We’ve all heard it before- diets don’t work. According to WebMD, an estimated 80% of dieters gain the weight they lost plus some extra back within a year. This is because when you carry out consumption habits within a set of parameters that don’t align with your lifestyle, you’re fostering unsustainable habits in pursuit of a superficial goal. I’m no stranger to such habits. Ever since I was a child, I have experimented with heavily regimented diets and rules in order to achieve what I considered to be the perfect figure. Ranging from calorie counting and Weight Watchers to copying what my sister ate and veganism, these rules never left me feeling like I had any control over my own body. Ultimately, these methods conditioned my thought patterns to believe that getting as skinny as possible in the shortest time frame was both an attainable goal and a healthy approach to controlling my weight. Eventually, my eating habits became wildly disordered, leaving me to deal with bouts of starvation and binge-and-purge behavior for the better part of two decades. I became so committed to the idea of thinness that it often took center stage in my life, pushing out my social life, creativity, and the ability to simply live. It wasn’t until I took a more intuitive approach that my body began to settle into a shape that makes sense for my height and frame, as well as a more relaxed attitude towards my overall health. I am by no stretch cured of my unhealthy habits, but I have learned to recognize the thought patterns and process them in a healthier way.
I was born overweight. No, really. I came out out of my mother’s womb weighing in at almost 12 pounds. It’s one of my favorite tidbits to share with pregnant women because I’m a sadist who likes to watch the looks of terror populate on their faces. But I digress. On the day I was born, a little boy at the hospital asked my dad if he was the father of “the big one.” It’s harmless enough to refer to the size of a baby as big, but when that pattern of communication continues well into the child’s formative years, it’s certainly enough to cultivate a complex in regards to the subject. When my older sister and I arrived at family functions, she would be met with comments about how thin her developing figure was while I received declarations of how big I was for my age. I towered over my sister in height and carried quite a few more pounds around on my bulky frame than she did on her much more demure one. I was so disappointed in myself for becoming “the big one” that I started copying what she ate in order to look more like her. As a child with no knowledge of how nutrition and individual bodies work, I didn’t understand why this wasn’t working. I felt deprived, and at the age of 12, I began binging and purging whenever I was alone in my home. I was developing a pattern of habits that would stay with me my entire life.
These patterns continued into my teen years when I started experimenting with calorie counting. I carried around a small notebook and painstakingly tracked every calorie consumed. Seeing these numbers right before my eyes while the number on the scale moved down at a glacial place frustrated me. I had heard that 1500 calories a day were the proper count for weight loss, but it didn’t take long for me to shift my goal to the lowest calorie count possible. I would go to the gym every day after school and run on a treadmill until I’d burned off every calorie I’d consumed throughout the day. On days where I consumed the full 1500 calories and only managed to burn 1000, I’d feel like a failure.
These kinds of behaviors had me living in a loop of my own destruction. My entire life, my whole identity, revolved around my pursuit of thinness. I functioned under the assumption that the perfect body was the only thing I needed to feel truly happy. Since, in my mind, I was chasing happiness, making decisions that I didn’t feel good about in the present moment felt justified. I would lose weight on my extreme diets and gain it all back and then some shortly after I’d fall off the wagon I’d fashioned for myself. When I was on a diet, weight loss was the only thing that mattered to me because I always thought I’d get to everything else when I became thin. At the time, it seemed inevitable that I would reach my goal because I was following the rules that the sources I turned to for diet advice set for me.
Operating under these rules always sent me into a frenzy. If I was low on calorie or point count, I would decline invitations to drinks after work. If my friends were heading to an Italian restaurant for dinner I would skip it to avoid the calories, or, even worse, I would attend the dinner and order a salad with dressing on the side, ignoring the steady flow of wine and bread with oil dip in order to achieve the perfect figure. The latter always left me feeling empty- not just devoid of proper nourishment, but not having truly indulged in the experience and emotional bonding due to how distracting I found all of the caloric temptations. As I got older, I realized this wasn’t the proper way to live. I was missing out on the things that make life bearable simply because I was uncomfortable with the few extra pounds that had settled into my hips and thighs. The friends I would neglect would never have cared about the fact that I looked less than perfect, but they would take it personally when I would avoid seeing them or spend a dinner out in a funk because of the way I felt about my body. I welcomed the concepts of food and body shame into my consciousness.
When I look back on my teen years and my early twenties, I’m filled with regret for the things I didn’t do in order to achieve an unattainable goal. I feel like I lost a part of my youth to the pursuit of thinness. I often reflect on the dinners out I missed, the wild drunken nights I didn’t think were worth the calories at the time, and the homemade baked goods I refused because I couldn’t possibly figure out the caloric contents of homemade goods. If it wasn’t trackable through my diet methods, I simply didn’t do it.
When I “discovered” veganism, I thought I had broken the pattern of rigidity once and for all. I had found a diet that I could follow from a moral standpoint, one that didn’t require me to obsessively track exactly how much I’d eaten. There were rules, but these rules were different. I believed in all of the environmental and agricultural reasons to practice veganism, but what it really functioned as for me was a new set of guidelines that eliminated things like pasta, fried appetizers, and queso dip from my diet. It was easier to follow than the sets of rules I’d previously followed because you get less pressure to break your diet when your reason for following it comes from a moral standpoint. Veganism allowed me to categorize foods as bad without being questioned.
For a short time, veganism felt like the magic formula I always needed to achieve my thinness goals. Without dairy and butter in my diet, a sizable chunk of the weight I’d wanted to lose for years seemed to effortlessly melt off of my frame. Once the initial weight loss slowed, I began to oversimplify my diet in pursuit of what I would describe to others as a “light feeling.” I described it as a shift in energy, but the shift was that I woke up every morning feeling empty- perhaps starved. I was using veganism as an excuse to eat miniature meals devoid of the fat, carbs, and protein I desperately needed. I was fighting against my body to look a certain way instead of working with it in order to live.
After some time, skipping the chips and queso at happy hour became more difficult. It stopped making sense morally- the refusal had become about the weight loss and was filling me with a sense of deprivation. The deprivation mindset has always triggered bouts of binging and purging, and this time was no different. I was binging on the worst kinds of foods for my body- fast-food fries, chain restaurant pizza, bags of Halloween candy- because I wasn’t planning on digesting them. It’s very difficult to see the value in food when you’ve already decided that it will be digested by the toilet after it’s consumed. This behavior continued with relentless frequency for years, sinking me further into the depths of my disordered eating. I was only focused on my body- I stopped doing anything that meant anything to me. I had once again stopped living for anything other than a smaller jeans size.
Thinness has served as a distraction from the things in life that would bring me a sense of fullness. Projects and plans have been put off because I’d envisioned myself being a creative, hardworking person in a smaller body. I have lost immeasurable amounts of time I can never get back waiting for that smaller body to arrive as a result of my unhealthy efforts. Friends were avoided because they would have persuaded me to consume excess calories. I saw my weight shoot up dozens of pounds in a matter of a few weeks, and back down again when I got myself on one of the many tracks laid out towards my goals. My reality was an endless loop of diet failures and disordered eating while watching my body shrink and swell on an almost twice-yearly basis. I told myself it was worth it because happiness was on the other end of all my dietary stress, but it wasn’t until I loosened my iron grip on an aesthetic idea of what I should be that I began to see bits of happiness work their way into my day-to-day existence.
I can’t pinpoint exactly when it happened, but within the last few years, I have taken a different approach to food. Perhaps it’s that I’ve aged, but I can feel the effects of different foods on my body and I try to strike a balance between what makes me feel good physically and what makes me feel good emotionally. I don’t use diet rules to punish myself anymore. I still gravitate towards vegan options when they are available and delicious, but I don’t stress about what to order at a restaurant that specializes in cheese-covered dishes. I’ve learned to enjoy the indulgences rather than file them under “failures.”
Since I gave up rigid veganism, I have been able to maintain a relatively healthy weight within a ten-pound range. The main difference I see in myself between then and now is that I consider the concept of sustainability when setting my habits. Knowing that it’s not sustainable to keep my calorie count in a triple-digit range or to eliminate entire categories of foods that I enjoy feels new to me. I have made a conscious effort to view my body through a brighter lens, and although I don’t always like what I see, I have learned to accept it more readily.
I have also pursued new things, made new friends, and shopped for clothes without assuming that I’d be in a smaller size a few months from now. I have learned to eat pizza without letting myself become wrapped up in the calorie and fat content, and I haven’t refused an invitation to drinks that I would rather accept in years. I still don’t eat meat and I’m quite picky about where my dairy comes from, but I’ve learned to cook a hearty red sauce for a lasagna that’s absolutely smothered in locally-sourced ricotta cheese for a shared table. I live with no food rules now, and I’m becoming acquainted with a brand of freedom I can’t remember knowing ever before.
I haven’t healed overnight, and I don’t consider myself to have turned a new leaf completely. There was no breaking point that set the wheels of change in motion. I’m not a success story because I still struggle with the ideas that have been ingrained in my head for so long. I have seen gradual changes in myself as I’ve become more frustrated with the emphasis I’ve put on something that ultimately doesn’t make me feel fulfilled. What I know now is that the five extra pounds lingering below my button as a result of afternoon beers with friends aren’t as big of a problem as I once thought. I know that if someone I love bakes a batch of cookies, it’s worth it to accept that I can’t actually gauge the calorie count in order to experience the flavors of something made by hand. And I know now that the only reason to turn down plans is genuinely not wanting to go anywhere, and if I want a drink (or five) then I’ll have it.