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Editorial note: parts of this essay may be triggering to people recovering from eating disorders.
It's not a stretch to say that I spent most of my life from ages 10 to 18 on a diet. In the beginning, the diets were commercial affairs -- I spent some time in the offices of all the major players in the 90s -- or guided by a series of dieticians, all of whom seemed to have the same hairstyle and glasses and who all look vaguely like Sally Jessy Raphael in my childhood/teen memories. Later, I relied on self-designed diets, and these were probably the most treacherous, as I could make up any bizarre rules I wanted and did not need to heed any pesky concerns about my actual health or the quality of the nutrition I was getting.
To say that it affected me deeply is an understatement. I have no doubt that some kids go on diets and turn out fine, but that wasn't my experience.
At any rate, there are certain foods that I will always associate with dieting. Some of them (pickles) I can eat today, others (Lawry's Seasoned Salt) I might never touch again. Here are some of them, presented in semi-chronological order.
Stella D’Oro Breakfast Treats
I read over the rules for the new diet I’ve just begun, and discover that two Stella D’oro Breakfast Treats cookies counts as a snack. I am probably about 11 years old. I have never eaten Breakfast Treats cookies before, although I recall their strange commercial that insists they are not exclusively to be eaten for breakfast, even though “breakfast” is right in the name. From having seen that commercial approximately ten thousand times in between episodes of DuckTales and old reruns of What’s Happening, I know that Stella D’Oro Breakfast Treats exist, and in my child brain I assume they are a thing that only old people ate. Because the people in the commercial are old. As though certain foods were only for old people.
Still, you get to have TWO. I was a hungry child, not in the sense that I ate more than my peers, but because a lot of the time I was eating less, because of the diets. I was hungry a lot, and until I hit that 13-year-old stride of sinking myself into the heart-fluttery hand-trembly head-aching sick-making embrace of it, secure in the knowledge that I was finally punishing my stupid body for needing stupid food at ALL, I struggled with wanting more to eat.
TWO BREAKFAST TREATS. An embarrassment of anytime riches.
My Breakfast Treats are purchased, and when I open the package, I am surprised at how big they are. As big as my hand. And I can have TWO, TWO huge S-shaped cookies with a winking gleam of egg white (or possibly partially hydrogenated oil) swiped over their upper surface. The commercial mentions that they are “baked without butterfat” and it shows, as their texture is crumbly and dry, and not particularly sweet.
It doesn’t matter. They are the most delicious thing I’ve had in weeks. I begin calculations as to how many I would be allowed to eat in a day if I did not eat anything else.
For a decade or so after this, in a sort of reverse-Proust, I avoid Stella D’Oro Breakfast Treats because of the memories I have attached to them. Until finally I try them again, curious as to whether the experience will be traumatic, or mundane.
Like the old guy in the commercial says, they’re not bad.
Peanut Butter Bars
A couple years after that diet, a big-name national buy-the-food-from-us-you-lardos diet I’m on includes a boxed snack called Peanut Butter Bars. They are monstrous, horrible. They are comprised of a powdery substance like what would be left if you took actual peanut butter and sucked all the fat out of it. This remainder is taken and formed into small mouth-sized bricks and coated with a chocolate-colored wax-based stabilizer, no doubt to maintain the structural integrity of the substance beneath. They are individually wrapped in featureless white plastic, like something that came out of a NASA laboratory, and they must be refrigerated at all times. I suspect this is also to keep them from disintegrating and being pulled back into the hellish otherdimensional food void whence they came.
They taste like misery and waste. I hate them until, a month or so into the diet, I suddenly love them. I need to eat them all the time. I’m supposed to be allowed one a day, but I burn through two boxes in a week. I hate myself and yet I can’t stop; I am barely eating anything else, thinking, in my perverted mind, that this would make it okay.
The suspicions of the diet place’s employees are roused by my addict-like insistence that I need more boxes of peanut butter bars than I am technically supposed to have on this plan. I am embarrassed but also indignant. If I find ONE THING that I can eat, isn’t it enough to just eat that one thing, so long as I’m still making my daily calorie goals? Aren’t I doing this right?
I remember standing in front of the open refrigerator after restocking, counting how many bars I had left, dumping out the box, counting them back in, dumping out the box, counting them again. It doesn't occur to me that this is a little obsessive.
Rice cakes are a popular punchline at the height of my own personal diet era. They first begin to appear in American supermarkets in the mid-1980s, and while dieters flocked to them as an extremely low-calorie snack, late-night talk show hosts and sitcoms derided their lack of flavor and their practically inedible texture, something that could be best approximated by biting into a chunk of stryrofoam packing material.
At 13, I love rice cakes because they are so featureless, so unlike actual food. They taste like nothing. They weigh practically nothing, but take up a lot of space. They come packaged in cylinders of tightly stacked cakes fitted into a plastic bag. They strike a younger me as vaguely futuristic, and suggest a possible time when I will no longer need to worry about what food I should or shouldn’t eat, but will draw my subsistence from precisely formed and scientifically measured nourishment pucks. I like how crunchy they are, and that I have to chew them for a long time.
I actually have nothing bad to say about cottage cheese, then or now. It's delicious.
Pickles are a free food. Not gherkins. Not sweet pickles. Sour pickles are a “free” food. In my early teens I learn to find and exploit the free-foods list of any diet I am on. Somehow, knowing I can have unlimited quantities of some things -- even just plain lettuce -- helps me to deal. Unfortunately, it also leads me to assume that if I can construct a diet made almost entirely of "free" foods, I will lose all of the pounds even faster and there will be no negative repercussions from it, because I am a dumb kid who doesn't understand nutrition very well yet.
I get the biggest jar of whole dill pickles in the supermarket. I fish one out, feeling how full and heavy and swollen with brine it is. It is substantial, fleshy. It’s almost like a chunk of meat. I eat pickles and try not to think about meat. Anytime I finish a jar, I want to sip some of the brine, but I never do. I pour it into the potted plants on the front porch, like my dad does. Part of me thinks that the brine must be toxic to humans.
(I test this theory years later as an adult, with a clearer mind on such things. I don’t die. Also brine is delicious.)
Soon, I learn to make a “salad” of some of the foods on the “free” list. It consists of romaine lettuce, red wine vinegar, pickles, and Mrs. Dash. Sometimes I add a squirt of mustard to it. But no oil, because that is not “free.”
I mix my salad in a big yellow and white serving bowl, a bowl three times as large as the ordinary individual bowls in my dad’s house, and I fill it up. With romaine lettuce, red wine vinegar, pickles, and Mrs. Dash. A big part of the enjoyment is just being able to look at this giant bowl of food and know that I am allowed to eat as much of it as I want. I am bingeing on vinegar and a vegetable that is mostly water.
I make this salad every day when I get home from school, ravenous, and I sit down and eat it while watching afternoon cartoons that I am now really too old for. I am 14 years old and it’s all extremely tragic. But I am convinced that eating this salad, along with my continued deprivation, will make me thin at last.
94% Fat-Free Microwave Popcorn with Lawry’s Seasoned Salt
A teenage staple. I douse the popcorn with that biohazard-orange sodium cocktail and eat it until the inside of my mouth is raw. But hey, I don’t feel guilty, which is treasure enough.
Snackwells are the cookie brand that drives everyone insane. They first appear on shelves in 1992, a surprisingly low-fat diet cookie in a period in which dietary fat is considered the One True Evil, and they cause havoc in supermarkets. The “devil’s food cake” variety (which I am putting in quotes here because trust me, it needs them) is basically unfindable for months, as deranged dieters are camping out on deliveries and stockpiling boxes by the dozens as soon as they arrive in the loading bay. I believe there are fistfights in some locales. Over low-fat cookies.
I don’t get to try the most popular varieties for awhile, because they are so difficult to procure. When I finally get my hands on a box of the much-beloved devil’s food abomination, I am in high school and on the cusp of giving up diets for good. It’s possible that Snackwells are the experience that sends me over the edge.
Not hard enough to be a cookie, not spongy enough to be cake, these flattened HFCS-laden spheres defy categorization. The most distressing part is the thin line of a mysterious white substance between the chocolate-esque coating and the “cake,” visible only in cross-section. My first box is also my last.
Home for the summer after my freshman year of college, I am working full time in an office in South Florida, having lied about my plans to return to Boston in the fall. One of the other employees makes beef bouillon in the microwave several times a day. Just a cube of brown buillon, dissolved in a coffee mug of water. It’s all I ever see her eat the whole time I am working there.
The sharp smell of the bouillon pervades the microwave, the break room, the whole office of tightly nested cubicles. The other women make snide comments to each other about how disgusting this habit is. They never say anything to the bouillon-drinking woman’s face, who tensely apologizes for the smell with a nervous laugh, explaining, “Gotta stick to my diet!” The other women treat her like a sick person, or something decaying and fragile that they’d rather not touch.
I have only a vague awareness that there is more happening here than anyone is saying. I think I saw bouillon on a free list, years ago. I have at this point begun my long walk away from the whole concept of diet food. I’ve quit separating things to eat into neat categories of “good” and “bad,” I’ve stopped portioning out self-loathing in measured doses over having eaten that thing which I must now feel badly about because it’s what I’m supposed to do, as though weight loss is expedited by despair.
It might work for some people, but dieting never worked for me, on any level. Still, leaving that mindset behind will be a struggle. It will be years before I relearn how to eat without guilt, without a constant, obsessive tallying of calories droning away in my head. Years before I can eat and simply enjoy it, mindfully, in the moment, before I can give myself permission to consume food and taste it. Because for a long time, eating was a terrible chore to be gotten through as quickly as possible. I will be in my early 30s when I realize I have finally broken through the entrenched lines of my food guilt, and that I no longer beat myself up for having eaten something “bad.”
But back then, in that beefwater-reeking office, I think, I’m surprised I never drank bouillon a bunch of times a day.
It’s a struggle, and it goes on.