Around this time last year, as news about COVID-19 was starting to spread and tensions were starting to rise, I noticed that my weight was creeping up. With the mounting stress of the soon-t0-be-named pandemic, I should not have been surprised. Cortisol, the stress hormone, loves to puff me up. But instead of giving credit where it was due, I blamed my inability to control my eating. Once my weight surpassed my WW Lifetime weigh-in window, meaning if I stayed at that weight I would have to pay for my WW membership at my next monthly weigh-in, I decided to seek the help of a nutritionist. The woman I chose to work with had transformed the body of one of my kickboxing clients. In a matter of weeks this woman had gone from having a thin mom bod to a lean, strong physique that I confess I completely envied.
So I made an appointment to meet with the nutritionist at the beginning of March and ponied up $300 for one month of supervision. I remember going to meet her at a personal training gym, feeling so deeply ashamed as I told her how I could not stop eating sugar and crappy food, and feeling utterly humiliated as I undressed down to a tight gray tank top for the “before” picture. In the photo she snapped with her phone, my eyes were closed and my mouth was stretched into a hesitant grimace that I had meant to be a confident grin. She took the picture before I could rally a smile and suck in my gut, and did not offer to retake it.
Perhaps that should have been my first sign that she was not the right fit for me, that she would allow my “before” picture to be so completely unflattering. But I didn’t ask her to re-take it, either. In that moment I handed her control of my body for the next four weeks.
I knew her nutrition program was strict. I knew it would strip my diet of all the junk. But I did not know just how aggressively she would also strip my diet of calories. I followed her program to a T, because she was a certified professional, because I had seen the results in my kickboxing acquaintance, and because I had forked over $300. The hanger was real and I hated it, but the few times I did question her method or try to communicate how hungry I was, she would immediately dismiss my feedback.
In addition to the restricted eating, under her orders I ramped up my exercise so that I was working out for 90 minutes each morning. “Strength training doesn’t count unless it’s at least 30 minutes. Same goes for cardio,” she said. So I ran, cycled, and lifted my ass off (literally) and then refueled with three egg whites and half a cup of oatmeal made with water and a sprinkle of cinnamon. I was not allowed to eat again for the next five hours until lunch, which was lettuce, three grape tomatoes, 1/3 of a cucumber, a tablespoon of olive oil, a sprinkle of vinegar, and a few precious ounces of protein.
I remember on my son’s birthday, about half-way through the program, when she told me I could not have any cake. I started to cry as I lit the candles. Tears streamed down my face as my husband, daughter, and I sang “Happy Birthday” to my newly minted six-year-old son. At my husband’s compassionate encouragement, I ended up eating a slice of cake. It was freaking delicious. It also reawakened what I interpreted at the time to be my inner sugar demon (and what I know now to be the “binge” part of a binge/starve cycle). Over the next couple of days I voraciously snuck several more slices and could not hide it, as my daily weigh-ins plateaued. The shame was overwhelming. I felt shame for bingeing, for not being able to control myself with the birthday cake. I felt shame when I looked at the number on the scale. I was stuck in a lose-lose situation. Either I starved myself and lost weight; or I gave my body the calories it craved, gained weight, and faced the judgment of the nutritionist.
How I yearned for the approval of this woman who didn’t even care enough about me to use spell check on my weekly menus (“1/2 cup oatmeal cook n water add cinnoman with 3 egg white omelete” – I had to fight with autocorrect to type that!). On the days I emailed her my weight loss, she replied with a smiley face. On the days I emailed her with the same weight or a gain, she didn’t. I based my worth on those numbers.
I based my worth on a smiling emoji.
COVID lockdowns began around my son’s mid-March birthday. I was so tempted to abandon the program, because the thought of starving myself and exercising for an hour and a half each day during this pandemic panic was almost too much to bear. But the nutritionist wouldn’t let me stop. She pressured me to press on, and I let her. I stuck with it for two more torturous weeks, and by the end of the four weeks I was the lowest weight I had been in almost 20 years. I felt svelte and proud and fucking starving but thrilled with the way I looked. I took some “after” pictures and emailed them to her (since meeting in-person was no longer an option). She FaceTimed me to discuss my body weight and measurements. I was ready for hearty congratulations, and while she said she was happy with my efforts, I still had “around six pounds” to lose.
I smiled and nodded and thanked her. Then I hung up the phone and said, “FUCK YOU YOU FUCKING BITCH” (not my usual lexicon) and promptly went downstairs to open the jar of Nutella I had bought for the occasion.
The four-week program concluded at the end of March, right when my period was due. But I didn’t get it. I didn’t get my period again until the end of April. My body had been so starved that my period stopped. I was so starved that after I lay in bed to read to my kids at night, standing up again made me feel so dizzy I had to hold on to the bed frame to catch my balance.
Once I was off the hook of the nutritionist’s dreaded meal plans, I promptly started bingeing to a degree that I have never binged in my life. Granola by the bag. Nutella by the jar. Ice cream by the pint. I gained back all 17 pounds that I had lost, and piled another ten on top of that. Pandemic pandemonium, of course, added to the stress and my need for comfort food. I have never felt so utterly powerless over food. Once I started eating, some other force took hold within my body, shoveling in as much food as I could and stopping only when I started to feel sick and sometimes not even then.
Looking back, it’s now easy for me to see that this program of extreme body transformation was not the right fit for me. The pandemic, of course, only made it worse. I should have stood up to the nutritionist. I should have told her I needed more calories. I should have told her that I almost passed out on a near-nightly basis. I should have stopped working with her and let her keep the damn $300 because you can’t put a price tag on personal wellness and mental health.
Instead I blamed myself. “I am struggling to stick with this program because I can’t control myself around food.” “I am a sugar addict and I don’t deserve more food than this.” “If I hadn’t been eating so much before this, decreasing my caloric intake would not feel like such a shock.” “I feel like I’m going to pass out because I’m weak.” If I didn’t lose weight from one day to the next, I had failed. If I added an extra ounce of chicken to my dinner, I was cheating. The cycle of negativity was all-encompassing.
It has taken me almost a year to write about this. Because it has taken me almost a year to learn the lessons and make peace with my experience. I have not lost any of the weight I regained. But I have also gained perspective, and I am ready to move forward into 2021 a changed person. I am not just a different size than I was this time last year. I have a different, evolved outlook on my relationship with food and with diet culture.
My goal now is simple:
I’m so tired of being at war with my body and with food.
Enough. Enough, now.
If 2020 taught me anything, it is that I am damn lucky to be alive, and healthy, with a body that is strong and functional. This body has kept me safe for 40 years. This body deserves to be honored. This body deserves to be respected. Revered. Every day, at every size.
Slowly but surely I am teaching myself to eat what I want when I want it. I am trying to think about how the food I desire will make me feel, and adjust accordingly. Some days, it’s: “If I eat that Nutella, it will taste delicious but then it will give me gas and make me feel lethargic, so I’m going to have some chocolate almond butter instead.” Other days, it’s: “If I eat that Nutella, it will taste delicious but then it will give me gas and make me feel lethargic, but I really want it so I’m going to have it.” Either way, no judgement. That is the goal.
My closet now contains comfortable clothes in several sizes so that I can always find something that feels good to wear.
When negative self-talk creeps up, I try to quash it like I’m the world’s greatest whack-a-mole champion.
Most importantly, I recognize that this is a marathon. I have been reduced to tears while on the phone with a friend, confessing to her that I am terrified I will go through this process of making peace with my body and with food… and end up being a bigger size than I used to be, than I want to be. But I also know that if I do this work, if I forge these new neural pathways in my brain, I will be content at any size because I will no longer base my self-worth on my size.
My worth is not my size. Say it with me now. My worth. Is not. My size.
I will never post another “before and after” photo collage. Because “after” does not exist. My body, every body, is constantly shifting. There is no “after” for me anymore. There is just “during.” Right now, this is me, during a pandemic, committed to ditching diet culture in my life and my brain, learning to listen to my body and enjoy food. Learning to nurture instead of restrict. During, and then during, and then during.