Reclaiming My Power From Diet Culture

I was at a party recently where I could count on one hand how many people were quiet or positive about their food intake. I’m not talking about comments like “DAMN. These cookie/brownie things are delish!” because I was certainly saying those kind of things. I’m talking about the comments that have lots of “shoulds,” “should nots,” and shaming. For example,

“This bread is SO going to ruin my paleo diet,”

“Ugh, I really should only eat fruit,”

and my personal favorite, “I can’t have more than one sweet.”

Knowing the individuals and the tone of the statements, they weren’t coming from places of needing to take care of a diabetic need, a food sensitivity, or even a personal preference. They were purely placing food into “good” and “bad” categories where you feel shame or pride. There was a story attached that said that whatever action was taken defined the person’s character, usually unfavorably.

Does this sound familiar? Diet culture owns us. We are it’s bitches. It takes the power right out of our hands. Even when we think we’re exerting “will power,” food and our bodies take up tons of space in our minds and lives (especially for those of us with disordered eating). Diet culture has seeped into every pore, making us Westerners loathe our existence in our bodies, ever-reaching for a totally unattainable idea of health and beauty… often in the form of dumping money into the 60 billion dollar weight loss industry.

Because there’s nothing worse than being fat.

I read in Jes Baker’s book, Things No One Will Tell Fat Girls, that 81% of ten-year-olds are afraid of being fat and these same ten year olds are more afraid of becoming fat than they are of cancer, war, or losing both of their parents.

A few years ago, I likely would have shrugged and even identified with those girls. Now that statistic makes me sick to my stomach. I’ve learned in my heart that fat is not a bad word or a bad thing to have (it’s just an adjective, by the way) and that food is not the enemy. I got sick sick of diet culture owning me. I couldn’t fight off the idea that there has to be more to worry about in life than if my thighs are touching or not.

So, back to the party. There I ate to my heart and stomach’s content. I didn’t feel guilty when I had a third sweet or when I layered a bunch of cheesy nachos on my plate. I took a deep breath and left the room when someone was talking negatively about themselves or food. I redirected a conversation if it became about judging eating or our bodies and I had a great time interacting with people. I wasn’t worrying about how fat I was or if anyone was judging what I was consuming. I also stopped eating when it got too close to the time I play hockey, because I’ve become tuned into my body’s needs (when I eat too close to hockey, I get sick).

Let me tell you…  ease, acceptance, and compassion were NOT always in my realm of possible reactions when it came to food and my body. It’s been a long road. In this article I’m going to talk about my history of a destructive relationship with food, my path to healing, my hangups with “health” and diets, and I’ll end with how you can take power back in your own life. I’ll also provide some resources like books, podcasts, and instagrammers you might find valuable on your path of body love.

Before we get to all that, let’s journey through what my rock bottoms looked like with diet culture.

My Story of Bottoming out with Diet Culture

I learned as a young child that shame and guilt were to be baked into food. I gleaned this through media, culture, and my family. In high school, I distinctly remember dreading seeing my dad’s parents. If I had gained any weight, I could count on both of my grandparents commenting on what I was eating and what my body looked like. Unsolicited comments would come in the form of “hey pudgy,” or me grabbing seconds of chicken noodle soup while my grandmother says “You don’t need that. Do you think you’ll be able to get a boyfriend if you keep putting on weight?”

I went on to develop an eating disorder that started as anorexia and exercise bulimia where I was obsessed with burning every calorie I consumed. I was 14 years old. At this age, I remember eating cookie dough out of the package in the YMCA parking lot in my boyfriend’s car. Tears were streaming down my face while I vowed to spend two hours on the elliptical that night.

I later developed a binge eating disorder where I ate in private and the shame, guilt, and remorse mounted.

Fast forward a few years, I was the “heaviest” weight I had been. I was 17 years old and my BMI (which might as well stand for bullshit meter index, anyways) said I was hardly overweight. My dad was hoping to buy me a car for high school graduation, but instead I convinced him to pay $4,000 to send me to fat camp for 30 days. There I starved and worked out until I was ill.

My weight continued to fluctuate: up, down, up, down. And you know what? No matter what diet, weight loss plan, “lifestyle change,” etc. that I tried, my total disdain for myself remained. Even when I hit my goal weight, I fucking hated myself.

It was baffling. Even at the goal weight I told myself I would be “good enough” and finally loveable, my level of misery remained the same. I was still stuck with me and this idea that something was inherently wrong with me. It took my AA sponsor saying to me when I was talking to her about my dang weight plateau (which was lower than my original goal), “But, when will the weight loss ever be enough? What weight is ‘enough?’”

I got sick of the cycle. It didn’t hit me like a ton of bricks that day. Rather, I had been hearing the sentiment over and over again. When is enough, enough? I slowly realized that I had more important things to worry about than constantly obsessing about calories and if I was thin enough for my date. Even before I was calling it body positivity, I was on a journey of self-acceptance that started in college.

My Ongoing Journey of Reclaiming my Power

I imagine there were 3 big factors in starting my body acceptance journey.

The first was becoming a feminist in college, which helped me to question all I had been taught to believe about how women are supposed to be, act, look, and think.

The second was getting sober from drug and alcohol addiction, which gave me a fundamental appreciation for my body and spirit. It helped me to know I was worthy and loveable.

The third was when I became a Buddhist and strengthened my practice through the 12 steps. Even ‘Buddhist’ doesn’t quite cover my spiritual beliefs and practices, but I began to clear all of the gunk inside the channel within me that connects me to my highest self, or “God.”

Feminism

My roommate freshman year was a spunky feminist. She was loud, sassy, quirky, well-informed, and was not interested in conforming or people-pleasing. She introduced me to feminism and the first feminist book I ever read: He's a Stud, She's a Slut, and 49 Other Double Standards Every Woman Should Know, by Jessica Valenti. Reading this book, I got angry. I started to see the oppression and double standards placed on women, particularly when it comes to our bodies.

For example, double standard number 5: “Attractiveness standards for men tell them to be big, strong, to take up space. Our beauty standards tell us to shrink, be weak, and take up as little space as possible.”

I got tired of being told that I was both “too much” and “not enough.” I got sick of being told I couldn’t take up space. I learned about diet culture and that I was allowed to reject standards the world placed on me. I gave myself permission to take up space and to stop fucking talking about weight and food all of the time. I read books like Shrill by Lindy West that fueled my confidence:

“I reject the notion that thinness is the goal, that thin = better—that I am an unfinished thing and that my life can really start when I lose weight. That then I will be a real person and have finally succeeded as a woman. I am not going to waste another second of my life thinking about this. I don’t want to have another fucking conversation with another fucking woman about what she’s eating or not eating or regrets eating or pretends to not regret eating to mask the regret. OOPS I JUST YAWNED TO DEATH.”

Because I wasn’t wasting so much damn energy on trying so hard to be society’s idea of perfect, my sense of self and my life began to grow. I started to wear clothes without considering the “shoulds” and “should nots” that society tries to place on women who aren’t perfectly thin. I began wearing pencil skirts that accentuated my curves and belly fat. I bought my first crop top. I did my hair how I wanted. People told me that women with short hair were ugly, so I cut all mine off. I rocked a pixie cut for a while and now my hair is funky colors. I learned from women like Virgie Tovar that it was killer to be radical and embrace our bodies and our lives as we are. Right now.

“There’s an adrenaline rush that comes with denying the common rules of society: that I should always be trying to lose weight, that I should always be unhappy with some flaw. To say I am perfectly content with my body and all the parts that assemble it is nothing less than radical.”  ― Virgie Tovar, Hot & Heavy: Fierce Fat Girls on Life, Love & Fashion

Since I’m not so laser-focused on my body, I’ve recently been spending a lot of time mending my relationship with food. I’ve been working towards greater neutrality because it’s not okay for food to own me. I’ve been practicing taking my personal power back and have been spending lots of time listening to podcasts about daily living in the body acceptance world.

I found the Fuck-It Diet to be immensely helpful because it’s teaching me that my body has innate wisdom. Without manipulation and crazy obsession, it can regulate itself. It knows what it wants when I clear away thinking that I should be doing this or that and instead actually listen to what my body is telling me.

“The Fuck It Diet is all about reclaiming your personal power. It's about listening to yourself, being a body rebel, and not letting any body else dictate your life. It starts with food and body, but it will bleed into every other area. This is the business of empowerment and rebelry. And a little magic. And tacos.” - Caroline Doomer, Fuck It Diet

Feminism gave me permission to say ”fuck you” to diet culture and to say “hell yes” to myself. I think everyone’s journey looks different. These are just my pillars. Once feminism was in place, sobriety, Buddhism, 12 steps, and God only continued to shape me.

Sobriety, Buddhism, The 12 Steps, and God

Not everyone has to get sober to understand their innate goodness, but I believe that I did. I couldn’t stop drinking and using. I was destroying myself and blotting out any chance of healing from the trauma of my past. What sobriety has done for me is it gave me a chance to clear my head and my life so that I could dismantle the idea I held that I was innately bad, unlovable, and that there was something inherently wrong with me. I carried this idea around with me like a crushing weight on my entire body and soul, slowly over time squeezing out any ounce of self-esteem, self-love, and self-acceptance I had.

Doing the 12 steps in AA changed everything. Specifically, writing my fourth step,“Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves,” meant that I dug out all of the stories in my head, put them on paper, and looked them in the eyes. I sat with the discomfort for months while I wrote out lie after lie that my head spits out at me about the world and myself. Finally, I got to the part where my sponsor, a woman who had done the steps herself, helped me to start turning them around. We took those lies and turned them around by writing the opposites, or the truth.

The biggest lie that drove me was this idea of inherent badness. Let’s say I disliked you because you had a cuter boyfriend. You went on my resentment list and I wrote that I was having these feelings because there was something wrong with me. Just about every single resentment in the thousands that I wrote boiled down to the same thing: I am broken, I am bad, I am unloveable, and I am unworthy. Unworthy of accomplishing anything, unworthy of friendship, unworthy of having peace of mind, of making decisions that keep me safe, of being in the world, and of treating myself with love and care.

I needed a sponsor to teach me what the truth was. The truth was that I am innately a loveable and worthy child of the universe. Period. And yanno, something as simple as writing that thousands of times after I wrote out the icky stuff changed my core beliefs about myself.

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The truth sunk into my cells and transformed the poisonous messages I was holding in every ounce of me. Poisonous messages that kept me weighted to self-destructive and self-hating patterns. Patterns that bled out into my relationships and into how I treated others. But, there was a shift when I did that work, and now (most days) I have the belief that I am fundamentally good. Not only do I know that consciously, I have a heartfelt understanding of it. I feel in my cells that there is a inherent goodness inside of me and everyone that is unwavering. Sometimes I choose to call it God, a source deep inside me that is like nothing else in this world.

I have a tattoo that says “basically good,” because it’s this idea that nothing I do, don’t do, say, or don’t say can change the fundamental nature of my goodness. Goodness doesn’t mean “good vs. bad,” but instead it’s this sort of divine purity that cannot be touched by worldly clamors. My Buddhist practice and involvement with my center, Shambhala, helped me to build this understanding of my loveable intrinsic nature.

It also helped me to learn that the world is in chaos when we don’t understand our basic goodness. When we don’t believe in this inherent okayness, when we instead believe that our innate worth, reasons to be loveable, and our permission to exist in this world depend purely on what we eat, how much we exercise, and how we look: we are in trouble.

Even the idea of “health” has been co-opted by the diet industry to sell us products, to make us chase ideals, and to trick us into thinking they care because they’re concerned about our well-being. It’s bullshit. They don’t give a fuck about whether or not we’re okay. There is much more money to be made if we always think that there’s something wrong with us.

The Bullshit Idea of “Health”

Ponder this scenario for a second; What if tomorrow you were in a horrible accident? You’re now a quadriplegic. Running is no longer an option. Neither are those Tough Mudders that you’ve made a part of your annual routine. Actually, any exercise at all really is out the window. Meal preps aren’t a thing anymore. Someone else is responsible for feeding you.

Where does that leave you in terms of health?

What about the fact that you were channeling all of your worth from whether or not you met the standards of health that society has set for you? Now what? Are you worthless?

An issue that I have with the idea of “health” is that it leaves out so many fucking people. Um, like most of us. There’s this idea that fat = unhealthy.. Always. There’s only one idea of healthy and it’s thin, white, able-bodied, young, and beautiful. Preferably with boobs and a butt. Did you know that 67% of women in the U.S. are plus size… size 14 or higher, though? Calling everyone else unhealthy and trying to fit everyone into one box is total garbage.

Health means many different things to many different people. One of my favorite body positive mentors, Lauren Marie Fleming did a great blog post that taught me so much about the bullshit connotations “healthy” brings. She brought to light for me this idea of people with physical disabilities and those who are aging as not fitting into the ideal.

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I’ve been thinking a lot about why I can’t fit into the ideal, or at least refuse to attempt to squish myself into it anymore: I deal with so many mental health issues… recovering alcohol and drug addict, bipolar, depression, codependency issues, eating disorders, relationship problems.. etc. Because of my head being such an unpredictable place, a coping mechanism I learned early as a teen is suicidality. When something gets difficult, my brain turns to suicide being a solution. It’s resulted in a few hospitalizations over the years and a lot of psychiatric help. It also means that sometimes I’m neck-deep in water, battling with my own mind that’s threatening to drown me, so I choose binge eating cookies over swallowing a whole bottle of pills. I choose taking a 2 hour nap instead of going to the gym because really all I’m thinking about is drinking or shooting heroin.

When you have mental health issues, daily tasks are a struggle. It’s beyond a miracle that I can hold a job, nevermind be a functional person in the world. Sometimes the outlet that I choose is sugar. If that means I have diabetes in 30 years, so be it. It’s saving my life today. It’s better than acting on the urges I sometimes have to reach out to an ex who I know is still using. I have a brain that is constantly wanting to implode on me, and I do my best to take care of it.

And yanno what, I don't even owe any justifications or explanations for my eating, health, well-being, and habits. They are mine to work with, not yours to pore over.  

So, someone can spit health talk at me all day. “BUT, WHAT ABOUT OBESITY.” Fuck off with that shit. When you really sit down and look at someone’s life, you see there’s so much more to it than fat vs. skinny, healthy vs. unhealthy, fit vs. unfit, etc. I know plenty of people in great physical shape who are totally insane. Don’t sign me up for their mental health. I’ll take mine, which is pretty great these days, and I’ll take some extra pounds.

I know what some people are thinking.

But! Dieting is good, being “healthy” IS self-care, I need to lose some weight, this crazy obsessive Weight Watchers shit I do is totally a good thing.

So, don’t just take it from me that it’s still bullshit, let’s look at the science.

Diets Do Not Work

Diets do not work. Should I repeat that? Probably. Diets do not work. Like, almost ever. Call them what you will: a cleanse, fix, lifestyle change, clean eating, diet, “shoulds” or “shouldnt’s.” They’re all the same. Our diet industry sometimes masquerades as a lifestyle industry. Same awful message, just packaged differently. Restricting food mentally or physically leads to disordered eating, which leads to stress on our bodies and minds. Which ironically leads to weight gain.

Lauren Marie Fleming touches on this in one of her blog posts:

“In Body of Truth: How Science, History, and Culture Drive Our Obsession with Weight – and What We Can Do About It, author Harriet Brown cites statistics that show over 45 million Americans will go on a diet at some point each year. All but 5% of them will gain the weight back in a year, and all but 3% of them will gain the weight back plus some extra in three years.”
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All but 3% of Americans who will go on a diet for a New Year’s resolution next year will gain the weight back plus some extra in three years. That’s a pretty awful statistic, and what do you get to show for dieting? To be miserable and to complain to people who don’t even want to hear about your shitty salad and grumbling belly? You also get a laundry list of other issues!

A New York Times article by Eleni Kalorkoti titled Why You Can’t Lose Weight on a Diet says: “The problem isn’t willpower. It’s neuroscience. You can’t — and shouldn’t — fight back… This study is just the latest example of research showing that in the long run dieting is rarely effective, doesn’t reliably improve health and does more harm than good.”

This article goes on to identify that dieting actually causes weight gain for two reasons:

  1. Dieting is stressful and when stress hormones are created, they increase belly fat

  2. Restricting food and worrying about weight are the greatest predictors of binge eating

Mental health and physical health are interconnected and interrelated. You can’t compartmentalize your eating through a diet and call it health. Forcing yourself to eat less calories than your body needs is creating stress hormones that are telling your body to hoard fat. God forbid we’re fat!

This last point I’d like to address is the bullshit obesity card. Let’s look at that NY Times article again that talks about what some actual deadly issues are:

“Our culture’s view of obesity as uniquely deadly is mistaken. Low fitness, smoking, high blood pressure, low income and loneliness are all better predictors of early death than obesity. ”

Coming back to the idea that there is fat and thin which equal unhealthy and healthy; it’s wrong. There are many factors that make up our well-being and our weight is only one of many barometers to feel out where we’re at. It’s not the end-all-be-all. Obesity isn’t a problem that is to be fixed by a diet.

Reclaiming YOUR Power from Diet Culture

So now what? Hopefully I’ve shaken some ideas in you. If not, that’s okay. This shit is deeply ingrained. But, let’s say you do want to start learning more about how you can reclaim your power. I've compiled some body positivity resources at the bottom of the post that cover getting started by following bopo instagrammers, reading books, and listening to podcasts.

I’m going to warn you: if you choose to unravel the false and negative notions you have about yourself and your worth you are going to be fighting an uphill battle. Some days it will feel nearly impossible to think and act normally in a culture where more people have disordered eating and distorted body images. You’ll be normalizing your relationship to food in a society that is totally ass-backwards around food.

Your tiny co-worker will talk about how fat she is. You’ll hear talk about diets and how fat is bad left and right. Maybe if your experience is anything like mine you’ll even have trolls commenting on your Instagram photos telling you you’re fat and gross! *Eye roll* Parties will be exhausting. Social media will feel like a battlefield full of landmines… even more than it already does. Some days you will wonder if you are the crazy one.

But, once you taste the absolute freedom in accepting yourself unconditionally, you won’t look back. I haven’t. Once I started to learn that I could focus on things other than my body, that my body actually is perfectly capable of self-regulating without my constant obsession and attempted manipulation, when I started to reject other’s notions about how I should be… that was when I started to be able to breathe again.

I could wear whatever I wanted. Over the years my style has evolved. My choice in who I date has grown closer to being people who actually match who I am and how I want my life to be. My day-to-day activities reflect my belief that I am good. I follow my dreams and I pursue them. Most days, I sit without feeling like I have to adjust to look thin. I eat based on what I’m feeling like eating. I move my body in ways that I enjoy. My fitbit step count no longer owns me… I’ve actually totally stopped wearing the damn thing. I no longer step on the scale because I’m much more interested in tuning into my body and how it feels. I know my worth and most of the time I feel beautiful. When I do date someone again, it will be someone who clearly sees my worth. I’ll be myself. I won’t have to worry about being a certain way for them. I get to be weird, silly, goofy, enthusiastic, mildly awkward, sometimes charming...  my total self.

After all, body acceptance and reclaiming our power is about so much more than our bodies. It’s important to work through all of the body image and diet stuff, but once we do a lot of work around that, our worlds open up. They get bigger. We have more space in our minds for dreams that include art and science and loving relationships. Kale doesn’t own us, but we eat it if we enjoy it. If we think it tastes like dirty garbage (which I do!), we don’t. That’s it. We have days where it’s hard as fuck and we cry or rage, but mostly... we’re free.

The power of choice is restored back to us. I can’t explain it any further to you. It’s something you can only understand through experience. So, join me. Take my hand and let’s eat cupcakes or cucumbers or go write some poetry or something. Maybe we can go see that sweet new body positivity documentary Embrace. Let’s reclaim our power and say fuck you to diet culture. After all, we’re worth it.  


Huge shoutouts to Alissa Gillis for the amazing photoshoot and to Dan Bosco for being a gentle and encouraging editor, always helping me to grow.


Body Positivity Resources

Here are some resources to get you started or compliment your existing body love journey. Expect this list to grow into it’s own expansive blog post soon!

Instagrammers to follow

Books to read

 

Podcasts to listen to (can be found on Itunes Podcasts)

Originally published on 10/31/16