On rejecting diet culture and what comes next
Note: this post isn't about divorce. I write and share about my healing process from diet culture on my personal FB page, and on Instagram. I had a lot to say today, so I posted it here.
In April of 2017 I sat on a beach on an island in Mexico and bottomed out on 20 years of compulsive dieting.
Exactly a year earlier I’d shot an infomercial for a fitness machine giant. They’d put us on an extremely restricted diet for 10 weeks and rigorously trained us. I’m not gonna lie, I fucking loved it. I got free food and personal training, and in the end I was almost at my goal weight. (Looking back, I’m horrified that I still thought I had more to lose, but that’s trickery of diet culture.)
A year later, I’d gained back all the weight, and more (because #dietscience), and as I sat on the beach in Mexico comparing myself to every body I saw, I spiraled into the darkest place I’ve ever been, very quickly.
Yes, I compared myself to bodies, that’s not a typo: If her body was skinnier than mine, then she was, by definition, a better human than I was, more worthy of love, money, acceptance, happiness. If her body was larger than mine, then I could feel better about myself — as a human.
My first thought was, “I’m going on another diet when I get home. Gotta get back on track. No carbs, no alcohol, paleo only! This time for real!”
But with a sinking feeling I knew that another diet wasn’t an option and even worse, that I was hitting bottom.
A few months prior a friend had gone into outpatient treatment for her eating disorder. That was the first time I learned that my thinking around all of this was disordered. She talked to me about her experience and process, educating me as she shared, and at one point I blurted out, “Wait a minute. You’re telling me that’s not normal thinking?? You’re in treatment for that?”
And she very gently said, “No honey. That’s not normal. That is the definition of disordered.”
It shocked me to my core and recalibrated everything I thought I knew. Over the next few months I began to peel back layer upon layer of my disordered thinking around food and my body.
And that’s how I knew, sitting on that beach in Mexico, that I couldn't go on another diet. I had no clue what the alternative was, but I knew that I'd yo-yo-ed for so long that another diet/loss was going to lead to another (bigger) gain, and that I could no longer afford to do this to myself. Up and down, up even more and down, up, down, up, down. Over and over and over again.
I wish I could explain what it feels like to bottom out like this. The pain is indescribable. I knew I could no longer do what I’d always done, but had no idea what to do instead. I felt like a rat in a maze. I was panicked. Terrified.
I took a walk along the beach to the tip of the island where the Caribbean meets the Atlantic, where calm, serene, crystal blue water meets the black raging storm of the Atlantic. I stood on the border where the two oceans lap at each other, one foot on either side, and vowed that whatever it took, I would move beyond this. If I had to wade through waters as rough as the raging ocean to my right, I would circle back to the calm clarity of the sea on my left. I’d done this before when I’d entered codependency recovery more than 20 years earlier; I could do this again. This felt bigger, but in my heart I knew it wasn’t.
Mountains always seem insurmountable when staring up from the bottom.
I had no idea what it meant to not diet, and many of the alternatives seemed to be just as restrictive. Diets masquerading as not-diets, but with clear indicators that they were, in fact, just another form of diet. “It’s a lifestyle change!” “You can eat BREAD!” (Just in these small amounts, at these certain times, but don’t eat that, eat this instead, trick your mind, count points, not calories!…)
I heard a lot of talk about body acceptance and I thought that was the biggest fucking joke that had ever been told. I didn’t want to accept my body. What I wanted was for someone to tell me how to lose weight and keep it off without going on a diet. What I really wanted was a quick, magical fix; a cure for rejecting diet culture that didn't make me gain weight.
While this is funny (yes, I see the irony), that's actually what I wanted. Like, no fucking joke.
When I got back from Mexico, I called the treatment facility my friend had gone to. When the executive director accidentally answered the phone, I sobbed and sobbed. I wasn’t bulimic, I wasn’t anorexic, but she confirmed that I had extremely disordered thinking about food and my body and that I needed help. The treatment center was too far from my house, and I couldn’t make it there for any of their outpatient programs, but she promised to call me back the next day with a list of therapists in my area.
She did, and the next week I began to work intensively with a therapist.
My therapist’s first directive to me was to start healing my relationship to food. To begin to believe that there are no "bad foods." Gluten, sugar, CARBS... All the “bad” foods...I had to re-engineer my system to see them as not "bad." And the first step in healing that was to allow myself as much of these foods as I wanted, whenever I wanted.
I remember almost 20 years ago when a dear friend from college first went into treatment for her serious eating disorder that included periods of major bingeing, her therapist had her put glass jars all over her house filled with all the things she could ever want. ALL the "forbidden" foods, in plain sight, in copious amounts. Her kitchen looked like a candy store for at least a year as she recalibrated her brain from scarcity to plenty. If there is plenty available, if no foods are “bad,” there’s no reason to hoard or binge.
My directive was similar.
I bought all the things I binged in secret — or not so secret if you ask anyone who’s seen me attack the frosting you scrape off your piece of birthday cake. The tub of Betty Crocker frosting I hid in my closet with my baby spoon as a child: I bought two and put them right on the kitchen counter with a big spoon balanced on top. The Trader Joe's frozen mac and cheese I allowed myself once every two years: I bought six and piled them in my freezer. And all the pasta. I bought bags of pasta, boxes of cupcakes, stacks of frozen pizza. With sausage AND pepperoni.
This was freedom.
I ate what I wanted, when I wanted.
I ate crap, and didn't judge myself for it because I was healing.
I allowed myself a wide berth, my compassion wells grew, and I allowed myself the experience of plenty.
And then, in a shocking turn of events, I gained weight.
Because it turns out that when my therapist said that the first step was to heal my relationship with food, and that I should eat all the things, she didn't say, "And there'll be no consequences," but in my REALLY twisted brain I'd made up that, indeed, there would be no consequences. I actually thought that I could now eat whatever I wanted, and I wouldn’t gain weight.
Now, I’m a fairly intelligent, educated, highly rational human being who could deduce that eating whatever I wanted, any time I wanted, would have consequences, most likely weight gain. But that’s not the kind of thinking I was doing here. My brain in this arena is so severely damaged by so many years of lies and frankly, abuse, that it just went off on its own little dissociated fantasy for a while. And maybe I didn’t think I wouldn’t gain weight. Maybe I just thought I’d be perfectly fine with gaining weight. I don’t even know. Like I said, dissociated.
But I gained a significant amount of weight. I don’t even know how much weight I gained because my other directive was to throw away all the scales, but I was going up full sizes, which isn’t remotely insignificant (and is really fucking expensive thankyouverymuch. No one tells you that you’ll have to buy an entirely new wardrobe by the way. Thanks for that.)
And when I brought this shocking revelation to my therapist, she nodded and smiled knowingly and say, “Ok….” As if this wasn’t a huge fucking problem.
Because it turns out that the real work I was supposed to be doing was in learning to love my body at any size. The real work was about loving and honoring my body, not because of how it looked, but because it’s my body, and the only one I’ve got. This was supposed to be about “self-love,” which is fucking insane when you’re 20 or 30 or whatever pounds heavier than you were when you first bottomed out on this shit. Like, it doesn’t even fucking make sense. If I couldn’t love it xxx number of pounds ago sitting on that beach, how on God’s greying earth am I supposed to love it now? DUH.
Great. Another layer to peel back. Thanks, onion.
I began frantically researching body positivity. I followed all the #bopo gurus on Instagram. I devoured their messages. I “rah”-ed them up and down, liking and sharing all their posts.
But at the same time I was getting really scared. I began to feel like I had two choices: either kill myself with dieting, or become ok with being a larger-bodied woman. I wasn’t comfortable with either, but I was hard-pressed to find a middle-ground. At least none that anyone could explain to me and that I could see my way to from where I was standing.
And that’s where things got really fucking slippery for me.
Because I have always been small. I wasn’t one of the kids who had a naturally larger body (“big boned” they used to call it). If I’d never dieted in my life, if I’d loved and accepted my body as it was from the beginning, I would likely naturally sit pretty “thin.” But irony of ironies, I’m bigger now because of all the dieting.
Thanks, diet culture.
During this time, as I continued to gain weight at what felt like an alarming rate, I had a desperate compulsion to diet. I had to think the diet all the way through the way an alcoholic is urged to think the drink all the way through when they’re compelled to drink. “What happens when you have the first drink? And then the second? And then what? What’s the logical and predictable outcome of having “just one drink”?” Similarly, I had to think the diet through, and remind myself that “just one more diet” would eventually lead to more weight gain and more misery. That afternoon on the beach would be my life.
So if I refused to diet, but I also refused to embrace fatness, where did that leave me?
(Please note: I'm sharing only from my personal experience. I have no judgements about larger-bodied women, women who embrace their larger bodies, fatness, or body positivity. I'm 100% in favor of all women loving and accepting their bodies, whatever size or shape they may be. I'm even more in favor of living in a society that doesn't make women feel like they have to fight so fucking hard for acceptance. At this point in my journey I was simply looking for a middle-ground that I didn't see covered.)
The other choice on the table was to love myself and my body so much that I chose to honor it by feeding it healthy foods; the foods that it actually craved (not the foods my mind craved after decades of deprivation, but the ones my body craved to nourish and sustain it). But (and here’s where diet culture really gets its claws into you), for the last 20 years or so healthy eating and exercise have been inextricably linked to dieting for me. They are one and the same. So, as I rejected one, I by definition rejected the other.
Which means that every time I looked at being “healthy,” it felt like a fucking diet and I ran for the hills.
For 20+ years, I was either on a program or off the reservation. There was no “health for health’s sake.” There were periods of dieting — Whole30, South Beach, Atkins, Weight Watchers, Master Cleanse, juice cleanses, 8-week fitness programs at my gym with strict dietary components, fitness machine infomercials, months of weighing and measuring and counting — interspersed with periods of eating ALL THE THINGS I’d been “forbidden” until I found the next diet that would help me get “back on track.”
In other words, any time I’d been what any “normal” person (do those exist?) might consider a “healthy eater,” I was on a diet. And if I was now rejecting dieting, I also rejected normal, healthy eating.
This happened with exercise too. When I began to return to the gym that I thought I was no longer welcome at because I was bigger (no one told me that; that’s just what my warped brain truly believed), I was twisted up and confused inside. Was I exercising because I loved it and wanted to be there, or was it because it was a way to change the shape of my body? And as soon as I got a whiff of “If you work harder, and lift heavier weights, you’ll lose weight” I ran away and didn’t go back for 2-3 weeks.
Healthy eating + exercise = dieting. REJECT! REJECT! REJECT!!
After many months of this (really, the better part of the last year), I finally began to come to terms with the fact that I’d have to separate “healthy” from “diet” and learn to listen to my body. I had to relearn what types of food and movement my body really wanted, separate from all the noise and programming.
The trouble with this is that dieting (especially long-term compulsive dieting) strips you of your ability to listen to your body and even begin to know what it wants or craves. When you’re on a program that tells you what you have to eat, when, and how much, you stop listening to your own internal cues. When you’re hungry (which you will be when you’re on a calorie restricted diet), and you don’t feed your body, you learn to suppress and ignore important hunger cues. When you’re only allowed to eat a certain amount of pre-portioned food, you don’t learn your body’s natural fullness cues (and you might never even be clinically sated).
So I began by asking myself at each meal what my body wants in this moment. And once I got through the noise, which took a few months, the answers became a lot clearer — and surprisingly healthy. And since I’ve worked to strip the connective tissue between health and diet, I’m able to accept these answers as actual truth. They no longer confuse the fuck out of me.
The building blocks of my loooooong process have started to clarify and manifest as healing.
For example, now that I know that I can have a cupcake for breakfast if I want it, I find that don’t actually want a cupcake for breakfast. Now that I know I can have pasta whenever I want it, I have it a couple of times a month (or whenever), and shockingly, don’t eat so much of it that I spend the rest of the evening wondering if I’ll ever recover from the pain of overeating. So that process of allowing myself to eat all the foods actually seems to have been for something after all...
As I learn what my body wants, I’m able to plan and shop accordingly. I’ve learned that a green smoothie before I exercise is more effective than eggs, which give me heartburn. I’ve learned that my body rejects cow’s milk in all forms except Greek yogurt. I still eat cheese if I’m out and make that choice, but I know I’ll be in for a really uncomfortable gassy night, so don’t choose to have it at home. I know that I can drink vodka without much of a hangover, but that when I drink wine (and I still do) I’ll be in for a day of depression. I know that bread makes me foggy and irritable, and sometimes depressed, so I just don’t eat it, unless I’m at my friend Lisa’s house and she makes a pan of these amazing frozen rolls, in which case it’s on like Donkey-Kong.
The miracle for me is that these are now choices, not restrictions. There are no rules, simply knowledge informed by listening to my body, and choices to be made in each moment.
I’m back at the gym on a regular basis, 3-4 times a week, and I’ve regained my strength, which I’d lost as I gained weight and rejected the exercise I really do love so much. There are days I don’t feel like going, so I don’t. And then the next day, I do.
And here’s the weirdest part: I haven’t gone down in size. I may be losing weight, but I wouldn’t know because I don’t weigh myself. I’m still slowly replacing my wardrobe with larger pieces, but I don’t hate myself the way that I did when I began this journey. I’m now a full 3 sizes larger than I was when I sat on that beach in Mexico, and feel at least 3 times more comfortable in my own body than I did back then. I bought shorts this week. I even wore them to a party. In public.
I know I’m not done with this process. I know there’s more to come, and that I will likely struggle with disordered thinking about food and my body for the rest of my life, but I have turned a significant corner and finally, after over a year, finally I can see some light in this dark tunnel.
In September I’m going back to Mexico. I don’t know where I’ll be in my journey, but I do know that I’m going to put my whole body into the Caribbean and that I’m going to float there and offer up immense gratitude.
I am not a professional in this area. I am only sharing my experiences as I go through them because people have told me it's helpful to them. Please do not take anything I've written here as a guide for your own journey or process. If you feel you have an eating disorder, or a disordered relationship to food and your body, please seek professional help from a licensed therapist or certified coach.