It's the last day of February and as the month in which we celebrate love and friendship comes to an end, I'd like to draw attention the importance of self-love.
The practice of loving oneself requires courage, confidence, patience, forgiveness, strength, and a positive mindset. At times, when people feel most down or emotionally unstable, they turn to food - maybe not even knowingly so.
International No Junk Food Day celebrates healthy foods and healthy eating. Yet, I only recently understood that the crux of my own personal battle with my fitness goals consisted in defining what foods were "healthy". Were granola bars "healthy"? Whole wheat bread? Homemade pizza (like the one featured above)? How about key-lime flavored yogurt? Surely heavy desserts (cake, brownies, etc.) were unhealthy, but what about all those other products I ate that claimed to be "healthy"? I thought they were, and I was wrong. I also thought that someone my frame and size needed to eat a 2000 calorie diet. I was wrong about that too.
As a Hispanic/Latina, in my family, food is at the heart of everything -- celebrations, sorrows, chit-chats, and quick visits. Everyone wants to feed you and you are pressured into eating it all! In the last few years, I have learned that there is great value to loving yourself, and that includes feeding yourself the right foods; honoring your own limits; and creating your own personal balance - whatever that means for your body, heart, and energy. All of that includes turning down food - no matter what people may think. It sounds selfish but the self is at the root of self-love and it isn't a bad thing - it's actually a very good and important thing.
I recently found a note I wrote to myself. I believe I was approximately 22 years old - still in collage. In the note I express frustration over the fact that I haven't reached the weight/fitness goals I had set for myself all my life up until that point. I gave myself a now or never type of ultimatum. I decided to carry the note with me everywhere I went so that I could be reminded of who I wanted to become, what I wanted to be, and how I wanted to feel in my own skin. The note is torn and weathered, but when I rediscovered it, I realized that it had become a big part of me - a part that I would never forget.
Vilma at 22 loved life, but she was also frustrated at the fact that she was failing at losing weight and becoming more fit. She was hard on herself - expected more and better. Little did she know at the time, though, that she had the drive, motivation and commitment she needed -- all that she really lacked was knowledge about food.
After finding the note, I decided to write a letter to Michelle Obama.
Below you will find the heart-felt message I wrote to myself years ago. The message still prompts uncomfortable memories, but I share it because I know others can relate to that 22 year-old me and I want them to know they are not alone. I also include the message I wrote to Mrs. Obama about i-NJFD on February 15, 2016, and the response I received from the White House on February 29, 2016.
It's a lot for content for one blog post, I know - but tomorrow is March 1, which marks the first day of the month in which we celebrate International No Junk Food Day!
Chef José Andrés is celebrating the day at his Beefsteak Veggies Restaurant in DC - let's hope other big names get on board. Fundraising for a cause is in order!
But just remember: The love of others stems from the love of one's self first.
A Letter of My Own
Here goes - one of the last resorts I'll be taking in order to get me where I wanna be. I know why I got like this, what I don't know is why I still AM like this. But, well, I'm doing this in order to try and ensure that I don't continue BEING this in the future - and I guess that at this point that's all that really matters. One thing I must definitely keep in mind is that I've had many accomplishments in the past. Perhaps not all the way up to the standards I set - but they're good enough. I must remember that this is just like any one of those things - it requires PATIENCE, HARD WORK and plenty of will power not to "give in." Results then are certain.
Reasons: I want to feel lighter and more confident, I want to look my best, I want to look at a picture and say "That's Me!" rather than "that's me?", I want to look good in my clothes, I want to buy small sizes and fit into anything, I want to get rid of and if not avoid getting anymore yucky marks on my body . . . I want to be healthy and athletic. I don't want my own weight to weigh me down, I want to be muscular and strong and competitive even. I want to feel good about myself and get into the habit of being in shape, trim, lean, muscular and powerful! I want to know what it's like to be liked by other good looking people and know what it's like to not be embarrassed at having to go to the beach or do varying activities. I want my body to give me the liberty and confidence I lack to do whatever I please because I know I am aesthetically pleasing. I want to love myself and be proud of myself for having accomplished my goal and for becoming the person I long to be. In all my dreams I picture myself thin. I want those dreams to come true and to lead the life I wish for - but if to do that I have to look differently - then it's something I must do - NOW!
The note expresses a fitness dream deferred. Reading it now, I realize that the experience taught me something even more important than what it takes to accomplish a fitness goal. Four years ago I learned that my frustrated inability to lose weight stemmed from my own ignorance about food and not lack of competence, will, or dedication. I didn't realize that sugar-loaded yogurts were turned quickly into fat whereas full vegetables took much longer to break down. Armed with that information, I made different choices. And the foods I chose to eat yielded awesome results - as referenced in my letter to Mrs. Obama. When I commit to eating no junk food, I feel little to no desire to participate in eating the pizza, chips, popcorn and wine. The focus of the day is eating no junk food. After all, tomorrow is NJFD Tuesday!
A Letter to Mrs. Obama
February 15, 2016
Mrs. Michelle Obama
First Lady of the United States
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W.
Washington, DC 20500
VIA CERTIFIED U.S. MAIL AND EMAIL
Dear Mrs. Obama:
You have built impressive awareness on food and exercise through your “Let’s Move!” campaign. By arming people with information about the benefits of healthier living, you have changed and saved lives. The mission is as extraordinary, as it is important. Extraordinary, because having a meaningful discussion about what we eat on a national platform is difficult. Important because, through this initiative, you have touched the lives of children and families who now exercise more and eat healthier. I admire your commitment to this cause.
Last year, I asked my friends, family, and anyone who would listen, to celebrate International No Junk Food Day (NJFD) or, in Spanish, el Día Internacional de Comida Chatarra, on March 30. I started NJFD to create healthy eating awareness on a bilingual platform. My goal is to celebrate healthy eating, with no judgment or guilt about food. NJFD is sensitive to personal food preferences, cultural traditions, financial means, and time constraints. All barriers to healthy eating come down on NJFD. Participants are free to define what is healthy (or healthier) to them, and every effort made is celebrated.
I write to ask that you please become an Ambassador of NJFD. To explain why I am asking for your support, I’d like to first share with you a little bit about me.
Becoming Food Aware
As a child and adult, I wanted to lose weight, but always struggled, not knowing why. I recently rediscovered a letter I wrote to myself in college (see www.nojunkfoodday.com/blog). In it, I wondered why, after so many years, I wasn’t the fitter person I wanted to be. I start my internal monologue in a defeated tone: “Well, here goes – one of the last resorts I’ll be taking in order to get me where I wanna be.” To pick myself up, I next wrote: “One thing I must definitely keep in mind is that I’ve had many accomplishments in the past. […] I must remember that this is just like any one of those things – it requires PATIENCE, HARD WORK, and plenty of will power to not ‘give in’. Results are then certain.”
Even at 22, I struggled with feeling insecure because of my weight, and over imperfections on my body. Most surprising and heartbreaking to me now is a reference in the letter about being “liked” by “good looking” people. I didn’t actually care about that in college. Looking back it’s clear that, for purposes of this harsh note, I harnessed inner child/teen experiences in which I felt afraid, embarrassed, insecure, or not “cool” for lack of confidence. I firmly gave myself a now or never ultimatum, by concluding: “In all my dreams I picture myself thin and I want those dreams to come true and to lead the life I wish for – but if to do that I have to look differently – then it’s something I must do – NOW!” I said all of this knowing I felt very happy at the time of the writing. But I was also frustrated, and young.
A lot of emotion is packed into that private letter. Despite all the years that have passed since, sharing it makes me feel vulnerable. I welcome the discomfort now, though, because I know that many children and adults identify with what I wrote. It pains me to think that, when it comes to body image and food, some people feel as I did at the start of my note: defeated. My relationship with food fortuitously evolved and, in the process, I learned that nothing wonderful in life depends on how much I weigh. The decade following my poignant letter to me was full of adventure: I swam in several oceans, fell in love, and created memories that were more wonderful than any I had ever imagined. I enjoyed all of these things, not because of the number on a scale; rather, I was happy and loved ME. Yet, I had a life goal, and I was angry at how unattainable it seemed. But I didn’t lack motivation, desire, commitment or will power, as the note would lead me to believe. Instead, what I needed was knowledge about food.
Four years ago today, I attended a health/nutrition luncheon in Chicago. I learned that our bodies process different types of foods differently. I began to understand how critical it is for us to get the nutrients we need from fresh, whole foods. The event sparked an interest in nutrition in me that led me to ask questions, read books, and eliminate processed foods from my daily diet. I lost over 30 pounds in that first year, and have kept them off since. More importantly, however, food became less about superficial looks and more about how I felt. I started paying attention to how the nutrients in the food would best serve my thinking brain, breathing skin, and moving body. I now know that the more fiber, vegetables, proteins, and healthy fats that I eat, the more full I will feel. I learned to gauge what amounts of less healthy food is right for me. The knowledge empowered me to change my eating habits, which changed my life. I also started thinking about food in the context of my own Latino upbringing. When it comes to learning how to balance food in life, Information is Power. Even if just as a hobby, I wanted to talk about healthy eating on a bilingual platform. The question for me was, how?
A Call to Action
I served as volunteer at the Partnership for American conference in Washington, D.C. on February 26, 2015. It was an honor for me to shake your hand. Your speech about the progress the “Let’s Move!” program has made truly inspired me. At the time, I didn’t realize all that your words would move me to do.
On March 3, 2015, while on a walk at lunchtime, I thought: What if for 1 day, no one ate foods that are high in added sugar, salt and fat? What a statement that would make! I envisioned a true celebration of healthy foods that are fresh and sustainably grown. My passions for food and cultures from around the world organically blended together that day to declare March 30 Int’l NJFD. I searched online for a similar concept, and found National Junk Food Day (July 21). Alarmed, I felt called to immediate action.
In under one month, I created social media platforms, and built a website. A friend of mine who teaches in a bilingual school taught a bilingual lesson on NJFD to her third-graders, and they loved it. They became NJFD Ambassadors in their school, and drew posters to promote healthy eating. I was impressed by the kids’ commitment to the cause! Celebrity Chef José Andrés encouraged his followers to eat healthy for NJFD on Twitter. On March 30, NJFD-ers went to Farragut Square at lunchtime to hand out free bananas and mini-flyers about NJFD. Last summer, NJFD Ambassadors also photographed 60 plus days of meals that contained minimal to no added sugar to promote diabetes awareness in honor of lost loved ones.
Healthy habits start with one day, and any effort made is worth celebrating. My journey started on February 15, 2012, in an unlikely place: the 61st floor of the Willis Tower. I am a lawyer with limited bandwidth because my work has nothing to do with food. My family and friends have been great pillars of support with every NJFD “like” or personal story that they share about healthy eating and food. Their enthusiasm for this cause energizes me.
I am determined to grow this event from last year, and have made some great progress. Chef José Andrés, on Twitter, has already agreed to celebrate March 30 at his Beefsteak Veggies Restaurant. Now that NJFD is in its second year, I want to see more people step out of their food comfort zones and push boundaries by trying a new dish, fruit or vegetable. The best part about NJFD is there are many ways to celebrate: make a home-cooked meal, eat mindfully as a family, drink more water, or simply eat/buy no (or less) “junk food”. A snapshot of that effort, tagged #nojunkfood1day, creates a community by prompting others to do the same.
As First Lady, you have set a strong example and encouraged people to make healthier food choices for eight years. I believe in the positive campaign you built around eating whole foods and drinking water, and your speech influenced me to build NJFD. I believe that a partnership between “Let’s Move!” and Int’l NJFD would make a perfect fit. To that end, I am formally asking you to please support Int’l NJFD this year as an NJFD Ambassador or participant.
I hope you join me in celebrating vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, and a great variety of healthy proteins for 1 day. I include a few additional suggestions that would be helpful here: (1) Name March 30 National No Junk Food Day and encourage people to celebrate it on March 30; (2) Spread the word about NJFD through press releases and on your social media platforms; (3) Encourage schools to teach a lesson about all the benefits of eating healthy foods on March 30 (or any 1 day); (4) Plan a “Let’s Move!” activity or fundraiser around healthy eating on March 30 (or thereabouts); (5) Share information about NJFD on the White House Garden’s blog and facebook page, or allow NJFD be a guest contributor; (6) Join me and Chef José Andrés at Beefsteak in Washington, D.C. to celebrate vegetables and healthy eating on NJFD; or (7) Any other ideas that create healthy eating awareness are welcome.
Thank you for all you do to create healthy eating awareness. If you have questions about NJFD, please contact me at email@example.com or (202) 697-6885. I hope to work with you, if not this year, then in the future. I’m looking forward to many NJFDs, so please know that you are welcome any time!
Vilma T. Arce Stark
A Response to My Letter
My letter to FLOTUS was delivered on February 24, 2016.
Today, I received the following response:
Let's Move! Mrs. Obama to promote March 30, the Second Annual Int'l No Junk Food Day! #FirstLadyNJFD @FLOTUS