Recovery from Diet Culture: Lows and Highs
My disordered eating gremlins rear their nasty heads around the holidays, consistently, routinely. And every year, I am unable to cope as well as I normally do because I’m tired and socially overextended. My emotional and cognitive reserves are depleted. Since November, I’ve felt extra vulnerable and weak in the face of these gremlins. Today, I share a collection of thoughts and short stories about how I still succumb to diet culture and ways I’m slowly emerging from its suffocating grip.
We are saturated, immersed in diet culture. Christy Harrison defines diet culture as, “A system of beliefs that worships thinness and equates it to health and moral virtue…promotes weight loss as a means of attaining higher status...demonizes certain ways of eating while elevating others…and oppresses people who don't match up with its supposed picture of ‘health’.”
In this blog post, I am going to share a few vignettes about how my thoughts and actions are still dominated by our broken diet culture. I hope these vignettes help you feel less alone. To know that you’re not the only one out there struggling with this. That even though I’m making progress every day, diet culture still insidiously (and sometimes very overtly) influences me. I’m not perfectly healed yet, and it’s a daily battle.
Later on in the post, I’ll share a few ways that I’m slowly starting to emerge from diet culture’s suffocating grip.
First of all, writing about disordered eating/exercise recovery and body image issues is really hard.
Have you ever tried writing about your experience with it?
My mind feels constipated when I try to write about this topic. Actually, my mind feels more like I have irritable-bowel-syndrome (IBS) of the mind. Irritable MIND syndrome (IMS)! Sometimes I’m blocked, backed up, stuck. I stare at the computer screen, trying to congeal my experiences and feelings in a coherent series of sentences. Other times the thoughts dump out through frenetic typing on the keyboard. Quickly flowing liquid letters. (Alright, alright…the IBS metaphor stops now.)
Sometimes I look forward to writing about it. After writing, I read over my work and feel empowered. I feel released from the eating disorder gremlins. The writing feels therapeutic.
Other times I dread writing and put it off. I almost protest writing about my recovery because it feels like the eating disorder gremlins win when I give them my time. I think about how I could be doing something else. Taking a bath. Spending time with my husband. Reading a book. But instead, I feel compelled to go process my experience through writing. It’s not fair that this culture screwed me up in the first place, and I sometimes feel bitter with having to devote time into healing myself from it.
But ultimately I realize that writing is healing. Sharing my story is antiseptic for my wounds and others’ wounds too.
And yes, it sucks that I have to heal from this disorder. A disorder that started when I was in first grade, or even earlier.
I initially thought my most dominant memory of the start of this disorder was in third grade when I had to get weighed in front of my entire class (can you believe?!). But recently, I reached back further into the recesses of my mind and remembered something that happened in first grade. My school’s Christmas program, 1992(ish). We all had to wear our pajamas. I wore light purple sweats and a light blue t-shirt, and all the other girls wore cute pink nightgowns. And I felt different. I felt fat. I felt ugly. Instead of feeling proud that I had memorized the entirety of “The Night Before Christmas” at age six, I was focused on how I felt in my pajamas. Comparing how I looked to the other girls in class. This memory makes me so sad…and angry.
It sucks that our culture is broken and controls women’s minds and steals our energy by making us obsessed with our beauty.
It sucks that I have to pay hundreds of dollars a year for counseling to help me heal (but thank God for counseling, really).
It really does suck trying to embrace this “unicorn.”
I write about it and share my struggles because what other options do I have? To stay quiet and bear the burden alone? To let you think you’re alone? No. No way.
How diet culture still dominates
About a week ago, I was getting dressed to go to the gym. I avoided the bottom drawer of my dresser that held all of my workout tank tops – the kind that are form-fitting and clingy. Instead, I went with a loose t-shirt that I got at a conference last year. I pulled the shirt over my head and down around my stomach. And then I felt it. The t-shirt was snug around my stomach. A t-shirt has never been snug around my stomach! I frantically thought to myself. Have I really gained THAT much weight this past year? Holy crap. 30 seconds earlier, I had been feeling okay with my body. (Generally) accepting of its new shape. Now, I silently freaked out, alone in my bedroom, vulnerably standing in front of the mirror.
You know that silent freak out you have when you put on an article of clothing that is now too tight and at one time fit just fine? You look at yourself in the mirror from different angles, more critically than you would have two minutes earlier when you weren’t wearing that piece of clothing. I pulled on the t-shirt, trying to stretch it out around my stomach. Oh well, I thought, and made my way downstairs, feeling a little more defeated, a little more trapped inside my mind.
At the gym, I stepped up on the treadmill and started walking. After a few strides, I noticed something. My right forearm, just below my elbow, was hitting the right side of my torso as I swung my arms. My mind was already hyper-focused on my body after the t-shirt incident earlier, so I readily noticed the way my body felt different as I walked. I freaked out again and texted my mom and sister for support.
“I’m walking on the treadmill right now and as I swing my arms at my side, I notice that they’re running into my sides/waist/hip area now that I’ve gained weight and it’s make me so self conscious.”
I continued, “Like I’m ballooning. Spinning out of control. I’ve never been this big my whole life. IVF. And hormones. And birth control on and off again. And RA/scoliosis worsening. I’ve never eaten so much and I’ve never been so dormant/static in my whole life. I’m trying to heal my obsession with healthy eating and exercise, and it just feels worse now than when I had disordered behaviors.”
My sister, Karli, quickly replied, “Give yourself some space. You’ve been going through a lot. HEAVY SHIT. Heavy, heavy shit.”
“It’s just hard to know how to handle the day to day while giving myself some space, ya know?” I said.
“100% I get it,” Karli responded. “It’s an every day battle. Some days are better than others.”
“Like I could give myself some space and grace tonight, and then I’ll wake up and not know how to deal with getting dressed or making decisions related to food.”
“It’s the ebb and flow, sis.”
“Yeah, it’s just so scary,” I said, feeling defeated.
Karli continued, “Women are supposed to be squishy and curvy and round. And if we’re extra squishy and curvy and round this time of year, then that’s okay too.”
I paused and soaked in her words. But then I pressed on.
“Yeah, we are supposed to be squishy. And that’s great. Except when your pants squeeze your gut all day and create back rolls. It’s just so hard.”
“We are not our body. For Christ’s sake, Ellen, it’s a cake, you didn’t start a war!” Karli was referring to a cartoon that Megan Jayne Crabbe posted on her Instagram in December (see picture below).
“Your body is the least interesting thing about you,” I replied. This was a quote a friend shared with me a couple weeks ago when I was having a hard body image day.
“Our bodies are ebbing right now,” Karli said. “They’ll flow and then they’ll ebb and then they’ll flow. AND AND we are never going to get back to those bodies a few years ago. Never ever. Do not use that as your baseline. No more.”
So why this silent freak out in my bedroom with the too-snug t-shirt? Why this silent freak out on the treadmill as my arm grazed my torso? What does it matter if my shirt is a little to snug or my waist widens just a bit?
Because our culture gives privilege to thin bodies.
Because our culture has created prejudice against the concept of being “fat.” Fat stigma is a real thing. Eric Sherman writes, “Many people look at the overweight and see laziness, poor self-control, and weakness.” We can rationally know this is not true. Not fair. Not right. But somewhere deep in our subconscious, we internalize this fat phobia.
Deep down, we are afraid that if we gain weight and become “fat,” we won’t be attractive/desirable/loveable/(insert fear here).
Because the patriarchy has controlled our thoughts, time, and energy by making us women obsessed with our physical appearance.
* * *
I went for a physical at my fertility clinic last week. The physical was required to move forward with the Frozen Embryo Transfer (FET) process. The medical assistant (MA) took me back to take my vitals. I normally decline getting weighed, but the MA told me a weight was required for BMI during pregnancy. I conceded and slowly made my way onto the scale backwards (thanks to a friend's recommendation!). I kindly asked the MA to please not tell/show me my weight because "I’m recovering from disordered eating and the number can still be triggering." She understood, weighed me quickly, and then walked me back to the exam room.
Fast-forward 15 minutes to when the nurse practitioner walked into the room. We exchanged required social greetings, and then she said, “Sorry for the weight.”
I felt so relieved that she understood how challenging getting weighed was for me! I explained to her that while I understand why she needs the number, it’s still triggering for me. I went into a 30-second spiel about recovering from disordered eating...yadda yadda yadda.
She tilted her head to the side and looked at me puzzled. The room was quiet, and then she said, “Oh, I meant sorry for the WAIT. In the waiting room. Sorry for the wait.”
Whoops! We smiled and laughed, awkwardly.
Sorry for the WEIGHT...Sorry for the WAIT. When has anyone in the world said, "Sorry for the weight"? If someone was going to apologize for making a person get weighed against their will, they would say something like, "Sorry we needed your weight," or, "Sorry about having to get weighed."
This just shows how much weight/body issues have been on my sweet little mind lately. Something I’m constantly carrying around. A battle I’m always fighting.
“Since the Industrial Revolution, middle-class Western women have been controlled by ideals and stereotypes as much as by material constraints. This situation, unique to this group, means that analyses that trace “cultural conspiracies” are uniquely plausible in relation to them. The rise of the beauty myth was just one of several emerging social fictions that masqueraded as natural components of the feminine sphere, the better to enclose those women inside it.” -Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth (p. 15)
* * *
How I’m slowly learning to escape from diet culture’s grip
Over the past 2.5 years, I’ve slowly healed my relationship with body image and disordered eating/exercise. Through hard, daily work. My mom, a psychotherapist, uses the metaphor of “putting on our armor” to go out into the world and fight our daily battles against diet culture. It still takes a lot of intentional work, of putting on my armor, to make it through a day with a healthier frame of mind and internal dialogue.
I always have a body-positive, anti-diet book on my nightstand. Currently, I’m reading The Beauty Myth, by Naomi Wolf. Next up is Body Positive Power: How to stop dieting, make peace with your body and live by Megan Jayne Crabbe.
I’ve started to wear less makeup. Men don’t have to wear makeup, I think to myself every day. Men look just fine without makeup, according to our society. They don’t look “tired,” like I’ve been told I look when I don’t wear makeup. I ironically think about the injustice of it all every time I swipe black mascara over my lashes. Some day I won’t wear any makeup, I promise to myself.
I don’t diet. I don’t do cleanses. I don’t worry about “clean eating” or “Whole 30” or “Paleo.” I don’t obsess about how much protein…sugar…carbohydrates I ate in a day. I eat what I want, when I’m hungry, with less guilt than in the past (for the most part). I honor my hunger. I’ve learned about Intuitive Eating and have learned to practice its principles. Recently, I ate a huge bowl of Honey Nut Cheerios, cucumbers, and a pile of turkey for lunch. I was still hungry when I was done, so I had a few handfuls of Rice Chex. I ate just a couple hours later because I was already hungry. Before, I would have been much more concerned with balancing protein and vegetables and carbs. Before, I would've forced myself to not eat a snack because I had just eaten lunch.
I’ve noticed that I get angry when I put on my “wrinkle reducing” eye cream. As soon as I’m done with my current bottle, I don’t think I’ll buy another one. I’ll learn to embrace my wrinkles and ever-changing face and body.
I’m trying to stop commenting on people’s appearances. I want my words to reflect my values, and what you look like on the outside doesn’t matter to me. Society has made me hyper-focused on appearance, and I don’t want to be chained to that. I don’t want to perpetuate the beauty myth. Naomi Wolf argues that beauty is the "last, best belief system that keeps male dominance intact". So what does this look like on a day-to-day basis? I’m going to stop commenting on people’s haircuts, if someone looked tanner than normal, long eyelashes, recently styled eyebrows, a put-together outfit. Now, I want to try focus my compliments more about a person’s heart and honorable words and selfless actions.
In the past, I exercised with the primary purpose of changing my body. I exercised as punishment to purge past calories consumed (or in anticipation of future calories). I had a rigid regimen. Every gym session was calculated, almost robotic. I knew what I needed to do to see “progress.” Now, I go to the gym and move my body because it feels good for my joints and my mood appreciates the small endorphins spike.
I stopped tracking my nutrition and exercise in a fitness app almost three years ago.
I bought bigger pants last March when I noticed my body had evolved. I have almost grown out of those pants, so I bought another larger pair this winter. While I’d prefer to not buy new pants every year (because I hate spending money, and I hate the mall), I’m going to continue allowing myself to buy new pants as long as my body needs to keep growing.
I’m much quicker to stop myself from dwelling on old pictures of myself when I’m looking through my camera roll, saved Snapchat pics (are these just called “Snaps?” I’m not super hip and young no mo’), or Facebook memories. I recognize that I’m comparing my current body to my previous body, and I intentionally break myself from the scrolling zone.
How do you still struggle with diet culture?
How are you slowly overcoming it?
I am just one voice. The more voices who share their experiences, the more united we will all feel in this struggle.
You are not alone. I am with you every day as you put on your armor against this misdirected, sick culture. I am with you when you feel trapped inside your head because diet culture makes you feel like you’re out of control. And I’m with you, giving you all the high fives, when you slowly show diet culture who is boss and make small steps in a healthier, more empowered direction.