by Judith Matz, LCSW
Remember me?” Beth asked following my presentation at a community-based hospital. “Of course I do!” I responded. Beth had been in my Diet Survivors group about 7 years ago, and had come a long way in breaking the diet mentality and developing a healthy relationship with food. In fact, I was surprised to see her at this event, since the purpose was to introduce participants to a non-diet, Health At Every Size® approach, with the option to pursue an eight-week program.
Beth explained that she had loved my group, and had felt much calmer in her relationship with food at the time that she left. But, she told me, she “just couldn’t handle” the acceptance part of the HAES® approach. In the years that had intervened, she went back to Weight Watchers, losing lots of weight, and then, inevitably, gaining it back.
It made me sad to hear Beth’s story. I don’t have illusions that I can help move everyone from the culturally induced body hatred to a feeling of being at home in their body, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the amount of energy wasted by this talented, smart and kind woman as she continued the yo-yo diet cycle.
There’s a term in the field of psychology called disavowal, which means that you know something – but at the same time, you don’t let yourself know that you know it! In other words, you disavow the thing that’s too hard to consciously acknowledge. When it comes to the failure of diets, disavowal occurs not only for individuals, but at the cultural level as well. Think about how many times we hear a report that diets don’t work, “but it’s still good to keep trying,” or a finding that people can be healthy in higher BMI ranges, “but it’s still probably a good idea to lose some weight.” These cultural messages to lose weight despite the lack of evidence for efficacy seep into the individual’s psyche, making it all the more difficult for people like Beth to move toward acceptance.
In coining the phrase diet survivor, my co-author (and sister!) Ellen Frankel and I hoped to encourage people to come out and openly declare that they’re done with dieting. But, we also recognize that people go through a process of loss and grief as they let go of all of the fantasies associated with dieting and weight loss. Here is a summary of how we describe that journey in The Diet Survivor’s Handbook:
You may find yourself questioning whether you must truly give up on the idea that diets can make you permanently thinner. After all, research shows that diets fail in the long term about 95 – 98% of the time. That still leaves a tiny percentage of people who have lost weight without regaining it back. You might imagine that you can become one of those people, even though experience says otherwise. Dieting is seductive, and you may be in denial about the inherent failure of diets. You may need to engage in another cycle of dieting before being convinced that this is true for you.
You may lament, “Why me?” You may turn your anger against yourself by berating your body, or you may direct your anger at others. It may seem unfair that some people are naturally thin no matter what they do, while you’ve tried so hard to achieve that body size. As you come to understand the physiology of dieting and body size, you may also become angry when others continue to judge you based on size.
Even though the concepts related to diet failure make sense, you have a wish to diet one more time to lose weight before incorporating principles of attuned eating and acceptance. Your attitude is, “Let me just lose weight first, and then I’ll quit dieting.”
You’re being asked to live your life without the goal of weight loss when, up until now, your life was focused and organized around this premise. The sadness of shifting beliefs about the merits of dieting and the requisite of thinness is a difficult challenge. You may feel that you’re being asked to give up on yourself when, in fact, the opposite is true. You have the opportunity to live an authentic life based on principles that contribute to physiological, psychological and spiritual well-being.
This is the point where you accept the inherent failure of diets and no longer choose to diet in an effort to become thinner. At this stage, you understand that dieting wreaks havoc on your ability to find your natural weight. You see the cost of dieting in both physical and emotional terms, and you’re no longer willing to pay the price. You’re committed to taking care of yourself the best way you can and allowing your weight to settle in its natural range as a function of attuned eating and engaging in physical activity that suits both your body and your lifestyle.
Last night I met with Karyn, a client that I’ve been working with for about six months. Even as she’s come a long way in breaking the diet mentality and becoming an attuned eater, she’s been struggling with her body image. “Something came to me this week,” Karyn announced with a smile. “I’ve been reading more books and googling for Health At Every Size information. I really get that I need to just accept my body as it is and stop focusing on trying to change my weight. When I can do that first, my eating will really fall into place.”
I still get tingles when my clients have their “aha” moments, and I hope that Karyn will be able to sustain the feeling she had in my office. It’s clear to me that the HAES culture makes a transformational difference in people’s lives as it permeates the larger culture. I don’t know whose website she went to, or which blog she read, but I do know that our collective voices and activism, whether it’s in public forums or private conversations, is significantly breaking through the cultural disavowal of diet failure. Perhaps if Beth were in my group now, she would find that burgeoning support for the Health At Every Size approach in the greater culture would help her to finally feel comfortable in her own skin. I like to think so.