Thursday, June 28, 2012

Cycling Up an Appetite: Women and Food

When I was in graduate school, a friend was conducting a research study that involved interviewing female students with and without eating disorders. This proved to be more difficult than she anticipated. Of the young women she'd recruited though a randomised process, all but one showed signs of disordered eating: She did not have a sufficient control group. So she dismissed her initial participant pool and tried again, only to get a similar result. Eventually this caused her to change the direction of the investigation: Her inability to recruit a group of university women with no history of eating disorders in itself became the theme of her research.

Looking back at this 10 years later, I don't think that she or I would have qualified for the control group of that study either. While neither anorexic nor bulimic, our eating was not what I would now consider normal. We were hyper-aware of our calorie intake. We knew our precise weights. We paid attention to the times of day we ate. After a meal, we would keep a mental note of the amount of exercise we'd have to do to compensate for it. The truth is, eating at that age for many of us was an inherently conflicted experience, the effect of food on our bodies ever-present in the backs of our minds. We were not fashion models and we were not athletes; we were university students. For most of us, it was not about our looks but about maintaining control in a competitive and stressful environment.

It was also a matter of having lost our natural appetite regulation mechanisms. We counted calories because we genuinely had no idea when we were truly hungry and when we were not. Our hunger and satiation signals were so out of whack with reality that we no longer trusted them. At age 12, feeling hungry simply meant I needed to eat something. But by age 22, this connection had become severed. There was nervous hunger, cravings for comfort food during all the endless studying, emotional eating. Lack of appropriate satiation signals could lead to overeating unless we were vigilant. And so we were, and it made us miserable.

How did this become the norm for so many women? Most likely it began with dieting during our teenage years and spiraled from there. We did not see it as abnormal, because we were neither puking up food nor outright starving ourselves. We were simply "eating healthy," watching our weight, making sure we maintained whatever clothing size we saw as being appropriate for our body types. But in truth we were suffering, and did not know how to put an end to it. In retrospect, I cannot believe how normalised this was in my generation of university women. Most of my female friends, acquaintances and colleagues had these issues and hid them with various degrees of success. Countless male friends have told me that they've never had a girlfriend who was not "weird" about food.

I cannot pinpoint exactly when things began to turn around for me. Possibly it was moving to a large city in my late 20s where I was suddenly doing lots of walking - not for exercise, but as a natural part of living and getting around. But riding a bike was what really accelerated the process of getting my appetite instincts back on track, so the connection is a strong one for me. Experiencing my body as a useful machine and not just as a bothersome appendage to my brain was what really did it. Through cycling I began to think of food as fuel. If I wanted to ride, I had to eat. And at age 30, for the first time in what must have been 15 years, I was once again able to eat when hungry and stop when full, just like I did when I was a child.

Since I began writing this blog, I have spoken with many, many women cyclists who describe similar experiences. Regaining trust in their hunger and satiation instincts for the first time since their pre-teens has been a gift more dear than they can express. And while cycling is not the only way to achieve this, it is certainly a great way, both fun and practical. Here's to all the women out there, cycling up an appetite.

44 comments:

  1. Yeah, you give a kid of any sex the option of sitting and thinking, reading, watching tv, the internet, the ithing or actually exercising...no that's a perjorative...lets say playing they'll take the easy way out and pretend they know everything because the read it, thought it, was fed it, intellectualized it.

    But then again if you move through the world and put out what you consume you're part of the cycle of life and what a big deal / no big deal it is. You just weren't putting in your fair share of "work" before to justify such a whack caloric intake.

    So, in conclusion my summary is as such: Just. Ride. The. Bike. and shut up about the rest.

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    1. And right on cue:

      "I was tired of being scared of everything"

      http://velonews.competitor.com/2012/06/news/a-bicycle-and-a-few-friends-lead-a-big-man-into-an-even-bigger-world_226368

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  2. Yes! Thank you for this post. All of that labor (calorie counting, exercise for weight management) is conventionally supposed to be hidden, never discussed. It is supposed to look effortless. Hearing that others had the same kinds of experiences makes me feel less deficient. like you and most women I discuss this with, I do not exhibit symptoms stereotypically associated with eating disorders, but would probably meet the diagnostic criteria. I started recording food intake in middle school... I had an experience like yours such that cycling made me appreciate my body for what it could do. Not that I can say I am completely liberated, but cycling made me grateful for health and strength, and gave me a respite from that unhealthy relationship with food.

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  3. And not just a problem for women.
    I have just finished a long cycle tour and after months of enjoying the freedom of eating to my body's needs, I am now stuck at a desk trying to avoid eating comfort food - and failing.

    John I

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  4. really interesting and very well written.

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  5. I don't think this problem only applies to women, but perhaps it affects men later in life. I know from my own experience that I only started to pay attention to what I ate once I hit 30 and noticed that my metabolism seemed to be slowing. For the next 8 yrs I lived with the guilt-trip style of eating that you mention. It was only when I started cycling regularly that I managed to starting eating guilt free again. I would say that for me this has been one of the greatest (of many) benefits that cycling brings.

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  6. Carving for food is still my most hard to overcome factor to keep in shape. In fact, I never spent a day without it.

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    1. i'm the same, but i think it's part of living unnatural lives (eight hours behind a desk, a further six behind a tv, six sleeping, of course the average first world citizen begins to resemble a grizly unless they artificially starve..). i also find that i comfort eat, one doesn't have to read Houlebecq to know we live atomised lives and many of us are more alone than is good for us. sorry if i sound as if know what to do, i really don't a more or less crave a lot too, or cheat myself with low calory stuff.

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  7. I think both sexes are aware of their body image as weight especially in teen years thru their 20s. Body image is a determining factor in being attractive to the opposite sex and can be a controlling factor in diet. Cycling at 18mph can burn up a large amount of calories in a very short period of time which can be very beneficial in our sit down push button society that we live in. The obesity epidemic is real which is resulting in teenagers having type two diabetes, a disease traditionally reserved for older people, however there is a real concern for young women regarding anorexic behavior that can also be life threatening.

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  8. Reading this post almost made me cry. It really is ridiculous how I spent my 20s. Worrying about food sucked the joy out of life.

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  9. Thank you for posting this; it's very well-written and thought-out. I'm touched as well by the men who have responded above. We women tend to think it's only us who have body-image and stress-eating problems. Thank you again for a great post, and a great blog, one of the few I visit daily.

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  10. Re: "men are just as affected by body-image-related issues." Very true, but in different ways. Men are encouraged to be strong, have muscles, take up space. It is the opposite for women. These different messages affect men and women in different ways, especially for sports and exercise.

    Also, women are disproportionately affected by body shame relative to men. (I'm referring to actual numbers of men and women who are have been randomly sampled, are in-patient, out-patient in ED clinics, etc.). And because culture is so influential regarding this issue, consider how most images of women in ads. display "their"* bodies, while pictures of men are mostly of their faces. There are lots of implications, but one is that you see a lot more of what women "should" look like.

    However, maybe the numbers of men and women affected differ so much because women don't get as much backlash for seeking help or talking about it. 'Cause, ya know, men are supposed to tough, independent, and in control. None-a that touchy feely girly stuff.



    *I say "their" with quotes because they are obviously not their real bodies.

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    1. Thanks for saying men think about food 'in different ways.' Beginning to worry I was oblivious. Or, could just be because I have always been quite thin and just do not notice it.

      Couple years back I was dating a woman who is a competitive marathoner (I'm not) but also likes to hike (I do).

      On a weekend hike she started quizzing me on my vegetarian diet. When I mentioned that I often liked to eat an avocado plain with my dinner and dates or a banana for snacks, she recited the calories of all those fruits off the top of her head in the middle of the woods.

      I remember wondering at the time where the hell is all this coming from? It wasn't until I read this post I figured it out. Maybe if V had been around back in '05 I could have saved the relationship.

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  11. Cycling is simply healthy and has contributed to a personal balance of mind, body and spirit which was missing previously in my life. It's sad when anyone is held captive by societal pressures and this simple machine and act of movement seems to put one in a different and better orbit.

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  12. I'll just add tangentially that I find the more I ride (or do any exercise) the more desirable I find healthy, nutritious food and the less urge I have to gorge on fatty, sweet, or other "comfort foods. It's kind of a double whammy in either direction you go.

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  13. Both of my college roommates were bulimic. They kept it hidden from most of the people in their lives, but there is no hiding it from someone you share a bathroom with. Watching their struggle I felt terrified and helpless. They were in denial and unwilling to get help. We've lost touch since graduation, but I can only hope that each has since found a way to overcome this horrible illness.

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  14. nice blog, it's definitely not just women, uni is stressful, competitive and out of control regardless of ones gender. My eating (very very slowly) began to come round in my late 20's too, part of life becoming slightly more manageable. if one thinks about it eating is what we do to stay alive, live, off course it will become loaded with feelings about being alive

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  15. incidentally - and sorry for a complete tangent (let's just say that answering this question might prevent a nervous binge), what would be the best hybrid frame for a bloke with a rohloff lying around looking for a home?

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    1. this is not the blog where you ask about hybrids my friend ;?) Try www.bikeforums.net
      badmother

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    2. a commonly accepted definition of a hybrid is an upright bike with a mix of road and mtb components. many of the bikes reviewed here are, in fact, hybrids.

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    3. thank you both (bikeforums turned out to be an unexpected haven of delights and, yet, as anonymous suggests, I'm looking for frame geometry that would allow semi relaxed hops to the local cafe with the option of sudden, impulsive, hundred mile a day weekend randonneurs to Paris) - i seriously don't want to hijack this thread any further since i sincerely appreciate the existential angle of this blog on cycling and life (but if velouria, of course, decides to do a further entry on ideal hybrids, or however one chooses to name an ideal jack of all trades frame geometry i would not complain, at all).

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    4. Possibly the most interesting frame to put that Rohloff hub in would be a Raliegh DL1 with a new rear triangle with a disc mount to eliminate the rod brake on the rear. I know how one can modify the existing roller lever to actuate the disc, please forward the hub to me and I'll let you know how it works out. Thanks in advance.

      Spindizzy

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  16. I really loved this post, mostly because I find that I've had similar experiences. I have definitely never had an "eating disorder" per se, but like many or almost all the women I know I had "disordered eating" for a long time. It's one of those below the radar things, trying to manage your food, while trying to enjoy it, while constantly stressing out about your body, that we don't know how to talk about. "We're" always going to be an image-conscious society, no way around it, I just wish that there was just SOME better way for the mainstream to be more informed about health, nutrition and our bodies in general. Because if we're at least armed with knowledge, we can start to figure it out better.

    Not to take away from the actual trauma of eating disorders but there is something to be said about the other kind, the kind that happens to 'healthy women' everyday. Just like you with cycling, until I found Paleo (and Crossfit), I didn't think I'd ever overcome it. The constant misinformed worry and anxiety about calories and fat is an unbelievable time-consuming/energy consuming obsession, one that I hope we can all (as much as we can) get over at some point.

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  17. Hmm I like counting calories/joules. For me it is mostly about cutting down on the chocolate and deserts though (except when I am out on long rides). I train enough that there is no reason to cut down on the normal food.

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  18. This post made my heart ache for you, and for most of my female friends. I was very "lucky" that I was always a skinny kid/teen/young adult so I never personally experienced disordered eating or that kind of self-hatred related to my weight during those years. My body image issues came much later, when I was better equipped to deal with them (in my mid-30s).

    It's amazing to me how widespread this problem is, however. When I worked for an online retailer, I worked primarily with women. It didn't matter how thin, young, or beautiful they were - most of them hated the way they looked. They would criticize the tiniest things about themselves, eat barely anything, and beat themselves up any time someone brought in cookies or a birthday cake. I did NOT want to be like that - to live like that. It was awful to watch and it started to make me feel insecure about my own appearance, and be hyper-aware that I was being watched when I reached for a cookie (or *gasp* two).

    But the moment of clarity I was lucky to experience was spending a week with the photo editing team. It was there that I saw just how much they retouched the bodies of our models. Now, these were BEAUTIFUL girls. They had what most people would consider perfect bodies. And yet the imaging team spent 10 hours a day, every day, retouching them - trimming away pieces of their arms & legs, airbrushing their skin, painting in 6-packs to already toned abdomens.

    Now we all know these images we see in advertising & in magazines aren't real, but it wasn't until I saw it first hand that I grasped how truly unreal it is, and it made me sad that so many of us live with all this unhappiness over how we look, when really, we are truly beautiful and we are enough, just as we are.

    Anyway. With that... off to ride.

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  19. Excellent post. Excellent comments.

    High fructose corn syrup has not yet been mentioned. All by itself it is a significant portion of American caloric intake. It is not a food at all, but rather an engineered neo-food. It's purpose is to confuse satiety signals and spur further purchases of foodlike product. The stuff is everywhere. Many sports energy bars of the type shown in the picture up top are now loaded with HFCS. Read labels carefully.

    Men are different but do not escape. We are all bigger, much bigger than we used to be. No one under the age of 40 really knows what skinny young men, plural, look like. Riding in a club pack of halfbacks is a very different experience than riding with lean agile skinny guys. There is no longer a possibility of riding with skinny guys. Even at the start line at TdF you see big shoulders purchased at the gym.

    Even when good diet can happen, men are pushed to bulk up. Every high school kid who does sports gets strength and weight training. Steroids are only barely kept quiet. 'Roids may not be completely normative, they are pervasive. The ripped look dominates our consciousness and men will swallow poison to get it.

    My tailor has some years on her, she says I am the only client she has who's shaped as men were shaped when she picked up the needle. And I'm not so thin anymore.

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    1. Almost never eat processed food, partly because of corn syrup also because so much processed food has processed dead animal ingredients.

      Probably one of the reasons I am a bit of a scrawn.

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  20. Yep, I was also "lucky" in the sense that I was home schooled, so growing up I never dealt with the pressure that a lot of the girls in middle school face over body image issues, etc. My mom was really good about encouraging a balanced diet, so I just focused on my hobbies and interests and ate what I wanted. Consequently, my weight was always within range for what it should have been for my age, and it wasn't until I hit my 20s that was hit with the understanding of how much attention and concern OTHER people paid over my weight!

    I learned that girls who I hardly knew would comment to others that I really should consider losing 20lbs so I could go from a size 8 to a size 2. I would have men casually comment on whether or not I was "planning on reducing" and would later hear that people would talk behind my back about "How pretty M is, if only she would drop a few pounds." You couldn't go anywhere in a social environment without the subject of appearance, style, body image etc. being raised. So, I guess you could say that all of this planted the seeds of insecurity where they hadn't been before.

    Given these experiences, I can certainly see why women develop issues with food over these things. It's unnerving to know that people are constantly assessing you, watching what you eat, how you look and commenting if they notice a change. Beauty is now linked to "results" and if you aren't able to point to a number on the scale, you're out of luck.

    On a more humerous note, I actually had a male colleague tell me that I should cut down on the cycling as it could have the adverse effect of making my posterior LARGER!

    Say it isn't so! :)

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  21. You know, for years my closest friends have been about evenly split between women and men, maybe even skewed slightly female, and for all the time we've spent talking about food/cooking/eating/cycling etc. no one ever managed to break this down this well.

    The only group in my circle who seem to be pretty free of this misery are the Old Order Mennonites and Amish. I don't want to hold that population up as the ultimate example of "How Things Ought To Be Done" for a bunch of reasons, but their intentional disengagement from predatory media/marketing serves them well in this regard. My Amish relatives tend to be more likely to describe their wives as beautiful than my friends who's wives/partners strive to more closely fit the stencil. And while people who farm that way and don't use cars may often weigh less than the rest of us, they still present the same body types, respond to childbirth the same way and want to remain attractive to their mates like the rest of the world.

    My wife is such a beautiful woman, really has her brain turned on and is pretty resistant to all sorts of bullshit but she fights this battle everyday. She works hard to stay in shape and is absolutely fitter than I, but the ways in which she gauges her fitness seem a little removed from what might be healthiest. To the degree that the male half of the population is responsible for this weirdness with how we control so much of the way certain expectations are forced on girls and women, than we can't complain if it's starting to devour us as well. It's cool to read all the ways in which the women of the world manage to free themselves from some of this.

    It's weird, the women I've known throughout my life have led me to the belief that the average woman is a little brighter and a little more emotionally mature than the average man, but they still seem to have to carry this particular burden around. I wish you didn't have to...

    Spindizzy

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  22. When I returned to full time study as a mature age student, one of my female professors told me that some young girls break down in their final year of study due to the high level of pressure to maintain high standards of academic performance and to look perfect too. This was in law school where it is highly competitive and I am sure that the pressure of high levels of achievement to succeed contributed to this happening.

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    1. That's funny, because my subjective experience with that was that many students (men and women alike) actually struggled with weight gain because the demanding schedule and odd hours meant that oftentimes dieting rigor would be sacrificed to maintain the schedule. In other words, grabbing pizza was easier than cooking a healthy dinner. I'm sure the added stress didn't help matters either.

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    2. No doubt it is the exception rather than the rule, but it must have been enough of a trend for her to make that comment.

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  23. 'Of the young women she'd recruited though a randomised process, all but one showed signs of disordered eating'

    If nearly everyone shows signs of disordered behaviour then surely it can be classified as normal behaviour.

    I get bored by people claiming to be victims.

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    1. Just because something is normative for a group of people (women in this case) doesn't mean that it is trivial.

      If this were a disease with a precise and well-understood origin, such as a virus, no one would try to argue that the causes and symptoms are "boring" because "everyone shows signs."

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    2. there is a difference between "claiming to be a victim" and sharing ones experience of being alive. I get bored by people who reject others for being open about feelings they haven't had the courage to deal with in themselves.

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  24. This is spot-on with my experience growing up. The dismissive comments from a few sadden me and I appreciate those who responded diplomatically. Anonymous, you rock.

    If having something occur frequently makes it "boring" then we should get bored by drivers hitting people on bikes because there are more drivers than bikers. Someone who rides bikes might appreciate the enormous illogic of saying that a lot of people doing something makes it "right". Instead we can see this as a norm that could be shifted, and stories like this one can help that shift.

    One of the incredibly freeing things about riding a bike is the way it can increase body confidence and a sense of one's own strength and capability regardless of whether one fits a particular air-brushed "norm" (which has been created for us through the artificial means that Annalisa captured so well).

    A recent guest post on my blog became the most-shared thing ever (which the social sharing counters don't show, unfortunately, because we changed servers after it had been up a while). I think it's the title: Fat Girl on a Bike. http://bikestylespokane.com/2012/05/08/fat-girl-on-a-bike/

    I still look in my mirror and see what's "wrong" with me. I can sometimes switch the flip and understand that the mirror is distorted in my head but that takes an effort, and I was never bulemic or anorexic so I can only imagine how much harder that switch could be to move. I still categorize foods as "good" or "bad" as if I'm judging myself as moral or immoral--apple or apple pie? Thanks, Seventeen magazine.

    Outstanding post.

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  25. I agree. Outstanding post.
    For years I was a gymnast, which is more than exacting in both physical requirement and standards of appearance. That impossible diffcultity of feeling normal growth betray you, I could never leave that feeling of being too big, too tall; simply wrong physically.
    I love so much that I know almost nothing of how I look cycling, just me and my muscles, the bike and the air around. That I feel free and functional, and that feels perfect.

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  26. This very much mirrors my own experience -- and the other thing that's really disturbing is that as a young woman, I've learned how I'm "supposed" to eat to maintain my weight, but I have far less of an idea of how to eat to support more intense physical activity. Instinct seems like a good place to start, but it worries me that it's easier to find information on how to eat like a girl than how to eat like an athlete.

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  27. Why is it that every time you post about something that IS gender-related (by and large, men's body issues are different from women's, and no it's not as pervasive, sorry guys), dudes have to come busting in and offer up a "me too!!!" God forbid women talk about something woman-related amongst themselves.

    I grew up with a mom with an eating disorder, so in some ways I have kind of a reversal of this. I've always been super, SUPER aggressive about not caring what I eat or weigh to the point of being neurotic in the other direction, and instinctively distrusting any situation where I might have to care about these things. I gave up running when I realized how obsessed most runners are about their weight/food intake. I doubt I could deal with an organized cycling club. Partially this attempt to divorce myself from diet culture is political but also, I don't want to fall into the same trap my mom does. To some extent I've always thought of food as fuel but when I was more sedentary it was hard to make the connection. Now I link it much more strongly, it's good to actually feel hungry when it's time to eat.

    What's really sad is, I feel like my extreme "riot not diet" attitude sometimes distances me from other women. Why can't a group of women get together and talk without the conversation inevitably turning to food/weight? Full disclosure: I have an "average" figure (I loathe that term but it's important here), and I STILL get looks when I bring fast food, cookies, etc into the office, and women saying "oh, I could never eat that, I'd blow up like a balloon!" And there's just no socially appropriate response to that which doesn't betray my feminist principles. Which is why I usually eat alone. I don't think men react to someone eating something "bad" for them with a five-minute conversation about their diet and fitness "plan." And I've never had a man comment on anything I eat, ever (although I probably would have if I were heavy, this is thin/average size privilege).

    Man, sorry for going on forever! This is just a topic that really grinds my gears.

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    1. I really like the "Riot, not Diet" thing.

      Whenever I hear my daughters talking about how their bodies are imperfect I wish I could inocculate them from this pervasive, destructive way that the takers try to control them. They're only 14 and 11 and have the energy and power of a couple of freakin Border Collies. They ride horses, race Mountainbikes, run like wolves and would rather read a book than eat a snickers. What the hell is wrong with that? But somehow the idiots that think they should aspire to be swimsuit models have managed to poisen the well already.

      Bastards.

      Spindizzy

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  28. Waves hand!! I qualify for normal. I grew up on a farm, am just shy of 40. I ate what we had available, which was mostly what was grown in the garden. I grew up without a TV. This might explain why I've ended up friends with men more than women. I could never relate to what they would talk about for hours on end, clothes, style, food. I eat what I want, when I want. I might be 5 or 10 pounds over the "ideal" for my height, but I also am fairly active gardening, hauling stuff, biking. I always listened and tried to be supportive but the responses were "well you never have a problem so you don't understand"

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  29. This description fits me too well. Although sometimes I worry myself a bit and wonder if I have an undiagnosed eating disorder or if I'm just watching what I eat, then other times i think, "oh no this can't be normal, i can't be this precise about food forever, no one can" and other times i think, "if i'm not at least a bit strict on my intake i'll end up like the obese percentage of America when I'm older!" I'm on a quest for a balance between the two sides.

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  30. That's interesting. I would have thought cycling would have exacerbated the disconnect (by forcing the focus onto calorie intake vs. usage), but I'm glad to learn it does the opposite.

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  31. On the whole this has been a great discussion. The post was a real eye opener for me. Keep on cycling and thanks so much to everyone who participated.

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