This article originally appeared on Salon January of 2017. And I’m happy to finally be able to share it with you here!
“I’ve noticed you’ve gained a little weight,” Mom said as we sat in the car. I was 11 years old and my body was just beginning to hint at hips. She reached over, tugging on the new roll of stomach fat that was hiding under my t-shirt. “Getting a little pudgy,” she teased.
I’d been too busy feeling awkward that I was morphing into what adults called “busty” to specifically zero in on what my stomach had been up to — no good, as it turned out. I crossed my arms over my stomach, feeling the soft roll of skin and fat that was just above my jeans. I sat up a little straighter, hoping that would flatten things out a bit. I tried to suck it in.
Mom talked about how unnecessary weight gain can make parts of your body pudgy, flabby. “I guess I have noticed that my legs have gotten more jiggly,” I said, looking down at my legs self-consciously.
“If you start dieting and exercising, you could get attractive, toned legs,” Mom said. She told me how a lot of adult women struggle with weight management, herself included. She hoped she could save me from the pain of yo-yo dieting as an adult by teaching me how to maintain my ideal weight while I was still young. If we’d asked a doctor, they likely would have said dieting for an 11 year old was a health risk. But we didn’t ask a doctor. My mom’s own body-image demons clouded her ability to determine what was truly best for my body.
After our conversation, Mom put me on a diet. She began monitoring what I ate. “Kelsey,” Mom said disapprovingly, “that’s too much ranch dressing. You won’t be able to lose weight if you eat your salad like that.” And she made sure I didn’t have seconds after dinner.
“But I’m still hungry,” I protested at first.
“You’re not really hungry,” Mom replied. She said I’d stretched my stomach out through overeating, and it would eventually shrink back to its right size. In the meantime, I was going to be haunted by phantom hunger pangs.
The fake hunger felt awfully real, and it seemed only get worse as more time went by. When I saw a celebrity on TV who had had her stomach stapled, I asked if it was something I could get. When I was told no, I decided that I’d get it the moment I was an adult. Maybe if my stomach was surgically corrected I’d finally feel full again.
When I lost weight, mom celebrated. She encouraged me pull out my flatter-stomach clothes that I’d banished to the back of my closet. I’d pull out my white form-fitting polo shirt and smile at my reflection. Mom would tell me how flattering the shirt was on me “now.” But then I’d gain a few more pounds and the moment would be gone.
When I hit middle school I worried about my weight more than I worried about boys. I didn’t understand that curves added weight — healthy weight. As my body began to shift into a curvier mold, I frantically tried to diet the weight that came with boobs and thighs away. I thought I was trying to manage my weight, but what I was trying to manage was puberty.
When I was diagnosed with asthma and given a daily inhaler, I didn’t take it. My parents couldn’t figure out why. I let them think I was an absentminded and irresponsible pre-teen. I was too embarrassed to tell them the truth: Being thin was more important than breathing. I didn’t take my meds because I had heard steroids could cause weight gain. I knew this wasn’t something other people would understand, so I kept it to myself.
How little I was eating became my biggest secret. And at some point my body and food anxiety crossed the line into abnormal anorexia. I started secretly skipping meals on a regular basis, cutting my food into tiny bites and then counting to twenty before swallowing so eating would take as long as possible. I tracked the most minor fluctuations in the numbers on the scale. Eating became more and more complex and anxiety-causing as I continually added self-induced restrictions to my already limited calorie intake. My obsessive eating-disorder-induced dieting sucked not only the calories but the joy out of life.
When I was in my early 20s I had a revelation about dieting after being very sick with the flu. I’d dropped several sizes. When I stood in the dressing room I was shocked that I’d lost so much weight. I had been pining after my dream size for years, and now I was smaller.
I’d thought about dieting more than anything else for 10 years: This is what I’d been living for. But the gratification from achieving a decade-long goal didn’t last a second. My first thought after realizing the number on the tag: “Maybe I could go even smaller!” Maybe that would be it. Maybe then I’d feel comfortable in my own body. Maybe then I’d feel happy and beautiful and sexy. Maybe . . .
But then I came to the sad realization that the game was rigged. The elusive, arbitrary numbers I’d been chasing — pants sizes, dress sizes, numbers on the bathroom scale — would always be replaced by a different, smaller number. When you have an eating disorder, you never reach your goal weight.
A new year is supposedly a time for fresh starts, but it always feels like the same old thing: Everyone is bombarded with fat-shaming and promises that we’ll finally feel happy and whole in our bodies if only we buy the new latest and greatest dieting or fitness product. All of the magazine covers at the checkout stand will showcase new diets with claims that these are the magic tricks you’ve been looking for all these years. The local gyms will advertise specials, claiming “New Year, New You!” With all that diet talk, if I’m not careful I could have a relapse, which is why celebrating how far I’ve come in my eating disorder recovery is a necessary part of surviving January.
This year I’m celebrating that I can now eat a bowl of potato chips without crying afterwards.
I’m celebrating how last summer I wore a bikini for the very first time in my life, and I didn’t go on a diet first.
I’m celebrating that I’ve gotten to the point in my recovery that I’m able to work out without weight loss being the goal.
I lived on a diet for years. Dieting has controlled so much of my life. It’s been the haunting, nagging, lying voice in my ear. This diet season, as others are setting New Year’s resolutions, I’m celebrating recovery goals. I’m celebrating that I learned how to eat again because life didn’t finally start when I reached my goal weight. Life started when I finally told dieting to fuck off.