Grieving the loss of diet culture

I didn’t go looking for diet recovery, it found me. Looking back now I’m amazed at how long it took me to see that obsession with weight loss had completely consumed my life. At my various low points, I obsessed over my weight loss quest for the majority of my waking hours. I tried every diet and “health plan” I could get my hands on and scoured pro-ana sites for advice. If someone had offered me instant weight loss in exchange for a decade of my life, I’d have said yes – enthusiastically and without hesitation.

My journey along the spectrum into severely disordered eating was a slow one. A child of the 80s and 90s, I was raised with the culturally pervasive expectation that controlling my weight by any means necessary was my duty to society. I grew up in a family of women who dieted off and on throughout my life. Long before I crossed the threshold of being considered “overweight” by the medical community, I’d been indoctrinated into the diet culture that has become inescapable in our day to day life. I started out trying to go from thin to thinner, and diet-binge cycled my way into a body that I’m constantly reminded is considered unacceptable.

Despite what the scale and the label on my clothes told me, I’d always assumed that because I was “thin” once I could get there again. I told myself my size was temporary and it was just a matter of willpower to get back to my “real body.” When months turned into years and it didn’t happen, I blamed myself. I convinced myself that, as Lindy West writes: “If you hate yourself hard enough, you can grab just a tail feather or two of perfection. Chasing perfection was your duty and your birthright, as a woman.” (Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman, 2016).

The process of breaking free from that culture has been one of the most difficult and rewarding things I’ve ever done. But I didn’t set out to stop dieting – far from it. Even as a coach, after doing lots of self-discovery and personal growth work, my size continued to be the one thing I felt was holding me back. I was still searching for the perfect nutritional plan (i.e. diet) when I signed up for a masterclass called “Stop Fighting Food.” My assumption was that this was the thing that would “fix” me once and for all and finally help me force my unruly body into submission. Instead, I got a dual education around both the real science of the effects of dieting and weight as a social justice issue.

Through the work I did in the masterclass and afterward, I recognized that no diet was ever going to get me what I wanted. I was (and still am) firmly convinced that the pursuit of weight loss is not only unsustainable, but that it detracts from my health and well-being. I stopped dieting, once and for all.

Since then I’ve rediscovered what it means to listen to my body and take pleasure in things that feel good. I’ve eaten the foods that I’d denied myself for most of my adult life and enjoyed them. I’ve learned which foods make me feel good and gave me energy and which ones didn’t agree with me. I’ve found new ways to move because it feels good or makes me stronger, rather than focusing on the calories I’m burning. I’ve never doubted that this was the right choice for me; the experience of letting go of dieting and finding some measure of body acceptance has freed me in ways I’d never imagined.

I’ve grieved over the years that I wasted on weight-loss obsession. I’ve mourned over all of the times I said “No” to something because I hated my body and lamented over the missed opportunities that passed me by while I waited to be thinner. I’ve cried over the family photos that were never taken because I hated to look at myself. This grief feels like a natural part of the process.

But I wasn’t prepared for the grief that I’d feel about giving up the pursuit of thinness. It wasn’t until I stopped trying to lose weight that I realized just how much of my time and energy, my hopes and dreams, were tied up in my quest to be smaller. For years, every plan of making my life better started with losing weight. Realizing that was unlikely to happen and choosing to stop making myself crazy with pursuing it meant that I had to face the reality of spending the rest of my life in the body I have, rather than the one I’d been conditioned to want.

Make no mistake: it’s a huge dream to give up. To be fat in our culture is to be discriminated against and shamed constantly – by strangers, by doctors, often by our own friends and family. Our culture tells us that fat people must also be lazy, slovenly, unhealthy, undisciplined and morally “less-than.”

It feels like a catch-22. Mourning an obsession that was so utterly toxic to my well-being seems absurd but accepting that I might never get my thin privilege back is still difficult. This is the reality of living in a size where size is treated as a cultural currency.

One of the things that has helped me the most is learning more about weight as a social justice issue and advocating for more inclusive perspectives. Continuing to find ways to enjoy the body I have has also helped me to move through the grieving process. Ultimately, this is the body I live in. It’s the only one I’ve got and it’s served me well for over four decades – and maybe that’s enough.

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