In honor of International No Diet Day, I thought I'd share my own diet history.
My mother was a dieter, which is kind of ironic considering that she was so skinny when she was little (the story was, she'd been sick with something) that the family doctor told my grandmother to give her a beer every day to plump her up a little. Even in her teens and early adulthood, the photographs show a slender, athletic build. But that's how the diet industry works -- according to that old sales adage, create a need then fill it. By the 1960s, she was convinced she was fat, and for decades went on every crazy diet that came out, including, once, The Drinking Man's Diet. So dieting, self-hate, and alienation from my own internal signals of hunger and satiety were modeled for me from an early age.
The sixties also, not coincidentally, was the decade in which I hit puberty and Twiggy became an international sensation. I turned 15 the year she began her career. My friends and I were all soon on diets, as our bodies began to fill out in the way nature intended and we wanted them to look like Twiggy's. I remember at 13 skipping lunch to lose weight, when I had very little to lose (I think back then I hovered around 105 lbs) and at some point in there learning to count calories: I had my intake down to 800 calories a day some days. God only knows what kind of damage I did to my growing body during those years, all supported by the messages we were all getting from Seventeen Magazine, television ads, and just about everywhere else in the media, and my own mother. That began the weight cycling. I was never fat, hovering around 125 pounds by the time I got out of college, but I was convinced I was.
By the time I'd got married and started into my first round of graduate school, I'd discovered feminism, along with their take on the objectification of women and diets. For a time, I was free of dieting, learning to eat intuitively, and loving it. But the diet industry is seductive, and by the eighties they'd learned to associate health with weight loss to not only scare us into dieting but convince us that we were actually doing something good for ourselves. It was in the eighties that I quit drinking. Of course, I lost a little weight right off, and somehow that triggered another round of dieting. I became a little (okay, maybe more than a little) obsessive about it -- there's page after page after page of wasted journal space taken up with little more than calorie counts and daily records of my weight. I lost 30 pounds, which was probably 25 pounds more than I "needed" to. I started passing out and falling, and my friends began to express concern. I was a size 10, struggling to get into an 8, because I had some vague memory of wearing an 8 in middle school and thought that was where I "should" be.
I started graduate school again, and my weight began to creep up as I didn't lift anything heavier than a textbook, I wasn't in charge of the cooking at home any more, and I was under massive stress. By the time I graduated I was, for me, positively huge, weighing in at nearly 185 pounds. And somewhere in there, I got, for the second time, the message that dieting was not the solution, but the problem. When it was relevant to the topic in my psychology classes, I would spin around in front of the class and tell my students, "This is the body you get with dieting." But the diet industry is seductive. Somehow, between the fifties and the year 2000, when I was diagnosed "pre-diabetic" ("pre" anything is a whole 'nother problem, more to do with the pharmaceutical industry, and we'll save that rant for another day), the diet mentality had thoroughly infiltrated the medical profession. Doctors were convinced that it was weight gain that led to diabetes, for example, and not the other way 'round, as recent research suggests, and I was placed on a medical diet. Off came the pounds. Back came the obsessive behavior. Until Mr. Wood got sick and had to go out of state for treatment. Because here's one of the things about diets. They can call them 'lifestyle changes' all they want, but they're not. Because if they were, they'd be pleasurable and sustainable. But they're not. Instead, they're onerous and unnatural, and when you get busy having a life, there's not time for all that obsessive behavior, and the diet -- because that is what it is -- goes by the wayside.
Feminists, by the way, would say that is part of the point. The Incredible Shrinking Woman has been used as a metaphor (I wish I could remember by whom, so I could cite her appropriately, but unfortunately I cannot) for what all patriarchal societies, ours not excepted, would like to do to all women -- make us smaller, and smaller, and smaller, and less visible, less powerful, until we disappear entirely. And occupy us with silly things like our hair and our makeup and our pants size so that we don't have time or energy (or money) left over to be intentional actors in the world outside our own skins.
Anyway, back came some of the weight. Interestingly, however, the diabetes did not come back. Why? Because I actually had, in and around the diet crap, made some actual lifestyle changes. More complex carbs, more fiber, for example. Less stress. Which is what research over the last decade has been showing more and more -- that if you make a lifestyle change having nothing to do with cutting calories or losing weight, a real lifestyle change like more exercise, or more fiber, or less salt, well then. Your health improves. Imagine that! And those are achievable goals, whereas anything more than temporary weight loss is a chimera. Fortunately, before I could go on my next diet, I discovered Health At Every Size (HAES) and re-discovered intuitive eating. I have not dieted a day in my life for the past two years, and -- surprise! -- my weight is absolutely stable. My labs are fine, too. My blood pressure is fine. My total cholesterol ain't so hot, but that's mainly because my good cholesterol is too low (and my heart attack risk remains rock-bottom for a woman my age, according to the Framingham tables). My blood glucose is fine. As for my mental health, I have finally divorced food choices from morality, from character. I have no guilt about my eating any more. I don't criticize or dislike my own body but am coming to appreciate what an intricate marvel it is, and to appreciate it for what it can do. No obsessive-compulsive behavior: What I eat or don't eat doesn't rent the best spaces in my head any more.
The third time, as they say, is the charm. I am experimenting with new foods, eating intuitively and meditatively and enjoying my meals as the sensual experience they are intended to be. And the funny thing is, this business of learning to think with my whole body instead of just my head is expanding into other areas of my life and I'm learning to take care of myself in other ways as well as feeding myself better, learning to enjoy other experiences more. This is International No Diet Day. Try it. Just say "no" to food rules today. Say "no" to moral judgments on your eating. Say "no" to character assassination based on your appearance. Just for one day, don't police other women's bodies, either, or tell them what to eat or not eat. Just for today, listen to your body. Eat what you are hungry for. Stop when you're not. Try it. You'll like it.