I’m healthy. I feel good. Why deprive my body just to reach a certain number on the scale?
Last fall, I pulled out my favorite pair of jeans, which I hadn’t worn in months. My pandemic wardrobe consisted exclusively of stretchy yoga pants and other elastic waistband loungewear.
As I pulled my skinny jeans up over my thighs, I noticed the denim hugged my flesh a bit more snugly than I remembered. When I tried to zip them up around my hips and waist, I realized no amount of sucking in was going to make these pants fit.
Like so many, I’d gained weight during quarantine, a time when I no longer felt the need to wear pants that buttoned. Plus, I was stuck at home with plenty of snacks and food delivery.
I’ve gained significant weight in the past. From the “freshman 15” in college, to the “happy weight” I gained after meeting my husband, and the pounds I packed on during pregnancy, my body has ridden the roller coaster of weight gain and loss many times.
Back then, I’d simply cut way back on my caloric intake. I’d subsist on frozen diet meals and half-size portions while increasing my exercise.
Usually that worked to lose the weight — although it made me cranky and obsessive about every morsel that went into my mouth.
And though I’d drop a pants size, invariably I’d regain weight, restarting the diet cycle.
“Weight cycling is really risky,” says Christy Harrison, MPH, RD, CEDRD, a registered dietician and author. “It’s a risk factor for all these things that get blamed on weight: heart disease, certain forms of cancer, mortality. Not to mention, it’s associated with anxiety, depression, binge-eating — all these things we want to help people avoid.”
While my first instinct was to return to my old dieting habits to shed the extra pounds, I realized something: I may have gained weight, but I was healthier than ever.
Being at home meant cooking my own meals more. Instead of nuking a frozen diet dish full of preservatives and sodium for lunch like I would have in an office, I had the time and provisions to make something better.
Quarantine also afforded me the freedom to incorporate regular gentle exercise, be it a walk around the neighborhood or yoga in the living room with my son.
Though I’d gained weight, I was eating better and moving more than I had when I was thinner. I felt good, and my blood work at my annual physical reflected that healthy feeling.
So, why did I feel as though I needed to lose weight? I realized my desire to drop pounds had less to do with fitting into my pants than fitting an unrealistic ideal of how my body should look.
“Weight stigma is out there in society, and it’s not something you can snap your fingers and avoid,” Harrison says. “Breaking up with diet culture and starting to move away from internalizing its beliefs help you stop with the weight self-stigma and help you reframe your thoughts when you find yourself self-stigmatizing.”
I grew up in a home with a mother who was unhappy with her weight and always on a diet. Coupled with the constant messages from media and society that the only “acceptable” size is thin, I adopted a distorted view of how my body should look fairly early.
But living through a pandemic made me re-evaluate a lot of things in my life, including my health.
If I was healthy and felt good, why should I deprive my body just to reach a certain number on the scale?
These tips worked for me in deprogramming my diet mindset:
“The first step is becoming aware, starting to notice when you’re doing things according to diet rules,” Harrison says.
“A lot of people have been on so many diets in their lives, and they may not consciously adhere to that diet. But unconsciously, they’re still following the rules of that diet: trying to avoid carbs, counting calories, or trying to eat before a certain time at night.”
Deprogramming my brain from years of dieting has been an ongoing process. I began to loosely follow intuitive eating principles: eating when my body feels hungry and not restricting my eating by calories, food type, or time of day.
This style of eating is a gentle way to respond to your body’s needs rather than rules about what they should be.
Making exercise just a part of life
I maintain a regular exercise routine of low-impact activities, like walking, but I don’t beat myself up if I miss a few days of working out.
Weaving exercise into my life like this feels natural and makes it easier to stay consistent.
Doing a social media shake-up
I also changed the way I consume social media, limiting or unfollowing accounts that made me feel bad about my body or eating and exercise habits.
“Unfollow or mute people who are putting diet culture stuff out there in your feed,” Harrison says. “And follow those who are putting out anti-diet stuff: plus-sized authors and influencers, like Jes Baker or Ragen Chastain, and people who are showing how you can live life in a larger body.”
Breaking up with diet culture also made me rethink my relationships with friends and family. I sought out connections with those who were on the same page with intuitive eating or who were willing to listen to my perspective.
I limited the time I spend with diet-obsessed people and let those I do spend time with know that I’m not interested in discussing diets.
“Having conversations with the people in your life about what you’re doing and setting boundaries if needed is important,” Harrison says.
“A lot of people bond over diet talk, so when you’re having those conversations and setting those boundaries, it’s really helpful to keep it as ‘I’ statements and really focus on your own experience.”
The biggest, and sometimes hardest, thing I’ve done through this process is make a conscious choice to be gentle with myself.
Are there days when I backslide and worry about calories or not exercising enough? Sure. But I try to remember these little setbacks will happen, and I won’t let them derail my progress.
“Approaching it with self-compassion is the best way to make things stick and also to help yourself have better mental well-being in this process,” Harrison says.
Months after breaking up with diet culture, I still can’t fit into my old skinny jeans. Instead, I bought a new pair in a larger size that I like even better than the old ones.
Every time I put them on, they remind me that my body is an ever-changing work in progress. As long as it’s healthy and strong, the size on my pants label shouldn’t matter.