Diet is a 4-Letter Word

The psychology of eating

The Tight Pants Freak Out

What a difference five pounds makes...

As I shared with you a few weeks ago, I am in recovery from my eating disorder (http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/diet-is-4-letter-word/201401/healing-my-eating-disorder). The first two weeks were uneventful. I put on two pounds, but didn’t feel any different, so I wasn’t bothered by my weight gain. Two more weeks went by and I thought I might have put on another pound or two.

Until Tuesday morning. As I was putting my pants on to get ready to go to work, I realized they were a little snug. I brushed it off thinking it was a fluke and it didn’t matter as didn’t care for those pants anyway. Then it happened again with a different pair of pants on Wednesday morning – these pants happened to be my favorite. I tried to blow it off again. Then I went to my dietician’s office for my two-week weigh in.

I put on 5 pounds in the last 2 weeks. For someone who started this journey a month ago at 117 and is now at 124.5, that is not a small difference. 7.5 pounds in a month. I panicked.

“What if I keep gaining at that rate?”

“What if I get fat?”

“Maybe I should just stop eating all fats – no more avocados, no more olive oil for cooking, no more nut butter? Maybe that will halt the weight gain.”

“Maybe I should go on a diet. I should definitely skip dinner tonight.”

“Or better yet, I should get off the couch and go to the gym right now.”

Those are the thoughts of my eating disorder. But I refuse to let it define me. So I ate dinner, wrote in my journal, and phoned a friend. “I need help,” I told her. “I’ve gained 5 pounds in the past 2 weeks and I am freaking out right now.”

And bless her; she talked me down from my eating-disorder-fueled near-hysteria. She was the voice of reason, the sympathetic ear, the reality check that I needed that night.

The following day I asked my therapist the same question that I have been asked by students and clients on many occasions: “How can you stop yourself when you’re in the middle of a full-blown panic about your weight?”

She calmly replied, “You did the right thing. Journal to get the emotions out. Talk to a friend to help you get out of that panic mode.” She paused; hands together in prayer pose touching the tip of her nose – her favorite contemplative pose. “Besides, it’s not about the weight, is it?”

What?! I thought. Of course, it’s about the weight – that and my favorite pants not fitting anymore.

Then I realized she was right. It isn’t about the weight. It never really was. It’s about control and ever-changing goals. Your weight is an arbitrary number on a scale. A number that has controlled my life for too long. A number goal that was reached and lowered continually as it was never good enough. I was never perfect enough. And I never would be.

But there is no perfect. Sometimes there isn’t even good enough. There just is. And in the end, it’s not about the weight. It’s about your relationship with food. Your relationship with exercise/movement. And whether you want those relationships to control your life.

I don’t. Not any longer. Am I saying I will never freak out over a number on a scale? No, of course not. This is why many eating disorder specialists offer blind weigh ins so they can avoid the freak outs like I experienced. But I want to know. Because if I can see that number increasing and not freak out, I will feel a sense of accomplishment. That I am beating my eating disorder.

Is that the best way to approach a weight goal – whether gaining or losing? To know what your ‘number’ is? Maybe, maybe not. But it’s the way that’s working for me right now. No, that it might not work for you. You might do better with blind weigh ins. And that’s okay. Do what’s best for you.

I knew my trigger was going to be less about the number on the scale and more about how my clothes fit. I had warned my team about this. But when it happened, even knowing it was coming, I felt ill-prepared.

So what did I do with my now a-little-bit-too-tight favorite pair of size 2 pants? They’re in the laundry basket. I haven’t decided what to do with them yet. If I were advising my own client, I would tell her to give them away. That by keeping them it will only serve as an unhealthy reminder of an unrealistic goal weight. Logically I know I need to do this. But emotionally, I’m not sure I’m ready. So I will wait until they are clean and then decide. Or better yet, maybe I’ll go buy a new favorite pair of pants – in a size 4. That way I can get rid of my size 2s free and clear, with no remorse and no guilt.

Here’s to pants that actually fit at my new healthier weight! 

Mary E. Pritchard, Ph.D., is a professor in the Department of Psychology at Boise State University.

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