There are two wolves inside me. One is a feminist. The other wants to be thin and beautiful | Body image

There are two wolves inside me. One is a feminist. The other wants to be thin and beautiful. I am so tired of being caught between them.

When I’m eating healthily, I feel good about my body; I can wear the clothes I love, I feel confident and attractive. But I dream of burgers and pizza, of baking cupcakes, whole milk and soft white bread fresh and warm from the oven, slathered in melting butter. And I feel guilty for being so pathetic as to deprive myself of these joys in the name of looking acceptable to a shallow, misogynist society.

When I allow myself these things, however, I cannot silence my inner critic that feels horrified to the point of dysmorphia at what happens to my body when I eat what I want and as much as I want.

How can I reconcile these two incredibly powerful forces, or at least pick a side? I don’t feel like I can even talk about this without feeling like a terrible feminist and being offered some platitude about “intuitive eating” or “all bodies are beautiful” – concepts I understand and wholeheartedly believe in, but can’t seem to apply to myself. Can you offer any advice at all to bring a ceasefire to the war I’ve been waging on my own body for my whole life?

Eleanor says: If you weren’t looking very hard, it’d be easy to think we’re close to solving how we think about bodies or the moral weight we make them bear. The preteen girls I’ve taught recently are deft with the concepts of fatphobia and internalised misogyny. Makeup ads show vitiligo, acne, monobrows, gap teeth; underwear ads feature bodies of all shapes and sizes and abilities. This is the “awareness” the “Dove Real Beauty” generation was taught to claim as victory.

But, like you, I’ve often been left wondering how to connect all this awareness to what I actually feel. I read a truism by Holly Lewis recently that’s been ringing in my ears ever since: “You have to actually change it to change it.” A lot of what we’ve done around bodies is just awareness.

The unlearning of misogyny or thin-worship is a different step, a black box: we’re supposed to go in one side ignorant and lacquered and come out the other liberated and unselfconscious, but no one can quite tell me how. Worse, liberated unselfconsciousness is now being sold as its own kind of beauty. We got as far as recognising that there are all kinds of beauty, but not quite as far as dethroning beauty as a goal.

I think the wolves might hush a little if you can stop seeing them as proof that you’ve failed. You didn’t create them on your own, and you won’t be able to muzzle them alone either. The forces that tell you to be thin and pretty don’t respond to argument or reason – they’re massive aggregated systems of punishments and rewards, and as long as they exist, it’s too much to ask that they’ll never appear inside your head.

Self-loathing isn’t something to feel guilty about, it’s just evidence that a lot of money and effort went into trying to make you feel this way. If you can see those thoughts as things that have been caused in you – rather than as things you’re causing – it might be easier to let them float by.

Try, too, to give yourself a relationship to your body that isn’t about how it looks. If you can’t talk yourself into “all bodies are beautiful”, try to get away from beauty as a metric entirely. Movement or combat or stretching or dance all give you a chance to marvel at the sheer mechanics of your body. It’s hard to be critical of it when you’re discovering what it’s capable of.

Finally, if the promise of happiness always seems to be connected to food – either its abundance or its absence – or if you feel more purpose and energy thinking about food than your relationships or your future – consider that you might have a way of understanding food or weight that it would be useful to have professional help unpicking.

I think many women have those two wolves howling in their heads. You can beat them, we all can, but not by thinking alone, and not by thinking – alone.

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