Last week I heard someone tell a story about a young person whose doctor thought they were gaining more weight than the they should and the doctor suggested they do something about it, a situation which is not uncommon. It was determined somehow that poor eating habits and lack of movement were the problem and somehow this was corrected. I don’t know the details but the person lost weight and went into adulthood in a smaller body.
The point of the story was to say – see – sometimes young people need help learning what to do so they can be healthier.
I’m not saying that this doesn’t happen, and there are definitely circumstances where this is the end of the story, but in general this is the Disney version of the dieting story. Person is in a larger body or gains weight “oh no!” and then person loses weight “yes!” and lives happily (and thinner) ever after.
Even as I heard this story, it struck me as normal and natural and common sense. It wasn’t until I was walking my dog later that day that I realized how eerily similar this was to my story, at least on the outside.
I was always a slightly bigger than average kid growing up and started gaining weight as I approached puberty (as I was supposed to). However, I was unhappy and decided to “do” something about it when I was 12. I went to a nutritionist and changed my eating and lost weight and I maintained that into adulthood. The same success as in the other story right?
But at what cost in this case?
I ended up internalizing the message that my size was a VERY important thing – if not the most important thing – and I did everything I could for the next 30 years to keep the weight off.
I smoked cigarettes in high school and college to help keep me from eating, so it definitely wasn't about health. I also started working out regularly – you know, Jane Fonda workouts in the living room, jogging, and my Dad made an obstacle course outside our house so I could run, climb ropes and trees, and hop through tires. I did it, not because it was fun, but but because it would help me lose weight. It was my very own version of the Biggest Loser at home. Movement became all about the calorie burn and the intensity. Did I do it long enough or was it hard enough?
Throughout the years, I also counted calories, I did Weight Watchers, I did Atkins, the Flat Belly diet, and Paleo among dozens of other diets. I took Dexatrim diet pills and wrote down everything I ate in journals until My Fitness Pal came along and then I tracked all my food there. I did Cross Fit and some sprint triathlons and took up jogging. I joined gym after gym. I did spinning. I had a FitBIt and a Garmin that would tell me how far I went and how fast and how many calories I burned.
I worked with a personal trainer. I purchased and preached about the latest nutritional trends and fads to whoever would listen. I ate non-fat and no fat foods and filled my body with so many chemicals – but I didn’t care as long as the calories were low.
I gained weight and lost weight and gained it again - always getting praise for being smaller and always vowing to try harder next time and never being small enough. At my smallest, I lived on vodka and Marlboro Reds – again – not exactly healthy. I was a model diet culture citizen, always coming back for more. And the whole time I thought that my size was the most important thing about me and I thought that this was normal and I never actually reached a size that was good enough.
I thought it was normal to wake up and tally what you ate the day before and be depressed before getting out of bed as you realized you blew it in the last few hours the night before. Why did you eat that ice cream you didn't even want? Time to double down on restriction (which always ended up in bingeing even worse).
The negativity, the criticism, the name calling, the guilt - and that was all being heaped on me, BY ME.
And now I am now in a bigger body then when I began, thanks to dieting. Oh the irony.
I share this as a cautionary tale of what can happen when you "solve" the "problem" of a higher weight body. Our culture looks at thinner as healthier. This isn’t true but people believe this and work so hard to achieve it without even realizing what they are sacrificing.
Our culture has normalized disordered eating to the point where we don't even see it as disordered anymore.
I actually did have a happy ending. I woke up. I woke up to what I was doing to my body and my soul. I woke up to realize that life doesn’t have to feel so hard and tortuous. I realized that obsessing about food and my body was not the way I had to live. I realized there was such a thing as diet culture and it had had me in it’s grips for decades. I realized I had forgotten what it was like to be joyful and have fun moving my body and eating delicious foods stress free.
I realized I had a choice and there was an alternative to trying to conform to an societal ideal when that was not the body I was given.
So when a young person loses weight intentionally, I can’t help but wonder, are the new eating habits sustainable? Is the food pleasurable and satisfying? Is the movement enjoyable? How are the levels of guilt and shame when eating "unhealthy"? What message about body size has been internalized? Was the young person praised for the weight loss? Does everyone now tell them they are "looking good"? How much of a priority are they now making that shape and size?
At what cost?