I said it: I hate dieting. I really do. From the compulsiveness it creates in myself and others to the sanctimoniousness of ex-fat people who can’t seem to talk about anything except how terrible it was to be fat and who consistently find new, innovative ways to throw currently-fat people under the bus, to its pervasiveness in modern culture – I hate it. I hate going to parties and talking to women who I know are perfectly intelligent and getting caught in a discussion about weight loss, because suddenly we are no longer saying anything particularly smart or useful. We just repeat a conversation we have had with dozens of other women a hundred times before.
I’ve written a bit here about body image and how fat positivity has changed my life (and, quite frankly, probably saved it in many ways), but I honestly feel like that post was too tame considering my relatively radical beliefs about fat bodies and diet culture. One of those beliefs is that dieting is ugly. It warps people’s brains and twists cultural concepts of what it means to be a worthwhile human being. I know because I’ve been on diets and been given all kinds of weird and terrible diet advice over the years. I will honestly never get over being told by my pediatrician when I was 12 (and pretty normal-sized – I was already at my adult height but I was at an average weight for that height) that I should avoid eating fruit if I was going to be eating lots of sugary things because the extra sugar from the fruit would make me fat. I was shocked. My doctor was telling me to eat less fruit? When she didn’t even know what I ate every day? We barely ever even had juice in the house because of my parents’ concerns about sugar.
That same doctor told me that I needed to try Weight Watchers or maybe go to a support group for fat teens a few years later. I was ashamed and angry at the time, even though a small part of me agreed with her. I was 15 and hated my body, like most 15 year olds. I wouldn’t attempt to take up her advice until I was almost 17 and my father was moving to a small Mediterranean country famous for its limestone beaches. Horrified by the thought of being in a swimsuit in public at my size (which, admittedly, was not small, but I was certainly not the beast I thought I was), I started Weight Watchers several months before I left. I spent a good portion of my junior year of high school counting points and doing my best not to cheat. I ended up losing about 40 pounds, but I honestly could barely tell the difference. I still felt just as bad about myself as I ever had. I swam that summer and loved it, but eventually quit the program because I just couldn’t keep up the motivation to continue and actually get down to my goal weight of 125 pounds.
Fast forward to a few years later. I had started college and found the fat acceptance movement. (Also, a note here: I believe that while the body positivity movement and the fat acceptance movement have some of the same goals, body positivity has been watered down so much by corporations that it has become meaningless. The body positivity that helped me love myself is not the same body positivity I see everywhere today selling tea cleanses and telling people they need to “get fit.” To be frank, every good thing that body positivity is giving to people now is ground that the fat acceptance movement paved the way for, and did better.) Over the course of the intervening four years since finding the movement, I am a completely different person. Bigger, yes, but also happier. I still have body image issues and really bad days, but my good and neutral days far outweigh my bad ones. I still worry about how other people perceive my body, but that’s a consequence of being fat in a world that is constantly telling me I shouldn’t be. I am more unapologetic about my size than I have ever been.
But stories like “Losing It” still hit me hard. This is one of the passages that really got to me:
I told Foster that Obesity Week made me sad. First, it was the profusion of educated people in the room studying me and my people as if we were problems to solve. But second, it was because if you have this many hundreds of smart and educated people trying to figure this out, and nobody has anything for me but superfood and behavior modification and an insertable balloon and the removal of an organ, it must be that there is no way to solve fatness.
I felt a twinge in my heart when I first I read that. Because, yes, there’s a tiny part of my brain that has been programmed for 22 years to think that I should be as small as possible who wants a “solution” to my problem. The de-programmed part of me has realized that the solution is loving myself and trying to help others do the same, but being reminded that there are people out there doing their best to find a “fix” for the problem of fatness.
A few paragraphs later, when Brodesser-Akner describes her experience with intuitive eating classes, I almost cried:
I went to an intuitive-eating class — intuitive eating is where you learn to feed yourself based only on internal signals and not external ones like mealtimes or diet plans. Meaning it’s just eating what you want when you’re hungry and stopping when you’re full. There were six of us in there, educated, desperate fat women, doing mindful-eating exercises and discussing their pitfalls and challenges. We were given food. We would smell the food, put the food on our lips, think about the food, taste the food, roll the food around in our mouths, swallow the food. Are you still hungry? Are you sure? The first week it was a raisin. It progressed to cheese and crackers, then to cake, then to Easter candy. We sat there silently, as if we were aliens who had just arrived on Earth and were learning what this thing called food was and why and how you would eat it. Each time we did the eating exercise, I would cry. ‘‘What is going on for you?’’ the leader would ask. But it was the same answer every time: I am 41, I would say. I am 41 and accomplished and a beloved wife and a good mother and a hard worker and a contributor to society and I am learning how to eat a goddamned raisin. How did this all go so wrong for me?
It was hard for me to read because I’ve been there, and some days I still am there. Our culture has such strange ideas about food and how it’s supposed to be consumed and who is allowed to consume food and how much of it is socially acceptable for them to consume that it seems impossible that there are people in this world that do not have a fraught relationship with the food they consume. I am still working on intuitive eating, especially when I am in a group setting. Intuitive eating is so much easier when there isn’t a potential audience. But I’ve gotten a lot better. Still, though, the idea that eating a raisin is hard is something that I felt deep inside myself. Eating is complicated and difficult.
But this was the moment where the author lost me:
Weight isn’t neutral. A woman’s body isn’t neutral. A woman’s body is everyone’s business but her own. Even in our attempts to free one another, we were still trying to tell one another what to want and what to do. It is terrible to tell people to try to be thinner; it is also terrible to tell them that wanting to lose weight is hopeless and wrong.
I don’t know if diets can work in the short term or the long term. For the first time, I began to think that this was something worth being made crazy over. Our bodies deserve our thoughts and our kindness, our acceptance and our striving. Our bodies are what carry our thoughts and our kindness and our acceptance and striving.
I agree with her first few statements. Women’s bodies aren’t neutral, and it is terrible to try to tell people to be thinner, especially as we are learning more and more that dieting doesn’t work in the long-term except for a very small number of people and that weight cycling like that caused by dieting can be very harmful.
But deciding that dieting is “something worth being made crazy over” and that dieting involves “thoughts and… kindness [and] acceptance and… striving” is honestly appalling to me. Dieting is quite literally the exact opposite of acceptance of one’s body and self. I completely understand where Brodesser-Akner is coming from, but I feel like deciding to give in to something as harmful as the weight loss industry because it allows one to perpetually strive for a “better” self is self-destructive. Accepting disordered eating because it feels like the only option can only end in disaster.
So I want to propose something to anyone who is struggling with being fat or with disordered eating or both: try to be kind to yourself. Self-acceptance comes slowly. And sometimes self-acceptance means that you have to accept that you do not look exactly how you want yourself to. Self-acceptance means changing your expectations of yourself and your goals for who you want to be. It means thinking about what you want for yourself beyond being smaller. It means realizing that you’ve put a lot of time and energy and brain space into thinking about your weight and trying to “fix” it that could probably be better spent thinking about and doing other things. Some examples of small ways that you can be kind to yourself:
- Push back against negative thoughts. If the part of your brain that likes to say cruel things tells you, “God, that outfit looks terrible on you,” respond back with something like, “It looks fine and I like the color.”
- Every year, one of my favorite podcasts, The Sporkful does a New Year’s Food Resolution episode. Here’s a link to the 2017 episode. The host, Dan Pashman, encourages listeners to pick a food they want to eat more of each year. This year, my resolution was to eat more fruits and veggies that I hadn’t tried before, and eat them in ways I had not tried them before. It may already be August, but I still think this is something worth trying.
- Do things that are good for your body just because you like them. I discovered that I really like running, so I do that sometimes. Maybe there are healthy things that you haven’t tried that you really like, like swimming or dancing or roasted brussels sprouts with olive oil and a delicious blend of spices. Maybe there’s a thing you love to do that you’ve been putting off because you think you’re too fat to do it anymore. You should do it anyway. Life is short, and waiting until you’re thin enough to do something might mean you wait forever.
- Eat some good things just because they taste good and you want them. I mean, sure, moderation in all things, but sometimes you just have to eat a bunch of ice cream. Sometimes you want to buy a whole cake just for yourself. Sometimes you want to make homemade tempura and enjoy the taste. It’s okay. You can give yourself permission to do that sometimes.
- Take a look at pictures of fat people, and not just ones that are inspiration porn. I recommend blogs like Fat Girls Doing Things or going through hashtags on Instagram like #plussize, #plussizefashion, #fatspo, or #fatpositive. It can make a huge difference to see people who look like you on a regular basis. And, if you’re not fat, this is still something you should do, because we should all be trying to normalize fat bodies.
I know it feels like it, but weight loss isn’t the only answer out there. You can unlearn the vicious things people have taught you to believe about your body. You can have a completely fulfilling life while being fat. There’s another way to do things, and it’s worth trying.