So, telling funny stories about snow days and puppy butts has been a blast, but today we’re going to talk about Something Serious. If that’s not really your thang, tune in next week for more Random Crap.
Recently, I began to notice that something was Very Wrong with the way I eat food. You may be thinking, “Why, what’s the wrong way to eat food? Were you eating it with your feet instead of your hands?”
No, silly. It’s just that terms like “healthy eating” or “hunger cues” or “food as fuel” are pretty much lost on me. Honestly, up until not long ago I couldn’t have begun to tell you what a balanced meal should look like. I pretty much assumed that it shouldn’t look like any of the foods I ate throughout college (pizza, Oreos, fistfuls of peanut butter), nor should it resemble any of the foods I ate whilst “dieting” (Splenda, water, plain tuna from the can).
It seems that, unbeknownst to me, I’ve spent 28 years living on two very extreme ends of the disordered eating spectrum: eat very little to nothing at all or eat everything in sight as quickly as possible.
Perhaps you’re thinking that sounds very normal. Perhaps you, like me, have been overlooking something very sinister hiding behind your diet programs and weight-loss books: a great deal of the time, “dieting” actually just means “living with an eating disorder.”
Yep, I said it: dieting is bullshit. And not just the diets that are obviously bullshit either (weight-loss cookies? please). I’m talking all the diets, even the ones that seem very reasonable and cute. They’re just wrapped up in a shiny bow, sparkling with promises of narrower hips and better relationships and smaller dresses and brighter futures, always reminding you of just how much better you can be. Always reminding you that this person that you are right now is nowhere near Enough. The diet industry has duped us, working tirelessly to convince us that we’re Too Big.
Put down the Lean Cuisine, we’re going somewhere with this.
Once I realized that food isn’t the enemy (but dieting is), I decided to consult a nutritionist to learn how to eat in a healthful way, to nourish and energize my body rather than punish or comfort it. The first thing she told me was: Stop doing weight watchers, stop counting calories, stop weighing yourself, and don’t diet. Ever.
I’m sorry, what?
Not knowing what I weigh would be like not knowing my own name. Not knowing if I’m good or bad, beautiful or ugly. Not knowing what I look like, sound like, smell like. Without that number, how do I know what I’m worth? Exactly how many pounds of flesh I owe for taking up such an unseemly amount of space in my own body? My weight – that number, down to the tenth of a pound – is all that’s ever mattered. That’s what we’re taught, right? That’s what every commercial/billboard/magazine/movie/frenemy/celebrity/fad diet has taught us since the day we were born…right?
And stop counting points? Stop torturing myself for each piece of food that passes through my lips? How would I know what was too much? How would I know when I had failed, or had a “good” or a “bad” eating day? How would I know to go into fasting mode to punish myself for too many slices of pizza the night before, or to go into binge mode because I had painstakingly saved up my points? How would I weigh my value if I couldn’t weigh my food?
If you’ve never counted points or calories or grams of fat, imagine that this morning you woke up and were told that you had a certain number of minutes to live. Maybe that number is 36 or 72 or 410. You would spend each second, each millisecond, obsessing about the number of minutes left to your precious life. You would spend each moment trying desperately to cling to its specific sensations, only to be reminded that this minute of happiness means one less minute of sorrow, or love, or pain. Knowing, with every passing second, that you were losing precious time, and trying to take everything in as quickly as possible before using up all of your moments and being lost forever in nothingness.
Now, imagine waking up from that nightmare only to find that it happens again, every. single. day.
This is the never-ending obsession of point or calorie counting.
Dramatic? Certainly. But such is the life of a chronic dieter. (Especially one with a flair for the dramatic, such as myself.)
You see, those points or calories are as precious and vital as moments of time, breaths of air. Each one is delicate but powerful, representing success or failure, joy or pain. Each one is a persistent whisper, following you into the pantry to remind you to wait until dinner. Chasing you through the grocery store, breaking your heart as you do additions in your head only to realize you were just fooling yourself, that you’d have to go hungry for three days to justify those fresh-baked muffins. Haunting you in the middle of the night as you count and recount, promising yourself you’ll go without tomorrow to make up for your indulgence today. The whispers turn into screams at your best friend’s wedding, the office birthday party, a night out at the bar. The message is always the same: there’s not enough. You’re overdoing it. Stop eating, stop drinking, stop cooking, stop baking, some munching, stop snacking, because you’re running out, and there will never be enough.
If you’re like me, you might be thinking, “But I need to count points! I need to measure calories, or I’ll be out of control!” Pipe down for a second, I’m trying to tell you something.
I get it. I felt the same way. For the first twenty years of my life, I gobbled up everything I wanted, telling myself that I was obviously being punished for something so I may as well enjoy it. I assumed that the very body I occupied was my punishment, because it, like the rest of me, was very very bad. I binged and purged and hid food and owned, at any given time, pants in six different sizes. I didn’t wear shorts or skirts for the entire four years of high school in Florida – including summers topping out at over a hundred degrees – because I thought my calves were fat. I owned only one-piece bathing suits and still wore an oversized teeshirt at the beach. I covered up. I hid. I punished. I mentally beat the shit out of myself for being so ugly, so unattractive, so disgusting, so fat.
I overcompensated. I became really good at being the center of attention. At telling stories. I became hilarious (you’re welcome). I was a good student, outgoing, intelligent, driven. As long as I maintained the exterior of perfection and stability and happiness and self-assuredness, I hoped everyone would simply overlook what I felt was the sheer repulsiveness of my body, the lack of beauty in my face. I hid in plain sight.
I hated the other girls. The girls with perfect rod-thin upper arms that never squished against their torsos (I’m looking at you, high school cheerleading squad). The girls who could sit in a desk chair without watching their thighs roll together like thunderclouds before a tornado. The girls with flat, tan bellies and shiny navel rings, which I always wanted but never allowed myself because I knew what every chubby, funny, “she-has-such-a-pretty-face” girl knows almost as soon as we know how to talk: that some things just aren’t meant for us.
And those things certainly include anything which actually draws attention to our bodies. That’s precisely what we try to avoid every second of every day. That’s how we know that certain clothing styles, certain boyfriends, certain jobs, certain foods, certain looks are just out of our reach.
And oh – we make sure to find the people who reinforce our perception of ourselves.
I dated the guy who made a bet with me to see which of us could lose the most weight (spoiler alert: I lost 14 pounds, and he lost none). I dated the guy who said to me, “You’re really pretty, but you’re not hot.” I dated the guy who declared that I was “bigger than any other girl” he’d ever dated, and the guy who told me to cover my stomach one night during sex.
(Yes, these are all different men. No, I did not stab any of them with an ice pick.)
See, when you decide at a very young age that you’re ugly and horrible and worthless and, most importantly, fat, you fall at the feet of the men who make you feel otherwise (even if only for a little while). You tell yourself that they’re settling, that they could do better. Or, you tell yourself that they must have something wrong with them – perhaps they’re not very attractive, or they actually can’t do better.
And then, I’d had enough. I decided I was going to lose weight, and right this moment. I found weight watchers. No, that’s not telling the whole story. I found religion in weight watchers. I prayed at the altar of the weekly weigh-in and baptized myself in the points.
For the next eight years, I counted. I weighed. I measured. I bought the serving spoons marked with portion sizes, the 100 calorie packs that take out the guesswork. I could go into my weight watchers online tracker right now and literally tell you every single thing I ate during that first year. I didn’t miss a single entry. No peanut butter cup went uncalculated, no glass of wine unmarked.
If you’re thinking this shows great perseverance and attention to detail and determination, you might be right. If you’re thinking this was yet another way for me to see, in plain black and white, exactly how awful I was each and every day (right down to the last bite of grilled unseasoned chicken breast), you’re also right.
I was so committed to counting points for the rest of my life that I joked about them in my wedding vows. (Actually, I joked about not following them. The exact line was, “I vow to eat pizza and ice cream with you and not count the points.” Even then, I knew that there was something wild and romantic about not calculating a meal.)
And I lost weight. Quite a bit of weight, for the first time. And that was amazing. Boys liked me more, girls liked me more, woodland creatures flew into my window to brush my hair and sew my dresses.
Except when I realized that I couldn’t keep it off unless I didn’t eat junk food, or drink beers, or go out, or celebrate, or take vacations, or go to restaurants, or go to parties, or go to movies, or see friends, or eat dinner in any environment that wasn’t conducive to my life-raft of counting, counting, counting.
So I gained some back. And then I lost some. And then I gained some back, and then I lost some. Each time I lost, I hit the same damning number – the one that had me in a size 6, but wasn’t technically low enough for weight watchers to promote me to “lifetime” (read: free) status. According to the Body Mass Index, I needed to be a full ten pounds less than my smallest weight ever (at which time I could just squeeze into a size four but only if I committed to eating only plain tuna and vegetables for several days prior) to be considered “healthy” – and even then, I would be at the very tip-top of the “healthy” range. (Can we talk about the Body Mass Index for a second? What sadist thought that up, and can I get his address?)
So, I was a failure. Weight watchers said so. The BMI said so. My mirror certainly said so. After all, why stop at a four? Why not a two, a zero, or the Loch Ness Monster of sizes: the double zero??
Even at my smallest, I was still taking up too much space.
And the real kicker of it is: I was still miserable. I still thought I was fat. Oh, believe me, I look back at those “thinnest ever” vanity pictures and think, “Holy shit, I was actually pretty thin!” But at the time, I was nothing but FAT. Fat face, fat thighs, fat back, fat butt, fat stomach, fat.
Once I got down to a size 10 (for most of my life, to be a size 10 was The Dream, like winning the lottery or getting asked out by Ryan Gosling), I needed to be an eight. It didn’t matter that putting on a pair of size 10 pants in the American Eagle dressing room had me literally crying and laughing at the same time like a lunatic, with the salesgirl standing outside the door nervously asking, “Do you need me to get help?” No, as soon as the euphoria passed, the whispers crept up again. They hissed, “Cut back. You’re too big.” I found myself dreaming about a size eight, then a six. At a six, I desperately pined to be a four, because on me, size six seemed ungainly and huge.
You would think this would have set off a red flag in my mind – it’ll never be good enough! Stop counting! Stop torturing yourself! You’re constantly trying to be ever smaller, smaller, smaller, and it’s impossible! But it didn’t. I thought this was all perfectly normal. My entire life, in fact, I’ve assumed that self-hatred and body-shaming were perfectly sensible pastimes; after all, doesn’t everyone want to lose a few pounds?
Perhaps I wouldn’t have been happy until I literally shrank down so tiny that I simply disappeared. Perhaps that’s what we’re all after, what the diet industry is feeding us (pun intended). Eat less! Exercise more! Lose weight! Gain confidence! Take this pill, drink this shake, eat these meals, count these calories, use this machine, read this book, join this club, and maybe, just maybe, you’ll simply disappear once and for all! You’ll get so small that no one will even notice you there!
Maybe we’re all searching for that nothingness. That disappearing. That the thinness, the sheer smallness, of our newly dieted and exercised bodies will give way to an invisibility. That whoever hurt us won’t have anything left to hurt. Whoever abused us, beat us, belittled us, raped us, ignored us, terrorized us, bullied us, shamed us, mistreated us, will suddenly walk right past us without even registering our shrunken faces. That whoever told us we were ugly when we were children, or convinced us to diet when we were four or nine or twelve, or taught us that boys only love us because of the way we look, or that girls only like us if we’re pretty, or that we’re only as good as a number on a scale – if we’re small enough, maybe they won’t see us anymore. Maybe they’ll pick on somebody their own size.
The thing is, none of it’s true. It’s all a lie that you’re telling yourself, a lie that somebody else told you that you’ve absorbed into your body like scar tissue. That you’ll be better when you’re thinner. That you’ll be happier, smarter, more successful, more loved. If you’re thinking it’s a number on the scale, it isn’t. If you’re trying to reach a certain dress size, you’ll never get there. Just when you think you’ve reached the finish line, the finish line disappears, and you’re left running a never-ending race.
Trust me. I’ve been happy at a size sixteen, and I’ve been miserable at a size six. And vice versa.
You may be one who believes that counting points or calories or fat grams is the only way to control yourself. You may believe that without your diet/exercise regimen/low-fat bread/weight watchers meetings that you will truly grow uncontrollably until you are fifty feet in height and girth, stomping on the villages below. That you will gain a hundred pounds, or ten.
I felt that way, too. Like I said, dieting was my God, and He was merciless.
Imagine a world in which each and every one of us knew, from the moment we came into being, that we were enough. Imagine if you knew that you were perfect exactly as you are at this moment and not one pound less. Imagine, for a second, that you were filled with the comfort of knowing that no matter what happens, you will be enough. You will have enough. You will have enough food, enough love, enough comfort, enough energy, enough friendships, enough support, enough success. That you will be enough because you are beautiful, or funny, or smart, or sexy, or intelligent, or loyal, or strong, or all of those things. That you will stop telling yourself that the only thing that matters is the size of your ankles or the width of your waist. That you will start telling yourself that food does not control you, nor does it identify you.
Imagine a world in which “diet” was as ugly a word as “fat”.
My journey to end the madness started slowly, and is far from over. At first I decided to still calculate the points in my head each night, but not write them down on paper. I vowed to throw out the idea that low-fat or low-sugar or diet or low-calorie meant “better” or “healthier” and realize that ten points of Oreos is not the same as ten points of oatmeal, but that both have their value and their place. I’ve begun to learn about nutrition, truly for the first time in my life. I’ve learned to indulge when I wanted to and to not hate myself for it. I learned that it is actually possible to not think about food more than you think about every other thing in your life. I learned to trust my body and my instincts, and I started to apologize to it for years of mistreatment and torture. I learned to nurse it back to health, like I would a beaten dog that had been rescued from a shelter. I learned to make and eat delicious foods that were sometimes nutritious and sometimes not.
The day I canceled my nine-years-long weight watchers membership was both gratifying and terrifying. (In case you’re wondering, that’s almost $5,000 in fees. When I think about the $5,000 in shoes or vacations or Candy Crush levels I could’ve purchased with that money I want to gnaw my own arm off and punch myself in the face with it.) The day I first ate a piece of chocolate without devouring the rest of the bag or starving myself for the next three days in repentance was a miracle. The day I realized I’d gone an entire month without bingeing or purging was like being re-baptized into a new religion, one that throws open its temple doors and welcomes you with open arms.
If any of these things remind you of yourself, then I urge you, too, to seek some real help when you’re ready to stop torturing yourself simply for existing in any shape other than the one you’ve decided is perfect. I promise you that perfection is a myth.
I believe there is still a long road ahead, but I refuse to spend one more second of it counting points or hunched over in a bathroom. Food is wonderful, and my body is wonderful, and its shape is such a small part of why that is so. There are so many things to do besides diet, and you’re missing it. We all are. Eat a cookie, eat a salad, have a drink, sing a song, help a friend, go on a date, take a bath, take a class, take a vacation, take a breath.
To steal a line from the brilliant advertising executives at weight watchers: Stop dieting.