Last week, dear Ms. Emily put out a distress call on Twitter, announcing her urge to rejoin Weight Watchers after having sworn off diets forever. Given that Emily and I have had an ongoing public conversation on this subject, I asked her to send me an update on how she was doing.
From Emily herself:
So here's what happened when I quit dieting. I had a great month of eating when I was hungry and stopping when I was full. I felt a huge relief to be able to eat any kind of food I wanted after all these years of dieting -- lots of mozzarella, avocado and olive oil! I was working on accepting my body as a result of what it has been through -- trauma, addiction, years of compulsive dieting and disordered eating. My body is doing the best it can, you know?
Sometime after that good month, I started struggling emotionally with some family conflict and felt that I couldn't handle the feelings without eating compulsively. On my plan, this is actually OK. You do what you can handle and you try to forgive and accept yourself and keep moving forward. But I just never got back to that place of listening to my body afterward.
The way I have been eating lately is not making me happy -- I am again detached from my hunger, only instead of dieting, I'm eating foods that don't make me feel good when I'm not hungry. It makes me feel physically and emotionally bad, and I've gained weight, which then kickstarts the process of self-loathing. I did throw out my scale and am operating without weighing myself! I just know my clothes don't fit.
Things came to head last week when I made myself throw up for the first time in 6 months. Lately I have been toying with the idea of going back on Weight Watchers because maybe all I know how to do is binge or starve. Learning how to eat food your body wants when it's hungry and stop when it's full is too hard!
It would be awesome if all of our unique food-related baggage were something we could eventually abandon like so much unclaimed luggage at an airport in some distant city. Unfortunately it tends to find us wherever we go, no matter how many times we assert that we’ll never put on that stupid ugly self-hating dress ever again.
Backsliding is inevitable and it is okay when it happens; disordered eating patterns don’t evolve because a person is unintelligent or lazy, they evolve as coping mechanisms and even survival tactics. We can’t expect ourselves to just forget the means by which we’ve managed to get through the hard stuff, because in most of our lives the hard stuff doesn’t stop coming just because we’ve made efforts to address an eating disorder or any other addictive behavior.
The best way I know to address compulsive eating urges in the moment comes in a series of three questions.
1. What do I want?
Compulsive eating can be a handy and comfortable distraction from a real need that you can’t or don’t feel comfortable expressing. So if you know you’re in a rough spot emotionally, before you eat anything, stop and ask yourself, “What do I want?” Do you want that food, really? Or do you want time to yourself for a long bath with a good book?
Or do you want an apology from someone? Do you want permission to be angry, or sad? Do you want recognition, be it of hard work, or emotional pain? Do you want to change something in your life? Do you want to take a nap, draw a picture, sit in the sunshine on a weekday afternoon and worry about nothing, just feeling that one moment?
2. Can I get what I want?
Sometimes you can. The missing piece is the motivation to get up and go after it, whether this means asking for help, or taking action to fix a problem. For example, I have an occasional habit of getting angry with my partner when he fails to psychically intuit that I am upset about something -- usually something that has nothing to do with him -- and ask me what’s wrong. I then twist his failure to do so into the perverse idea that I am not worth noticing, which kicks off that well-known cycle of self-loathing.
But really, a better solution than my becoming a silent, sour, resentful stone-faced statue is to simply tell him that I am upset about something and ask for his support. As hard as it is for me to ask for anything from anyone.
So sometimes you can go get what you want or need and call it done. But sometimes you can’t. Sometimes what you want is hopelessly out of reach. You know what you want. You know you can’t get to it. It’s not gonna happen. Which brings us to question three.
3. Can I sit with the wanting?
This falls under the category of FEELING YOUR FEELINGS. It requires you to sit with the negative emotion, the want for the thing you can’t have, and to deal with it and accept it. This is difficult. Lots of times you won’t be able to do so. If you can’t, you’re probably going to backslide. And that’s okay. You then get up and start again. There’s no shame in this.
I’ve observed before that many of us kick into self-loathing mode super easily because it is, at least, a familiar sort of misery. Self-loathing is a sensation that tends to block out all other feelings; it is literally overwhelming and as such it can be useful for those times when we don’t want to feel angry or sad or some other outward-facing negative emotion. Self-loathing works great for this purpose because it enables us to redirect our bad feelings inward, at ourselves, where they can’t hurt others, thereby eliminating the need for us to deal with anyone else -- in the short term, at least.
Self-loathing -- like many eating disorders -- is often another form of self-harm, a way of dissociating from unpleasant or undealable issues. In your case, you can’t block them out by drinking or doing drugs or having irresponsible sex, so you eat compulsively. In a sick way, this keeps you alive, and it is, categorically, an okay thing to do when needs must.
But then you have to start again. I’d like to promise you that this gets easier but it kind of doesn’t -- it will always be difficult and require a conscious effort to change your mindset. It’ll probably never come easy. This is why Weight Watchers is so appealing -- it’s a comfortable and methodical means of organizing your eating in a way that both satisfies the ED gremlin in your head, and does not challenge you to listen to your body’s natural hunger cues. Everything is laid out for you. All you need to do is obey.
I won’t say that diets are always bad for everyone, but I will assert with no qualms that I believe commercial diets are bad for people with histories of eating disorders, because they commodify many disordered eating patterns into a package that is socially acceptable and thereby enabling. And while I’m certain there are people out there who have proven to be exceptions, I have yet to meet any of them.
So I think Weight Watchers isn’t the answer in your case, because odds are good it will only widen the divide between your body and your ability to be aware of your body.
Intuitive eating -- or whatever you want to call the radical notion of eating what you want, when you’re hungry, and stopping when you’re full -- demands that we trust our bodies. Most women learn early and often that their bodies are never to be trusted, that their bodies need strict regulation, especially when it comes to desire, be it the desire for food or for sex. As a result, learning to trust one’s body is difficult enough; when you add in a past that includes trauma and abuse, it becomes harder still.
But your body IS trustworthy. I promise you that. Your body is not your enemy. You have had the experience of eating in a way that listens to what you want and allows you to have it; you have felt the heady relief of eating a piece of cheese when you want it without blowing points or feeling guilty. You know that following your natural cues and desires makes you feel better -- and this goes for more than just eating, but for being active and other forms of self-care as well.
You’ve said that maybe all you know how to do is binge or starve, and that’s probably true. This IS all you know how to do -- it’s what is most comfortable and normal. But now you’re learning a new way of feeding yourself, in every sense of the term. It’s going to take time, and patience, and being kind to yourself.
In Disney’s 1941 animated film "Dumbo," the oft-ridiculed titular protagonist, a huge-eared circus elephant, discovers he can fly with the help of a “magic feather” given to him by his rodent friend in order to build his confidence. At the movie's climax, Dumbo is expected to perform his flying feat for the assembled crowd, but he panics when he can’t find his feather, only to be told that the feather was never magic at all -- Dumbo did it all on his own.
You have managed to ditch your scale, and have learned to function without it. Likewise, Weight Watchers is not a magic feather. It has helped you in the past, but you don’t need it anymore. You can be awesome and beautiful and happy and healthy without it. YOU CAN FLY, EMILY. You can totally fly.