I was 10 years old when I went on my first diet. Puberty had hit me hard: seemingly overnight, I developed these C-cups that were the object of envy/ fascination for my classmates, as well as rolls in my stomach that were never there before. Still, for the most part, I was happy with my body, until one day at the water fountain, I was talking with my frenemy about the girls in our class and their best features — who had the longest hair, who had a pretty smile.
"You've got a pretty face, Megan, even if you are a little chubby," my frenemy said. I think she was trying to pay me a compliment, but with her you never could tell.
I was taken aback. It was the first time anyone had ever said anything that made me think my body was something to be ashamed of, a problem that needed fixing. And despite my best efforts to love myself exactly as I am, I've been trying to shrink myself ever since.
In the four years since my twins were born, I've worked hard to shift my focus from reducing the size of my waistline to eating well and exercising to improve my health, so that I can be around for my kids as long as I can. I'm in better cardiovascular now than I was before I became a mom, even if the skin on my stomach will never be as tight as it once was. Still, as proud as I am of my health, I'm always looking to lose a few more pounds. I know that I'm at a size considered "acceptable" by most parts of society, but that still doesn't change the voice in my head that thinks I'd be happier if I were thinner. That's one of the reasons why I decided to try the Whole 30.
Last month, I slipped into some bad eating habits. I've struggled with binge eating in the past, and I had what you could call a mini-relapse. Stress over my kids' education, worrying about my career as a writer, and obsessively watching CNN produced disastrous results. I spent three weeks making myself ill by eating anything I could find: a bag of popcorn, 8 cookies, three candy bars and 3 cups of grapes. My intestines reacted pretty much the way you'd expect. My digestive system backed up, and I was constantly bloated and crabby. But instead of acknowledging that I needed to focus on foods that made my body feel better, I decided the only solution was to punish myself for the junk food I'd recently eaten by radically altering my eating habits for a limited period of time by going on a diet.
When it comes to diets, I've tried them all: low-fat, low-carb, no-carb, eating only raw foods. I once went four days surviving on nothing but cottage cheese and cucumber. If there's a supplement out there that claims it can help you lose weight, I've got a half empty box of it stuffed in the back of my closet.
I wanted to punish myself for what I'd been eating for the past few weeks.
This time, I decided to try The Whole 30. To be clear, the Whole 30 does not market itself as a weight loss diet. It's a strict elimination diet designed to help people figure out if they have any food intolerance. The Whole 30 requires you to stay away from wheat, grains, dairy, legumes and sugar — including honey and artificial sweeteners — for 30 days in order to reset your digestive system. I know people who have completed the program and said it made them realize there are certain foods that upset their body. It's a great dietary diagnostic tool.
But honestly, there were two reasons why I decided I had to do The Whole 30: because most of the people who try it say they lost weight; and because I wanted to punish myself for what I'd been eating for the past few weeks. Telling myself I couldn't have honey with my tea or my usual bowl of morning oatmeal with peanut butter seemed like an effective way to make myself miserable.
For 13 days, I drove myself to distraction obsessing over food labels and wondering if I was eating too much fruit to lose weight (the whole 30 restricts your fruit consumption; when an apple is the enemy, you know something's not right). I even followed The Whole 30 on Easter, refusing to eat ham (brown sugar in the glaze makes it verboten) or take even one bite of the amazing cannoli pie that I only make once a year. My mom was kind enough to make me special food for the weekend, but instead of being proud of myself for exercising such self-control, I was unhappy. I missed eating a balanced diet that made room for dessert, even if the scale was a little bit lower than it was when I started the diet.
"Why are you doing this exactly?" he asked me. "Do you think you have a food intolerance, or are you just trying to lose weight?"
My partner was supportive, but stayed silent while I was doing the Whole 30. He stopped adding cream to my morning coffee at my request and swallowed the zucchini noodles I kept making for dinner without a word of complaint. But finally he decided he had to say something.
As we drove home from my aunt't house on Easter I started looking up recipes for dinner for the next week, using Pinterest in a quest to find things I could eat without violating the rules of The Whole 30. I was rambling on about how chia pudding was a Whole 30 no-no when he interrupted me. "Why are you doing this exactly?" he asked me. "Do you think you have a food intolerance, or are you just trying to lose weight?" I answered him honestly, and told him that it was the latter.
He asked me if my weight was impacting my health. I admitted that it wasn't. Then he asked me the question that changed everything. "I've seen you diet before. If you do this, if you lose the weight you want to lose, are you honestly going to be happy?," he asked. "Or are you just going to move your 'goal weight' to a lower number?"
I was furious at him for going at me so directly, but I was also angry because his words rang true. No matter how much I weigh, I've always been trying to lose weight. My current weight is my "goal" weight from a year ago, and yet here I am, convinced I need to lose another few pounds before I'm "really" at my goal. And for what?
I decided that I'm through with letting the scale dictate my happiness. My body has done incredible things. I've carried and gave birth to twins. I've run a half marathon. I've danced on stages to packed audiences and climbed mountains. I did all of these things at various weights, but that doesn't make the accomplishments any less valid. I'm through with always looking for imperfections and never celebrating the body I have.
Am I saying that I'm forever immune to diet culture and that I'll never feel guilty about eating frosting straight from the tub? Of course not. I'm a flawed human. I know my self-image and self-esteem are issues I'll be dealing with my entire life. But I really am going to try and remember that the number on the scale has no bearing on how smart I am, how much my friends and family love me and the joy I can find in a day. I'm a diet dropout, and proud of it.