The first time I was shamed in public for eating, I was 8 and at a family reunion barbecue in a park. After a long day of playing with the other kids, I ran to the table, eager to see what dishes my cousins had brought, and helped myself to a healthy heaping of arroz con pollo.
As the fork was about to touch my lips, I heard my Abuelita behind me yelling, “Who taught you how to eat like that? Eating like that will get you fat and no one wants that.” I turned to see my plus-size mother hiding her own shame behind me, but she said nothing.
Fast-forward to the age of 11. I’m in a bathroom stall with my lunch tray, hovering my knees above the toilet to perfectly balance my meal of 2% milk, carrots and chicken nuggets. My heart is pounding as I keep my ears open to make sure no one walks in. I’m frantic as I put each of the five pieces of chicken into my mouth as quickly as possible. If they don’t see me eating the “unhealthy food,” it doesn’t really count.
From a young age, I felt the eyes around me always looking at my larger body and making it impossible to eat a meal without fear of judgment. For many years I carried that shame with me, and eating any food when someone else was present became a difficult task.
When I saw a recent article in The Daily Mail shaming Tess Holliday simply for eating an ice cream bar at Disney World, my immediate thoughts were, “Oh wow, it must have been a slow news day.” I wasn’t surprised to see a picture depicting a fat woman eating in a negative light. Anyone who exists in a marginalized body knows that the vultures are just looking for anything to use to get their message across, or better yet to sell another subscription.
As Holliday points out in her Instagram caption, she walked miles at the theme park and had a joyful day with her family, but the paper chose to publish photos of her only in the moments when she was eating food.
It’s amazing that we live in a society that can take a supermodel simply nourishing herself and turn it into a discussion of personal health and wellness. But creating an increase of body shaming, dysmorphia around food, and fatphobia is a billion-dollar business, and honey, business is booming
I didn’t realize I had developed an eating disorder until the age of 25. I was so accustomed to a life that revolved around trying the newest fad diet that I thought that was how everyone lived. My best friend at the time was My Fitness Pal; my boyfriend was anything I could eat that was less than 200 calories. I was on the diet culture circuit looking for anything that might give me my No. 1 wish: to become smaller.
My heart would fill with joy every time I ate a salad at a cafe, checking every minute to see if anyone was watching the fat girl “get healthy.” My shame knew no bounds as I secretly ate a McDonald’s burger from the safety of my car and away from those prying eyes.
Today I’m a vocal fat influencer and content creator with a large social media presence, and after years of struggling can say I’m not only in a happy place within my body but proudly a diet culture dropout.
A few years ago, I posted a photo of myself on Instagram in bright, colorful clothing eating a cheeseburger from a local restaurant. To put it frankly, I look absolutely adorable in this photo and I’m also eating something that can be deemed quote-unquote unhealthy.
I did not inherently think of the impact it would have. I just looked at the photo and thought how good the food looked. This was during the early days of Instagram, when everyone was sharing their plates. I simply happened to include myself in the photo.
In retrospect, that photo was a clear example of a turning point within my own body dysmorphia and relationship with food. I was showing myself to the world not only eating, but eating something that I would have hidden away at a younger age. This was me telling the world that not only was I going to eat food that nourishes my body and makes me happy, but also I was done living in shame.
The message hit home, and I was flooded with thank yous from people in my community praising me for the photo.
At the time, I didn’t think of it as a revolutionary act. But it was. I was a fat woman not only sharing herself consuming food, but also showing the joy behind the plate ― the joy of eating and eating well.
From that first photo, I was inspired to continue sharing my personal food adventures while also including my love of fashion and travel.
To put it bluntly, the industry is still pretty fatphobic. I’ve struggled to gain any recognition for my work in the food industry, because we simply aren’t what they want or are looking for. I don’t see many fat bodies on the feeds of Michelin-starred restaurants, on the covers of Bon Appetit, or being asked to create food content for the masses to enjoy.
But years later, my food content and imagery is what brings me the most joy, and it leads to what I look forward to most: a direct message from someone who struggles within diet culture telling me that my content has had a positive impact on their lives.
Unlearning diet culture is not an overnight task. You have to actively want to seek change, and also have the awareness to see when something or someone is actually good for you versus just trying to sell you something.
If you’re not personally out of toxic diet culture I’m here to tell you that’s OK. My journey was not a linear one and it personally took years of unlearning, therapy, and exiting a diet-positive household to finally come close to being OK with myself and my body, and to enjoy food to its fullest.
Nourishing your body and enjoying food is one of the simplest and also most decadent experiences you can have as a human being. Food is how we cultivate relationships, create experiences, and connect with one another. It is a necessity to survive: All of us, fat or thin, need to eat, right?
Anyone who exists in a fat body has a horror story about a time they were simply trying to enjoy food in public. This is why fighting the stigma and advocating to allow fat people to enjoy everyday pleasures is so important. This is why advocating for increased representation of larger bodies within the food industry would help banish the biases we live with everyday.
A few years ago, I wouldn’t have thought that creating work that centered on my body and pleasure and food would be the pinnacle of my career and my success but here we are.
Creating content that also inspires others to live more openly and outwardly is the greatest joy of my life, and if simply looking glamorous while eating a variety of food allows others to feel more comfortable with themselves, then it is my duty and honor to continue to do so. I hope it inspires you to not only eat, but eat well.
You can follow Megan Ixim on Instagram.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.