I fucking hate diets. Virgie Tovar wrote an amazing collection of essays called You Have the Right to Remain Fat. She writes about how diets are racist (by promoting submissiveness and white female buy-in to second-class citizenship), classist (because restraint is a luxury afforded only to those who have excess) and a product of a culture that punishes femininity and loves money and things (because, duh).
It was a great read, but the reason I checked Tovar’s book out of the library was to balance out the guilt I was feeling to also be checking out books detailing the super-restrictive month-long elimination diet I was about to start. The founder of the Whole30, Melissa Hartwig, actually refers to it as a “program” or a “reset,” an attempt to shed the experience from some of the baggage Tovar wrote about. I give Hartwig credit for encouraging intuitive eating and eating until you’re full and discouraging calorie-counting or weighing yourself.
It’s still a diet. For 30 days, I’ve paused eating bread and rice and oatmeal and pasta. Also corn and beans and legumes and cheese and milk and butter and yogurt and even the half-and-half I thought I needed for my coffee. Also added sugar— all the pancakes and cookies and pretty much anything that comes in individual wrapping. All the everything, except whole fruits, vegetables, meats, and seafood. The idea is that after 30 days, you re-introduce the foods you eliminated slowly, one by one, noticing the effects each one has on your body. This information and self-awareness then informs eating habits.
So far it’s going fine. I’m about halfway through. It hasn’t been nearly as hard as I thought it would be, and I got stuck on thinking about why. I am coming to the hard conclusion that dieting is easy because it’s familiar.
I’ve always loved controlling what I ate. Beginning when I was very young, five or six years old, I was very aware of eating healthily. I needed to have a vegetable with every dinner. Corn and potatoes didn’t count. On pizza nights, I always took salad, even though I hated it as a kid. I told everyone I didn’t like dressing. If I were with a friend whose family didn’t serve a vegetable, I would scold myself internally. Sometimes, I would force myself to eat raw broccoli from the fridge early the next morning to compensate for a veggie-less night.
I was cautious about cake and sweets, too. I heard my grandma’s voice in my head at every birthday party: Sliver to a slice to a slab to a slob. I ate candy slowly, telling myself to suck each gummy bear down to nothing so I could make one bag last for days. I failed at this too, sometimes chewing into a gummy to feel that sweet rush of gummy-juice. Then I would get very angry with myself, and stop eating the bag of gummies entirely.
Reading this, you’d think I was a chubby kid—or maybe you wouldn’t. Maybe every little girl, even skinny ones like I was, grows up understanding that femininity requires composure and self-restraint. Controlling what I ate was one of the earliest ways I can pinpoint submitting to my submissive role in a patriarchal society.
I loved when people called me small. When I was maybe seven, I realized it got me attention when I told people I was 48 inches and 48 pounds. I told people this fact all the time, anyone who would listen. I still remember hitting 50 pounds, feeling sad that I couldn’t use this line anymore. I was a little bit disappointed in myself.
Shame is a crucial part of diet culture. Diet culture assumes that people, specifically women and femme people, will feel shame about their bodies, and will want to change their bodies, shrink their bodies, and take up less space. They will never be satisfied with their bodies, continuing to loathe them and obsess over them to the exclusion of more important things. Naomi Wolf wrote in The Beauty Myth, “Dieting is the most potent political sedative in women’s history.”
How much feminine MAGIC has the world lost down the black hole of dieting?
When I turned sixteen, I went to a sleep-away program for high school girls who wanted to be leaders in their communities. In addition to visiting embassies and networking with women professionals, many of the girls, including me, coached one another on eating disorders. One girl taught me how to use a toothbrush to make myself throw up. Another taught me to eat ice when I was hungry to trick my body into feeling full. We stayed in touch after the program, sending each other pictures when we hit our “goal weights,” but these were the days of pricey text-message real estate, back when phone plans allowed only 250 precious texts a month.
So eventually I lost touch with most of the girls, but the irony wasn’t lost on me. I wrote a paper about it in high school—high-achieving girls starving themselves smaller at a program meant to promote leadership and intellectual growth. It’s almost cliché. Looking back, I can see we were overwhelmed with the pressure and expectations being put on us—not because we didn’t feel we could handle them, but because they didn’t fit our roles in society as submissive and restrained women.
This is an incredible example of why change has to begin at the root of a culture, in the words we speak and the media we consume, rather than through a series of top-down reforms and programming. An enormous amount of grant money and meticulous planning had gone into cultivating this program for highly capable girls. But we, the girls, could not exist in this space without feeling some guilt, some feeling of displacement, which led us to the bathroom to purge our dining hall meals and flush them neatly down the toilet.
That was ten years ago. I wish I could say I had some great feminist awakening, that I internalized everything I’m preaching here and it led me to reclaim my body and my womanhood as sources of power and strength and beauty.
What actually happened is my brother died and I realized that the world is actually very insignificant and thus my food intake is a rather absurd thing to obsess over. There were so many more enticing, depressing things to concern myself with. I also had absolutely no desire to control anything; everything felt extremely chaotic and fragile. I was paralyzed.
I guess I ate during this time. I don’t remember much about food. People brought it while we sat shiva but I can’t name a single dish. In the weeks and months that followed, my girlfriend cooked for me, or I ordered take-out or put something in cardboard into the microwave and ate it without putting it onto a plate. I didn’t obsess about anything except my depression and my dead brother.
Not exactly a body positive break-through.
But then I reached the part of grief that’s close to mania. The part where you stop asking why the fuck you have to be alive and start saying HOLY SHIT, I’M ALIVE! It’s a kind of re-birth or at least, it was for me. I started paying attention to the tiny miracles my body was performing all day long. Breathing, listening, touching, seeing—all of these without even thinking about it. For the first time, I began thanking my body all day long for digesting my food, for taking me swimming, for writing my dreams every night.
So if I love my body so much, why am I on a diet? It seems less strange when you consider that I’ve been on some form of a diet for most of my life. I think most women and girls, if they thought about it critically enough, would recognize ways they’ve been restricting or calculating their food intake since girlhood. For me it feels impossible to ignore my complicated relationship with food, and I wouldn’t want to be so disconnected with myself that I was unaware of my diet anyways.
To be eating the most natural and least processed of foods for a month in order to bring my body to a place where I can listen to it more carefully—that feels like a diet devoid of shame. It feels less rooted in something outside of me (patriarchy, expectations, lived experiences), and instead comes from a desire to understand my body and how best to nourish it. The first step towards self-love comes in understanding.
So, I drank the Whole30 Kool-Aid a little bit. I promise they aren’t sponsoring me. I also read Virgie Tovar’s book, You Have the Right to Remain Fat and Hunger by Roxanne Gay and Juliet Takes a Breath by Gaby Rivera, and many more books by women who are willing to write about their own complicated relationships with their bodies.
I fucking hate diets.
But my body, that’s home.