After writing yesterday’s post, I thought a lot about the difficulty I had with it. In particular, I found it hard to emphasize that I am not opposed to the concept of weight loss, but that I do take issue with the way being overweight or underweight, losing weight, and pursuing a healthy lifestyle are treated by what I think of as mainstream society. I think it’s really important that someone who makes a decision to lose weight does so for the right reasons, and not because they feel they have to do so because of societal pressure. Of course that’s easier said than done, since society affects our thoughts and feelings in very subtle ways: a decision we may think we are making for ourselves may actually have more to do with the way we want to be seen by others, or the images we see on television and in magazines. Weight loss and the pursuit of a healthy lifestyle, to me, are not projects to be taken on lightly, and they can be really hard to maintain because there are so many different ways in which they can be undermined.
I think this is immediately obvious when you take the concept of a “diet” into consideration. What does the word diet mean? Basically, it’s what one eats. But what are the connotations of a diet? Counting calories, deprivation, striving to lose weight, etc. This morning my younger sister and I chatted briefly online about the Engine 2 Diet, which she is doing with some co-workers. She’s a vegan, and said that the diet is pretty easy for her. It’s not about counting calories, but rather eating more cleanly. It’s a vegan, plant-based diet that eliminates any added oils. Simple, right? It’s not some crazy plan that requires you to cut out carbohydrates, or eat only grape fruit, or avoid certain foods after 6 p.m. It’s just a better way to eat, and is probably pretty close to the way we should be eating for optimal health. However, when she mentioned the word “diet”, I bristled because of my background with weight loss. Obviously I’m working on my perspective now, and there are things I understand and know intellectually. But there are also things that give me great emotional difficulty, and the d-word evokes a lot of them.
For a long time, I would pore over magazines like Shape or Fitness, thinking that if I did the workouts they contained and followed every calorie-restrictive meal plan they published, that I would finally get the thin, lean body I had always wanted. I obsessed over the workouts, and I’d memorize the meal plans. I would get extremely hung up on both, and end up stuck feeling that I would always have the fat, ugly, deficient body I hated but that I still had to work as hard as possible and do everything these magazines said because that might magically make me less worthless, because ultimately I was unable to do the workouts and follow the meal plans to a tee. Rather than think of them as unrealistic, though, I thought of myself as a failure. And that feeling has stuck, and it has attached itself to the concept of dieting (and, to a less significant but still undeniable degree, to exercising). My idols at this time were women like Sporty Spice of the Spice Girls, and Fiona Apple, both of whom (I later discovered) had eating disorders. My fixation on dieting and being “healthy” led me to equate being happy and beautiful with being thin, and being miserable and ugly with being fat. These are not standards I use for anyone other than myself, but boy have they affected the way I see and treat myself!
Recently, Emily at the Daily Garnish did a post on the idea of calorie counting and how there’s a fine line between it being productive and it being counterproductive. I think the idea of dieting and everything that so many of us have ended up pinning on it ends up functioning in the same way. How do our own ideas about health, and society’s ideas about health help us or hurt us when it comes to our diet? How does the word change when we talk about a diet versus being on a diet? What can we do to break down the unhealthy connotations around the word and build up some healthier ones? These are all things I want to explore in more depth in a series of posts. I know this brief introduction has been a little disjointed and rambling (I blame the cold, people); I’ve tried to touch on just some of the issues I want to examine. More than anything, I’m interested in hearing your thoughts: what does dieting mean to you? Feel free to share in the comments.