In the last diet book I ever bought, the author is pictured throughout at her kitchen island and in her garden. She’s following the template of many would-be diet and wellness gurus: a smiling and serene white woman, posing with artfully arranged food in a vast kitchen, inviting you into her perfect life.
When I purchased the vegan keto book in the fall of 2018, I noticed the sharpness of the author’s collarbone. Her skeletal sticks of arms. Her hair that hung limp and greasy. The smile that didn’t reach her eyes. There was something disturbing there, a message trying to reach me.
But I ignored it. She was promising me the fix for my fat. And that was all that mattered.
Just weeks before, my doctor said it was time. “Can’t eat the same way you used to,” she said, pointing to the extra fat around my middle. “That’s just the awful fact of aging.”
This was not news to me. I’d been increasingly frenzied at the gym and increasingly brutal at home, cutting my calorie count to subsistence levels, to try and fight the fat back. It wasn’t working; now that I was 41, my doctor said, my body wasn’t listening to me.
So I scoured the internet, just as I’d done for decades. What would work this time? What would finally tame my body? I found keto, just as it was starting to become the current fad du jour. The idea of hacking my body’s fat-burning mechanisms, tricking it into burning away weight by cutting carbs down to nothing, was intoxicating.
I found the book. I tried it. And after a few weeks, my body finally said no.
I learned early: The worst thing to be is fat. My mother, looking in a mirror, crying as she pinched at her thin body, terrified at any new softness.
Fat people were the butt of jokes in every family conversation. My mother, my father, pointing out fat women on the street, in stores, at work, disgust wrapped around pointer fingers. Fat people were the butt of our family jokes because they were also the targets of ridicule in every movie, show, news program, and school classroom around us. Everywhere. They were the butt of jokes because my family, my culture feared becoming them.
My mom’s sister was a target of the jokes. She used to be skinny from a diet of cocaine and crystal meth. But over time, over her five husbands and divorces, she gained significant weight. Then she became the specter, the threat. The worst-case scenario.
And she believed the bias and whispers; each Christmas, looking mournfully at her plate as she talked about her latest diet. If she could just lose this weight, she’d say, maybe she could find love that lasts. Maybe this time.
I stuck with the vegan keto plan for a few weeks. I ate tons of oils and nuts and avocados. I limited my vegetables, and I cut out nearly every grain and carb. There was a strict, short list of allowed foods, and a long book of every other food.
As I ate this way, my head grew cloudy, my stomach knotted, my bones ached. I returned to the book again and again. Was I doing it right? Should I feel this way? Stick with it, the author said. You’ll feel terrible. That’s just your body finally submitting.
After a couple of weeks, sick and weak, ravenous, the inevitable happened: I broke down and ate everything in sight.
And with my stomach full and my brain clear, I looked at the diet book again. The author’s skin stretched to the point of breaking over protruding ribs. Her face, tentative, searching, pleading. Pale, wan, a waif who could barely lift her lips to smile. Do what I do, it said, so my sacrifice will be worth it.
Was this the ideal? Was this what I sought for my future?
The worst thing to be is fat: That’s what I internalized from my family and my culture.
So I spent 40 years trying to control the uncontrollable. A young girl in elementary school, frantically doing sit-ups so my crush might like me. A teen girl watching others pour Slim-Fast into their milk cartons, watching after-school specials about bulimia with longing. A young adult starving myself as I ran and ran, at track meets, on treadmills, on city streets. An adult with a partner who called my body fat, the worst in a litany of things he called my failures. A past-her-prime woman offering her beat-down body to those who would take it, hoping to make it feel.
All the diets. The diets with names: Fat Flush and Low Carb and Whole Grain. The diets without names: Wellness and Mindfulness and Boot Camp. All of them designed to reinforce that the worst thing to be is fat. All of them designed to take my money and dignity. Then, when it failed, ensured I felt like the failure.
There was a moment when I could have stopped. In my 30s, I met a woman with a big belly, one who seemed unashamed, who walked with her belly out. I was awed and shocked. Later, she and I had sex, and I marveled at the belly, its smoothness, its softness. All of her, worth adoration. A body and belly she delighted in and invited me to delight in.
But still, I didn’t learn. I was terrified of my own belly and body. So I ran and ran and ran, and didn’t eat, and first my hip screamed its agony, and then my knee. I ignored the pain. Because we must do this. We must fight our bodies. What else is there?
I consulted that diet book again. Looked at the author. Willed it all to make sense.
And here’s the thing. I was (and am) a radical in so many ways. A young woman who knew early she would not marry or have kids. An angry bisexual weirdo. A vegan, for god’s sake, in the Midwest land of meat and potatoes.
But I had massive blind spots. I didn’t understand the extent of my privilege as a white, straight-size woman. I looked at the world so critically, yet I didn’t think to challenge our ideas of body size. The morality, the goodness we assign to thinness; the supreme failure we associate with fat. The assumption that only thin, angular bodies are healthy, and that soft, round, warm bodies are at death’s door.
I put down the book with the haunted, haunting author.
And that’s when, in some sort of afternoon fugue state, looking online for another way, I found a “body trust” questionnaire. The questions were things I’d never asked myself before:
- How did you lose trust with your body?
- What experiences impacted your ability to feel at home in your body?
- Have you ever blamed [the diets] or have you always blamed yourself?
- How has your body helped you survive in the world?
- What would be possible if you decided your body wasn’t the problem?
A long list of questions like these, inviting me to think, to critique, to use those critical skills I was so proud of. To understand how I’d been duped.
After I finished that questionnaire, after I started to feel the edges of something like understanding and relief, I kept going.
I found Yr Fat Friend (later identified as author and podcaster Aubrey Gordon), who described the realities of living in a fat body and the parameters of our culture’s phobias. I found Health at Every Size, a paradigm for medical care that validates all bodies. I found Christy Harrison, a nutritionist, author, and podcaster exposing the limitations of our medical and health care approach to fat. I found Caroline Dooner and The Fuck It Diet. I found an entire world of fat liberationists on Instagram and body neutrality teachers across the podcast and internet space.
From these teachers, I learned the science that shows diets fail over 90 percent of the time. I learned diet and wellness organizations make billions a year based on that fact. I learned that there is little evidence that fat is actually the killer that health care and public policy has portrayed it to be, and anti-fat bias may have the most disastrous impact on health. I learned that our body size is as random and unique as our shoe size or height and equally as uncontrollable.
And then, I remembered that my body was hungry because it was keeping me alive.
So I let myself eat. I let my sore and broken body rest.
I gained weight. But suddenly, that didn’t seem like the worst thing. Because then I saw how much time and energy I’d wasted.
The worst thing. Especially for women, fat is the worst. Because we need to be small, to take up as little space as possible. We need to spend all our time and energy and creativity and love and intelligence toward making our bodies fuckable. That’s how our world works.
And if we don’t, if we take up space, if we critique that messaging and advocate for ourselves, if we use our voice, we’re feminazis and hags. If we let our bodies grow, we’re ugly and unlovable.
We must be distracted by the quest to be small, so real power will elude us.
If we don’t? We become something different. Even dangerous.
The worst thing happened: I got fat. I grew a big, round belly. My thighs rub together, and my hips are thick. I’ve got back fat and armpit fat.
I know that my family views my weight gain as a moral failing. Pitiable laziness. I’m the fat aunt now. I know that my culture views my fatness as sad. A middle-aged woman who has let herself go.
But now I don’t think about calories and macros, and the hours I will need to torture my body at a gym. I eat anything, without restriction. Over time, the foods that I felt uncontrollable around have lost their thrall. I eat with more peace now, less frantic and anxious, an animal with eyes rolling in need and want.
My body is bigger than it’s ever been. I have moments of sadness about that, vestiges of my upbringing and living in this world. But most of the time, I just feel ... neutral. My body keeps me here, alive, able to breathe and smile and fuck and pet animals and eat good food and laugh and fight.
And in the years since I gave up dieting, I had time and energy for so much more. I write and create with a fever now, art sprouting forth from me after years of numbness. I’m lit with incandescent rage at the way the world lies to us but also burning with fiery hope that we might all find our way to this new place.
The worst has happened. And I’m free.
Amy Lee Lillard is the author of the short story collection Dig Me Out. She is the co-creator of the podcast Broads and Books.