When I was 17 I moved to Switzerland to spend my “gap” year as an exchange student. At the time I didn’t recognize the extreme privilege in this experience. Newly graduated from high school, this was my opportunity to ski and hike the Swiss Alps. Little did I know that this would mark the beginning of my own “hero’s journey.” (I first learned about the hero’s journey from Joseph Campbell: The hero’s journey is a common narrative archetype, or story template, that involves a hero who goes on an adventure, learns a lesson, wins a victory with that newfound knowledge, and then returns home transformed).
It should have been the best year of my life. But, at the time, I was isolated and became depressed. I was uncomfortable sitting in silence and not understanding the language. I wanted so badly to fit in and understand and be able to express myself. But I couldn’t. I had to sit and observe and take in the necessary process of acculturation.
It was the first time in my life that I really used food to cope with feelings of inadequacy, feelings of social anxiety, isolation and depression. At the time, I don’t think I was aware I was soothing and comforting myself in this way, it was all I knew how to take care of myself. And, let’s be real. Swiss cheese, Swiss chocolate work wonders to sooth and comfort. And, my appetite felt insatiable. I needed to feel full, grounded and numb. I needed to distract myself from the intense fears I had about fitting in and whether or not I should stay or go back home.
It was also the first time in my life that I gained a significant amount of weight. Significant is a relative term. I had to buy new pants. It’s important to note that I already had what is called “thin privilege” but I was not prepared for having to buy new pants and felt a lot of shame about my weight gain. I was self conscious and felt I wasn’t allowed to complain as I was living in such a beautiful country; this was such an amazing opportunity! I further swallowed my feelings. I disconnected from my intuition.
Fast forward many months later and my time came to finally return home after the year abroad. Honestly I was ready to come home and lose “the weight.” My Mom had been an on-and-off again member of Weight Watchers (WW), and I knew that I would be joining her at the next meeting. Side note: I never really wanted to go to a WW meeting. I secretly mocked this idea to myself because at some level I think I knew what a load of BS this system was…at any rate, I swallowed those apprehensions and resolved to play the game, like a “good girl” – ha! My desire to get back my ‘old body’ was so intense that it over shadowed my intuition that whispered “don’t go.”
My First Weight Watchers Meeting
My Mom was always supportive of having me tag along with her to a meeting, but at the same time, never directly told me that I didn’t need WW or that I shouldn’t go. She assumed I genuinely wanted to go and possibly needed to go. I suppose she never questioned or had intuitions telling her otherwise. From my perspective, she seemed to always be concerned with her weight or even struggling to some degree. I think I thought unconsciously that it would be different for me. Not that I was in competition with her, but that I was in competition with myself. I wanted to show them, the man, the world, that I would be successful at weight loss. Here marks the slippery slope whereby dieting is a gateway drug (ha) to developing more serious disordered eating patterns.
Once I started to count points (calories) and track my foods, something inside of me shifted. I lost “the weight” but I also lost my connection and trust with my body. It became a game to me: I thought…how much weight can I lose/how low can I go…? The charts at WW said I was “overweight” when I started, and that I needed to be in the “normal” range. Of course I wanted to be “normal!” Right, don’t we all! But, then normal was not enough. Once I was at my goal weight, I began to fear I might not be able to maintain this or maybe I needed a little buffer, just in case. I became increasing restrictive with my foods. I cut out certain types of foods. I played all the appetite suppressant games and I learned allllllll the tricks of the trade. I became a master at how to suppress, manipulate and control my hunger. I chewed a lot of sugar-free gum. I drank a lot of zero calorie drinks to fill up the hungry void. I ate tons of that veggie soup WW says is a “free food.”
Each week, I saw the number on the scale go down, and I felt a rush of endorphins/dopamine/etc. as if I was getting high on dieting. This feeling fueled my resolve to go further, deeper and lower.
I was “in total control” (or so I thought at the time). So much control that I could just pick a number on the weight chart, decide on my “dream weight number” without any complications or struggles or starvation needed. This is a dangerous game to play and we are all led to believe the LIE that weight is something within our control. It is a lie that we can pick and choose an arbitrary number on an arbitrary weight chart so we can determine an arbitrary existence.
Don’t believe the LIE that your weight is something you can control.
No one at WW every told me that I should stop losing weight. They cheered me on with each pound lost. Good job, keep going!
I applied to be a “counselor” with WW. At this point, my obsessive thoughts around food were increasing. I thought about food ALL of the time! I kept up my meticulous food logs and would exercise off any extra calories eaten (also known as exercise bulimia!). I was at my goal weight but it was hard to maintain. I had to really be careful and restrict a great deal with my eating, AND I had to exercise like crazy. Every day. This is no way to live.
I couldn’t’ go out to eat with friends without compensating. I had to restrict all day if I wanted to eat a normal meal with family or friends. At movies, I packed my 2 point WW snack bars while my girlfriends happily munched on buttered popcorn.
I thought working for WW would give me the motivation I needed to really stay in control of my weight. I also decided to study nutrition in college. Talk about getting a PhD in dieting! On the surface everything looked good, I appeared to be doing it right, in control and happy. I remember my Aunt made a comment to my Mom about my weight. She told my Mom that I should stop losing weight. It was the first time anyone actually called me out. (And not to my face). I knew she was right. I knew this was not sustainable because I was obsessing about foods and I was hungry all the time. I became more depressed and more isolated. I was at my goal weight, but I was miserable.
I started to BINGE!
And then the binges came. When one restricts their intake for any length of time, the inevitable binge is just around the corner. The pendulum swings from overly restrictive eating, to overly permissive (overeat/binge). My favorite binge memory is one that involved a pint of “Chubby Hubby Ben & Jerry’s” ice cream. The details are merely a blur, but it was a pivotal moment in time that broke me out of the spell I was under. I had to admit that I was no longer “in control” and this was a thing, an issue, a real problem. In between bites of melting chocolate covered pretzels swirled in caramel fudge chucks, I had the clarity to know, this was not about my weight, this was not about the ice cream. This was bigger than what I had be sold.
Weight Water’s threatened to fire me if I didn’t get my sh*t together.
I began to dread weigh ins. I wanted to avoid the scale because my weight was on a steady increase. I was no longer at my goal weight. WW gives you a couple weeks grace period to get back on track, but after that, your job as a counselor is in jeopardy, which is a polite way of saying, they will fire you. I think most end up quitting out of shame and embarrassment before they actually get around to firing someone.
My weight continued to climb and my supervisor began to notice. She wanted to check in with me, make sure I was getting ‘back on track;’ we met at Starbucks. I ordered the most gigantic Frappuccino one could possibly order. Venti with extra whip~ YUMMY! I sat down with my gigantic coffee drink and she asked, “How many points in that??” I rolled my eyes to myself in passive aggressive defiance and told her that I would probably have the free vegetable soup for dinner. Not to worry, wink, wink. She kindly warned me that I needed to lose the weight so I could get back to my goal weight. She or they (WW) would give me another week or so but after that, I would be on some kind of probation. I acted concerned and assured her that it was no problem for me to get back on track and that I was just going through a rough patch. School was stressful and I was breaking up with my boyfriend who was most definitely a narcissist. I knew in that moment I was done. And honestly, what a relief! For the first time, I felt I had permission to come back to myself. It would have been a funny story if WW actually fired me, but my ego wouldn’t let them. If you are shocked and angry to think they could have fired me based on my weight, you would be totally spot on.
I share my story with you so that you may also connect to your dieting history and the harm of dieting. Dieting is the biggest risk factor for the development of an eating disorder. Although, I was never officially diagnosed with an eating disorder, I showed many signs and symptoms of an eating disorder. Before WW, I had a fairly normal relationship to food and my body. The process of dieting sets into motion a serious of thinking pattens and subsequent behaviors that caused a disordered relationship to food and my body. I totally 100% blame WW, and our diet obsessed culture for setting me up to disconnect from my body’s wisdom, as well as promote the attainment of the unrealistic thin ideal. Weight watchers wanted me to maintain a weight that was too low for my genetics, essentially endorsing a weight that would have put my body into anorexia. Furthermore, my genetics places me in the “overweight” category, which culture deems unacceptable. The irony is that I was and am healthier in the “overweight” category. I could fly under the radar and not be noticed because I never looked like the stereotypical emancipated thin body for my frame. Of course, my close friends and family members could tell, but my WW supervisor had no clue. They just cheered me on and told me to keep going.
Another major problem with dieting is that it promotes weight stigma and weight cycling. Weight cycling is commonly known as “yo-yo dieting.” Dieters who lose and regain the weight repeatedly. There is substantial evidence that weight loss diets are ineffective in the long run for the majority of people. In fact, a lot of newer research supports that folks actually gain more weight over time with each subsequent diet failure. So, dieting causes weight gain? Yep, let that sink in. The 70 Billion dollar diet industry will tell you that it’s your fault and that you just need more “will power” and more “control.” This is how the make their $$$, the revolving door to the next new diet. The promise of it “working” next time, and the next.
Weight cycling also has negative mental- and physical-health effects. It’s associated with a higher risk of binge eating, loss of muscle tissue, higher risk of gallstone attacks, higher risk fo osteoporotic fractures, chronic inflammation, cardiovascular disease as well as higher mortality risks.
Dieting also promotes weight stigma. Weight stigma is known as weight bias, weight-based discrimination, fat stigma, or fatphobia. At a fundamental level, it’s consistent, systemic oppression against people in larger-bodies. This discrimination and oppression makes it difficult and sometimes impossible to find clothes and spaces that fit, healthcare that’s effective, equal access to employment, to name just a few examples of basic human rights that we all deserve. Read more about weight stigma here:https://www.mindful-nutrition.com/what-is-weight-stigma/
Share with me below your dieting history. What was the last diet you went on and when did you KNOW you were done with diets for good?
Thank you for reading my story!
From my heart to yours, Karen Louise