For those of you who don't know, I interned with Project HEAL last semester, and I am currently a chapter volunteer with the NYC chapter. Project HEAL is a major voice in the eating disorder world, where they provide treatment assistance, information and recovery support to those in this community. They have recently started the #donewithdieting campaign which is to bring awareness to the dangers of dieting, especially as they are related to eating disorders. I feel very strongly about supporting Project HEAL as well as all of the noise that is starting from within the community about why dieting doesn't work and the inherent risks associated with them. I thought it was time to share my story, at least how the onset of my eating disorder was strongly linked to dieting. I've seen it said before that although every diet doesn't lead to an eating disorder, dieting leads to a preoccupation with food and weight, a dangerous cultural thin ideal, and disordered eating. For me, dieting absolutely lead to the progression into a full-blown eating disorder.
A little bit of background: I was bullied from a young age throughout puberty for the way my body and weight were. This lead to me wanting so badly to change my body that I used to write "LWN!" on my hand in pen every day. This meant=lose weight now! I didn't know exactly how to do that so from time to time when my self-esteem and confidence got really low, I would try to test myself and see how long I could go without eating. I would eventually give in, eat my packed lunch from my parents, and then feel disgust and shame in myself for not being "good enough".
My struggle with weight and dieting continued into my time in college. Towards the end of my freshman year, I had some pretty fucked up stuff happen. Around the same time, I decided to finally "commit" to the dieting thing for good. It was the perfect storm for the onset of my eating disorder after years of body-shame, body-hate and living in the diet culture.
I went into the bookstore "innocently enough" to go pick up a dieting book. The one I picked had some ridiculous title like "lose huge amounts of weight fast!" or something like this. This book was designed for people who "had" a substantial amount of weight to lose (50+ lbs) and wanted to do it within a couple month span. RED FLAG! The diet was low calorie and the exercise routine was intense. And I got hooked right away, and lost over 30% of my body weight in less than a year. The compliments came, and NO ONE recognized that I was engaging in disordered eating and compulsive exercise behaviors. I had doctors who congratulated me, not really willing to dig in deeper and see what was truly going on below the surface. To everyone around me, I had been a successful dieter, and that was something to celebrate! I was now living in a smaller body, so what could potentially be wrong with that? I was healthy, right?
Until I presented with crippling anxiety and panic attacks over food. What had started as a "simple" harmless enough diet, had quickly turned into an obsession and was turning into dangerous behaviors quickly. I felt like I was completely out of control unless I was engaging in behaviors that controlled my food, body, and shape. The title of "successful dieter" was something that stuck so deeply to me. My mental health became so quickly wrapped up in my diet, my exercise, things that were becoming increasingly harder to control. And so, the behaviors turned more extreme. It took me over a year from the time I started dieting until the time I FINALLY received an eating disorder diagnosis. Because diet culture is so common and so celebrated, no one really noticed when I was struggling and miserable mentally, because on the outside I pretended that dieting was great and amazing and so #healthy.
As I've spoken about recently, I am now in my 3rd treatment center for a higher level of care. This is the first time that I've fully committed to recovery from my eating disorder. And even now, I'm finding it so hard to recover in a society that is still so pro-diet or "lifestyle", which is just another word for dieting anyway. Dieting and diet culture has been a part of my life since I can remember being 10 years old, filling out different diet workbooks and tracking my food. It's honestly not surprising to me that this environment and my multiple attempts at dieting eventually resulted in an eating disorder. There's a saying that genetics load the gun, and environment pulls the trigger on people who develop disordered eating as well as the 10% of the country that suffers from eating disorders.
I cannot express strongly enough how much we NEED to change the discussion around food, bodies and exercise. Even now all of the "lifestyle" trends that people fall into are just thinly-veiled diets. There is increasing evidence that dieting doesn't work, and that it actually causes more health issues as opposed to the health benefits it "promises". If you don't believe me, check out Dr. Linda Bacon's ground-breaking research, Health At Every Size. (Click here!) The conversation has to change, and it has to change now. My story is sadly not that unique in the eating disorder world, because nearly everyone has dieted at some point leading up to the onset of their eating disorders.
I truly wish that organizations like Project HEAL had been on the ground dismantling the myths about dieting and weight loss when I was younger. It might have saved me from years of struggling with dieting and an eventual eating disorder. While we can't go back in time, we can start to create change RIGHT NOW. This is why I am sharing my voice and my story, because I know how important it is to open up about this topic.
Hi, I'm Charlotte! I'm a 24 year old navigating life in NYC and mental health recovery. I am passionate about public health and eliminating stigma.