TW: diets, calorie counting, discussions about EDs, body image and weight (including numbers).
How old were you when you first hated something about your body? I was 8. I was lining up in the yard in primary school, and I noticed some other girls had thinner legs than me. That was the whole thought. That’s all it took. That thought festered, and warped, and twisted, and would continue to do that until 2018. Yep. This 2018.
When I was 12 and in secondary school, someone made a comment about hockey players having thunder thighs and for me to ‘be careful’ playing this mandatory school sport. I bet you can guess where the thought that 8 year old had began to really multiply. I hated my legs. Hated them. And yet they were always in proportion with the rest of my body. I read and re-read Twilight when I was 14, and the description of Bella being 5’4 and 110 pounds was burned into my brain as an ‘ideal’, cause why else was it in there if being that size wasn’t desirable? I was always slim, a UK 8-10, and continued to be that size for the rest of my teens. Except when I was 16 and 17 I was regretting every time I put sweets or chocolate or cake or ‘bad’ foods into my mouth. I was regretting not being ‘skinny’ I was regretting ever eating. I joined a gym with my mum and would torture myself trying to run, trying to lift weights, hating every single moment I spent in the gym but hating myself more.
When I was 18 and discovered I had to eliminate gluten from my diet, I lost weight. And when I was 18, I began my first restrictive diet. People I worked with made comments about me never seeming to enjoy food, and at the time it was hard to eat properly because restaurants weren’t properly equipped to prepare gluten free food safely, shops didn’t have the massive Free From sections they have now, and it was so much easier for me to eat nothing. I think I dropped to maybe 120lbs, and I was obsessed with being smaller and smaller. I wasn’t quite that magic 110lbs. I was still eating, but it was controlled. I wasn’t counting calories, but I was refusing to let myself eat the things I wanted to eat. And I was hungry all the time, and I was thinking about food all the time. My ex-boyfriend was tall and whippet thin and would always complain about being fat, would compare me to other girls and he was emotionally abusive in so many other ways too but he really made me feel extra shit about my weight because to my mind at the time I was just too big. That was all I ever thought about. Except there’d be days where I wouldn’t think about food, weeks where I might eat normally, and for all intents and purposes I was a ‘normal’, ‘healthy’ weight for my height so there was never reason for anyone to be concerned about my eating habits.
On holiday in Florida when I was 19 I survived for three weeks on lettuce, the occasional chilli chips in theme parks, a carefully counted handful of crisps, and Arizona green tea. I was exhausted, I was in the worst mood all the time, and I was incredibly depressed, except I never put two and two together that what I was doing was an issue. I was anxious, I was angry, and I still thought this was more important than anything.
When I was 20, I met my boyfriend and I relaxed some of my rules, though they’d invariably start up again. I was in therapy that summer, though I thought what I was doing was normal, that diets were normal and hating yourself was normal because people talked about dieting and willpower all the time, and I could look the way I wanted to look if I just tried harder. I told her about my calorie restriction. I told her I was eating max 1200 calories a day, and she looked at me and said I couldn’t be, because if I really was I’d be losing weight. And then we moved on. And I believed her. I believed I was doing something wrong, so I dropped that maximum, and every time I relaxed my ‘rules’ around food and started dieting again I would drop it lower and lower. And my weight was creeping up and up. Really slowly. Barely noticeable. But still going up.
I was never diagnosed with an eating disorder. I saw a few other specialists about other mental health things and would bring it up in therapy, and a later therapist referred me to a dietician who was encouraging me to eat three meals and two snacks and to stop restricting, and the therapist was saying I wasn’t eating enough, and I looked at both of these women like they were talking complete and utter shite because I was so convinced people looked at me and thought I was too big. I recently found worksheets about dealing with disordered eating, but I have no idea what planet I was on at the time that I wasn’t really taking it seriously
except, you know, I was starving all the time and probably didn’t have the brain power necessary to compute what was being said to me or the help they were trying to provide.
Fast forward to the last couple of years when I’ve had health problems. Statistically people with my illness gain about 50lbs from diagnosis. They’re not sure why. Something to do with inflammation markers. That did happen to me, and I hated every moment of it. Some of it was genuine swelling and water retention, the rest was stress and metabolic damage because I’d kept dieting, kept restricting, kept being hungry. Kept trying so hard. Used coffee and energy drinks to suppress my appetite. Counted fucking almonds on my way to college and would nearly cry at the smell of cooked food from the college canteen. Tried to fill my stomach with a sugar free fat free soul free yoghurt and got angry at myself for not being able to do these things. Every diet started out the same. I’d plan to eat ‘healthy’ foods and it would spiral, and spiral, and spiral, and it was nothing to do with willpower. Diet culture was and is a trap designed to never make you feel good enough.
This year I was driven demented by the fact I’d step on the scales and see I’d gained no matter what I was or wasn’t eating. I dropped my minimums lower and lower until it was at an absolutely crazily tiny amount of food I was ‘allowed’ to eat. I was miserable and mood swingy and crying all the time, and angry at myself because I couldn’t control what was happening to my body.
Maybe some of that sounds familiar. Maybe you’ve cried not being able to get a dress closed, or get a pair of jeans on, or stepping on the scales and thinking there was truth in the things we’ve been told we need to do to ourselves to be perfect, to be pretty, to be acceptable. To be good enough. To be desirable. That all of those things were true and the only way to live, and the only reason your diet isn’t working is because you weren’t trying. hard. enough.
Then I learned about intuitive eating. And health at every size. Scores of women talking about how weight does not equal health. Debunking in clear terms the concept of BMI, of acceptable weight. The concept of diets and why things like Weight Watchers and Slimming World and restrictive calorie diets and everything else we’ve all tried don’t work long term. Hint: it’s nothing to do with willpower. Food is fuel, and bodies want to be fuelled. Me preventing myself from eating chocolate or bread or crisps or whatever the fuck was destroying me inside and out, and the more I resisted the stronger those cravings got — but not only that.
Those cravings had an actual purpose. I was ignoring my growling stomach, so my brain switched to secondary hunger cues, which was to tell me YOU NEED TO EAT A BAG OF CRISPS RIGHT NOW AND YOU CAN’T STOP UNTIL YOU’RE FULL
And those thoughts would make me feel like a failure. I would feel like a failure for not loving going to the gym or for not loving going for walks or for not loving ‘healthy eating’ or ‘clean eating’ because it was fucking miserable eating only bland foods or cutting out sugar. I never realised the language I was using, saying I was ‘trying’ or ‘being good’, was demonising the cues that my body was giving me that I needed to eat, that I needed to eat, that I needed to eat and eat now because I was putting us in danger.
So, back to intuitive eating. I watched videos by Ladle by Ladle on Youtube, read articles by Lauren Fowler and posts on the Fuck it Diet (linked at the bottom of this post), and I let go. I just ate whatever I wanted to eat. For the first month every day included a share bag of crisps and a large bar of hazelnut chocolate and I was terrified that I would never ever stop eating crisps and chocolate and that these people were liars and that this whole thing was just an excuse to hide my lack of willpower behind, but I was also reassured when they said the extreme hunger and cravings would fade away. And they did. I haven’t read the calorie content of a single thing since February this year. I haven’t counted calories, I’ve forgotten how many calories are in things. I have thrown out the rulebook that says when or what I can eat.
And nothing bad has happened. I gained a little weight — all the weight I lost on my last crash diet, and a little more, and I think now I’ve stopped gaining. Do I still get afraid I won’t fit into my clothes? Yep. Has it happened? Nope. We moved house and I don’t have a scales here, so I don’t know how much I weigh. I don’t want to know, and I don’t need to know. I’ve had comments about my weight = my health, but not a single doctor or consultant or specialist has brought up my size or called into question what I have or have not been doing and how this might be affecting my health, because it really doesn’t matter. I have started to fit back into clothes I didn’t fit into at all this year (though that only happens when the swelling goes down. But the extreme swelling is also happening less and less now that I’m not under stress). I eat a normal diet. I eat breakfast, I eat lunch, I have a few snacks. I can go weeks without eating crisps and then might eat a little packet every day and then just go off them again. The same with chocolate. The same with ice cream. I take cravings as cues that I maybe haven’t eaten enough that day, or maybe I’m lacking in salt, or maybe I’ve low blood pressure, or maybe I’m PMSing really fucking badly and just want some damn chocolate.
I’ve written so much more than I meant to, but it was to get a full picture drawn before I got to my final point. I hate talking about diets. I hate hearing my friends talk about weight gain or weight loss, because it wasn’t long ago that I’d have agreed with them. That I’d have taken it as a sign that I was doing something wrong, or if my thin friend thought they were fat then that must mean they are judging me, even though I’m sure I’ve done the same things to people over the years by talking about my size.
I believe now in Health at Every Size. I have an illness, and that makes me unhealthy. Because it’s a health issue. But me at a UK8 or me at a UK14 is not a measure of my health, and it is not a measure of your health. What is a measure of health is how you feel when you’re on a diet. Counting and restricting and denying myself things made me hate myself, and I don’t want to do that anymore, and I don’t do it anymore. The further and further I get out of the diet mindset, the more at peace I feel within myself. I still have body dysmorphia (exacerbated by the evil swelling) but I’ve separated by feelings about my body from my desire to not feed my body for not looking the way I want it to. Since February I have not skipped a meal (on purpose) or denied myself a snack or gone to bed hungry.
If any of this resonated with you, I’m including a list of resources that I read that helped me break out of the diet. But if you’re talking about diets and I look like I want to start yelling, all of the above is why. Equally if you’re talking about diets and weight loss and I disengage myself from the conversation, all of the above is why.
I also know that as a straight-sized person (a person who can walk into any shop and find something to fit them) that I still have thin privilege and that me feeling fat is just a feeling, and not fact. The Health at Every Size movement was started by those women, who were medically healthy but still told they were not because they didn’t fit the social norms of what ‘health’ looks like. It’s wild how we’ve made healthy a euphemism for thin.
In that context, healthy doesn’t mean shit.
The Fuck It Diet (This kicked it all off for me. I still go back and read these posts, but this blog put it all into perspective)
Ladle by Ladle (Rachel talks about veganism, but she didn’t become vegan until after she had fully recovered from both her ED and the diet mindset)
There are tonnes and tonnes more RDs and podcasts and blogs out there about breaking free of the diet mindset that helped me, and I’m finding more and more every day. I thought doing this was giving in, but I ended up giving up on giving up a huge space in my brain to constant food preoccupation and putting my body into survival mode. Fuck diet culture.