This is the partial transcript of my interview with Michelle Vina-Baltsas, Diet Recovery Coach. A YouTube video of the whole interview will be available soon!
Michelle is a Board Certified Holistic Health Coach who specializes in diet recovery. In this interview, she breaks down the complexities of body image, how to start improving it and where intuitive eating fits in the process.
Talia: What was your experience with dieting and how did you find intuitive eating?
Michelle: I, like many other people who get into this industry, suffered for a very long time. It was a torturous life dieting my whole life away. I tried every diet under the sun, and Weight Watchers at least fifteen times. I put a lot of money and energy toward the pursuit of weight loss thinking that would make me enough. My relationship with my body and with food was just upside down, really since age five.
I remember restricting and binging at a young age. Finally at one point while searching for another diet book on Amazon, a book called Intuitive Eating by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch came up and I said, why not? I had tried everything else. What the hell? So I got the book and realized I was tired of trying harder. I needed to try something different. It didn’t happen overnight because decades of developing this relationship with food, your body and exercise doesn’t undo itself. You have to unlearn all of those behaviors and it takes time.
It was an investment. What I always tell my clients is, I was at the bottom of the barrel. At that point, I had a family and realized I needed to open up my brain so that I can focus on raising my child, enjoying my life, and not worry about every bite I’m putting in my mouth and what my body looks like. I wish it had come a little earlier in my life. But the truth is that it came, and that’s really all I care about at this point.
How would you define a healthy, or at least positive, body image?
Michelle: It’s really appreciating the bodies we have no matter what their size, and understanding that we are so much more than just what we look like on the outsides. That includes how much we weigh, what BMI category we’re in, and what size our jeans are. Right? Look at what our bodies are able to do! The BMI category, the jean size, none of that defines us as women.
Most of that is really, I hate to say it, but it’s coming from male dominance, and when you get deeper into it, it really is a lot of oppression. And we have to understand the source of this stuff, and when we start to understand that, everything changes. It’s a complete game-changer.
I know when I started to do that, it was like, oh, ew. I don’t want to think that way anymore because now I see that I’ve just been oppressed for so many years to believe that I had to look a certain way to do XYZ, which is really not true. When we start to educate ourselves more about the source of many of these things, that changes our confidence level, because we see that it’s not our fault that we feel this way about our bodies. The problem is the culture, it’s not the body. It’s the culture that has told us from day one that we’re supposed to look a certain way, and I’ll add we’re supposed to behave a certain way in order to be acceptable. And that’s really not true.
Can you talk about Health At Every Size more? What is it exactly?
Michelle: Health At Every Size, sometimes it’s called HAES is a movement. The founding belief is that when we are focusing more on healthy behaviors and self-care, overall health improves. So metabolic health, which is blood glucose levels, blood pressure, cholesterol, emotional health — all of those good things that we are striving for when we’re on a diet — improve regardless of whether there’s weight loss or not.
This has been researched and documented over and over again.
You hear people say they want to lose weight for their health, and I always cringe when I hear that. In those moments I want to smack someone over the head with the Health At Every Size book in the most loving way.
Talia: I had a follower tell me that when they lost weight, their blood pressure issues became more manageable. When they gained the weight back, their blood pressure was bad again. How does Health At Every Size work if this person, for example, was healthier at a smaller size?
Michelle: I think that’s a great question. One of the things that Dr. Linda Bacon, who wrote Health At Every Size, says that many times when things like that happen, it’s because self-care and the healthy behaviors also changed.
Talia: That makes sense.
Michelle: We know that around 95% of people gain the weight back, with that, often times the self-care behaviors also go out the window. Genetics are also involved with this. There are so many factors that come into play when someone has a chronic condition. So the weight sometimes does make a difference, but it’s usually not the weight. It’s the behaviors that changed.
Talia: When you say behaviors, do you mean better sleep or just being more conscious about what you’re eating, or like what?
Michelle: I think it’s learning to manage stress in a way that is sustainable for you. Sleep is a big one. Being more attuned to eating is important too. It’s having more satisfaction in every area of your life. It’s also being more mindful, which also helps you reduce stress. So there’s a lot of different factors that come into play. It’s not just the weight. But we can’t deny the fact that genetics are often times a piece of what happens when people have chronic conditions. Not always, but often times. But stress is huge.
You have a course to help people work through these issues, and do you work 1:1 with people as well?
Michelle: I do a lot of 1:1 work, and I also have an intuitive eating intro class. I go through all of the principles. For people that have read the book Intuitive Eating or are curious about it, the course really takes you through it on a much deeper level, and you also get support, because I have a Facebook group. This work is not easy to do on your own, and my hat is off to people that can do it on their own, but I chose not to.
I can’t guarantee it, but I think that working with someone definitely sped up my recovery because I had someone to bounce my ideas off of. This process can be really lonely. And this work is very deep, very, very deep. You have to do a lot of unlearning. But it’s worth it. It’s worth every minute. I don’t want to scare people. It’s totally worth every minute.
I think the important thing to mention also, Talia, is that we were all born intuitive eaters.
So really, we’re just going backward kind of in time, because dieting and all of that restriction quieted the intuitive eater inside of us. But she’s in there, you know? And what she just needs sometimes is for someone to ask the right questions, so that she’s like, oh, you mean I’m allowed to choose what I eat and not just base it on calories?
Yes, you are. And people are like, how radical!
What are some of the most common body image issues you see in your work?
Michelle: The biggest one I see all of the time is comparisonitus. There’s no size diversity in a lot of what we see. And people believe they’re going to look like the women they see in workout videos, but their body is not shaped that way. Someone could follow a workout regimen for the rest of their lives and they still may never look a certain way because they’re not supposed to look like that. They’re supposed to look like themselves!
Talia: Where does comparisonitus originate?
Michelle: I think it comes from several different things. Number one, I hate to say it because I’m a parent, but our parents. And let’s not forget the medical community is very, very weight biased. It also comes from social media, and it comes from our cultural upbringing.
I’m Latin, and my mother was from Puerto Rico, and my mother had her own body issues. Rest her soul, but she did. She would see someone who was fat (I use fat as a descriptor, not as an insulting word) and my mother would say “gorda”, which is fat. Like, oh, she let herself go. This is what I heard my entire life until 2010 when my mother passed away. So the cultural beliefs that we walk around with that are imprinted in our brain have a huge impact on the way we feel about bodies.
Talia: Do you feel those can be unlearned or do you have to consciously correct your thinking all of the time?
Michelle: Yes and yes. I think they can be unlearned. None of us are perfect, and I don’t think any of us are completely brainwashed to go the other way because let’s face it, we are exposed to diet culture 24/7.
So we have to do our best to keep our social media newsfeeds clean. Challenge when we start thinking, oh, my body sucks and I want to look like that. And we have to ask ourselves, where is that coming from? What triggered that? What happened today that is causing me to feel inadequate?
It’s never about the body. It’s about something else that triggered us to look at our body because it’s right in front of us.
Can you still have a positive body image and want to work on your physique?
Michelle: I absolutely think you can. The key is to remember is that just because you want to improve doesn’t mean that where you are sucks. This happened to me about a year and a half ago when I started to go to the gym with more frequency. When I really made that commitment to go more often, I said, my goal is not to get in shape or to look a different way. It’s to build my muscle because I want to have good bone density and it’s to have more stamina. So my intention walking in there was not that I want to be cut. It was, my body is awesome the way it is, but it would be really great if I could get up the stairs without huffing and puffing!
Talia: It’s about increasing functionality.
Michelle: Yes, and not thinking that where you are isn’t good enough. Just because we know we’re good enough where we are doesn’t mean we don’t want to improve, you know?
Where does intuitive eating fit in with healing your body image?
Michelle: When we’re focusing on the weight, we really can’t heal. And the reason we can’t heal is that we are not trusting our bodies to find their natural weight on their own. When you go through this process of going from diet living to non-diet living, the body is very likely going to change, and if you’re rejecting that and being like, I can’t gain the weight, you’re not going to heal. You’re not allowing yourself to tune into what your body truly wants because you’re afraid of weight gain. And you can’t heal if you are stuck in that mindset of, “what if I eat a bagel? I’m gonna gain weight?”
Talia: How do you get over weight gain?
Michelle: You get over it slowly and you get over it by doing the body image work. Appreciating your body for what it can do. If you’re someone that says, I want to love my body, I’m like, okay, that’s a great thing to strive for, but why don’t we strive for liking it first? Why don’t we strive for appreciating it for what it can do and respecting it?
The bottom line is, when we like something, we take better care of it. So let’s like it first and let’s think about the love as long-term goal, which is a great goal, but you’re not going to get there in five days.
The sooner we can start thinking about all bodies as good bodies and we all have a place on this Earth, and we’re all worthy, the closer you’ll get to loving it.