Blinded by Our Diet Culture? How to Stop Hating Your Body

“Don’t change your body to get respect from society. Instead let’s change society to respect our bodies.” ~Golda Poretsky

Age thirteen—that was when my eating disorder kicked into full gear because our diet culture had its tentacles wrapped around me tightly. All I thought about all day was how I was going to control and restrict my food, then how I was going to burn it off.

I sought to burn off every calorie I ate. I couldn’t go to sleep at night unless I’d burned off most of what I’d consumed. I was obsessed with exercise and trying to morph my body into an unreasonable shape.

Thinness, that’s what I was seeking. I’d scroll through “ana” or anorexia forums online and gain inspiration from others. I’d swoon over protruding collarbones and thigh gaps. I was in eighth grade.

I have a distinct memory of tears streaming down my face, when I was fourteen, in the parking lot of the YMCA in my boyfriend’s car. Desperation and regret were washing over me like waterfalls. I couldn’t believe I had eaten something outside of my diet plan.

I had a roll of cookie dough in hand that I had just binged on. I wrapped it up and angrily threw it on the floor. Then I vowed to burn the sweet off by sweating on the elliptical and to never do that again.

Though inevitably I had sweets again. Or something that was high in fat. Or something that was too carb-y. There was no winning, I had myself trapped.

I’d even berate myself when I ate two granola bars because that was too many calories. I’d hide in the bathroom while at the beach in fear of being “too big.” Diet culture dogged my every step.

I thought there was something fundamentally wrong with me, like I was broken, largely because of the messages I’d received from our culture—that I’d always have something that needed to be “fixed.” I lived my life as if that were true.

I read in Jes Baker’s book, Things No One Will Tell Fat Girls, that 81% of ten-year-olds are afraid of being fat, and these same ten-year-olds are more afraid of becoming fat than they are of cancer, war, or losing both of their parents.

That was me, terrified of weight gain. As a teenager headed into adulthood, I let the fear of gaining weight run my life. I developed a binge eating disorder, where I ate in private, and the shame, guilt, and remorse mounted.

At seventeen years old I was the heaviest I’d ever been, though still small by most people’s standards. My dad was hoping to buy me a car for high school graduation, but instead, I convinced him to pay $4,000 to send me to fat camp for thirty days. There I starved and worked out until I was ill.

They had us working out for hours a day, barely eating anything, and they restricted us from bringing in food from outside. We’d play running games, but also row on the lake that the camp resided on. Sometimes we would workout for upwards of six hours a day, so I got sick.

Sun sickness, exhaustion, and insufficient nutrition knocked me on my butt. I went home a few days early.

I had mixed feelings about the whole thing. The camp felt like a prison, but I also felt good about being there because I was on my way to being thin.

I hoped that maybe this weight loss would mean that I’d finally be enough. I felt like I had to be good enough for my boyfriend, despite him thinking that I was just fine as I was. I was convinced that I needed to be skinny in order to keep him around.

My weight continued to fluctuate: up, down, up, down. And you know what? No matter what diet, weight loss plan, or “lifestyle change” I tried, my total disdain for myself remained. When I hit my goal weight, I still hated myself.

It was baffling. I told myself when I hit x weight I would be good enough, but even when I reached my goal, my level of misery was the same. I was still stuck with me, the same me that is the same no matter what I weigh.

When I was talking to my AA sponsor about my dang weight plateau (even though I weighed less than my original goal), she asked me, “But, when will the weight loss ever be enough? What weight is ‘enough?’”

It didn’t hit me like a ton of bricks that day. I had been hearing the sentiment over and over again. When is enough, enough? But I knew then I was sick of the cycle.

What if I was enough just as I was? I began reading books like Health at Every Size and Bawdy Love. While reading these books I kept asking myself if diets and restriction were really the way to happiness. These books and others taught me, bit by bit, that I might just be an okay human without weight loss.

I started questioning the way I thought about things and vocalized my feelings about my body. Like, what if I played hockey for enjoyment rather than to burn off food I’ve eaten? What if I stopped berating myself to others and instead chose to talk positively about my body?

I slowly realized that I had more important things to worry about than how many calories I’d consumed and if I was thin enough for my date. Even before I was calling it body positivity, I was on a journey of self-acceptance.

I’d been so convinced that I possessed innate badness, but I started to wonder, what if that was a lie? Can I really be all that horrible? What if there was another way?

I had been studying Buddhism for years but got deeper into it right around the time that I was learning about body acceptance. That was when I found basic goodness, which is Shambhala’s Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s idea of discovering our inherent worth, our fundamental nature that cannot be obscured by anything like body dysmorphia or diet culture.

It didn’t happen overnight, but I slowly began to learn about my inherent worthiness.

I fought along the way. For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a sense that there was something fundamentally wrong with me. Trying to turn that around has been quite a feat. It’s taken daily kind self-talk, a body positive community, and professionals like a therapist and a Health at Every Size nutritionist.

It’s also taken my sangha’s love and wisdom. When I’m in the space of my center, whether it’s my local one or the land center tucked away a few hours north, I feel a sense of peace with myself and the world.

It’s not always so simple to say everything’s okay. There are many things that feel difficult to accept about me. Some days it’s my “fat” thighs (which are actually average-sized) and other times my jiggly tummy. Neither of these are bad things.

My “flaws” are actually things to celebrate about myself. My legs are strong enough to carry me around day-to-day and sometimes even go hiking! And I have a belly that digests all the delicious food I eat.

While it’s important to feel positive about certain aspects of myself, basic goodness runs a little bit deeper. It’s not “good” or “bad” in the sense we’re familiar with, rather it’s a naturalness that’s difficult to describe.

It started seeping into my life, though, and became very real for me. I started to have this deep feeling in my chest that reminded me that I’m fundamentally okay no matter what mistakes I make or flaws I think I have.

It helped that I tattooed the words “basically good” in giant letters on my forearm. I needed the reminder!

It didn’t just affect my relationship with my body, it bled out into different parts of my life. In connecting to my nature and understanding my own worth, I interacted with people differently. For example, I was better at setting boundaries and saying “no” because I realized I deserve respect. I also had more empathy for people who made horrible mistakes.

When I started to believe in my basic goodness I began to treat myself differently. When I heard those voices in my head telling me that I was broken, I gently dismissed them and moved on with my day. I replaced them with new thoughts like “you’re lovable just as you are.”

I dove right into body acceptance work. I started to practice intuitive eating, subscribed to the Health at Every Size movement, and became a body positive advocate on social media.

Experiencing intuitive eating manifested as learning to tune into my body and dropping the “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts.” There were no longer “bad” foods in my life that I “shouldn’t eat,” and there were no longer exercises that I “should” be doing.

Rather, I learned that my body has inherent wisdom. It sends me hunger and fullness cues. It tells me when it doesn’t like something. It’s naturally emotional, providing me the opportunity to share joy with friends through a birthday cake.

My relationships with food and exercise go hand-in-hand. Exercise became an outlet to move my body and have fun. What a revelation! I didn’t have to punish myself in order to get moving. I could move just fine by playing hockey and taking walks.

Health at Every Size taught me many things, one of the biggest being that diets don’t work.

In the book Body of Truth: How Science, History, and Culture Drive Our Obsession with Weight—and What We Can Do About It, author Harriet Brown cites statistics that show “over 45 million Americans will go on a diet at some point each year. All but 5% of them will gain the weight back in a year, and all but 3% of them will gain the weight back plus some extra in three years.

Many of us throw ourselves into dieting, thinking that it’s going to cure our problems and we’re finally going to be thin. It’s a sinkhole. The real solution isn’t an attempt to change your body. It’s connecting with that goodness deep inside of you.

From there, you can take better care of yourself. A meta-analysis of twenty-four studies published between 2006 and 2015 found that people were actually more motivated to exercise when the drive wasn’t from shame and guilt and instead focused on enjoyment.

The same goes for eating and anything else we do. When shame is the drive, everything suffers. On the other hand, if we’re operating from an understanding of our basic goodness, we actually want to care for ourselves.

One of the best tools I’ve found to care for myself and connect to my basic goodness is meditation.

Meditation isn’t the only answer to connecting to your basic goodness, but it’s the biggest. This practice may drum up images of monks on mountaintops, but everyone can do it and everyone can benefit from it.

It’s not about being perfect. It’s not even really about quieting your mind or becoming happy, though these are often welcomed side effects. Instead, it’s about making friends with what’s going on inside your own mind and in turn connecting with your body and realizing it’s doing a great job.

To listen to your body, things have to be clear. Pema Chodron made the analogy of a glass of water. If you put a tablespoon of dirt in the water and start stirring, everything’s all muddied.

This is equivalent to negative diet culture thoughts churning in your mind. Thinking about weight loss, calories burned, and steps taken are the dirt swirling. These kinds of thoughts often take you away from your intuition, or your state of calmness.

What if you stopped stirring, though? The dirt would go to the bottom and you could see clearly again; you could connect to your body’s needs.

Pema identifies this as our natural state, or state of basic goodness. When our relationship to our body comes from a place of love instead of punishment, many benefits can occur.

I’ve done much healing of my relationship with my body (and mind and spirit for that matter). I still have days where the old voices and habits creep in, but I connect to my basic goodness on a daily basis.

The best advice that I can share is to become connected to a body positive community. Connect with others who are on the same journey. Follow Instagram influencers like Megan Jayne Crabbe, Tess Holiday, and Virgie Tovar.

Learn about the topic of basic goodness. Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche writes a lot about it, but you can also find more on the matter in books by Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche and Pema Chodron.

Tap into that basic goodness. Use meditation to connect and use Health at Every Size and Intuitive Eating practices to be embodied. Know that you are so good, no matter what.

Drop that diet culture garbage; it isn’t serving you. Remind yourself that your health is about so much more than weight. Lastly, work toward accepting your body; it’s the only one you’ll get.

For me, it’s a journey. I’ll never achieve the perfect level of accepting my basic goodness and my body. We can talk all day about the best tactics to achieve freedom, but there are going to be plenty of days when I fall short.

I just want to make it clear that, like many things, having a healthy relationship with our bodies is a practice. Fundamental worthiness and body acceptance have changed my relationship with myself for the better, for sure. But I’ll always be learning and growing.

About Ginelle Testa

Ginelle Testa is a passionate wordsmith. She's a queer gal whose passions include recovery/sobriety, social justice, body positivity, and intersectional feminism. In the rare moments she isn't writing, you can find her doing yin yoga, thrifting eclectic attire, and imperfectly practicing Buddhism. She has a memoir coming out with She Writes Press in September 2024. You can find her on Instagram.

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