by Lara Frater
Trigger warning: bullying and disordered eating
In 2003, when I started writing my book Fat Chicks Rule, I was very early in my anti-dieting journey. It had been less than a year since I ended 17 years of being on one diet or another. None of the diets were successful except to destroy my self-esteem, my intuitive eating, and even my risk taking (haven’t we all told ourselves, “When I lose the weight, I’ll do X…”?)
While in elementary school, I had been teased rather mercilessly by several bullies. This abuse included emotional and occasionally physical taunts. Physical abuse, for the most part, had intervention from my parents. For the emotional abuse, I was essentially told to walk it off or that I was being too sensitive.
The abuse stopped around junior high and by eighth grade, it had mostly petered out. However, after years of mostly unaddressed verbal abuse, I had internalized it and suffered severe social anxiety. Also if you are being bullied and reading this, being bullied did not ruin my life. Socially snubbed, I learned to believe in and like what I wanted. I was into gay rights, fighting for the disenfranchised, and nerd culture before it was cool. So yes, it does get better.
Despite being fat at age nine, I had no desire to diet until I was around 13. The emotional abuse had lessened by then, but the dieting industry found a vulnerable girl. I was fat and was told by parents, teachers, and my doctor that I had to lose weight. At 13, I decided that dieting would cure my problems, including the social anxiety. In 1980s America, we got the same diet advice of today: eat fewer calories and exercise. The same advice that has never worked. At the time I ate a lot of vegetables and I was very active. I walked, rode my bike, and ran around in gym class. My early dieting was DIY. I ate diet products like Alba and Ice Milk and popped a few OTC diet pills. When that didn’t work and I only got fatter, at 16 I went to Weight Watchers.
I went to therapy eventually to deal with the past abuse I experienced in school. I ended up moving forward, making peace with it and trying not to let it control my life. In therapy I never talked about dieting because I didn’t think I needed to. I believed my Weight Watchers’ leader who had kept her weight off for 20 years. When I finally ditched Weight Watchers in my early20s, I switched back to DIY and experimented with low carb dieting, which I was sure, was the answer. I blamed myself for cheating and even for the hunger that wouldn’t go away. So I decided to try one last extreme: no carbs at all. Three weeks later I was lying on the bathroom floor after throwing up and suffering what I assumed was an esophageal spasm. I gave it all up but I still blamed myself, that it was me who didn’t have the willpower.
A little while after that, I got a chance to write Fat Chicks Rule. I was aware of fat activism, having picked up Marilyn Wann’s book Fat! So? in 2001, but I hadn’t gotten involved yet. I made my very first stand then. I wasn’t going to write this book about being fat while dieting. I knew you couldn’t ever accept being fat if you are still actively trying to change it. Dieting was over, finished, and never to be done again. I decided I would never be taken advantage of by the dieting industry again. And I was going to do what I could to discredit them.
Of all the diets I pick on, I tend to focus on Weight Watchers the most because I used their plan the longest. The company took me at my formative years. Another reason I hate Weight Watchers so much is because it is one of the most manipulative of all the dieting programs. The company has claimed for years that it isn’t a diet but a lifestyle change (if you compare WW with other diets, they all pretty much allow for the same number of calories). The company lies and will do anything to keep customers and their money. They change their messaging and products with trends too. When I started, the plans were low fat and high carbohydrate, and this year, WW introduced a low carb plan.
I’m going to use two big powerful words about the diet industry that I’ve never said before. The first word is abusive. I might get a lot of negative feedback over the use of this word. It’s powerful and I don’t want to take away anything from survivors, as abuse covers more than just physical trauma: Abuse can occur to anyone of any age and gender and from any walk of life. It can take the form of physical battery, emotional bullying, psychological coercion, sexual abuse, or neglect.
The other word (well, two) is victim-blaming. During my dieting years, I blamed myself for failing. After I gave up dieting, I blamed myself for falling into the diet industry’s trap. It took 10 years to realize that I was their victim. They sold a vulnerable 13-year-old the message that she wasn’t perfect as is and needed to fix herself by any means necessary.
The diet industry is not your friend. They profit by emotional manipulation. It doesn’t matter how “easy” their program is to follow. They know it doesn’t work in the long term and they don’t fucking care. They don’t care about your health, your appearance, or your self-esteem. They ONLY want to make money. That is their bottom line.
Real lifestyle changes don’t necessarily involve weight loss. I’ve followed the tenets of the Health at Every Size® approach for 10 years. I strive to make more healthy choices for my body, my mind, and my spirit. In 17 years of dieting, I learned nothing healthy; instead, I learned how to binge eat and hate myself.
With the HAES principles, I made actual lifestyle changes that had nothing to do with weight loss. I stopped drinking diet soda. Not only do I exercise every single day, I do it for enjoyment rather than obligation. I tossed my very expensive scale into the trash. I learned to start listening to my body rather than the diet industry. I learned that I was the expert at my body, not some doctor selling weight loss plans. Most importantly, I no longer look in the mirror and see fat as a bad thing.
The HAES paradigm is not manipulative and it doesn’t have a greedy bottom line. It doesn’t create negativity about what to eat or what to think about your body. The HAES approach is not founded on a multibillion dollar industry that requires failure in order to succeed.
Lara Frater is a blogger, author, activist, and librarian. In 2005, she wrote guidebook “Fat Chicks Rule” and then started a companion blog to it. Her essay “Fat Heroines in Chick Lit” appeared in the Fat Studies Reader. Her blog and book has been featured in the Queens Chronicle, The New York Times, The Brian Lehrer show, ABC news and Business week. She’s the author of two zombie novels. She lives with her husband and an assort zoo of friends and pets in Rego Park, NY. Find her at http://www.larafrater.com