Life After Diets
Thin Women In the Anti-Diet Movement
My introduction to intuitive eating and the anti-diet movement happened at a time in my life when I was very receptive to those messages. I had spent nearly two decades yo-yo-ing between extreme weight gain and loss, and I was tired of the whole cycle. I was done with rules, with weigh-ins, with feeling ashamed for being too “weak” and unable to manage something as simple as eating normally.
Around that same time, my grandmother passed away, having suffocated herself in a six-decade strong cloud of poisonous fumes and dirty ashes, and I was angry. I was angry at her. I was angry at friends and family who continued to smoke. I was angry at passers-by on the street who dared to smoke outdoors within breathing distance of any other human or animal. I was just angry.
I spent a lot of time reflecting on all the things I felt I’d lost to diet culture and to the constant vigilance required to shrink my body to an acceptable size.
That was my moment of epiphany. I could be angry, but I had to take responsibility for my own choices and actions. I couldn’t make myself live forever, and I couldn’t guarantee good health, but I could try to prevent whatever suffering was preventable. I could ensure that I could do the things I loved with the people I loved for as long as possible. My body and my health are my responsibility, and I don’t think that realization had truly sunk in until then.
However, at the exact moment I came to this big realization I was also on my umpteenth round of Weight Watchers. I had lost about 30 pounds from my most recent highest weight and was working out regularly again. I wanted to lose a few more pounds, but mostly I felt back to what I thought of as my “normal” body. I felt okay.
So, it was fairly easy for me to wash my hands of dieting. I read The Fuck It Diet and Intuitive Eating and started following body positive Instagram pages and hashtags. I jumped on this bandwagon hard, and I spent a lot of time reflecting on all the things I felt I’d lost to diet culture and to the constant vigilance required to shrink my body to an acceptable size.
But, more recently, I’ve started grappling with my place in this movement as friends of all sizes have come to me for advice on diet or exercise or behavior change programs, and I realized I had very little to offer them that would meet them where they were. I’m not a trained expert. I have only my experiences, and a lot of research that I know was acquired with a healthy dose of confirmation bias.
It’s much easier to go on an anti-diet crusade when you exist in what society has determined to be a “normal-sized” body.
And, so I’ve begun to wonder whether I would have come to this place of recovery quite so willingly had I been fifty pounds heavier. Would prioritizing my emotional and physical health have looked the same in my 200-pound body as it does in my 150-pound body? Or would pursuing health in a larger body have meant something completely different for me at that time? Would it have meant intentional weight loss, despite what I was learning about diets and diet culture and what I knew from my long history with those actions?
If I’m being honest, probably yes.
The advice of much of the anti-diet movement, often professed by straight, white, cis-women in relatively small bodies, comes from a place of privilege I hadn’t really acknowledged, in either myself or the movement in general, until recently. It’s much easier to go on an anti-diet crusade when you exist in what society has determined to be a “normal-sized” body. Sure, there are men and women who are fat and still firmly anti-diet and body-positive but scroll through the Instagram posts tagged #antidiet or #bodypositivity or #healthateverysize, and you’ll find that thin women outnumber them by quite a bit.
Having spent most of my life ruled by an eating disorder, it’s difficult to accept that, as I exist right now, I’m a relatively thin woman in excellent health. It’s easy for me to tell you the benefits of intuitive eating and the anti-diet movement because I no longer want (or need) to intentionally lose weight. I may not be most people’s definition of skinny (in fact, at 30 pounds heavier than I was in college, I technically fall into the overweight section of a BMI chart, flawed though that measurement is), but I like my body. I’m comfortable in my skin and generally don’t spend my time thinking about how to fix those things that I perceive as wrong with it. I honestly don’t know if I’d feel the same way if I came to this moment as the larger person I’ve been at other times in my life, or if I came to it with health problems exacerbated by my diet or weight.
Simply put, anti-diet does not mean anti-health.
This movement means a lot to me. I think it’s incredibly important for people recovering from eating disorders and disordered eating to have a space that’s supportive, kind, open, and conducive to recovery. I think that’s what many people have found in their rejection of diet culture. Still, like any ideology that becomes part of an identity, there’s a real danger of alienating the very people who would most benefit from it.
The things you need to do to be healthier and to avoid the negative consequences of poor diet (which often look like obesity and related diseases) are fairly simple in theory but challenging in practice. We tend to over-complicate what healthy looks like, which is exactly what the diet industry profits off of. Still, the anti-diet movement can sometimes seem to over-simplify the process of recovery. If I never saw another Instagram post about intuitive eating being about consuming kale and cupcakes in equal measure, it would be too soon.
Simply put, anti-diet does not mean anti-health. However, if you are coming to this movement at a time when you do not feel healthy or do not feel like you are taking particularly good care of your body, the advice you’ll find online can be frustratingly lacking in quality. In an ideal world, we would all have affordable access to a weight-neutral registered dietitian to guide us on that journey and not just Instagram pages and Twitter feeds. Expert guidance and advice are important because learning to eat intuitively is challenging. For most of us, it means re-learning what you thought you knew about feeding yourself. It’s very much like being a child and a parent at the same time. You need to allow all foods, all the time, and then use the information you learn in that process to direct yourself toward nourishing foods that feel good for your body.
I’ve followed the principles of intuitive eating for well over a year and only recently started to feel like I understand what that means for me and my body. Still, to this day, I’m learning more and more about how certain foods make me feel physically and emotionally, how exercise (or lack thereof) affects my mood, and how I feel about myself on any given day. It’s not like following traditional diets we might be used to, with defined rules to follow for success. It takes time and a real commitment to unlearning and re-learning.
So, if I can’t in good conscience advocate for diets and intentional weight loss, what advice can I actually offer to help people who want to eat healthier and be more active? What resources exist for such a person looking for information, advice, and support if we don’t want to participate in or promote diets and diet culture? And what right do mostly thin women have to tell people that the key to health and happiness is not to diet, but simply to eat “intuitively?”
The best place to start, particularly if you do not have access to a weight-neutral nutrition professional, is to have a firm understanding of what intuitive eating is (and is not). Intuitive eating is an evidence-based approach to health and wellness pioneered by dietitians/researchers Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch. It is built around ten guiding principles meant to re-frame your relationship to food, exercise, and the way you view and treat your body.
If I never saw another Instagram post about intuitive eating being about consuming kale and cupcakes in equal measure, it would be too soon.
Intuitive eating is not meant to be a traditional diet to achieve intentional weight loss, though, for some people, this may be a natural result of the process. For others, there might be a period of initial gain, and still others might see very little difference in their weight or appearance. Yet, learning to eat intuitively and following these principles has been shown to have positive impacts on overall health, including weight loss and maintenance, improved blood pressure, lower LDL cholesterol, and increased levels of physical exercise.
What you should absolutely avoid are blogs, Instagram pages, or diet programs that shame or discourage you from pursuing weight loss in your journey toward better health (just as much as you avoid diets seeking to convince you that their methods are the lifestyle change you’ve been searching for). Intuitive eating is meant to help divorce health and wellness from weight and body size, and while weight loss isn’t necessary for your overall health, for some people, it’s one of the benefits of this process and may mean improved outcomes overall. Shame for pursuing what health means for you at any given period in your life, particularly from social media influencers, has no place in that process.
If you’d like to read more about my quest to destroy diet culture, check out these stories as well. Thanks for reading!