moving for at least twenty minutes a day. What will you do today to thank your body?
Disclaimer: The contents herein are for informational purposes only. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.