Each year for the past few years, I resolve to NOT go on a diet!
I have to resolve again each year because diet culture pulls hard. In the spirit of my resolution, and my desire to strengthen our collective resilience against diet culture, I will be resharing a series of posts this month that I've published elsewhere. These will be my #pleasedontdiet posts.
In today's post. I share how I identified what I call "The Shame Diet" and the work I have done, and continue to do, to stay off it.
About 30 years ago I was dancing at a friend’s wedding and dislocated my left knee. Very painful! Since then I’ve had periodic aggravation from it, and a few years ago I was told that I had “impressive” arthritis for a woman my age, and should give up the high-intensity exercises I’d been doing for a decade. That was devastating news, and after contemplating what was bugging me, I had to face the truth – that my real worry was that I would gain weight. Without the mega calorie-burn and metabolism boost that my insane workouts afforded me, I was afraid I’d start packing on pounds, and that terrified me.
That realization totally caught me off guard because I thought I was long over my weight issues!
MY WEIGHT STORY
I believe that anyone who has weight and/or body image concerns would benefit from writing and working through their weight stories. Here’s an abridged version of mine: I was a skinny little kid, but plumped up a bit in my early teens. Some neighborhood boys noticed and were cruel, the way boys can be. Their mockery cut me to my vulnerable teenage core. I felt humiliated, and after that, spent most of my adolescence being anxious about getting fat. After going off to college and gaining my freshman 15+, it got worse. I felt ashamed of my body and worried about fat most of the time. This went on for more than a decade (the Weight Watcher’s years), until I was “lucky” enough to drop about 30 pounds in 2 months when my marriage exploded. My diet at that time was composed mostly of cigarettes, canned corn, and gin.
Rather than concern for my health and mental state given my rapid and obvious weight loss, what I got were loads of compliments on my new slender physique. One day a close relative told me that suffering made me hot! The silver lining of the nightmare of my divorce was that, for the first time in my life, I liked the way my body looked. I also liked the approval and attention I received for my weight loss. In hindsight it’s obvious, but at the time I wasn’t aware of the irony that while I was being admired for my new body, I was the least healthy I had ever been – physically and emotionally.
Once I discovered I was capable of being thin, my life pretty much revolved around staying that way. It was my job, and it even felt like a moral obligation.
When I gave up the gin and cigarettes diet and adopted a health-focused lifestyle paired with high-intensity exercise, I found what seemed like the solution! And it worked for a long time. But after dealing with a couple of injuries, I gained some weight, and then the stupid arthritis! Managing my weight for over 15 years kept me feeling alright about my body, but when I faced the reality that I would eventually be the loser in this ongoing battle against my gapless thighs, I slammed right into my deeper fat-phobic beliefs that had been dormant. Maintaining my lower weight, which required weighing, measuring, counting, and vigilance bordering on preoccupation, turned out to be a way to avoid experiencing the insecurity I felt when I was younger. But it turned out, it was not a cure for insecurity. Beneath all my healthy lifestyle pulpiteering, a frightened part of me still believed that if I gained weight I would be a failure. Avoidance ALWAYS makes our fears stronger. The chubby, ashamed teenager inside me was hiding and terrified inside my trimmer body.
The Shame Diet
I realized that I had spent the better part of over 30 years on The Shame Diet! My main motivation for managing my weight was shame – shame that came from a deeply ingrained fear that I would be unworthy of love, attention, and affection if I got fat! Not gaining weight was of paramount importance, but not because it was an expression of self-care, or a reflection of my health, but avoidance of shame. And since it was not easy to maintain my weight, shame was always an extra slice of pizza or a missed workout away.
At that point, I didn’t know how to console that frightened part of me, because she was right; if I gained weight – to the outside world, I would be a failure, and worthy of shame and rejection. I was also at risk of losing the approval and affection of people who were important to me. For all our “body-positive talk”, it’s more than clear that we remain a weightist culture. Some of the warmest and most compassionate people I know have a bit of a “thing” about food, fat, and fat people. It’s a prejudice that seems to be almost universally acceptable.
Experts suggest that in order to master a skill, you need to practice for 10,000 hours. In those 35 years or so of practicing my shame-diet, what did I master? I mastered the ability to quickly estimate the caloric and macro-nutrient values of every food at the buffet of life, and to experience eating as an equation rather than an opportunity for nourishment and pleasure. I mastered the ability to hold in my gut every waking hour of the day and by doing so, kept my body in a low-level state of stress. I mastered the ability to gracefully avoid events that required shorts or swimsuits, and limited my social life. And I mastered the ability to turn the authority over my body’s needs to everyone except me, and turned my appetite into my enemy. I could have learned to play guitar, or to speak Mandarin, or to fly a plane!
Shame is Not a Diet!
After I processed my intense reaction to the arthritis diagnosis, I realized that I could probably get trimmer by cutting back on calories or finding new ways to exercise. But that didn’t sit right. As much as there’s a part of me that judged myself by society’s harsh standards, and feared the consequences of gaining weight, there was another part of me that had enough of the shame-diet. Being trim shouldn’t be SO important that it becomes all-consuming, and it shouldn’t result in preoccupation, shame, and fear! Shame is not a diet, and isn’t part of a healthy lifestyle!
So, recognizing that while it would be difficult to shake decades of cultural inundation, and to carve new pathways into my brain, I needed to start practicing body acceptance and body compassion instead of shame.
Getting Off the Shame Diet
I now work to nurture the part of me that accepts my body as it is, to be grateful for my unbelievable luck to be alive in a time and place where there is an abundant bounty before me, and to be compassionate with the part of me that struggles. I work to remind myself that my body is more than an object to look at; that it’s the vehicle I have been given to navigate life’s journey, and to focus my body thoughts on how my body functions and feels, not how it looks. I also choose to refuse to participate in fat-shaming, beauty or age-shaming, or weight-judging conversations with anyone.
When I find myself slipping into my deeply ingrained old body trashing habits, I work to stop and remind myself that my body is not a reflection of my worth; it’s just my body – the physical expression of my history and my humanity. It’s imperfect because I’m imperfect. We are all imperfect.
An Ongoing Challenge
I’ve been at this for a few years now, and to be honest, it’s still not easy. It’s really hard to maintain body appreciation in our beauty-focused, fatphobic society, especially as my body ages. I have to work at it almost every day, and it will probably take 10,000 hours of practice. But if I’m going to be working at something, I’d rather be working at valuing my body, than at reinforcing body shame. I’d rather work at making peace with my body than battling with it, depriving it, and hating it.
Is it The Shame Diet or Self-Care?
I’m sharing this with you today because I know that I’m not alone in this struggle. Once I stopped participating and started observing fat talk, I haven’t made it through a day without hearing multiple episodes of people shaming themselves or others about food or weight. Or they’re desperately trying to figure out the solution to finally losing that weight for good; sharing weight loss tips on social media or at the office water-cooler.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with striving for a healthful lifestyle, and for hoping it expresses itself in a way that makes you feel physically good about yourself. What I am suggesting is that if you feel like you are perpetually at war with your body, or if your pursuit of healthy living comes from a place of fear, if it takes up time and energy you’d be better off spending in other ways, or if it leaves you feeling bad about yourself, vulnerable or unwell, it’s probably the shame-diet masquerading as self-care. True self-care feels good!
The Bigger Picture
The last thing I’m going to say about this today is that it’s ridiculous that this is even an issue, when you think about all of the real suffering and food insecurity that exists in this world, but it is an issue. Whether you are thin, medium, or fat, whether you are young, middle-aged, or old, and whether or not you are considered conventionally attractive, not many of us are immune to body shame – whether we are doing it to ourselves or inadvertently reinforcing it in others.
My hope is that by sharing this, if there’s a part of you that senses that you have been putting too much of your energy into trying to control how your body looks, you’ll join me in choosing to pay attention to how your body feels, and to putting the energy you spend trying to “fix” your body into making peace with your body. And then let’s use the rest of that energy to flourish, and enhance our lives and the world!
In future posts, I’ll share some of the resources and strategies that I have found helpful on my path toward staying off the Shame Diet and making peace with my body.