On Food And Not Eating It

This is the post where I talk about body image. This is the post I very nearly deleted after typing most of it up months ago because I think it is (1) way too personal and (2) kind of irrelevant. By irrelevant, I mean that I shouldn’t have to give you a sobby backstory to justify writing a post about body image. In some ways, I feel like this isn’t even my story to tell. After all, I write as a woman fortunate enough not to know suffering in the throes of an eating or exercise disorder. I also write from the extraordinarily privileged position of having been, all my life, comparatively thin. Of all the things I struggle with, body image is not high on the list. Both of these advantages color my view. However, because I am a woman living in America, and because I have spent more time thinking about the way I look and what I put in my mouth than is even close to reasonable, I have something to say. So, at risk of elevating my story above yours or giving only one of many perspectives or distracting from others with more urgent or significant stories to tell, I am going to talk about my experience with weight and dieting. If you don’t like my story, or think it is insufficient (I already know it is), then please tell your own. Here or elsewhere, just, please, tell it.

I could never tell the whole story, the hows and whys of my relationship with my own body, because there is a quarter century of experiences at work that I couldn’t begin to pick apart, and thousands of years of history, and a whole world of expectations. I can give you an outline, though, of the things I remember every time I stand on a scale.

I remember that when I was in fifth grade my class took a trip to the science center and one of the exhibits had an old-fashioned scale with a round face the size of a tire that we all took turns stepping on. When I got on, the needle swung nearly half-way around the clock-like face and told me I weighed 85 pounds. That was the first time I knew or thought about my weight and I didn’t know what to make of it, except that it was a lot bigger than the number that most of the girls, and boys for that matter, in my class got. I didn’t realize that being a good six inches taller than everybody else meant I would weigh more, too. To this day, I’m not really sure why I cared. I was young, and fairly insulated from the cultural noise that drives children these days to diet. But care I did.

I remember a week and a half or so before my junior prom it suddenly occurred to me that the group I was part of was going on a pre-prom date that involved bathing suits and this was the first spring that I hadn’t run track and that I should probably do something to look better. I don’t know if I thought I was overweight or not. I can’t image that I did. But I spent a week and a half running every day and trying to throw up after meals. I think I must have read enough stories about girls with eating disorders in magazines that I figured that was what people did before prom. I weighed myself on the scale in my parents bedroom every night and the numbers didn’t change. After prom, I promptly forgot to care about how much I weighed. A few weeks after that my boyfriend broke up with me and I was sad for a long time, but I am lucky that it never occurred to me to be sad about how I looked.

These two moments stand out because, although I clearly wanted to be thinner, this was not a desire I often thought about or acted on. I did not dislike my size the way I disliked my curly hair or my knobby elbows or my big nose or my pale prone-to-breakouts skin. No, I mostly knew I was thin, wanted to be thinner, and only acted on it in a vague way for that one week because I liked myself (and food) as I was too much more to give it any more attention.

I spent the next seven years loving everything about my body. I didn’t think about my weight. Wait, that’s a lie. I lifted my shirt up and stood sideways in front of the bathroom mirror every morning. Force of habit, picked up that week in high school when I was gauging to see whether or not I’d lost weight overnight. But I made next to no effort to monitor my weight. I didn’t own a scale. The balance beam scale at campus health always took me by surprise and when I had to get on it I looked at the number leveled out in the little square window with an “Oh, huh, I guess that’s what I weigh now.” My self-confidence was sky-high for most of those seven years and you could not convince me that I wasn’t the most attractive girl in the room at any given time, even when I could clearly see that wasn’t the case.

Of course, the world couldn’t let this all this feminine confidence go unchecked. There was no way I live on indefinitely in that self-accepting state, without running headfirst into the message,  you may look good, but you’ll never look good enough. What happened was that Robert and I decided to get married. The first month or so of our engagement was all bliss and long distance phone calls with our families (and tailgates — we were in the height of football season at Michigan). And then we had to start planning. It was like prom all over again. I needed to buy a dress and this time around the dresses were even more expensive and I didn’t even have my mom around to go shopping with me, let alone female friends. I didn’t know what to expect, so for the first time in my adult life I started buying glossy magazines with attractive women on the front off the shelf at the grocery store. Once again, the idea came from out of nowhere: I should lose weight. I will be clear here. I did not need to lose a pound. I was at an extremely healthy weight for my height. But Robert and I both figured that we could stand to get in extra good shape before people started taking pictures of us that we’d be expected to keep on the walls forever.

So Robert and I started going to the gym more regularly and watching what we ate. I won’t go into detail about our diet, because that is utterly and completely beside the point. I will confess that I started secretly adding up the approximate number of calories in everything I consumed because a little knowledge couldn’t hurt, right? I should at least have a general idea of how much I’m eating at a given meal or on a given day. Wrong. That little bit of knowledge turned out to be incredibly dangerous for me.

I kept dieting — keeping track of my calories and restricting myself to certain healthy foods — for about a month. That is not a long time. I took a break when some friends threw me a bridal shower. I ate cake for breakfast lunch and dinner that day, including a slice before and a slice after a ten mile run. For the next four months leading up to the wedding, I felt like a crazy person. I craved sweets and junk food all the time. I hated that I couldn’t keep eating the way I had before, even though I was still restricting myself to salads for lunch, small, spartan meals for dinner, and trail mix for dessert. I was working almost full-time and studying for the bar and planning a wedding and living on my own in Chicago and I went to bed legitimately angry at myself when I didn’t squeeze in a run, or when I had two handfuls of trail mix after dinner, instead of one. I was angry at what looked to me like a lack of self-control. I’d exercised six days a week before, for a time, so why couldn’t I keep it up? I’d gone without junk before, for a time, so why couldn’t I keep that up?

What I didn’t realize was that my brain and body were reacting to the fact that I’d sent them into starvation mode. I understandably didn’t have a clue that 30 days of what felt like a reasonable, healthy diet, could have such a long-lasting negative reaction. I started to put together what happened to me by reading Meg Fee’s blog. I won’t tell her story here because it’s her story, but you can read some of it on her site. Recently, she posted this, which I’m linking to specifically because I’m going to quote it. Fee said, “so let me be very clear in how i say this: i did weight watchers for two months. i lost twenty pounds. and i spent the next six years paying the price. two months. six years. do the math.”

I skipped over the part where I let go of the short-lived obsession with food and exercise because it happened by chance. I wasn’t deep enough into it to let it seep in between cracks of joy on our wedding day, or even at our rehearsal dinner. And for our honeymoon we went to Spain and Italy, resolved to eat. Our approach to food on that trip, and the more general approach to food in those countries, snapped me out of it. We ate what we want, when we wanted, almost nothing processed, and walked for miles every day, and we came back a month letter looking and feeling better than we had when we left. It broke the spell.

These days, I’m occasionally tempted to go back. Wait, that’s a lie. I think about it often. I eat like a normal person, but I’m not happy with my body the way I used to be. That month of dieting ruined it for me. I think, “I looked really good when we were on that diet. I should try it again, but not go crazy this time.” Or, Robert will mention that he wants to try eating healthier and I’ll encourage him to do it, thinking that it’ll help me too, since he does all the cooking. Without fail, though, the second I think about starting any kind of diet, I start planning my meals and counting ahead of time all those calories I won’t eat. I can’t shake that little bit of knowledge I gained from a month of counting calories, and now it’s a weapon I keep trained on myself.

So now, whenever I’m unhappy with the way I look, I take a step back. I repeat Fee’s mantra — two months. six years — to remind myself that I got very lucky and that I may never be able to go on any kind of diet safely. I shun talk of diets and weight (I might even decline to read a post like this one) because by putting diet and exercise on a pedestal, they trigger the cycle body and self-hatred.

When somebody I love goes on a diet, I never know quite what to do. My story is just that, mine, and I know that anecdotes aren’t evidence. But I don’t know that I’ve ever in my life seen a diet work long-term, and when they don’t work, the consequences are often far worse than just gaining the weight back. I also don’t know how to find a way to be healthy that doesn’t put an emphasis on aesthetics because it’s just really, really hard to put that aside once the possibility of losing weight appears. So that’s all I’ve got now. A disappointing end to a disappointing story. My diet didn’t work and made me crazy and I doubt very much that yours will be different, and that’s what I have to say.

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2 Responses to On Food And Not Eating It

  1. Di says:

    I’ve been trying to figure out what to say for a couple days now. You managed to get me to delurk with this one.

    Literally the day before you posted this, I finally signed up for a website that helps me track calories. I am both terrible at knowing portion sizes and looking at calories. In high school I was so thin that people actually thought I had an eating disorder (I didn’t). I now never exercise and frequently overeat because of the whole I love food, particularly food that is bad for me thing. And I definitely weigh more than I healthily should.

    So while I love your blog, what I’m left wondering is what is someone supposed to do that is actually overweight and out of shape and SHOULD make changes (I’m hoping the changes I’m making now are more long-term and less “diet-y”)? Because I agree that it’s too easy to get wrapped up in an unhealthy mindset and focus on aesthetics and do long-term damage to your mental and physical health. I needed that reminder. But how are you supposed to change things without falling into that trap?

    Maybe this is all rhetorical and I’m just talking it out in your blog comments, so I hope you don’t mind. But I really do love what you have to say and yet feel torn by knowing that I need to make diet and exercise changes and you wrote this right around the time that I finally took a small step toward doing so.

    • Sandy says:

      I’m not really sure how to respond to this comment, but I’ve been thinking a lot about it. First, I’m sorry if this post derailed you from your health goals. I’m all for making positive, lasting changes. And you’re right that it’s important to know what you’re eating. In fact, even though counting calories and dieting made me crazy, it also taught me that it doesn’t take as much food as I thought it did to feel full (I also have a major tendency to overeat, because food is awesome). Second, I hope I made it abundantly clear in my post that I am in no way qualified to give advice on this subject. It’s a difficult subject because I know that sometimes it would be beneficial to lose weight and that one way to do that is to be cognizant of how much you’re eating, but at the same time I’ve seen how counting calories and dieting don’t work (in many, many people, not just me), and I know how dangerous it can be (for your brain, not your body) because I’ve experienced it. Maybe other people aren’t like me. Maybe you can track your calories and not let it poison your mind. I don’t know. Third, even though I’m not really capable of giving advice, I can tell you what I do. I exercise several times a week and I eat a ton of healthy food. I don’t restrict “bad” foods, but when I eat “good” foods throughout the day and drink a lot of water and exercise, I’m less hungry for the bad food. I’m less inclined to overeat when I know I will eat again later that day and when I do it will be delicious. This approach (which came about naturally when we were in Europe on our honeymoon) helped me get over the calorie obsession and its done me well since. Every body is different, but I don’t see how food restriction could ever be sustainable over the course of a life, and that’s what I think the key to being really healthy is. This may not be helpful and for that I’m sorry, but I wanted to take a stab at responding publicly. If you want to discuss any of this more, either here or via email, I would welcome that. I mostly hope that you are feeling good about yourself and I worry about dieting because it makes so many people feel bad.

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