Kelsey Miller, 30, has struggled with body image for as long as she can remember. The author of the new memoir Big Girl: How I Gave Up Dieting & Got a Life, started her first “official” diet at age 11. She lost 30 pounds in two weeks (!) and soon found herself riding the yo-yo dieting crazy train for the next decade. After molding and remolding her body via a seemingly endless supply of “miracle” diets, Miller eventually realized her body wasn’t really her problem; dieting was. That’s when she gave up carb-counting for good, launched the popular The Anti-Diet Project on Refinery 29 and snagged a book deal in the process. Here, our newest hero tells us what it’s really like to live life off the scale.
How many diets do you think you’ve been on?
I’ve never counted but I did at least one a year every year [since age 11], and it was either I was on the diet or very much off the diet. It was never like I was… eating normally. I was either in diet mode or in that in-between diet mode. It was always part of the same cycle. I did Eat For Your Blood Type, I did Weight Watchers a few times, and I did Calorie King and Jenny Craig. I did all kinds of crazy things I made up and all kinds of crazy carb things.
In the book, you appear to locate the origins of your disordered eating in some traumatic encounters you had with a pervy-uncle-type when you were eight. Is that right?
It started before those incidents took place, but certainly that experience of being abused in that way was really tied up in the way that I felt about my body and the way that I treated my body. I think that is something that is not unique to me; so many women who go through these kind of things find this sort of outlet as a way of hiding their bodies and hating their bodies and punishing their bodies.
Weight has been an issue for you since you were a kid. Where do you think it started?
I don’t really recall it being one incident where it all began. But I say it in the book, as long as I was aware of having a body I felt aware that there was something wrong with it. When you’re a chubby little girl it’s it’s rare for somebody to correct [your self-image] and say ‘You’re fine.’ Much more you’re going to get the ‘Well, what are we going to do about it?’ message. I was never a skinny kid so it just began the more I grew and became aware. It all got amplified and then I got the tools—I learned how to diet—and it got more complex.
I love the subtitle of the book—How I Gave Up Dieting & Got a Life—because I spent my 20s basically hiding and thinking I was in some kind of cocoon from which I’d emerge perfect. From the book, it sounds like you did something similar. What is it about the diet mentality that hinders us from living a real life?
This is just me, but it makes you think you’re going to be all better and perfect and acceptable in this amount of pounds—whatever amount it is that you’re supposed to be losing with any particular diet. That’s when everything will get good. It’s seductive. But you never get there; it’s never enough. Even when you get to your goal weight you think, ‘Oh, I must have picked the wrong goal weight,’ or, ‘If I could do this than I can do better,’ and thinner is always better…it’s a crazy-making cycle.
There’s a part in the book where that craziness is clear. You’re a teenager and you’ve lost a ton of weight and a guy you have a crush on compliments you and you’re so filled with self-loathing you can’t even accept it!
Oh, god, yeah. You don’t know what to do with the attention once you’ve got it. It’s so hard. It’s so much easier to be in that self-hating ‘I’m not good enough, I can’t do anything’ self-defeated mode. You don’t have to do anything there; you don’t have to figure out what to say when someone flirts with you.
Why do you think so many women—fat, skinny and everything in between—spend so much of our lives tormenting ourselves with restrictive diets and/or self-loathing?
That stuff comes from everywhere. I don’t know where it started, or which historic figure looked at their daughter and said, ‘You’re not OK,’ but I think that we internalize this from every possible angle. It’s not one source’s fault. It’s not just your mother’s fault or your father’s fault or society’s fault. That message that you’re not good enough and that you should look a certain way and eat a certain way is very tied up in the way that we talk to women and about women in general. It just comes from every single direction so why wouldn’t it be perpetuated? There’s no force that’s as big as the other side. There are people like me and the body positivity movement and things like that pushing back, but it’s still infinitesimally small in comparison to the diet industry and all the other industries that are connected to the perception of the female body… It’s so many things that all boils down to [the idea] just be thinner, just be better.
You found relief from the cycle of diet mania by embracing the philosophy of intuitive eating. Can you describe the concept?
It sounds really meditative and Zen and difficult and maybe not real, but really it’s very real. The name of the book is Intuitive Eating [by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch] but the concept of the un-diet has been around for a long time. Geneen Roth talks about the same thing. Intuitive eating is really just a means of diet philosophy deprogramming and learning to eat like a normal person again. Learning how to eat the way that you already know. Your body knows what to eat, your brain knows what you need and that’s all that you need. You don’t need someone to figure out the net carbs for you to eat properly. There are pillars of intuitive eating, e.g., like having full permission to eat, which means that you don’t have a restricted concept around food in general or a particular kind of food, you have full permission to eat whatever. When you have that permission, you’re not engaging with food in that obsessive way—that’s where the binging thing comes from—the sense that is a “bad” food. If that doesn’t exist, there’s no bingeing. And then there are things like honouring your hunger and your fullness…it’s totally practical.
In the book, you choose to not talk about weight loss—i.e. if you’ve lost it or not by following the un-diet approach. How has getting off the scale helped you?
Part of it has to do with the fact that I needed and still do need that break from the scale because I know what a seductive trigger it is. That’s part of respecting where I’m at in the journey, which is not having a consistently neutral relationship to my weight. I go to the doctor and I have myself checked out and I do everything I can to keep an eye on my health but… when I start thinking about myself in terms of weight that’s where the whole messed-up connection to food begins.