When I was 21, I suddenly lost a lot of weight. Up until that point, I hadn’t given much thought my size—I’d been more or less the same weight for several years, and I guess on some level I just figured that was the weight I was going to be forever. Then I switched medications and took a new job that was a 45-minute walk from home, and the result of these changes was that I dropped several dress sizes in as many months. As ridiculous as it might sound, I was genuinely surprised by the changes in my body—but what surprised me even more were the reactions of my friends and family.
People couldn’t stop telling me how good I looked after losing weight. I looked so healthy, they gushed, and so pretty. I wasn’t used to anyone praising how I looked—I’d been a particularly awkward teenager—and the attention was heady. But as much as I reveled in the comments about my body, it was hard not to read an unspoken (and probably unintended) message in all the compliments coming my way: that before losing weight, my body had not been good or pretty or healthy. In fact, everyone seemed to imply, it had been the opposite of those things. It began to feel like my pre-weight-loss body had inspired a secret loathing in the people around me. I began to loathe my body too.
Our culture makes it very easy to slip into disordered eating—in fact, it encourages it. Restricting food and obsessing over the number on your bathroom scale are seen as virtuous behaviours; thinness is seen as evidence of willpower. I can’t remember a time in my life when many, if not most, of the women around me were engaging in some form of dieting. It felt frighteningly normal when, after my initial weight loss, I started counting calories. When I admitted to some of my friends that I was trying to eat less, no one seemed particularly concerned about whether this was healthy or not; in fact, many of them shared their weight loss strategies. It was like learning a secret language that I hadn’t realized so many people I knew were fluent in. Food went from being an unmitigated pleasure to a source of deep anxiety. The empty lightness of hunger made me feel good, both physically and morally; denying myself the food I needed made me feel like I had transcended some kind of personal weakness through sheer will.
It’s hard to say if I ever had an eating disorder, mostly because it feels impossible to figure out where the line is between dieting and illness. Maybe it’s a case-by-case thing: some people can do it and be fine, whereas other people can’t do it without taking it too far. Or maybe there is no line, maybe it’s just one long spectrum of disorder. I genuinely don’t know. It’s hard to be objective about the water you swim in, especially when it’s the only water you’ve ever known.
I’ve never talked to a therapist or doctor about my eating issues. Actually, the majority of doctors who saw me while my food restriction was at its peak went out of their way to comment positively on my weight, which only reinforced the feeling that what I was doing was both virtuous and healthy. Asking for help in that environment felt impossible, and anyway the obsession that had me in its grip wouldn’t let me. I was terrified by the prospect of gaining weight, and I knew that any treatment would involve just that—any sickness, after all, wants you to stay sick. That’s how sickness works.
I wish there was a moment in this story where I suddenly decided to love myself and treat my body kindly. Instead, the truth is that I got pregnant and suddenly felt like I had permission to eat as much as I wanted; whenever my OB weighed me, I told myself that each pound I gained was helping me make a healthy baby. After giving birth, my body felt like a foreign country, one whose laws and customs I didn’t understand. I knew I had to rebuild a relationship with it, and I desperately wanted that relationship to be better than the one I’d had before. As part of this, I decided to stop tracking my weight entirely. I’ve even asked my doctor not to tell me how much I weigh; when I go for my yearly physical, I stand backwards on the scale and close my eyes while she enters the number into her computer.
There’s a part in Bridget Jones’ Diary when her friend asks her how she has managed to memorize the caloric value of every single food. She replies that she just knows, “as one knows one’s alphabet or times table.” That line struck me as funny the first time I read it; now it just feels bitterly real. Even though I haven’t weighed myself in seven years, but I still can’t turn off the internal calorie calculator in my brain, the one that serves me up a number every time I eat something. I try, but sometimes it’s impossible to avoid, like when restaurants include calorie counts on their menus. Or when someone at the table announces that they’re going to be good today and just have a salad. Or when the server winks at me when I order dessert and says something like ,“go ahead, you deserve it,” as if chocolate cake is some kind conspiracy we’re both in on. Or any time I see a magazine featuring pictures a celebrity’s “post-baby bikini body” or log onto Facebook and read about someone’s weight loss journey or scroll through an article full of ads promising to teach me “one weird trick” that will make me lose 20 pounds. It’s literally everywhere. It’s the water we swim in.
Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to be able to see food as a complete pleasure unto itself again. I try to imagine drinking a fancy latte without reflexively knowing its caloric value, but it feels as impossible as seeing a word and not automatically reading it. How do you un-know something you’ve forced yourself to know? Maybe I’m still in a transitional space between being afraid of food and loving food, and eventually I’ll be able to just eat in an uncomplicated way again. Or maybe it’s always going to be complicated and I’ll just learn to live with it.
Anne Thériault is a Toronto-based writer, activist and social agitator. She is the author of My Heart is an Autumn Garage, a short memoir about depression. Her work can be found in the London Review of Books, the Washington Post, the National Post, and other publications. She is currently raising one child and three unruly cats.
More from Anne Thériault:
How Being a Girl Guide Informed My Budding Feminism
Reflecting on the Day I Did My Best to Die and Then My Best to Live
What’s Harder Than Being a Mom? Dealing With All the Cultural Baggage that Comes With It