Content Warning: This article discusses weight loss, disordered eating, and the lie that being smaller makes you more worthy. Use caution and don’t forget you are already good.
I am a 37-year-old fat woman who spent decades of my life trying to shrink. I know diets. As a child I bopped along with Richard Simmons on his Sweatin’ to the Oldies VHS. I used smaller plates to simulate portion control. When I became a teenager, I decided to try recording everything I ate. I also learned that I enjoyed jogging and felt triumphant when I finished a short run in my neighborhood. These habits alone were actually great for my teenage self, but it started an emotional journey that would be torture.
You see, I lost a little weight, and the response felt like I had saved a child from a burning building. People went wild. A man I loved like an uncle told me my dead father would be so proud that I slimmed down. More hauntingly, friends and extended family members let me know how gross and off putting they had found my old body. People I loved very much let me know that I was more lovable when I was smaller, and therefore more attractive. I started restricting my eating even more, living off Lean Cuisine meals and 100 calorie snack packs. (It was 2006, that was the height of healthy eating.) Getting smaller became very, very important.
I got married at a young age and immediately started working full time as a teacher. I had less free time to focus on going to the gym and food tracking. This is when my weight started to shift to a higher number and I got desperate. Diet culture had its hooks in deep at this point, and I entered a cycle of having a huge binge period before starting a new diet. Completely separated from the basic habits that had made me feel good in the first place, I tried everything on the market. I have used Weight Watchers, the 21 Day Fix, Beachbody powders, My Fitness Pal, carb-free diets, Whole 30, the Special K diet (two bowls of Special K a day and a sensible dinner), and more. I have tried tricks like chewing gum to keep me from snacking, snapping my wrist with a rubber band when I reach for food, and pouring water over my meal after I’ve eaten half to make sure I wouldn’t eat anymore. It was disordered and it heavily messed with my head.
I gave up diets about eight years ago. Books are what saved me. I’m much larger, happier, and have a better relationship with my body than ever. I’ve learned what diet culture is and what it does. Diet culture (and the diet books that hold it up) spews lies daily. Some are easily debunked, and others I am still detangling. Some of these lies are so insidious we accept them as fact without any thought. The point is, we need to talk about it.
Lie: Healthy Food and Exercise are Only Worth the Amount of Weight They Can Make You Lose.
I’m still deep in my journey of reconnecting with myself and the foods, habits, and movement that make me feel good. It’s not small or simple. In diet culture, certain foods are vilified and exercise is exalted as the most virtuous thing you can do. Once you realize that shrinking is not a worthy life goal and remove yourself from diet culture, it’s easy to reject exercise and any food that was considered “good.” Getting to a spot where you nourish yourself with nutrient dense foods and move for your mental health is so hard when you’ve been taught those things are only worth it if they make you smaller.
Lie: Losing Weight is a Feat of Discipline and Means You are in Control.
This one is so, so damaging, because it’s really easy to believe. It’s also dangerous to people in larger bodies, because society believes the opposite (fat means sloppy, letting go, lazy) without a single analytical thought. The truth is, all humans genetically have much less control over the size of their bodies than we would like to believe. It’s also laughable to assume that people suffering from disordered eating are in control. To be strict with diets and follow food rules that are based on shrinking, you basically have to shut down your connection with your body and the hunger signals that should vary throughout a day, week, and month. Whenever I’m tempted by the siren call of going back to my dieting days (“Maybe I really was much healthier before…”) I am reminded of a time when I was at my smallest, being praised left and right, and was caught with a spoon in a bag of sugar I had frantically dug out of the back of my mom’s pantry, because I was having an intense craving and snapped. I was not in control.
Lie: You Will Be So Much Happier in a Smaller Body.
Thin privilege is absolutely real. However, I’m sure if you polled people in larger bodies and naturally skinny people, you’d find that being smaller does not lead to automatic happiness. When being treated so terribly for being larger is the norm in our fatphobic society, it’s easy to hope that if we follow the arbitrary rules and get small, all of our hardships will melt away. Unfortunately, there is no shortcut for dealing with our problems. I’ve been straight-sized and I’ve been fat, and neither of these sizes helped me grow in my career, deal with grief or mental illness, communicate with my partner, or support my community. The lie that smaller means happier can persist for so long because diets don’t work and most people never reach the magical number they have convinced themselves would unlock happiness. Still, it’s a lie.
Nothing about living in a fatphobic society is easy. It sucks that billion dollar industries rely on selling the lies that diet books tell. It’s confusing to find ourselves when we are told, directly and indirectly, that we need to ignore all our instincts and keep searching for the magical set of rules that will lead to all the good things waiting just on the other side of weight loss. There are books that hurt and books that help. Look for books with fat representation to see people of all sizes living life and kicking ass. Look at books that debunk diet culture to remind yourself that it’s all a trick. Or put the books down and do the scariest thing of all: listen to yourself. I am wholeheartedly wishing you the best of luck.