How can I unlearn this toxic lesson when it’s so deeply embedded in our everyday lives?
It should surprise no one that I am personally against commercial, bought-and-paid-for diets -- and by “personally” I mean that Lesley the individual won’t be reboarding that particular rollercoaster anytime soon, because it wasn’t fun at all and it usually ended with me fighting the urge to vomit.
But I am also against commercial diets in general. Like for anyone. I am against their existence. And while I would never tell you that you’re bad for doing one -- you get to do what you like with your body, and I get to do what I like with mine -- I do hate that you have the option to pay a company to tell you how to lose weight.
My opposition has many layers, but one of my less-discussed points of contention is that these commercial diets are not health- and well-being-driven. They are not nonprofit organizations whose sole motivation is advocating for your optimal operating parameters. They’re not philanthropies who care deeply about your cardiovascular system.
They are businesses. And while some employees may have an ancillary interest in your success, the companies they work for are really interested in profit. Not to put too fine a point on it, but you are a customer, and not a patient, and not even a “client,” as they euphemistically like to call you sometimes. You are there to buy weight loss, and they are there to sell it to you at a markup. For the convenience. For the head-pats.
I feel strongly about this because there is nothing intrinsically magical about these diets. They are, usually, the same old “eat less and exercise” advice that works for a small but dedicated minority of people seeking weight loss; it’s just been wrapped up in a pretty advertisment-friendly package. These diets are meticulously marketed to sell you a “better” -- or a least more acceptable -- version of yourself, and it works because so many of us been brought up to respond to such promises with wide-eyed delight, instead of scrutiny.
Therefore it was with keen interest that I read this Huffington Post piece (sent in by reader Tina -- thanks much!) entitled, “An Open Apology to All of My Weight Loss Clients,” written by Iris Higgins, who worked as a weight loss counselor at an unnamed diet company for three years.
I'm sorry because I put you on a 1,200 calorie diet and told you that was healthy. I'm sorry because when you were running 5x a week, I encouraged you to switch from a 1,200 calorie diet to a 1,500 calorie diet, instead of telling you that you should be eating a hell of a lot more than that. I'm sorry because you were breastfeeding and there's no way eating those 1,700 calories a day could have been enough for both you and your baby.
It goes on like that for awhile. Because, I suppose, if you’ve done this job and later realized what you’d contributed to, there’s probably a lot you feel sorry for.
Like many people, I didn’t turn to a commercial diet plan until after my other, self-directed efforts had been unsuccessful. I was probably about 12 or 13 years old, and I’d already become consumed with the worry that I was far too fat to be liked, by myself or by anyone else.
Internally I blamed my social problems at school, which were legion and would really blossom in the next few years, on my perceived fatness -- if I was smaller, I’d be popular, certainly. I wouldn’t get bullied by the boys on the playground, or more subtly ostracized and tormented in that horrible way middle school girls do, so much more brutal than the boys’ bullying ever was.
I didn’t know at the time that middle school is hard for everyone and is arguably one of the most horrible periods of growing up. I thought everything that happened to me happened because I was fat, and worse, that I deserved it. Because I’d bought into the notion that I was the failure for not being able to lose weight and “keep it off” -- the irony of this expectation when I was literally still growing and necessarily getting bigger all the time is not lost on me today.
I think now that I was a really good weight loss consultant. Because I did exactly what the company wanted (but would never dare say). I helped you lose weight and then gain it back, so that you thought we were the solution and you were the failure. You became a repeat client and we kept you in the game. I guess I did my job really well.
On a business level, these diets really are about striking a delicate balance between success and failure; you can’t fail too much because you might give up, but you can’t succeed too completely either, because then you might cease to be a customer. The best thing that can happen is that the diet convinces you that you cannot survive without it. This is why so many commercial diet plans offer lifetime memberships, and nobody ever questions why that would even exist if the diet actually worked.
No one has ever apologized to me. And while I know this letter is not directed at me personally, I am feeling it a lot. Because I think I wanted an apology at some point. No one ever said to me, "Hey, I’m sorry I contributed to the development of a powerful self-loathing for basically all of your most formative years, which you would then have to spend the next decade unpacking!" No one ever acknowledged that this was a bad idea.
The most I ever got was, "My intentions were good! I thought I was helping." (By helping you to feel badly about yourself, and your body, by underscoring the idea that failure is all you know how to do well.)
I am sorry because many of you walked in healthy and walked out with disordered eating, disordered body image, and the feeling that you were a "failure." None of you ever failed. Ever. I failed you. The weight loss company failed you. Our society is failing you.
Dieting was singularly responsible for my own disordered eating. I started the process as a normal kid with a normal relationship to food, without any obscuring ideologies about “good” food and “bad” food and how the consumption of either contributed to both my moral character and my sense of self-worth. When I began dieting, I was only slightly larger than where the charts said I should be, but subsequently I got fatter and fatter and fatter with every loss/gain cycle I went through.
Dieting taught me how to feel guilt over what I ate. It taught me how to obsess over numbers on a scale and how to ignore what my body was telling me. It taught me to shout down my natural cues for hunger and satiety, and to divorce my brain from my physical needs and what my body actually felt like. It taught me how to be hungry and how to feed off the hunger itself, even when it made me lightheaded and jittery, even when it made my hands tremble and my heart race, because that just meant it was working, and my stupid selfish authority-defying body was learning who was in charge here, and suffering its punishment for being so stubbornly fat.
Some still think it was OK that I went through all that, because I was fat. Not hugely fat, at the time, but fat enough that I could see the differences between my own body and those of my peers. Some think it’s cool to put kids through commercial weight loss diets even today, because the fear that they might become fat adults is far more powerful than the fear that they might become adults with functional eating disorders.
So it’s gratifying to hear even one of the people involved in this process say they are sorry. Even if it’s not directed at me, even if it comes years past when I wanted to hear it. I still can’t say “It’s OK,” or “Don’t worry about it,” or even “I forgive you,” -- I want to, to pretend it gives me closure and that all the damage has been repaired, but the words just won’t come.
The best I can do is: I’m sorry too. And let's keep looking toward a future where nobody has to feel sorry about this sort of thing ever again.