The Real Reasons Why My Disordered Eating Went Unnoticed by Almost Everyone
The number of pounds my body weighs. The number of “points” in poached chicken, an apple, or the 50 chocolate chips I count from the crinkly bag. The number of pounds my body has lost this week, month, or year. The number of pounds I lost while hospitalized with pancreatitis. The number of calories I ate. The number of calories I burned. The minutes on the treadmill, laps around the track. The number of reps, of squats. The number of sessions I can afford with a trainer. The jugs of water drunk in a day. The blocks walked. The number of pounds my best friend or mom lost. The number of pounds some celebrity lost. The weeks until a party, reunion, or trip, so I could determine how aggressive my weight-loss strategy should be.
For many years and in many ways, I counted my body as if it were a measurable thing, or a thing whose measurements mattered. I confined it to totals, to tallies. I loved “good” numbers; they suggested I was progressing and beautiful, or at least not a monster. “Good” numbers meant shopping at French Connection, eating my monthly massive Starbucks cookie with only minor anxiety.
The “bad” numbers poked sticks in my shame until it came howling out, thrashing clawed hands and demanding attention. “Bad” numbers were too many—food points, inches, ticks to the right on the scale in the lady’s locker room, where I waited until no one was looking to step lightly aboard, as if it might convince the scale to register a lighter number. “Bad” numbers could also be too few—too few activity points earned, too few pounds lost, too few ticks to the left.
In 30-plus years, as my weight zigged and zagged and my self-monitoring habits ranged from intense to extreme, I can recall only one person suggesting I might be harming myself or acting out of self-loathing. Plenty of people noticed my shrinking (and the inevitable gain that follows in the cycle), and the excessive money, time, and energy I devoted to managing my body and my food. But because I’m big and black, I think the culture generally sees controlling and shrinking my body as a worthy project, no matter the means. Behavior that would have been diagnosed as an eating disorder in a smaller person was dismissed or applauded in me by doctors, friends, and family alike.
For many years, January was a numbers game and a dream weaver: the first day and month of the new year, the diet, the workout, the plan. The first day of the new me! In a few months, I’d be lanky and tan, my arms and legs like pickup sticks, my waist a tiny halo of superiority. I’d have excavated the thin woman trapped inside. With exercise, of course, and also by…banishing dairy!, or maybe carbs, or sugar, or perhaps going vegan, or eating in “moderation.” In my dream, starting in January, I would finally outrun the fatness and bigness of my stubborn ancestral blueprint, including a long line of broad-shouldered, big-boned, big-footed, and sometimes fat forebears.
January was also a trickster. Sleight of that icy, white hand and it tricked me into forgetting what I knew: that eating, exercising, dreaming, planning, rebelling, and starting over in an endless attempt to be thinner, or at least not be fat, never worked for long. I knew this because for 35 years I’d been dieting—that is, trying to control, perfect, strengthen, and shrink my body. Trying to make it more feminine (more graceful, lithe) and less feminine (less fatty, curvy, round). Trying to make it stronger (low weights, high reps) and weaker (less intimidating). And always counting. Like a metronome, like a stopwatch, like a timer, a drummer, a gatekeeper, a warden with a long hall of inmates, I was always, always counting.
I don’t diet anymore. I stopped four years ago when I simply and literally could not do it any longer. Desperate to “lose the baby weight,” I’d cycled through a half-dozen diets (which I called plans or lifestyle changes), falling off the wagon sooner and sooner, until I couldn’t stay on a diet for more than a few minutes. It was like total, absolute physical and emotional muscle fatigue, and though I couldn’t imagine my life without trying to lose weight or maintain weight loss, it dawned on me that my holistic health had to become more important than being thin or I would continue suffering. Through books, online classes, social media, and a new community of people, I learned that I cannot actually control the weight and shape of my body—and I’m no longer interested in trying. So I don’t count anymore. My pounds, my reps, my carbs, my anything. I eat healthfully (mostly real food, lots of plants) and move a lot, but I don’t measure my eating or movement as if my body is a thing whose measurements matter. The freedom, rest, joy, and inner wisdom I’ve gained since I stopped dieting are immeasurable.
And when I say “dieting,” I don’t just mean that thing that fell out of cultural favor a few years ago. I mean any activity or system, including “wellness” that embraces and transmits fatphobia—the message that thinness is superior to fatness. Do I really believe a woman who, let’s say, is doing Whole 30 is on a diet? Well, if she’d stop doing it upon learning it was going to make her gain weight, then yes, I do. Because whether it’s called wellness, a lifestyle change, or something else catchy, if it involves weight control, it’s a diet.
You might say, “So what? Weight control is good for your health!” Not necessarily; countless studies show that you can be fat and metabolically healthy, or thin and metabolically unhealthy, that you can improve health markers such as blood pressure and cholesterol without losing weight, and that attempting weight control can actually damage holistic health. But even beyond the fallacy that dieting is fundamentally a health measure, scratch the surface and you’ll see that weight control is deeply rooted female obedience and social hierarchies, including racism. As scholar and author Sander L. Gilman explains in Diets and Dieting: A Cultural Encyclopedia, dieting is a process by which a woman shows her ability to understand her role in society. This role, of course, includes the subservience that patriarchy demands and the self-racialization that racism demands, too.
The connection between elevating thinness and denigrating blackness is often hidden, but it’s not subtle—and it was one of the reasons I had to stop dieting. The history is inescapable. Here is just one example: To justify human slavery and the racism that followed, it was economically, morally, and politically essential to degrade blackness and uplift whiteness. One way this manifested was using media to portray thinness as a symbol of control, restraint, discipline, grace, and intelligence—and associating it with whiteness. At the same time, fatness became a symbol of gluttony, laziness, lack of control, and lack of discipline—and was associated with blackness. In 1836, the popular women’s magazine, Godey's Lady's Book urged white readers to curtail the amount of food they ate in the interest of “beauty,” warning that “excessive” eating created an African-seeming body that was improper for a white woman. In 1897, Harper’s Bazaar declared that “to be fat is to be miserable” for a white woman wanting social success, suggesting with sardonic disdain that a fat white woman could only be desirable if she “burnt-cork herself”—in other words, if she darkened her skin in the manner of blackface minstrelsy. (For more on these examples and many others, check out Fearing the Black Body Sabrina Strings.) So, when a woman expresses a distaste for fatness and a preference for thinness, she is not expressing a natural, neutral thing—after all, beauty standards vary across time and place. No, she is expressing a preference that has been cultivated, and that has roots in American slavery and anti-black racism.
After a lifetime of dieting, I don’t quite know how to mark time or my own life without something to measure. I find myself wanting something to count, or a goal to strive for. But now that I no longer treat my body like a project to be managed, I need reimagined, unheard-of, radical New Year resolutions—and I need them rooted in a weight-neutral, fat-accepting field of possibility.
So at the beginning of every new year, before I make my resolutions, I count my scars. I count what dieting has cost me: thousands of pleasures, including swimming or eating in public, being photographed, wearing tank tops, hugging, and more, that I was afraid to experience because I’d internalized fatphobia (fat people can experience anything thin people can; for example, it’s not actually our bodies that can make swimming in public a scary idea--it’s fatphobia.) I also count the blessings I’ve experienced since I stopped dieting, including the realization that, even at my fattest, my life is still rich, juicy, vibrant, and fun—and fat people can do all the things thin people can do, like wearing tank tops and hugging. I am still loved, successful, powerful—probably even more powerful than when I was dieting and sapped of my vigor. This approach to resolutions is about spiritual well-being, but it’s also practical: movies, TV, magazines (including, often, this one) frequently try to pull me, and every woman I know, into a riptide of diet culture. I need to fortify myself against the attack. Instead of a list of foods I should or shouldn’t eat or a picture of a model enjoying burpees, I’ve taped this list on my fridge to remind myself that my most peaceful and fulfilling life can be in the body I have right now.
This year, I will visualize the perfect(ly loved) body. I’ve gazed on or touched many parts of my body with dissatisfaction and even disgust. If I can use the power of visualization to imagine, say, making “smart choices” at a restaurant, then I can use it to rehumanize my own body. I will imagine loving my breasts, for example, shaped just as they are. I can fill them with the light, or respect and gratitude, or the sound of the ocean, or the endlessness of stars, as a way to counter the negative thoughts I’ve subjected them to. I can replace too small, too big, too soft, too droopy, not placed right, and not shaped right—things I’ve thought about them over the years—with enough and thank you.
This year, I’ll remember that my urge to be thin is deeply connected to anti-black racism. It took me a long time to see this, but controlling my weight was often a way to feel and seem more white and less black. Dieting became a compensation for my blackness as I navigated primarily white institutions, from grade school to law firms. I felt from a young age that my fatness and my blackness potentiated each other: each made the other more salient, each pushed me further out of belonging and into the desert of otherness. But I don’t want to be part of a project that is rooted in anti-blackness, and this means accepting my body for what and how it is during the different seasons of my life.
This year, I will eat according to my values, not the values I’m told will finally help me meet normative beauty and body standards. Dieting invaded and occupied my values and preferences around food. Hundreds of food rules from diets (including the wellness and health advice so often rooted in dieting) stick to my brain like burrs. Slowly, and only after a few years of living in a weight-neutral way, I’ve been able to excavate and read my own preferences around food. What I actually enjoy. What I feel good about eating, cooking, and sharing with my family without diet culture skewing the data.
Some of my values around food are: autonomy and freedom; spontaneity; pleasure; physical comfort; nourishment for my muscles, cells, and organs; emotional comfort; and causing less harm to other beings and the planet. Almost like a miracle this has changed not only what I eat but the way I experience food. For instance, in my diet-and-wellness days, I could barely make toast without a ricochet of muddled, contradictory thoughts flashing through my awareness: the bread’s carbohydrate count, whether it was sprouted (and whether sprouting is good or bad), what the ingredients were, the supposed evil of gluten, the Weight Watchers’ points value in bread, and phytic acid vs. the benefits of whole grains. Now, instead of that external noise, I can make toast and ponder the lower environmental impact of bread, its warm crunch and comforting, chewy mouthfeel, and the nutrients I’m giving my body.
This year, I embrace being body neutral. Body-love and body positivity, which insist that everyone is beautiful and all bodies should be loved, can be very useful. But they can also reinforce the idea that our bodies must be thought of as beautiful to matter, that our value to society does and should come from our bodies. And body love predicated on “wellness” ignores the reality that health is a dynamic, changing spectrum across our lifetimes, and includes things like emotional and mental health, exposure to sexism, racism, ableism, etc., and access to unbiased care. Instead of mere body love, I’ll aim for the peace and stillness of body neutrality, the idea that it is enough for my body to merely be. It’s not just that women are bombarded with unnatural and unrealistic beauty standards—it’s that we are taught that our beauty matters. Body positivity gives you permission to feel good because your body is beautiful, but body neutrality gives you permission to feel good regardless of how your body looks. This year, I will find satisfaction in merely being in my body. My life is about more than my body and my body is about more than its beauty.
If you’re craving life beyond dieting, lifestyle changes, and “wellness” fads that ultimately focus on controlling or improving your body, join me. Make your own list of ways to get free. You can find inspiration from some of the people and places I do, including activists, scholars, dietitians, personal trainers, and organizations like: Be Nourished, Virgie Tovar, Decolonizing Fitness, Health At Every Size, Christy Harrison, Sonia Renee Taylor, Body Respect, Isabel Foxen Duke, Professor Sabrina Strings, Nalgona Positivity Pride, Rebecca Scritchfield, and the communities that surround and connect them.
Savala Trepczynski writes about bodies, race, and gender. She has been featured on NPR and her work has appeared in Forbes, the Huffington Post, Bust, and more. Follow her @notquitebeyonce. Simon & Schuster is publishing her first book of essays in 2021.