What Diets Taught Me

[TW: Eating Disorders, Diets, Body Hate]

I think I was 9 when I went on a diet for the first time. If I’m honest, I don’t think I can remember a time before I knew I was fat and that fat was one of the worst things you could be. I can remember the DJs on the radio station my Mom listened to in the car hawking diet pills, and my Mom eventually buying some of them. I remember that in my mind, being allowed to eat full fat pudding and drink juice or regular soda meant that you were somehow better. I think I still know what all the artificial sweeteners popular before about 2008 taste like. I remember South Beach and Atkins and several instances of Weight Watchers. Slim Fast and Smart Ones and that Curves diet with the really gross protein shakes and something called ShapeUp. All of those before I even got out of High School. I remember presents offered if I could “just lose 10-20 lbs” and dance costumes “earned” by means of countless sit-ups. I remember the first time I tried to make myself throw up, and the last. And the time when I involuntarily vomited on a salad because I hadn’t eaten in a couple of days but had taken adderall.

This is not a means of placing blame. This is not to garner sympathy. I grew up in a culture that did this. Does this.

I want to tell you what I learned.

I learned that my body was not to be trusted. In fact, bodies in general were suspect. Dieting culture requires that you become as divorced from your body as possible. Over years of life you’re told from all angles all of the ways in which you and people with bodies like yours are wrong. A carefully crafted series of images is pumped through all the media you ever touch, it tells you that to be beautiful – to be loved, to be special, to matter as a woman – you must aim for a literally impossible version of beauty. Except, you don’t know that. Or at least I didn’t. And neither did anyone else in my life, as far as I was aware. Even once you know, it’s hard to see those images repeatedly and not internalize that construct of beauty. If it’s gotten to your family as well – and it probably has – there’s nowhere to find any real push back against those messages. Even if your family tells you you’re beautiful, you still hear their complaints about their own bodies, bodies that may well look an awful lot like yours. You learn to think of your body as the enemy.

Entire industries ride on this reality. Billions of dollars of of our economy live in the diet industry alone, not to mention all the myriad other bullshit we’re sold by means of self-hatred.

Even with years of concerted effort I can’t get that messaging all the way out of my head. That’s real for a vast majority of the people I’ve ever spoken to who ever went on a diet or “struggled with their weight”. Even if you’re trying really hard, the message that whoever you are is the wrong person to be stays stuck in your head. And I fear things are only getting worse for fat kids. At least when I was a child one of the FLOTUS’s main priorities wasn’t fighting against the existence of kids who looked like me. I only had to handle that from every kid and most adults I ever met.

Not only was my body not to be trusted, my mind wasn’t to be considered trustworthy either.  You’re told that since your body is in whatever way non-ideal that means that it is OUT OF CONTROL and you – the assumed controller, a thing somehow separate from your body – are insufficiently skilled in keeping that bullshit in check. Not only is your body wrong, but your body is wrong and *it is your fault*. So you listen to someone else. You eat what they say, when they say. Then you fail – honestly, when there’s so much money to be made by encouraging a state of perpetual self hatred is it a surprise that diets don’t work? – and that too is your fault. Everything about you is untrustworthy. This is how you wind up a 16 year old who asks her boyfriend to ration cheese cubes to her. This is how you wind up 18 and sure that it’s easier to not fuck up if you just avoid eating at all.

I suppose you could argue that not everyone who diets develops an eating disorder. I disagree, but I won’t push back on that here. What I know is that dieting in particular – and the entire culture that surrounds it – broke my relationship with my body from a very young age, and that I am not alone in that experience. Regardless of what else may be true about diets, they teach us to treat our bodies as objects to fight and to view our natural inclination towards food as a source of pleasure as well as a source of nourishment as sinful. Years of thinking of ourselves and our desires as bad, sinful, can only serve to divorce us from ourselves, to keep us away from the truth about our own value. Whatever other problems I have with dieting – and there are many – this will always be key: Attempting to hate your body into submission can only ever result in hating yourself.

Sometimes on good days I meditate when I eat. I consider my food as I eat it, paying attention to what I see and feel and taste, feeling myself swallow. I think about the food turning itself into energy with which I get to move, talk, think, dance, pet cats, and write, and I am thankful and in awe. Diets taught me a lot of things, but today I’m unlearning them.


4 thoughts on “What Diets Taught Me

  1. FutureRevCaine says:

    While I never developed anorexic or bulemic habits, my mind/heart definitely don’t deal with food and concepts of dieting healthily. I get anxiety in the dining hall and shame spiral more living on campus than anywhere else. I’m not sure how to build trust in myself and food, because I haven’t had it in so long. Thank you for this post.

  2. FutureRevCaine says:

    I think I actually eat more in front of people, to prove I’m not actually afraid of something as basic as food and how my body uses it. Though, I talk enough about the guilt/shame that people have probably caught on that I don’t know how to deal with the buffet style dining situation.

  3. lilatov says:

    Eloquently put! Media is an issue; but so are all the well meaning folks and influences in our lives…even religion! Religion, in some instances more than others, may well be more subtle, but when you’re already hyper-sensitized to the “condition” of not being small enough, it can add the additional burden that you’re somehow sinning by not treating your body as a “temple”, etc. I speak of this in only the most respectful and honoring way as I am close and firm in my religious beliefs as well as a Religious Studies major!
    For me, at 55 and never quite right, it gave me years of permission to not-only self-hate, but to accept [at best] less than respectful and honorable treatment from men in my life and [regularly and, at worst] abuse, disrespect, and the self-fulfilling blame for all that was wrong with him, me, and, well, everybody!
    It’s so easy to say EAT LESS and EXERCISE MORE…but once your system is so morphed out of sync with how to metabolize food, exercise, stress and other emotions, it’s far more than just E.L.E.M.!!!

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