I remember the first time I realized that I was fat. I was in fifth grade, and it was time to pass out the class pictures. The teacher handed me my photos, which featured a chubby Amy in a sweet-ass bowl cut and a necklace that said “DIVA.” The kid sitting in the desk next to me said, “Hey, your arms are pretty fat.” Of course, I was mortified.
I pulled my sleeves down to cover my fat arms, and little did I know, began a cycle of lifelong dieting. Food restriction and fad diets have been a fixture in my life since I was 15, when I went to my first diet doctor. I dropped 50 pounds in college by existing on diet pills and cigarettes, but the weight came back with a vengeance.
I was ruining my health, hair, and skin by dieting and using stimulants, but I wasn’t losing any weight. I think there was a point where I just gave up – I was never going to be skinny. No matter how many calories I eat, my body was always going to be fat. Period. Shortly after this revelation, I was very lucky to find the online fat positive community, particularly on Tumblr.
Bloggers like Amanda Levitt (of Fat Body Politics) and Melissa McEwan (at Shakesville) were instrumental in my body revelation. Reading their words on fat positivity, fat hate, and diet culture opened my eyes. Even as a feminist, I’d allowed diet culture and ridiculous beauty standards to seep into my brain and affect my body.
In my own small acts of rebellion, I started wearing sleeveless shirts and skinny jeans. Bright makeup, which was forbidden in the past, was a signature of “New Amy.” I started taking a lot of annoying selfies on Instagram, tagging my photos with #effyourbeautystandards and #fatvanity. I was making progress. Even though I’m the fattest I’ve ever been, I’m also more secure in my body and finally, for a fucking change, feel beautiful.
No matter how revolutionary or beautiful I feel, though, I still find random scars that diet culture has left on my body.
Even though I’ve thrown out all my Weight Watchers measuring tools and deleted the Calorie Counter app from my phone, I’m not completely healed. I certainly haven’t shed all the insecurity from my dieting days, but the most prominent way that diet culture manifests itself in my life is in my relationship with food.
Even though I feel more confident, prettier, sassier (if that were even possible), the thought of making good food choices makes me wither. There’s so much conflicting information – both actual science and diet industrial complex bullshit – that makes it almost impossible to really feel like you’re eating the right things, especially if you’re a fat person.
I think I’ve narrowed down exactly the ways that diet culture and the diet industrial complex relationship with food and eating. I probably need to be sharing this list with my therapist, but instead I think I’ll share it with thousands of stranger – some of whom may have Opinions™ about the ways in which diet culture has completely fucked my relationship with food and health.
1. I’m assigning value judgements to foods, even though I know I shouldn’t be.
One thing that the diet industry has done is make people choose sides in the “War On Fat.” Some foods are good, others are terrible and will probably kill you. The problem is that these assignments of value are entirely arbitrary. Earlier this year, I went 6 months without eating oatmeal for breakfast, even though I love it, because I read an article about why you should never eat carbs in the morning.
More recently, I’ve been battling myself over Greek yogurt, of all things. Sure, it has plenty of protein and calcium, but WOULD YOU LOOK AT ALL THAT SUGAR?? I actively avoided buying bread, pasta, and other carbohydrates at the grocery store because all I could envision was that tasty whole-grain loaf turning into white granulated sugar once inside my body, giving me diabetes. Even though the vast majority of research shows that whole grains are good for you, I just can’t get past my raising in the 90s – Atkins and low-carb diets were everywhere, and carbs were evil. Sinful, even.
The fact that it’s easy to associate an innocent muffin with a word that people would use to describe serial killers is pretty telling. The diet industry has, by any measure, been extremely successful in getting us to believe that foods have an inherently “good” or “evil” nature and that’s just ridiculous.
When I think about it objectively, I know that any food can be good or bad. If you drink too much water, you can die. If you eat too little sugar, you can die. This realization is what likely sparked the “moderation is key” mentality of weight loss programs like Weight Watchers. The only problem is that these programs are still giving foods artificial values, whether or not they’re trying to.
When an apple is worth zero points and a slice of whole grain bread is worth four, and you’re given twenty-seven points to use for food in a day, which are you going to choose? Even if the bread is more satiating, fresher or contains more nutrients, most people are going to choose the apple just so they can eat more food. This could be the root of the second way that diet culture ruins our relationships with food.
2. I’m still choosing quantity of food over “quality.”
One thing that calorie counting programs teach you is that you should eat as much healthy food as you want in order to feel satisfied as you’re cutting back on the calories that you eat. These programs recommend almost unlimited amounts of foods that are “guilt-free,” mostly vegetables and fruits.
On diet forums across the world, you’ll find people’s recipes for snacks and meals that involve the most quantity of food for the least caloric value. If you’ve done Weight Watchers for any amount of time, you’re probably familiar with the “Zero Point Soup.” This concoction of “free” vegetables like celery, carrots, and onions mixed with some tomatoes and chicken broth is pretty terrible – it tastes as watery and bland as it sounds – but Weight Watchers devotees act like it is manna from the heavens. If you do a Google search, you’ll find thousands of variations on this soup – add a chopped chile pepper for flavor, Greek seasoning for Mediterranean flair!
I can’t do the zero point soup, but I certainly have crafted a number of “sneaky” recipes that were supposed to take the place of actual meals or snacks. For example, I once made these lettuce wraps that contained only cauliflower seasoned with soy sauce, carrot sticks, cucumbers, and a half-teaspoon (go measure how tiny that is right now) of peanuts. The recipe was only 100 calories, and I had packed it for lunch.
These kind of recipes only set you up for failure and re-launch the good/evil cycle of food. After your 250 calorie lunch doesn’t fill you up, you’re shaking down your co-workers for change to grab whatever looks “healthy” in the vending machines. You might just break down and have a Snickers, just because you’re starving and your head hurts. Not that I know from experience or anything…
Ultimately, these programs just encourage you to eat a lot of low-calorie foods, and that doesn’t necessarily mean healthy foods. On these programs, you’ll swap to chemical-laden low-fat and sugar-free versions of foods that you used to love, which are often stripped of their nutritional value in processing.
The diet industrial complex doesn’t care if you lose weight or eat healthfully, no matter how convincing its marketing is. In fact, they’d like to keep you nice and plump so you’ll keep paying those $20 a month membership fees.
3. I find it difficult to differentiate between legitimate nutrition research and Diet Industrial Complex bullshit.
After years of hearing bad science and claims in diet pill commercials, I find it almost impossible to differentiate between what is good nutrition science, and whatever bullshit the diet industry is shoving these days. It’s impossible to tell if Paleo will clog your arteries or save your life. Gluten-free dieting could dramatically improve your lifestyle or rob you of important nutrients, depending on who you ask.
The Internet is rapidly becoming a worthless place to find nutrition information. As @kingdomofwench observed on Twitter, most of the newest research in nutrition science is hidden behind academic journal paywalls. The information that is most readily available is crap. Dr. Oz isn’t publishing research that suggests that our bodies are deeply affected by hormones and genetics, he’s hocking a new diet supplement every week.
Even doctors push out bad research. Fat people have heard over and over that “calories in, calories out” is the solution to their problems. Updated research, though, shows that nutritionists, personal trainers, and doctors have all been lying to you – all calories are not the same. As many fat activists have also observed, our bodies are not Bunsen burners. We don’t have predictable “fuel mileage” like our cars.
The inability to access this research is what puts many fat people at the mercy of their healthcare providers and the media. Studies show that doctors shame and treat their fat patients with less compassion than their thin patients. When the doctor’s office doesn’t feel like a safe place to discuss health concerns, many people turn to self-medication and that is, of course, why the diet industry is making over $20 billion a year.
4. I’m still on the reward/punishment food cycle.
For most of my life, food has been both a reward and a punishment. When I’ve accomplished something, I want a nice meal to commemorate that achievement. If I’m sad or depressed, food is always there to comfort. On the other hand, I punish myself often for eating “unhealthy” food.
A few weeks ago, I went to In-N-Out and gorged on a Double-Double and fries (Animal style, of course) and felt horribly guilty afterward. I looked in the refrigerator to find something to make for a healthy dinner that night, and very bluntly told myself – I didn’t deserve healthy food. I rationalized that if I was going to be a fatass at In-N-Out, I certainly didn’t deserve fresh, organic cherries or wild-caught salmon.
If I’ve been “good” and eaten healthy food (or more likely, skipped a meal), I can enjoy a healthy dinner that makes me feel very smug. Poached fish, steamed kale, quinoa – these are foods I can only enjoy if I haven’t eaten junk food or too many carbs. As I type these words, I realize how ridiculous that sounds, but it doesn’t stop me from doing it to myself all the time. Even with as much progress I’ve made, this is the way in which I think diet culture affects me most profoundly – it’s taken a lot of the enjoyment out of “healthy” foods and turned them into a chore.
This journey to body acceptance is far from over. I don’t think it ever will be. I can say that I’m doing better than I ever have been, but I still struggle. A few weeks ago, I had a major setback – I bought a bottle of diet pills for “energy.” My excuse was a complete lie. I was using the pills to restrict food, again. I took one, got a migraine, and was quickly reminded why I’d quit taking them – they suck.
Diet culture has affected us all in one way or another, but it is particularly harmful for those of us that will always be fat, no matter how many chia seeds or kale smoothies we eat. I’m always going to be a fat woman, but my relationship with food is constantly evolving. Repairing it has been complicated, but I’m glad I walked away from dieting. The revelation that my body is beautiful and deserves a space in this world is beyond freeing, and something that every single fat person on this planet deserves.