Lifestyle

Why I Quit Dieting When I Was Over 400 Pounds

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Courtesy of Shannon Ashley

Shame is the sort of feeling I’ve known for most of my life in one way or another. The shame of growing up on welfare and food stamps. The shame of having all of these family secrets my mom always warned me not to share.

I wasn’t known for being a “fat kid” in school, but at five years old, my endocrinologist was constantly making me feel like one. My monthly appointments left me feeling ashamed that I kept putting on weight, but I was too young to understand why or what it meant.

All I really knew was the shame.

***

Then when I was about seven, my mom said something to me I’ll never forget. We had a neighbor friend over  — the only one my mother allowed. Since she lived in the same apartment complex as us, my mom didn’t object to her seeing how poor we really were.

Before the friend left, we ate frozen yogurt in the kitchen. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary, but once our neighbor went home, my mother chastised me.

“You looked at your food like you were in love with it! Sheila saw the look on your face and she thought you were crazy.”

This is something my mom did a lot — she needlessly criticized me for normal kid things and often told me what other people were thinking. As if she could know.

But I was young. When she told me I looked crazy and that my friend wordlessly agreed, all I could feel was confusion and shame. What had I done wrong? Why was I such a freak?

I’m now the mother of a six-year-old girl. She doesn’t have any food or body issues. She eats with food freedom and knows when she’s done. And it’s never occurred to me that I should judge her for enjoying her food.

I watch kids eat ice cream. They tend to do it with wild abandon. Shameless. It drives me crazy that my mom’s words have haunted me my whole life when I now know I was just a kid being a kid.

***

At 12 years old I realized my body wasn’t “normal.” I wouldn’t know that I had lipedema for twenty-something more years, but I knew back then there was something wrong with my calves and thighs.

Since no doctor ever gave me an explanation beyond, “you need to eat less and move more,” that’s what I did. I was a disordered eater by the end of grade school, but in those days, eating disorders like mine didn’t count because I wasn’t underweight and I didn’t purge.

For more than twenty years, I cycled through restriction and binge eating. I lost over 100 pounds twice, gained it back and more, and lost between 30 and 80 pounds more times than I can count.

Some diets were clearly not worth the headache. For instance, I never lost more than 30 pounds on a low carb or ketogenic diet. In my opinion, that’s not enough of a benefit for eliminating entire food groups. Besides, I feel good eating veggies, fruits, and carbohydrates. I like fiber.

Even so, I’ve spent most of my adult life ashamed of the fact that I haven’t been more successful in my weight loss efforts. A few years ago, when I found out that I have a disease called lipedema, which is quite literally mistaken for obesity, I didn’t feel relieved or vindicated.

I’ve read that women with lipedema are at risk for developing an eating disorder. Virtually the entire medical community tells women with this disfiguring and debilitating disease to “eat less and move more,” but as it turns out, lipedema fat is not lost through diet or exercise.

If that’s not the recipe for an eating disorder, I don’t know what is.

***

This summer, I had a rather rude awakening about all of my previous efforts to lose weight. Every single one of those efforts reflects just another symptom of my eating disorder. I used to feel so much shame for suffering from binge eating disorder, especially since it wasn’t even considered a “legitimate” eating disorder until 2013. That’s when it was finally added to the DSM.

In 2013, I ate a raw food, low-fat vegan diet, and meticulously counted my calories and macros. I hit the treadmill at my workplace 14 hours a week, or two hours every day without rest.

I worked like hell just to get down to 285 pounds. To this.

Courtesy of Shannon Ashley

A few months after taking this photo, I had a tumultuous love affair that ended with me giving birth to my daughter in 2014. I’ve been a single mom since pregnancy and while I only gained about 30 pounds before she was born, I quickly put on about 70 more as I adjusted to motherhood.

I’ve worn my excess fat with several more servings of shame, often looking back at photos of “who I used to be,” and wondering how to get that mojo back and lose weight once again. I looked back on those photos and saw a girl who was fat but strong and I envied those former versions of me, like in college when I often only ate three oatmeal packets in water each day.

My whole life, as long as I was losing weight, I thought that I was going somewhere. That I was good. Whenever I gained weight, that meant that I was bad and weak — unable to hold my shit together. For me, weight gain has always been about falling apart. I get too tired of doing the work. I can’t juggle multiple things. As if my weight gain is nothing but my moral failings on display.

I see myself more clearly now. I see that I’ve been sick for a very long time. Sure, I lost weight. Lots of people with active eating disorders lose weight. Or cycle up and down.

The problem is, we live in a culture that glorifies eating disorders as long as “excess weight” is going down. And I’ve participated in all of that damage as I tried diet after diet and Googled “How did Melissa McCarthy (or Adele, or Rebel Wilson, etc.) lose weight.” ***

I’ve been trying so hard to wrap my mind around this idea that all of my efforts to lose weight have been rooted in disordered eating. Don’t get me wrong — I am positive that it’s true. Nearly every diet I’ve ever done has been focused on “outsmarting” my body. Which is to say, “my body can’t be trusted.”

Things like:

  • My body can’t be trusted to regulate itself on an adult amount of food, so I’d better consume the calories of a toddler.
  • I can’t trust myself to not binge on ice cream —  better keep it out of the house.
  • If I don’t write down every bite of food I’ll forget how much I actually ate.
  • I’d better stick to low-calorie foods with high volumes to trick my body into believing I’m feeding it more.

Of course, none of the actual diet rules matter. The point is that food, body, and weight loss fills my head. If I am perfectly on plan and losing weight, that dictates whether or not I have a good day. I can’t go out to lunch with friends or enjoy a holiday without some sort of fixation or fear about food.

Fatphobia runs so deep that most of us don’t even see our fixation with food or weight. Depending upon our body size, we might even feel some obsession is healthy.

As if we’re better off obsessed with food rules than actually fat. It’s hard to wrap my mind about the reality of a collective cultural eating disorder, but I’m beginning to understand why it’s so damn difficult to break free. ***

So, I’m doing something different now, and it’s scary as hell. I decided to quit dieting. Quit trying to lose weight. Hopefully forever.

It’s scary because the world says, “No, you weigh over 400 pounds. Body positivity isn’t for you. You need a diet. You need a gastric bypass.” And it’s scary because part of me keeps saying the same damn thing. No. I weigh more than 400 pounds. I have to lose weight. I should go back to eating 600 calories a day and then…

And then what? What can I possibly say to myself to make yet another weight loss effort stick when the others never have?

The knee-jerk reaction is to say that this is just a willpower issue. Sheer laziness. But in reality, it’s really just about exiting the rollercoaster of disordered eating. You can’t heal from one eating disorder while embracing another.

I’m done dieting. Not because I want to stay at this weight, but because dieting has never improved my relationship with my body, food, or weight in any long-term way. ***

Maybe you’ve noticed, but I don’t like to take pictures these days. Sure, you might not guess that I weighed close to 400 pounds in this photo:

Courtesy of Shannon Ashley

And you probably wouldn’t know that I weighed more than 400 in this one:

Courtesy of Shannon Ashley

But I know. I know all about the careful angling and fifty reshots it took to get those halfway decent pics. And I know how much I hate it when anyone takes a straight-on candid photo of me.

I don’t like to draw attention to myself as a fat woman, because I am still filled with shame. I want people to understand what it’s like to be so fat. I don’t think we can truly crush fatphobia until fat people are free and honest about their experiences in larger bodies.

But this is also where it gets complicated. As it happens, there are a lot of reasons why I hate being fat. Yes, some of it revolves around “things other people think about me.” Or might think about me.

When I meet new people in this fat body, I can’t help but wonder if they’re judging me. People have a lot to say about this, like how it’s a personal problem and “silly” that I’d even think about it. But I think it’s pretty damn natural and human. Virtually everyone in America has grown up desensitized to fat jokes and disparaging remarks about large bodies.

So, yes. It’s only natural that I am painfully aware of the way other people view fat bodies. As if we’re lazy or stupid and somehow less valuable than others. I find it impossible to not consider such feelings and first impressions.

When people find out that I’m a single mother with no interest in romantic love right now, I know that many people will think that means I’m too fat (or too gross, too lazy, too something) to get a date.

And when I speak up for myself on social media, I’m well aware that somebody who knows about my weight issues will accuse me of being “a big fat bitch.” Plenty of people take issue with a fat woman who refuses to shrink down in size and stay quiet. Fat women who use their voices to speak up are often portrayed as bossy, pushy, and crass.

In real life, there have been plenty of Karens who stare at my shopping cart or make a big deal about sharing space with me at Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s — as if I might somehow squash them. Or, like my body might be contagious.

Get used to it, strangers say. Either that or lose the weight. ***

My personal problems with being fat aren’t just limited to these social fears and awkward moments of strangers behaving badly. There are real-life issues that I’ve wanted to open up about, but the thing that always stops me is shame.

“Chub rub” is something lots of women deal with, but when you have severe lipedema, it’s a whole new beast. Lately, it’s my beast as my right inner thigh has erupted into a mass of painful blisters, nodules, and irritation. Two nights ago, I made the mistake of putting Band-aids on the mess. Every time I stood up or walked around, the bandages felt like they were digging into the folds on my flesh. To make matters worse, they were the waterproof kind that securely adheres to your skin.

It took at least 30 minutes to remove the band-aids this morning, and then I had to admit that they’d only exacerbated the situation. So, now, I’m sitting on my bed with my right leg propped up, slathered in antibiotic ointment. And do you know what?

I feel stupid and I feel shame. How can I tell the world that I’m done dieting, and then go on to speak openly and honestly about the hazards of my very fat body?

The truth, of course, lies more within the in-between. The gray area. Diet culture says, yes, of course, I need to drop weight ASAP. Get on protein shakes. Pursue bariatric surgery. You know the drill. This is the part of “The Biggest Loser” or “My 600lb Life” where the doctor has the patient intervention.

“You’re eating yourself to death!” he’d cry. Except, if he were in my home, he’d know that’s not true.

I haven’t had a binge episode for weeks. I’m working hard to better understand my hunger and fullness cues. I might have sunk a small fortune in one-on-one nutritional counseling with a food freedom dietician, but for the first time in my life, I’m finally feeling free around food. I can have it in the house without that awful compulsion to eat until I feel unwell. I can remember that I’ve got ice cream in the freezer and think, “oh yeah,” but leave it be. Even ice cream doesn’t appeal to me when I’m not hungry.

This is what it’s like to finally start trusting my body. It’s scary. I keep thinking, “I’m not allowed to do this, am I?” The notion that a fat woman is allowed to eat when she is hungry seems so counter-culture to everything I’ve ever known.

Fat bodies hide and apologize — don’t we? That’s why life is filled with the shame of apologies to straight-sized people. I’m sorry you have to look at me. I’m sorry I’m not smaller yet. I’m sorry I take up too much space.

I’m sorry.

I’m sorry.

Oh my God, I am always so sorry. ***

I feel the shame of my fatness at least 300 times a day. There’s the shame of knowing that few people care about or understand lipedema. I don’t talk about the physical pain of skin that is stretched to its limit. Don’t bring up the bruising or aching legs that make some exercises impossible. Simply separating my “lifestyle” fat from lipedema fat is impossible, too.

I don’t like to talk about the shame of battling my mobility. It’s embarrassing to realize I’m more easily out of breath, or that I’ve got new aches and pains.

Traditionally, everything that goes wrong within my body is bound to be blamed upon my weight. And I’m supposed to feel a certain level of shame about that. Because if I wasn’t fat, I could shop for clothes much more easily. If I wasn’t fat, I wouldn’t worry about weight limits of furniture and step stools.

If I wasn’t fat, I wouldn’t constantly worry that my endometriosis flare-ups mean cancer, because I wouldn’t be so frightened to go to the doctor.

If I wasn’t fat, strangers wouldn’t constantly be telling me that I’m dying. Or just one heart attack away from abandoning my child.

Bending down would be easier.

Cleaning would be easier.

If I wasn’t fat.

Or, even, if I wasn’t so fat.

Shameful, blaming thoughts spin round and round. But thankfully, they’re slowly beginning to die down as I keep going down this no-diet road.

All my life, I’ve blamed myself. Felt ashamed for eating too much. Felt like my body couldn’t be trusted, like I couldn’t trust myself, and like I’m a monumental failure. And I wasted decades treating my weight issues with more and more disordered eating habits — of which society fully approves — yet I always wound up fatter and more confused.

Which leads me back to today.

I’m only at the beginning of this no-diet journey where I quit trying to lose weight. Only at the beginning of practicing food freedom. Some days are harder than others, like today, when I’m feeling a little extra peeved at the complications of life in a larger body.

Even so, I still think it’s worth the effort. Fat is not a moral failing. Eating disorders can be treated. Fat bodies deserve freedom, not a lifetime of shame.

This post first appeared on Medium.

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