Guest Writer Wednesday: Doreen's Diet Culture Story

Guest writer (and my lovely mom), Doreen, shares her story about her life-long battle with diet culture. This blog post was sparked for her after she heard a podcast host proclaim that body image issues vanish for women after age 50. Um, excuse me? Read on to learn more about my mom’s journey and her stance on that woman’s wildly off the mark comment. Let’s welcome Doreen to the Unicorn Mission!

Resignation.  

Remember that word…I’ll be coming back to it.

I was listening to a podcast about body image recently.  One of the hosts was a 30-something, self-proclaimed-recovered-from-an-eating-disorder, beautiful and fit (by our toxic culture’s standard), a licensed counselor who was doing a lot of the talking.  The majority of the podcast was useful…good information…awareness creation…yada yada yada.  But then she said something that made me grin (in an ‘are you kidding me?’ kind of way), and slowly shake my head.  She had the gall? —naïveté?— ignorance?—to say she’s looking forward to aging because she believes after women hit their 50s and go through menopause, they don’t care about their body image anymore and can just be free to be themselves. (Apparently one woman she knows over 50 feels that way…so of course it must be universally true!) 

Okay…so let me back up a bit and give you some foundational information about who I am and how I got here.  I’m a 56-year-old mother of four who has just recently gone through menopause.  I’ve struggled with my body image and yo-yoing weight all my life.  Until I was in my very early 30s, I was oblivious to the toxic messages our culture infects us with, so I just bought in to all of it.  All I knew was that we were supposed to be thin.  My mom was thin.  My sister was thin.  My grandma was dangerously thin, and I was told that I should also be thin.

Me, my sister, and my mom.

Me, my sister, and my mom.

From the time I was about four, I remember my mom telling people (and through osmosis, me) that I was chubby because I ate to keep up with my teenaged siblings.  (I was four!!!  Wasn’t I supposed to be chubby?)  I had no nutritional guidance throughout my childhood.  Zero.  Zip.  Zilch.  

Would you believe that diet culture was starting to influence me at this innocent age?

Would you believe that diet culture was starting to influence me at this innocent age?

When I was about 12, one day I happened to be looking through a very used paperback book my mom always had out called ‘calorie counting.’  In the front of the book, it explained that an average woman should consume about a specific amount of calories a day, let’s call this value “X.” It also said that if a woman wanted to lose weight, she should consume fewer than “X” calories a day.  This was all news to me, but I ran with it because I was one of those women who wanted to lose weight.  And because I didn’t have anyone to talk to about any of this, I just did what my 12-year-old brain thought made sense.  I started consuming even fewer calories than the recommended daily allowance.  I picked a target number of calories that sounded like a good round number to me, so I went with it. 

I thought I was “fat” at this age. Diet culture taught me that I was fat and that fat was bad (not true and not true).

I thought I was “fat” at this age. Diet culture taught me that I was fat and that fat was bad (not true and not true).

I started looking up the calorie content of all the foods I ate.  Back then there was no nutritional information listed on packages of food, so I had to rely on my trusty well-worn book that had become my constant companion.  Much to my delight, I learned that a Hershey’s bar only contained about 220 calories! Heck!  I could have multiple chocolate bars a day and still lose weight if I didn’t eat anything else, according to my 12-year-old reasoning.  To me, that wasn’t a problem!  By that point in my life, it was only my mom (who was rarely home or available) and me in our house.  There was no one to counsel me about the importance of nutrition or the food pyramid or the fact that a growing pre-teen girl needed more that “X” number of calories a day. Back in the 70s there weren’t any nutrition units in health class…just the dreaded weigh-in once a year when the teacher shouted out your weight to the entire class.   Thus began my rocky and hazardous road to eating and body image for the rest of my life. 

1970s+Doreen+with+Amy.jpg

By the time I was 16, I was boy crazy and even more body conscious.  I thought I was fat…like really fat compared to all my stick-thin friends.  I was super self-conscious.  (I look back at pictures of myself then, and I was anything but fat.)  But looking through the fat lens I was looking through when I stood in front of the mirror, I decided that if I could lose weight eating “X” calories a day, then I could lose weight faster and more effectively if I ate only ate “X” minus 500 calories a day. (Makes sense, right?)  Most days I couldn’t pull it off because I would get too hungry (hello), but occasionally I did, and yes…I lost weight.  But then I would put it right back on again.   

I went through phases of weight gain and weight loss all through my twenties as I had my first two babies.  By the time I was in my early 30’s, I was still on the yoyo weight cycle, but by now, I had two little onlookers watching my every move.  I used to stand in front of the mirror in front of my two little girls and tell them I looked fat.  (And again, I wasn’t fat.)  That’s the message they got from me…that someone who looked like me was fat.  

Me and my two oldest girlies, Karli (left) and Kristen (right).

Me and my two oldest girlies, Karli (left) and Kristen (right).

Then I became somewhat enlightened.  Through reading and becoming a teacher and working with adolescents, I learned about our culture’s noxious influence surrounding body image.  I was horrified by what I ignorantly exposed my little girls to.  So it was during those years that I just totally clammed up and stopped talking about my terrible body image and dieting and weight.  I just pretended like I was fine and bottled it all up so as not to infect my girls anymore. (Another ignorant move that’s effects lasted way too long…)   

Me in my 1990s perm bliss. Also not fat here either, though I sure felt it (so sad, so warped).

Me in my 1990s perm bliss. Also not fat here either, though I sure felt it (so sad, so warped).

In my late 30s, I had two more girls…twins.  With them I vowed never to talk about my weight…to “model” healthy body image.  However, what I lost sight of was that I wasn’t being authentic with them.  It wasn’t at all what was going on in my mind.  I always felt fat…or if I had lost some weight and felt better, I was terrified of gaining it back.  And by pretending I was just fine, I was inadvertently telling my girls that it was easy!  Body image struggles can be conquered!  That there was no way I could ever understand them if they struggled with their body images. 

Since then, I have become a counselor.  I’ve learned so much about our toxic body image culture, eating disorders and their etiologies, diet culture and now as an addendum to it all, anti-diet culture.  It seems that no matter what stance I take, I’m always failing.  

Mad at diet culture?  I fail if I look at calories or carbs on food I eat.  

Look in the mirror and see that I’ve gained some weight and feel yucky? I fail because I’m not honoring who I am inside.  

Think that we need certain nutritional elements through our food to be healthy?  I fail because I feel like I shouldn’t be thinking about my food that much.   

So no.  My body image and weight struggle definitely did not stop for me when I hit my 50s.  

In fact, not only didn’t it stop, but it’s become worse because…guess what?  Menopause changes your metabolism and slows everything way down.  And we all know what a slower metabolism means…weight gain…body changes.  One of the most basic traits of an eating disorder is fear of gaining weight…something most women I know (all women I know?) have. (That doesn’t mean every woman I know has an eating disorder…just one trait of them.)  And what I know about our culture is that it values fitting into a size four much more than an older person’s wisdom and experience.  So yeah, some days I feel pretty screwed.  

And let’s not forget about wrinkles and sagging skin.  It’s so hard to look in the mirror anymore because I’m beginning to see someone I don’t know.  I’m changing…and I’m finding it nearly impossible not to notice or care.  I stand there pulling the skin from my lower face and neck back to get a glimpse of the me I know and remember.  And it’s not just the superficial change that makes it hard…it’s what the changes mean down deep inside.  Just like what gaining weight means down deep inside.  Let’s look at that for a minute, shall we? 

If our culture immerses us in the notion that we must look young, pretty, thin, fit, fashionable, and wrinkle-less…and we don’t possess all those qualities, then we fail.  We fail at being valuable.  We fail at being lovable.  And what if we’re not valuable and lovable?  Phew.  That’s the battle we are all fighting.  And no. Just because I am 56 and post-menopausal, those things don’t go away.  

Me today.  “And I’ve resigned myself to trying to have compassion for myself whenever I feel like I’m failing at some level of the body image/self love issue.”

Me today. “And I’ve resigned myself to trying to have compassion for myself whenever I feel like I’m failing at some level of the body image/self love issue.”

Let’s add in that I am on my way to a divorce and living alone when my twins graduate from high school.  Feeling overweight, saggy and wrinkly makes me feel valueless and unlovable most of the time.  (How’s that for vulnerability?)  And all of this is even AFTER having become enlightened to the struggle and its roots, years and years of my own counseling, education in the mental health field (becoming a counselor), exposure to and working with eating disorder mentality through my clients, and endless reading and immersion in the world of loving your inner self.  It’s still there…still something I have to wake up every morning and put my battle armor on to fight against…still trying to tell me who I am and what I’m worth.  

I don’t know if I believe that people can truly “recover” from eating disorders, or if they don’t have full-blown eating disorders, their traits.  I’ve come to see it as a life-time journey (struggle?) that never really goes away—just like an addict will be an addict for life, daily fighting the urge to use again. How can it ever go away?  We’re surrounded by, immersed in, bombarded by the daily messages that keep it ever alive in us.  And we have to continue being like Neo in the end scene of The Matrix…stopping the bullets of our culture’s messages from blasting deeply into us.  

Now.  Remember that word I started with?  Resignation? That’s what I’m working on now in my life.  I’ve resigned myself to the fact that this is just the way it is, and I can’t change our culture.  I’ve resigned myself to the fact that I still, after all these years, have these deeply, deeply engrained beliefs woven into the fabric of who I am at my core.  I’ve resigned myself to being authentic about the struggle with myself and the people I encounter.  I’ve resigned myself to the fact that I will most likely be battling this for the rest of my life.  And I’ve resigned myself to trying to have compassion for myself whenever I feel like I’m failing at some level of the body image/self love issue.  

All we can do is meet ourselves where we are…be aware…be authentic with ourselves and others, and keep on fighting.  I hope you have some heavy-duty battle armor for your daily confrontations with our culture.  And I hope it protects you like I hope it protects me.    

* * *

Follow the Unicorn Mission!