[Note: This piece, along with the others in this series, refers to diet culture, weight stigma, fat phobia, intentional weight loss and disordered eating.]
This is part three of our special After Party reflecting on diet culture. The Dismantle After Party is a long-running series where past contributors come together to share short stories and reflect on a common theme. Be sure to check out the whole Diet Culture Edition, including the introduction and parts one and two.
Lee M. Pierce: Diet Culture Dropout
I don’t remember my first diet, exactly. But I remember going to Pizza Hut for lunch in middle school and ordering a salad because I was counting carbs. I must have been around 13.
I continued to count carbs and macros and points and whatever else for another 20 years. To this day, I still know that a small egg is around 50 calories and contains around 6 grams of protein. But while the food calculator in my head still automatically calculates everything I put in my mouth, I no longer use it to make decisions.
I am, I am very glad to say, an official diet culture dropout. But I didn’t get there the way I thought I would.
I thought that I would eventually embrace the body positive movement. Eat rich foods with reckless abandon and unashamedly wear a bikini like Lizzo. When I dropped out of diet culture, almost nothing changed on the outside. What changed is that I stopped believing myself when I talked to myself like shit.
It wasn’t an epiphany; the change happened over years and required as much journaling as the previous two decades had required calorie counting. But I remember when it started. It started with a woman on a diet podcast declaring, to the absolute shock of the host, that she was a weightloss coach who didn’t teach calorie counting. Or macro counting. Or keto. Or workout plans. Or intermittent fasting.
“Well then how does anyone lose any weight?” the host asked incredulously.
“Sometimes they don’t,” she responded. “But they stop talking to themselves like shit.” She continued, “We all make the mistake of believing the thoughts we think are the truth. That some asshole comment put in your head years ago by your loser uncle about your weight or your looks is actually what you believe. If you’re going to lose weight, and no one has to by the way, it’s going to happen because you stop believing your own shitty thinking.”
So that’s what I did. I still think about losing weight. And I still put on clothes and wish I were smaller. And sometimes I have dessert for breakfast and think, “I shouldn’t be doing this.” But the follow up thoughts have changed. I used to think, “you’re so fat and out of control. Tomorrow, we’re throwing out all of the junk food and cutting out carbs.” Now I just tell myself, “just because you’re thinking it doesn’t mean it’s true.” And I go on and eat my dessert for breakfast and, most of the time, find it a lot easier to just stop when I’ve had enough these days.
Megan Baffoe: Recapturing My Ferocity
I’ve ended up back in the archives of my own poetry blog for inspiration–I don’t use it quite so much now, but I updated it religiously as a teen. ‘I want my body to exist as an apolitical house to a soul … I am not starving myself, but I am starving by association,’ I wrote in 2019. Starving by association. I remember feeling like that. I was desperate not to think about weight, about dieting, but it didn’t really seem possible. I still do resent how much energy diet culture demands –not just in that it steals from you the nourishment you’d get from food, but in that resisting it is also a 24/7 job.
I was hoping to write something very astute and insightful for this After Party, but instead I’ve come back to the obvious: diet culture is pervasive. Does that need to be re-stated? I’m very much not the first to say it. I think I was about thirteen when I first read the Naomi Wolf quote, the one that says ‘a culture fixated on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty, but an obsession about female obedience.’ That quote rattled around my head for a couple of months.
I’m very given to obsessions; I definitely feel that need to obey, to behave. Anxious, perfectionistic, highly focused on aesthetics–my brain is basically fashioned for that diet culture hook. I am genetically thin so I was never pressured directly regarding my weight, even growing up in the 2000s. But I felt the push to be thinner, thinner, thinner anyway and this idea about ‘female obedience’ seemed like an important explanation. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a copy of The Beauty Myth in my school library, but I read as much as I could find on diet culture and fat activism. I am glad that I introduced myself to such material early, even if I can concede that my childhood outlook was a little heavy as a result.
I went to a selective, single-sex school, and–as you can imagine–the concentration of high-achieving teenage girls meant that food habits were not always exactly healthy. So I clung to my flourishing feminist convictions best as I could, even if that mostly amounted to refusing to shop at Brandy Melville. If I ever noticed myself feeling guilty about food I would push that down, try and fight through the panic of grabbing seconds or dessert.
I’d love to say that it’s all sorted now that I’m an adult, but that would be a lie. I’ve just kept on doing my best to stay as far away as possible from the cliff’s edge. I was actually surprised by how much anger I found in my blog’s ‘diet culture’ tag; I think I need to try and recapture some of the ferocity that I felt about it as a teen.
Julia Rittenberg: Self-acceptance as Community Politics
At the beginning of 2021, I moved into an apartment without a full-length mirror.
I’m not without vanity. I check my looks through my laptop’s Photo Booth application (a throwback if you’re a mid-gen millennial).
After years of obsessively hating my body, then obsessively pursuing fat liberation as a political mindset, I had arrived at a sort of neutral state.
Over the past few years, my body has widened and softened. Whether it’s because of the pandemic or the natural contours of aging, I’ll never be sure. What I know for certain is that my history of ED precludes me from pursuing any sort of body modification. I know that if I were to start, I would spiral out of control.
The thing that allayed my self-hatred was the same thing that helped with my social anxiety: the realization that no one is thinking about me very much. The vast majority of people are deeply wrapped up in their own pain and their own concerns, way too much to remember the one time I acted awkwardly at a party.
The problem with bodies is that any self-hatred we verbalize, especially related to dieting to become smaller, externalizes the anti-fat reality that so many people proclaim is not a deeply-held belief. That’s the problem I can’t get over, despite my mostly neutral feelings about my body. When does self-hatred, as externalized through dieting or shaming one’s own body, cross over into being disgusted by other people?
In 2023, I’m hoping to interrogate the tension I feel between bodily autonomy and bodies in community. I do not mean that people who choose to become pregnant should give up their autonomy–rather, a pregnant person can and should be able to depend on a caring community around them.
In terms of how we treat the shape and look of our bodies, I’m struggling. For some, bodily autonomy includes the idea of weight loss, dieting, or surgical modification. However, the way we talk about and present our bodies has unintended consequences on the community around us. There’s a billion-dollar industry behind the statement “I feel fat,” waiting to suck you into their weight cycling diets and further make you feel that any extra pound will cause disgust. It’s inevitable that feeling this way about oneself will ripple out into how we treat other people.
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