On Dieting as Self-Care
Trigger warning: this post contains discussion of dieting, restriction, eating disorders, exercise, body- and fat-hatred, etc. Please, when necessary, save your spoons.
Recently, my friend Mara wrote a blog piece that upset me deeply. It’s a kind of post I see a lot lately: I gave up dieting and exercise, I hated myself, now I’m returning to dieting and exercise self-care. It’s a blogosphere subgenre I find especially difficult to read because it combines an intense emotional experience I’ve had – and a discussion I firmly believe needs to occur – with some seriously dangerous and oppressive assumptions.
Let’s start with the intense emotional experience. Like the authors of these pieces, I have a history of restriction. Like the authors of these pieces, I reached a point where — worn down, desperate, and terrified — I risked setting down that practice. I spent a couple of years not-restricting, and I felt awful. Moreover, a few years into recovery, I gained a significant amount of weight very, very quickly. Suddenly, my body felt both foreign and inescapable. Shame overwhelmed me. I hated my body, and I hated myself for hating it. I hated myself for buying into the beauty ideal, for being “bad at recovery.” And I hated that – because I no longer considered relapse an option —I had no way out.
This is the vital conversation posts like Mara’s touch on: the discussion of how it really feels to set down our fat-hating, body-abusing practices. Mara describes feelings I remember and (at times) still experience—of the body as chaos, as a battleground. The pain of not measuring up, of having set down the one tool I believed could make me – not perfect, but perhaps – passable. Setting down the fantasy of being thin (the fantasy of feeling differently), meant facing my feelings for my body, as-it-stood. This was agonizing. There are days, even now, when it’s agonizing.
But it’s one thing to speak openly about how the decision to quit dieting opens the floodgates for self-loathing. It’s one thing to describe honestly how – after years of trying to alter ourselves, facing who we are – unaltered – can be devastating. And it’s another to attribute all that anguish to ditching the diets. To suggest that self-love nearly killed us, or that we “really felt terrible from all that care.”
It’s easy to ascribe these feelings to body-positivity and fat acceptance, as if these movements discourage activity and balanced eating. But in the 11 years since I stopped restricting, I’ve only grown more confident in my right to choose Brussels sprouts over ice cream. (Or vice-versa.) Activity, likewise, has never been off-limits, although I’ve struggled, too, to partake in it. I’ve struggled because it’s incredibly difficult to develop a relationship with food or exercise that feels good to your body, as your body is now. I’ve struggled because it feels hypocritical to care about nutrition or movement, when you’re not seeking weight loss, or when you’re vocally opposed to the thin ideal. But that struggle — to disconnect eating and activity from weight-watching – that doesn’t come from self-acceptance. That comes from the diet mentality.
Over the past several years, diet and exercise companies have done a bang-up job co-opting Health at Every Size messages. They’ve begun selling us “meal plans” and “self-care” practices precisely because of communities arguing – with good evidence – that “diets don’t work.” They’ve reframed the thin ideal as a fitness ideal and fat-burning as self-love. To do so, they’ve (wrongly) cast body- and fat acceptance as “letting oneself go” – ceasing to nourish, move, or care about one’s body.
That bug-on-a-log existence, as Mara notes, is not self-love. But here’s the shocker: it is dieting. It’s the backlash of the very diet mentality her piece lauds as an alternative. First, we seek thinness as a means of being happy. Then we accept fatness as a sentence to misery. Both of these choices are predicated on the same assumptions. Both internalize the terms of fat oppression. In short, neither flip-side of the diet coin can liberate us.
But here’s the good news: these are false definitions of fat acceptance, of body-positivity, and of Health at Every Size. Actual intuitive eating is not about an ice-cream-only diet from here on out; it’s about eating foods (all foods) that feel good in your body. It’s not about fusing into your sofa cushions; it’s about moving in ways that help you feel vital, as often as they feel that way. Body-positive self-care is about nutrition and exercise based on signals from your specific body. Signals we discover, painstakingly, when we abandon the dieting model.
Stepping away from the fantasy of being thin is no small task. It’s an exhausting exercise, with often vicious and dehumanizing backlash. Mara says she does not deserve “to live in a body that isn’t right for [her], as a political statement.” And it’s true. No one has a responsibility to walk the world as a living, breathing Fat-Acceptance-Fuck-You. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the desire for an uncontroversial body. We all have the right to diet or not to diet, to exercise or not to exercise, as we choose.
But we do not have the right to take privilege out of the conversation. To remove our desire to lose weight from the cultural context, in which thinner bodies are privileged at the expense of fat ones. We do not have the right to suggest bodies can be controlled, as if we are all equally able to lose weight, improve our health, and alter our appearance. Nor do we have the right to appropriate the language advocating for fat bodies, in order to sell our new diet. Costuming the status quo to look like the revolution is unethical. It’s oppressive. And finally, it’s doomed to fail.
We can’t free ourselves from diet culture by returning to it. Even under a new name. And we can’t ally with Fat Acceptance, by transforming it into dieting or “letting ourselves go.” Instead, we must let it be what it is: something entirely new. An alternative we desperately need. An alternative worth fighting for, even — at times – against friends.