Throw Out the Scale: Unraveling Diet Culture on the Road to Health and Happiness

I picked up the pair of hiking shorts and held them in front of me. They were burgundy, with a high wide waistband and a straight fit, not too short but also not too long. Despite myself, I sighed, because I remembered how it felt to fit into these shorts—like I was finally small enough, and I’d done enough right to earn the “right” waist size. Like I was enough. I was worthy.

I have always lived in a relatively small body and have not experienced the extreme weight stigma that people in larger bodies face every day, though I have cycled in and out of what I will call “modified” eating for most of my young adult life. As early as 10, I remember incredibly thin classmates pulling up their shirts and leaning forward to show the group of friends the small folds in their flat stomachs.

Ewww!” the girls exclaimed, including the girl to whom the stomach belonged. In moments like these, I didn’t realize I was being programmed to view smaller and flatter as better, softer or bigger as worse. I do remember being shamefully aware of my own tummy, covered with three tank tops per the layering trend of 2005, though also blissfully useful to keep your belly comfortably close to your body. My own stomach was not nearly as flat as hers, and yet even she was unhappy in her own skin.

At 12, fellow middle school moms praised a friend of mine for losing thirteen pounds, my first glimpse into the addictive satisfaction (and earned public praise) that comes with weight loss and changing your body for “health”.

At 18, I wrote in my journal after a family trip to explore our heritage in Denmark that I realized I’d gained some weight throughout the spring. I vowed to lose ten pounds as soon as possible.

diet culture: a system of beliefs that equates thinness, muscularity, and particular body shapes with health and moral virtue; promotes weight loss and body reshaping as a means of attaining higher status; demonizes certain foods and food groups while elevating others; and oppresses people who don’t match its supposed picture of “health”.

Anti-Diet: Why Obsessing Over What You Eat Is Bad for Your Health

In college, I ate yogurt for breakfast every day because it meant my first meal of the day could be less than 100 calories. I avoided other foods I enjoyed because I thought they were “bad” and I tracked my calories daily. I weighed myself once per week, in the same location on the crooked floor, in the same clothes: lightweight athletic shorts and a sports bra, no shoes. I enjoyed using a stationary bike at the gym, but I always chose the elliptical because I knew it burned more calories in the same amount of time. When I traveled seasonally, I brought my compact scale with me so I could continue to track my “progress”. I became obsessed.

I now recognize that during the periods of my life where I was exercising for the wrong reasons and constantly planning my meals, I had little energy for anything else. My creativity was zapped. Being “healthy” through intense exercise and meal prep became a hobby that filled my mind most hours of the day.

These feelings go beyond myself—65% of American women between the ages of 25 and 45 have some form of disordered eating. I have had friends with crippling self esteem caused by negative body image. I’ve had friends text me photos of a potential date outfit, only to beg me to delete the photo as soon as I viewed it. I’ve been lucky that my experience with diet culture hasn’t kept me from living the life I want, but I would be lying if I said it hadn’t lived rent-free in my mind for far too long.

In summer of 2019, I finally felt like I’d found enough peace with my body to start finding true peace with food. On July 2nd that year I stepped on and off of the scale for the last time.

Three years!

In the light of our modern Western diet culture, this is an eternity. Even when I go to the doctor’s office, I ask the nurse to refrain from revealing my weight to me. Did you know you’re allowed to ask that? I truly have not known my exact weight in three years, and it has helped me stop defining my value based on the number I see on the scale.

And what exactly does that number tell me, anyway?

It doesn’t tell me how much love I have in my life, the people and relationships I nurture, or the accomplishments I’m reaching in my career. It can’t tell me that I’m managing my stress well, that I move my body because it feels good, eat delicious food, and get 7-8 hours of sleep per night. It doesn’t tell me how big my dreams have gotten since I’ve graduated from college, the places I’ve been, or what I’ve learned. It doesn’t tell me how much my heart and mind have grown.

Last summer, my body changed again. For the first time since 2016, I went up a pants size and grappled for what could have happened. I felt like I was falling through space. Because I hadn’t been weighing in regularly, I had no way of knowing exactly how much weight I’d gained. My eating had been the same as usual, I was active enough. Nothing had changed in those few months that was any different than the years before. And yet.

I met with a dietician at UW-Health, concerned that this would pull me back into the unhealthy relationship with food that I knew would ultimately hurt me far more than the weight I had gained. With kindness, she gave me a difficult but powerful truth: sometimes we can be doing everything the same, and our bodies will still change. It’s a normal part of growing up and older.

Spending my time doing things I love helps me remember who I am and how I value myself.

It took me months of processing, understanding, and self-compassion to work through this. I’m still not finished. How do we start to unpack a lifetime of widely held beliefs and values that we now suddenly want to stop holding us back? How do we begin to view weight gain as morally neutral? Because this is what diet culture is. A $72 billion industry that makes us believe being thin is objectively healthier, more beautiful, and more desirable. Some people close to me questioned if it would be easier for me to simply work on changing my body. I strongly disagreed, but it hurt, and I realized we all have a lot to learn.

There are decades of research showing that diets don’t work. Most (90-95%) intentional efforts to lose weight not only fail in the long-term, but in a review of studies in 2007, researchers found that one-third to two-thirds of dieters gained back more weight than they originally lost. In fact, there are studies that show that intentional weight loss efforts actually promote weight gain. We also don’t have evidence that living in a larger body causes negative physical health problems because most studies don’t control for the negative impacts of dieting and weight stigma. Worrying about our weight and trying to change our weight, through efforts that end up sending most of us into a weight-loss-and-gain pendulum called yo-yo dieting, are far worse things for our health.

“Being at a higher weight hasn’t been shown to cause health problems (although it may be associated with some negative health outcomes), and weight stigma is likely a bigger risk to your well-being than weight itself.”

– Christy Harrison, author of Anti-Diet

I could go on, but this is too big of a topic for a single sitting. Breaking free from diet culture is like trying to shake away Jacob Marley’s chains in A Christmas Carol, and I am still learning. I hope to share more soon.

I finally sold and donated the hiking clothes that I’d been hanging onto, secretly hoping that one day I’d fit into them again. Maybe I will, and maybe I won’t, and the truth is they were probably on the smaller and tighter side to begin with. Just another example of the way I let diet culture control the way I value my body as I yearned to fit into a smaller size. The fact is that clothes are meant to fit our bodies, not the other way around. And we don’t need to change a thing be worthy.

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