I wanted to start this with a dramatic road-to-Damascus moment, but just like my decision to minimize my wardrobe and quit focusing so much on fashion, this began gradually and softly.
My story is so similar to other women’s stories about their relationship with their body that it’s almost prosiac, but I’m going to share it anyway. I was a skinny, active child, but when I hit puberty I put on weight in a way that my brothers didn’t. I developed thighs, breasts, and a pudginess that is common among those whose bodies are being quickly morphed by hormones. I was quick to notice this, and between basketball practice and the time I spent obsessing over the Backstreet Boys I found myself standing in front of the mirror in my room feeling altogether uncomfortable at what I was seeing. This feeling was bolstered by at best well-meaning but unhelpful and at worst downright demeaning comments I received from various people in my life.
I was never overweight. I don’t point this out for egotistical reasons, but rather to shine a light on how ridiculous it was for me to ever have felt the way I did. My body was simply maturing and becoming more womanly. It was a normal, healthy body.
I was sixteen when I dieted for the first time, a fact which I now realize, puts me among a privileged few that waited that long in life before attempting to restrict their food intake. I remember it clearly: I had just seen the new Tomb Raider movie in the theater, and something about Lara Croft’s embodiment of sexuality as a strong female lead really spoke to me. I thought to myself “this is what a powerful woman looks like.” At the time, I was unaware that the powerful-yet-sexy woman archetype was just another side of the same old coin. The “badass bombshell” lives in a cage defined by her beauty as much as Barbie and any other role model young women see time and time again as they grow up. As a teenager, I was already interested in challenging stereotypes, yet I had a hard time seeing through the gauzy film of beauty and thinness that was draped over everything in my world. From every angle I heard and saw that beauty was power and thinness was beauty. I believed it.
Anyway, back to that first diet. I decided to create my own “Tomb Raider” diet consisting of counting calories and constant activity from dawn until dusk. I had no idea what I was doing, and thank goodness I only made it through the first afternoon of my self-induced drudgery before I decided to cave and snack on the healthy muffins I’d made. It didn’t take me long to pick up the mantle of dieting again, though, and when I did it always followed the same pattern. Whether or not the diet lasted hours, days, weeks, or months it always was characterized by a restrained period of virtue in which I meticulously counted calories and exercised without mercy, followed by a cataclysmic binge that left me feeling sick. Disgusted with myself, I would promise myself that I would begin again the next day. Sometimes I managed to do that, sometimes I didn’t. Often weeks or months would go by with me failing each day and promising myself that I would start the next day. The self-loathing I felt during those times was immense, and the way I ate, when everyday was the “last day before the diet” was generally very unhealthy.
I am now almost 32 years old, and since that first diet I have never a known life outside this cycle. There are lots of sub-stories to this plot, but the nuances are less important than the overall picture. For too long I’ve been so concentrated on the trees of this awful forest that I haven’t stepped back to look at its nacreous hulk. Like Bilbo wandering through Mirkwood, I’ve been lost in a dark, confusing place.
I think it’s easy to trivialize dieting, perhaps because it’s so commonplace. Almost everyone, male or female, that I know is currently on one part of this diet cycle–virtuously dieting, breaking their diet in gorging binges, or diffidently working up the gumption to start dieting again. This cycle isn’t trivial. It represents a huge investment of time and mental resources and an enormous drain on self esteem.
On February 14th, after a binge broke the chain of my most recent diet, I recall lying on the rug in the center of our condo, staring at the ceiling and feeling utterly spent. Exhausted is probably the best way to describe how I felt. In the recent past, I had dieted heavily for our trip to Hawaii, restricting my food intake to a meagre allotment of calories, something in the realm of 1100-1400 per day. Concurrently, I was exercising like an Olympic athlete, commuting on foot 4.5 miles each day and putting in 30-60 minutes of cardio at the gym afterwards. I knew it wasn’t healthy, but it had become an obsession. The saddest part is that I never felt satisfied with my body or the weight I’d lost. The “ideal” body I’ve become so accustomed to seeing is so thin that despite all my efforts I was still above its low low weight. During our trip, as they often do, rules broke down and I ate and drank a lot. After we got back, I attempted to get back on a more moderate diet, but was only somewhat successful at doing so. I just couldn’t get motivated to starve myself anymore.
Lying on the rug that day, I felt a slow resolve come over me. Despite the fact that everyone I knew was dieting, the fact that every female role model displayed to me by the media was a size 0 stick figure, despite the fact that it seemed to be common cultural knowledge that you had to be tiny to be attractive, I felt a deep understanding growing in me that something was not right. In fact, I began to realize, something had to be almost morally wrong. If the system is telling me I have to be thin to be okay, but the things I need to do to be thin are not healthy or acceptable ways to live life, then the system must be wrong. The promise of being thin–that it will make you beautiful, happy, lovable, actualized–could not be true if it required me to starve myself and waste my life away in the cold white-washed walls of the gym.
That day, as a new promise to myself, I wrote the following:
“I will no longer restrictively diet or try to reduce my food intake to lower my body weight. I will achieve this goal via a mental and physical approach. These approaches are:
1. Mindful, non-restrictive eating.
2. Actively accepting and embracing my body’s natural weight as healthy and beautiful.”
I knew I was heading into uncharted land, and it felt scary. As much as I was beginning to understand that the myth surrounding thinness and its promise of happiness was just that–a myth–I realized I had no understanding of how to truly appreciate my body as it was. I also had only the barest inkling of how to eat in a way that was reasonable and healthful but not restrictive or in a way that responded to restrictions (i.e. binge eating)–something I literally hadn’t done since I was sixteen years old.
That was just over two months ago, and I’m happy to report that this was one of the best decisions I have ever made. In fact, I feel so strongly about this that I have decided to speak out about it. Part of the reason I spent so long trapped in the hell of endless dieting was simply because I didn’t hear enough voices speaking out against it. When I lost weight, I was praised. When I gained weight, I was greeted with sidelong glances that judged without words. In the tumult of voices I heard around me talking about diets and the virtues of weight loss, only a scarce few ever mentioned the dangers of dieting and even fewer addressed the idea that maybe we don’t need to diet at all.
We need more voices speaking out against dieting and its pointless, endless cycle. We all see a deluge of “perfect” thin bodies everyday–when we watch TV shows, when we browse the Internet, when we shop, when we watch porn–we need our media to accurately reflect real bodies. We especially need girls and young women to see what an average adult female body actually looks like, and to show them that that body can be considered beautiful, valuable, sexy, and whole. I can be that voice. My plan is to open up on this topic in a variety of ways on Style by Joules. Using my own body, I will demonstrate that a woman of normal weight can be beautiful and deserves confidence, self esteem, and self respect.