In a heart-wrenching account of her struggle with emotional eating, YOU’s beauty director Edwina Ings-Chambers lays bare her lifelong feelings of self-loathing and isolation – and reveals how she’s finally breaking free from this cycle of destruction
I screen-grabbed one of those slightly annoying yet somehow also full of wisdom Instagram mantras the other day. It read: ‘Food is the most abused anxiety drug.’ It resonated because I felt it summed me up. I am an emotional eater. I can eat any emotion, from worried to happy, sad to curious. If it’s a feeling, I can sprinkle it with sugar or salt and chew it – often far too quickly.
I have an emotional connection with food that can override my better judgment to just say ‘no’, as well as my knowledge of what is healthy and makes up a balanced diet. A rocket salad just doesn’t sort out emotional crunchiness in the same way as a hard chew on a wine gum. It’s about the short term and the instant need for satiation. Sometimes eating can even be a delay tactic if I’m feeling unsure about something: ‘Let me just sit down and have a cup of tea and a biccie and then I’ll get cracking’ is a familiar thought process to me. But the trouble is that stress eating never really makes me feel better. It leaves me feeling disgusted with and disappointed in myself – which, of course, leads me to seek solace in more food. And it results in weight gain, which only makes me feel worse about myself and, in turn, leads me to eat again.
You won’t be surprised to learn that this has led me to have a somewhat fraught relationship with my weight – and my body. I’ve had periods of being very fit and treating my body with the utmost respect. I once trained in under three months to run the San Francisco women’s half marathon. Crossing the finish line was an amazing high, something I’d worked hard for with a disciplined exercise routine and a close eye on all of my dietary intake. I thought that this was it, that I’d never fall off the fitness wagon again and a new relationship with my body had begun. I felt strong and in control.
But, somehow, I did fall off – all those good routines buckled under the pressure of the everyday and probably my own hopes and expectations. I put work before myself, some romantic heartbreak factored in, and since I believe weight is also a literal buffer in my life that I use as a subliminal excuse to stop me from chasing dreams that might scare me (‘I’ll do that when I’m slimmer’), without even realising it I was eating and gaining weight. Since scales strike fear into me I can’t tell you what that weight was, but I’d say I’ve swung from being a size 8 to size 18 at various times.
Recently I’ve tried to fathom why I do something that makes me feel unhappy, out of control and generally defeated, and I’ve realised that I have never possessed much body confidence – even when I’m at my fittest (and yes, usually slimmest). Not that being slim or fit is a necessary prerequisite for feeling confident in and about your physical self. I know people of all shapes and sizes who can sashay without the slightest hang-up. I’m not here to body shame anyone. If you’re happy and you know it then keep on cruising. But wearing a swimsuit terrifies me – not that it’s even about wearing revealing clothes. If you have no body confidence you can struggle in any outfit and any situation. I can walk down the street and constantly move my handbag from one side of my body to the other to try to hide myself as much as possible from the greatest number of gazes. Believe me, I’m not so self-obsessed that I think everyone’s watching. But that’s the insidious problem with body confidence: it’s my own self-judgment that drowns out everything else.
I’m not saying I’ve never shown off my body – in my fitter periods my body confidence can grow. It’s just that I’ve never found consistency in this part of my life. When a rocky emotional patch comes along my default setting is to bury myself in a plate and eat my way through it. What comes first: the emotional eating or the lack of body confidence? I don’t know and sometimes I think it doesn’t really matter because they can’t live without each other.
I also realise that this has led me to become a not-er: not doing things because I’m too lacking in confidence about my body. Not jumping off the side of a boat in the summer, not taking a beach holiday, not joining a dating app. Not living life as fully as I should. Of course, it’s a waste of time and means missing out on a whole lot of joy. I have spent so many years dreading the warm summer months because it will mean revealing more of myself in clothes. It’s so pointless and such a vicious circle.
I’m not sure exactly where all this angst comes from – how much of it is personal, how much may even be societal – but I believe that other factors are also at play.
For instance, I remember very clearly that when my father died 24 years ago I found the disconnect between the physical self and the emotional one very difficult to get my head around. I was adamant that I wanted to visit him at the undertaker’s and I’m still glad that I did. But looking at him in his coffin, his body stone cold, his wrinkles stiff and hard beneath my fingers, it was clear that, although he looked like my father, everything that made him him was absent. His energy, his soul, his sparkle, his laugh, his personality were all gone. What I loved most about him was totally intangible; his body – as recognisable and reassuring as it was to me – had merely been the vessel that carried it. For quite some time afterwards, I was unable to care too much about the gym, even though I was a fairly avid goer at the time. It all seemed such a fruitless search for the body beautiful when the body seemed to be the least important part of anything. Needless to say my weight went up and my body confidence plummeted. The cycle has continued ever since. Has that all fed into my chronic self-consciousness? I’m not sure, but I know I’ve reached the point where I really want to sort it out.
But sorting it out is about more than just ‘eat less and use a bit of willpower’. To lose weight, I know that energy expended must be more than calories consumed. I know what healthy food is and that sugar and refined carbs are the enemy. But that’s like telling an alcoholic to just put down the whisky. Or a drug addict to delete their dealer’s telephone number. Food is my drug of choice and one that only damages me. I’m never going to turn up hungover to a meeting. I’m never going to let down friends by going on a major bender for days. I’m just going to eat the doughnuts and hate myself when my body fat percentage rises.
I have lots of willpower in many areas of my life, but this cycle is not so easy to break. Plus, I believe food addiction is more harshly judged by society – you’re just viewed as lazy, undisciplined or greedy. I’m none of those things.
Just as a drug addict will go to rehab, so I realised in 2019 that I needed my own version of that – a sort of emotional diet, one where I understood my triggers, got to the bottom of these emotions, detoxed myself of them. I started therapy – an expensive but important investment. I’ve been told that I live too much in my head. In truth, I already knew my head was too full. At a spa resort a few years ago I had my brainwaves measured – mine were on constant high alert. ‘Your brain never stops!’ cried the doctor, before advising with some urgency to find ways to quieten my ever-whirring thoughts. Maybe a calmer mind would lead to less panicked eating?
Sometimes my therapist sets me homework and one of the exercises was to write a letter to my belly. When I put on weight this is the area that often upsets me the most. This is what I wrote…
I say this with kindness, because after all you are a part of me and I’m being kinder to all things me these days. But the time has come for us to say goodbye. So please, start gathering your things and leave. It’s time for you to travel onwards. And me too, for that matter.
I know I’ve helped to get us both here, to this point where you’ve taken over so much of me, and we’ve walked together now for a number of years. I admit that I’ve needed you, or at least need to use you as an excuse to avoid grabbing the things that I want the most – and yet also scare me the most: attention, intimacy, dating, feeling good as me, stepping out in the spotlight and into my own power. I know I’m daunted by all of this. And I use weight – you – as my delay tactic; you are part of my fear process.
But the truth is that although you keep me safe, you also make me miserable. You give me every excuse to hide and to step away from the things that I enjoy in terms of self-expression – my clothes and suchlike – and I’ve clutched hold of that excuse. You give me an excuse not to try things, not to reach higher. You make me larger but you make me feel smaller inside. You inhibit me in every way. But I know it is not all your fault. My actions brought you – and us – here. My actions have kept you here. And you were a safety blanket from the world when I clearly needed one. So I thank you for that, for the self-protection you gave me. But it’s time for me to move on, time for me to feel OK to be me, time to let things in instead of keeping things out. And for that to happen you have to leave. I send you on your way with love. I’m sure your energy can be put to good use elsewhere. And I must put my energy to better use here. The time has come for me to allow myself to be happy.
Things started to look up. I managed to be more mindful about eating habits. A little weight came off and I even bought new clothes. Then, of course, just as it seemed that I was starting to understand my emotional eating habits, Covid happened and lockdown hit. If ever a situation was made for an emo eater to wallow in, this was it – plenty of worry and days spent home alone inevitably led to bowls of pasta and pesto. I drank wine – which I never do on my own. Easter eggs provided comfort. The goals I’d set for myself earlier in the year went by unmet. Though I usually say that I don’t think I suffer from anxiety, I began to think that perhaps I do. I just eat it before I let myself feel it, acknowledge it and deal with it.
This year something else shifted: my mother became critically ill and after several emergency hospital admissions I started to help to care for her at home. In doing so a different element of the circle of life has become clearer to me than when my father died: yes, what matters most is what’s on the inside but it’s important we look after the physical vessel that houses it as best we can, so we can live this lifetime to the fullest.
I also realised how much my lack of body confidence has been inherited. One day, when trying to encourage my mother to keep holding on so that my brother had the time to fly back from the Far East to see her again, she said, ‘Oh I must do something about my knees before he gets here.’ What did she mean, I asked her, assuming she must be hoping to be strong enough to stand up when he arrived. ‘I have such fat knees, I need to sort them out before he gets here,’ she lamented, before pausing and adding, ‘but I suppose I’ve left it too late now.’ I’ve known my mother has always felt self-conscious about her knees, but while looking after and helping to wash her, I’d often looked at them thinking what unusual but lovely knees she has and that, really, however they looked, the most important thing was the job they do, not how they looked while doing it. It so saddened me that this had inhibited her throughout her life, but also that I do the same.
This isn’t just about weight or weight loss, it runs much deeper than that – it incorporates issues of self-esteem as well as a lack of feeling true ownership over my body. It’s a multi-faceted issue and journey, one that is about mind as well as body. And this is not, I repeat not, about a search for perfection – whatever that even is. I simply want to feel fully at ease in my own skin; I want to accept and appreciate the body I have. I want to feel free in my physicality.
As the world opens up after lockdowns, I’m trying to apply myself properly once again to breaking my established thinking and behaviour. I’ve found help with Dalton Wong at Twenty Two training who has known me for years and seen my struggles. He put me in touch with Lucinda Meade who has been performing a mix of acupuncture and hypnotherapy to help shift my thinking – and certainly I’ve found it is helping me to gently reset some habits and be kinder to myself. I’ve buddied up with a friend to go to the gym – because, believe me, the mental barriers of an emotional eater are like an invisible wall that blocks entry to gyms, which can be intimidating places at the best of times. I learned about a good mindful morning routine with the help of nutrition coach Karen Cummings-Palmer. And I’ve realised like any addict that I must take a day-to-day approach to my own recovery.
It’s all about developing a constant level of self-care, learning to place more importance on myself, and really listening so I can hear what it is I need instead of trying to gulp down my concerns and fears. It’s a multi-disciplined process and one that involves smashing well-worn patterns of emotional self-abuse. It isn’t easy when food is your drug because we all need to eat. But frankly I feel exhausted from living with low body confidence and the cycle that it involves.
So now, at the age of 51, I’m determined to learn to shift my world so that I can live a much fuller and more self-accepting life on both the inside and the outside. And I hope that going forward there can be more honest and supportive discussion on this issue, as I believe it’s one that affects so many people who struggle in private. We aren’t idiots, we aren’t lazy: we’re emotional eaters and it’s time we talked about it and set ourselves free from our silent shame.
Fashion Director: Shelly Vella. Picture Director: Ester Malloy. Hair: George Northwood using Undonbe by George Northwood Products. Make-up: Lee Pycroft.