...but God was not in the diet
[Content note: this post is all about dieting and “overeating.” It mentions calories and restriction. If you feel like it might trigger harmful behaviors, you might want to skip it and/or get support from a qualified mental health professional.]
My child, it was mim-e-o-graphed.
Typed on a typewriter and mimeographed
and then given to me by elders I admired and trusted.
In the beginning...
this sacred text,
this key to the life I wanted: friends and fitting in.
and small numbers:
1/2 a grapefruit
1 piece of toast or 1/2 a cup of oatmeal
1200 calories or, if you weren't as serious, 1600 calories
And that's how my idolatry began.
My worship of what was not true.
My giving over of sovereignty.
My belief in this higher power: a lower number on the scale.
If only I would follow its commandments.
If only I was good.
I so wanted to be good.
I was 7.
Ancient history. I feel unaccountably blessed that my early years of dieting are now a hazy memory. At the same time, this ancient history feels like an amulet that I carry with me, a holder of mystery, a protective talisman.
I went on various diets from the age of seven to the age of 16. Unsurprisingly, none of them were particularly “successful” in helping me lose weight -- which is such a good thing since I was, after all, meant to be growing.
But there was so much sadness and fear around my growth. My own sadness that my body size meant that I didn’t belong and the fear I felt in those around me --family members and teachers and doctors-- a sense of foreboding: things might be alright now but we all know what this means for the future. I didn’t know what it meant for the future. And, of course, they didn’t actually know what it meant for the future either but that didn’t keep them from planting their worry in me.
And so I went from one diet to another, which is what it really means to diet. Because, after all, diets don’t work. And so we assume that we are doing it wrong and that we need to keep trying until we find the one that we can do right.
Here’s some of what I remember from those nine years of my childhood: I know I went back to that mimeographed booklet a few times. I remember keeping a food diary and I remember reporting with deep shame, mixed with perhaps just a pinch of rebellion, that I had eaten a whole sleeve of Thin Mints. Writing about it now, I feel a surge of love for my young body and its cellular unwillingness to give up its desires.
Were all of my group dieting experiences in church buildings? There was Weight Watchers with its dreaded weigh-ins in the church basement. And there were the special Weight Watchers foods that you could buy. There were "desserts" that came frozen in a shallow square paper bowl. You were supposed to defrost them and then eat them cold, but when I ate one that was still partly frozen, I imagined it must have tasted better when it was fully defrosted and when I ate one that was fully defrosted I imagined it must have tasted better if it was still frozen. And I remember the lo-cal "milk shakes" which were made in a blender with a powder and lots and lots of ice. They tasted like chalk and air, which makes sense since those were their two main ingredients. Sometimes I ate diet bread -- one bite revealed its close family connection to a kitchen sponge.
And there was Overeaters Anonymous, this one in the upstairs of a church. I don’t claim to know what they are like now, but my group was definitely nothing but a diet support group. Most of what I remember, in addition to being the only kid there, is that a big deal was often made of the fact that we were not a Greysheet group. I had no idea what a Greysheet group was, but it sounded like a cult. Looking back, I wonder if this was emphasized mostly so that we could claim that we were NOT a cult. Of course, there was also more than a little admiration expressed for those strict Greysheeters, whoever they were.
What I learned at Overeaters Anonymous was that thin, tall, long-straight-dark-haired beautiful flight attendants could also feel terrible about their bodies and the ways they ate. That was actually an important thing to learn. And I learned that this particular flight attendant’s disordered eating was, in my preteen judgment anyway, way more messed up than my eating. One evening, she told a story about how she snuck a cookie off of a passenger’s dinner tray and how then she had to eat the cookies off of every single dinner tray in the galley so that no one would know. And my little pre-adolescent brain was always like "but you're so skinny, why do you hate your body?" I felt sorry for her and also somehow superior and judgmental: my dislike of my body was shared by society at large, hers was clearly something awry internally. In retrospect, she and I were “sneaking” food for exactly the same reason: people in authority were trying to control our eating and our body size. Her job was dependent on her maintaining a certain low weight (this was before workers organized to have weight restrictions loosened somewhat for flight attendants). I know it made her miserable, but I feel like giving her body a huge hug: not only was she eating all the cookies, she was stealing them from her fatphobic employers!
Restriction naturally led to “overeating,” which I am defining here simply as eating more than everyone thought I was “supposed to” eat. So, of course, the whole time I was dieting I was also, alternately, “overeating.” And because eating what I wanted to eat was by definition “bad,” it meant that I too was sneaking food. I never ate all the cookies from all the dining service trays on an airplane but I furtively ate a lot of bowls of Cracklin Oat Bran at babysitting gigs after my charges were asleep. Such foods were never allowed in my house. One particularly memorable babysitting secret eating event involved accidentally biting heartily into a big hunk of unsweetened baker’s chocolate.
I stole money from my mother's wallet to buy candy. And I hid M&M's in my pockets and stealthily (or so I thought) ate them while watching TV with my family. And my friend D and I bought Hostess pies and other plasticky baked goods at the corner store next to her house and ate them together. The chocolatey coating was so unappealing and yet I licked and peeled and picked every bit off the cellophane packaging whenever it got stuck there. D and I would sneak into the playground behind the Catholic school. Smoking cigarettes? Making out? No, we were eating Funny Bones and Funyuns.
My young body was also subjected to a more “scientific approach” to figuring out what I should and shouldn’t eat. There was the “allergy” testing and the glucose tolerance test, both meant to prove “scientifically” that I was eating the wrong way. I broke down in tears on a follow up when the nurse didn't mention weight loss right away. I was dumbfounded that she didn't think weight loss would be a top priority for me. And then for months afterward, I ate lamb and butter and a particular tuna rice salad that I can still taste. I proudly made it for myself as an 11 year old: brown rice, tuna, sliced black olives, shredded carrots, parsley and Paul Newman's Own salad dressing. I ate different food than the rest of the family. I remember little lamb chops that were stuffed with ground lamb. I ate a lot of almonds. Rice cakes with almond butter. Rice cakes with real butter. No milk, no eggs, no chicken, no beef. Nectarines yes, but peaches no. I think I could eat bananas. Yes, I could because I remember enjoying bananas and heavy cream. No sugar, no wheat. Oats were ok.
There is a dreamlike quality to all of this. How long did each diet last? How much of a “break” did I get between diets or “food plans?” The diets came and went, but the hatred of my body never stopped. The wondering what was wrong with me was a constant. How could I achieve all kinds of things in school and not lose weight? How could such a smart and hardworking girl be so stupid and lazy about this?
Unburying this ancient history, poring over it like a sacred text, I find myself reading between the lines with newfound wonder: my body, my sweet body was doing everything in its power to show how life yearns for more life. Far from lazy, my own body, my own desire, my own heart, my own hunger were all working tirelessly to be heard and to grow. All the “overeating” and “binging” and “sneaking” and “cheating” was a simple desire for a peaceful and plentiful relationship with food and my body.
In the practice of spiritual direction, one classic line of inquiry is “where is God in this for you?” I know this now: God was not in the self-hating constraint of any diet, God was not in the whirlwind fantasies of a future thinner me who would have more friends and feel more loveable, God was in the still small voice of the crunch of Cracklin Oat Bran and the simple pleasure of an abundance of milk in the bowl. God was in my every cell’s yearning to play, to live, to eat, and to grow.
I hear my four-year-old daughter’s voice in my head as I type this. “Right, Imma?” she asks me several times a week, “Right, Imma, I’m growing every day?” She doesn’t know it, but my answer to her is also my blessing: “Yes, my sweet love, you are growing every single day.”