May 6, 2011 is the 19th International No Diet Day, founded by British Feminist Mary Evans Young in 1992. It is based on a simple premise: dieting or worrying about one's weight is a doomed proposition that inevitably only reduces one's time to do more productive endeavors.
This has been my personal experience. I gave up dieting in early 2001, literally on the way back home from a T.O.P.S. meeting. I had read and thought about questions of health, beauty, dieting and fat acceptance for several years at that point, but I still was searching for the healthy diet that would lead me to the weight I thought I wanted to lose. The trouble was that I had spent years going up and down the scales and had wrecked my metabolism as a result. No so-called healthy diet was going to be drastic enough to lose weight. And I was suffering too much from the drastic attempts I had made to go back.
Then it hit me. If I really believed that I was okay as I was, I did not need to lose weight to be okay. I resolved on that January day in 2001 that I would no longer weigh myself on a daily basis or count my food or keep extensive diaries of my every movement or measurement of every conceivable place I could put a tape measure on my body. I would no longer pay to go to meetings to be weighed and told what to eat, how to move or how to look.
On that day, I just stopped. It was an experience not unlike my quitting smoking 10 years before. I was ready. It was obvious what the course of action was. I never looked back.
Now many people think what happens next when someone gives up dieting is they eat everything in sight, they never exercise again and they gain weight rapidly. The truth is that several times in my life, when I had starved myself for months at a time and then allowed myself to eat again, I did binge and stop exercising and gained all the weight I lost plus some. But that was not a decision to stop dieting. That was a reflexive response to months of depravation. My experience was that the end of a diet usually came when I had made myself sick from the diet (low potassium, dehydrated, injured from over-exercise) and usually was because a medical professional threatened to put me in a hospital if I didn't start eating. For years there was no middle ground. I was an excellent "dieter" who ignored bodily clues for months and then was at their mercy.
But 2001 was different. The decision I made in the car was profound, but not desperate. I knew enough at that point to know that what I needed to understand was my own internal cues. I continued to exercise on a regular basis, but for strength, flexibility and stamina, not weight loss. I started asking myself if I was hungry and if I was full.
After years of looking outside myself for the answers to questions of when and how much I should eat, I was totally out of touch with what real hunger and real satiation felt like. The only hunger I knew was starvation and deprivation. The only satiation I knew was binging after a long bout of depravation, usually followed by guilt, fear and feeling lousy and hungover. I realized that I have even lost touch with taste. Food was not something one tasted and enjoyed. Food was punishment and reward and symbolic of all that was good and bad in me.
I started by slowing down when I ate. I tried to eat mindfully, to ask myself if the taste was pleasant, to wait to see what each bite felt like inside my body. I asked myself if I was hungry before I ate. I learned that I felt hungry not only in my stomach but in my back. When I felt hunger, I asked myself what food I wanted. Salty? Sweet? Tangy? Bitter? Heavy? Light? I noted how I felt when I got it right and when I got it wrong.
The hardest part was understanding satiation. I had measured out proportions and weighed and assessed my food portions before eating for so long that the idea that I had physical cues that told me when I was full was long buried. This took a lot of mindfulness to pay attention to what "full" felt like: how it felt in my mouth, my stomach, my muscles, my overall body. Slowly it came to me and after a year or two of mindfully eating, I realized I pretty much ate when I was hungry with some idea of what was nourishing and stopped eating when I was full.
I have not gained or lost a substantial amount of weight during these 10 years. In fact, I still own clothes from 2001 that fit me the same as they did then. I have aged and my health has not been perfect during this time, but I have been happy. I have learned to be comfortable in my own skin.
What I gained was time. I now have time and energy to devote to so much more than keeping extensive diaries and obsessing over gains and losses in weight, inches and so forth. I travel, I write, I read, I make films, I teach and I do a lot of other things that I would not have had time to do in the past.
So why, if I am happy to have time and be myself, do I bother with things like this blog?
My internal acceptance does not change the stigma placed upon my body size. Being comfortable being me does not change the attitudes of others that prevent me from living to my fullest potentials. Until "fat" becomes just an adjective, we are all vulnerable to the pressure to diet. My training as a sociologist gives me an opportunity to critique this stigma and challenge the stereotypes and xenophobic actions that make all of us worry too much about how we look.
Because I understand how it feels to be on the receiving end of stigma, I also can see that any stigma, any human interaction that is precipitated on one human being making themselves out to be superior on the basis of constructing another group of human beings as being less than human weakens social structure and hurts all people.
My experience is a case study in the larger problem of misusing human power. Do I think if we all stopped dieting and worrying about our size, the world would find peace? No. Do I think that if people stopped judging others on the basis of their size, we would learn to get along with each other? No.
But I do believe that if we ended this idea that in order for a person to feel good about themselves they have to make another person feel bad about themselves, we would have much fewer wars and learn to live together productively and peacefully.
So while I no longer spend my time on questions of diet and I am happy to be free to pursue other endeavors, I want a world where people interact with others on the basis of what they do, not in what category they belong. I want stigma in all forms to end. I really do not believe this is too much to ask.