Why I Quit Dieting

iVillage Why I Quit Dieting by Ragen Chastein with Virginia Sole-Smith

I’m so thrilled to be participating in my girl Ragen’s iVillage slideshow of Diet Quitters. 

A) Because it’s really fun to be back over in iVillage Never Say Diet land for a visit.

B) Because I’ll be so stoked if we inspire even one woman to break up with an unhealthy diet/weight cycling pattern. And with 33 awesome women featured, I think those odds are good.

And maybe there is a C: Because I actually needed a tad of this inspiration myself this week. If you follow me on Twitter, you might have noticed that I’ve been in LA — and pretty often, in rooms where I was the person least likely to qualify for “Most Beauty Standards Achieved.” At least compared to when I’m in work-from-home mode, and my only competition for such titles are the cats. (Even though my cats are eye. candy.) Not seeking pity, just reporting facts. For the most part, I was pretty proud of how much this did not faze me — I do believe, in my bones now, that there are lots of different kinds of pretty in this world and I’m rocking my own thing over here and you can do your thing and we’re all good with each other. And more crucially, that pretty is well and good — but we all bring so much more to the table.

But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that towards the end of the week, I caught a glimpse of my stomach rolls in a full-length mirror and thought “I can’t seriously be walking around like this.” Because there are a lot of different kinds of pretty — but you have to keep exposing yourself to alll of them. Or the Beauty Myth eats its way back into your brain so fast.

Enter Ragen, with her sensible explanation of why dieting isn’t worth it because there’s no science to prove that it works and my 31 new best friends with their inspiring stories of getting all those “you’re not good enough” voices out of your head — so you can listen to what your body really needs to be healthy.

Ragen and I did a much longer Q&A while she was reporting this story and because I’m chatty, she couldn’t possibly fit it all into my slide, so I thought I’d copy and paste that conversation here, in case you guys are interested in the longer take on me and diet quittage.

PS. For the record: This is NOT to say that everybody in LA is beauty-obsessed or all about being pretty in the Beauty Myth way. Far from it! I had many lovely body positive conversations and moments this week with lots of beautiful (in all ways) people. The stomach rolls moment is as much about my own insecurities and how I’m a work-in-progress on this stuff as it is about being in a Beauty Myth-dominant setting. So we’re all clear. Onward!

RAGEN: What was the last diet you were on?

VA: January 2011 after I gained 20 pounds in beauty school and couldn’t fit into my pants. I mostly made up my own — but it was a sort of hybrid of the principles advised by Mark Bittman in Food Matters and the I DIET by Susan Roberts.
RAGEN: What did you learn from dieting?
VA: That I can’t outsource my food decisions. Neither of those diets was particularly demonic or restrictive — Bittman and Roberts both encourage their disciples to have a glass of wine with dinner, enjoy everything in moderation, etc. And there is a lot in their food philosophies that resonate with me (I don’t want to eat meat at every meal for health and environmental reasons; I do feel better when I eat plenty of high fiber whole grains and vegetables, etc). But as soon as I decided that I would follow the EXACT diet set out by Roberts, as in, eat all of the meals exactly as she dictated, in that order, quantity, etc… I started to chafe. Big time.
It was the classic restrict/rebel trap. It surprised me to have it come up here, when the meal plans seemed so well-designed and weren’t hyper-restrictive or sad sack like a lot of diets. But what it really comes down to is this: I want to be the boss of my own food decisions. I want to decide when I need to have seconds, or not, whether to have a glass of wine with dinner or not. In a lot of ways this is harder than just following someone else’s diet plan because I have to really focus on listening to my body and take responsibility for making all those choices — but it feels healthier and more empowering. I’m a big girl and I don’t like turning responsibility for my body and health over to someone else, no matter how well-meaning!
RAGEN: Why did you quit?
VA: In part because of the reasons described above. But also because the diet stopped working. I was following all of these external directions about what to eat and how much — but I wasn’t continuing to lose weight. So I knew my options were either to step UP the diet and restrict even further, or to step back and try to figure out where my body really wanted to be.
I knew from the beginning that my diet wasn’t about health — my health was perfectly fine, I wanted to lose 20 pounds because I wasn’t happy with how I looked and none of my clothes fit. I felt like that was a reasonable thing to do as long as I didn’t jeopardize my health — but trying to diet more aggressively to make my body smaller would certainly jeopardize my mental health (by making me obsess over food and my body in unhealthy ways) and run the risk of jeopardizing my physical health too, if I took the restriction too far.
So that left option B: Step back from consciously dieting, give up the aesthetic goal of looking smaller (and, in my mind “better”) and work on loving my body at its current size and shape, while also doing a better job of honoring its health needs, whether or not that impacted its size.
RAGEN: What changes you have made since to stay healthy?
VA: It was definitely daunting at first, to take back responsibility for my food decisions — even though I chafed at the whole outsourcing business of dieting, I was also a little scared to figure that stuff out on my own, because hi, being told “eat this and you’ll be healthy!” takes out a lot of the guess work. So this has definitely been (and continues to be) a work in progress in terms of learning to listen to ALL of my body’s cues.
But I made two decisions that I’ve stuck to pretty well and I think, have paid big dividends in terms of my health:
#1: I decided to stop trying to exercise according to some external notion of the “perfect workout schedule.” All sorts of sources (diet books, lady mags, etc) have trained me to think (for years) that I should do some combination of running and yoga, with more time spent running (like 3-4 days per week) as fast and as far as possible. But whenever I’ve tried to stick to these elaborate workout schedules (as part of a diet), I’ve failed, because the truth is, I just don’t like running enough to do it consistently!
What I do love is yoga. And the way I figure, my body is going to be better served by me exercising in a way that I love, consistently for the long haul, than dabbling in exercise that I hate, which causes me to give up and not exercise for long stretches. Even if plenty of external sources tell me that yoga isn’t “enough of a workout” for whatever reason. Now I consistently get to yoga 3 to 4 times per week* because I love it and crave it and my body is absolutely stronger and healthier than when I was attempting to do other kinds of exercise but actually not doing much of anything.
*Editor’s note: Y’all know I’ve had some health issues that have made this more difficult the past few months — but aside from that, this is true! Plus it’s been a novel experience to miss my workouts, instead of being secretly relieved I didn’t have to go…
#2: I broke up, once and for all, with any kind of “bad foods” or “off-limits food” concept. Knowing that you CAN have a food makes it so much easier to decide not to have it when you actually don’t particularly want or need it. Case in point: I get migraines and alcohol is one of my triggers. But when I tried to give up alcohol cold turkey in the middle of my diet phase last year, I was miserable and could only think about how badly I wanted a glass of wine with dinner. So once I quit the diet, I started having the wine with dinner again for awhile. Then my migraines got worse so I realized I should start cutting back on some of my triggers — but I didn’t put wine on the Banned List. I still have one or two glasses per week, usually on Friday nights or when I’m out with friends. This makes it 1,000 times easier to skip the wine during the week — I don’t even think about it as this forbidden fruit situation.
RAGEN: How is your life different since you quite dieting?
VA: Hmm… I’m not sure my life is radically different, maybe because it hasn’t been all that long (about 14 months). I am still working on loving my current size and shape vs. wishing it were smaller — although I am definitely making progress on this front, I’m proud to say!
RAGEN:  Where do you find support for your current health practice?
VA: Body image bloggers like you! Seriously, the body image blog community is rad and wonderful and has helped me tons. My husband is also enormously supportive of my choices — obviously, having your best friend/partner on your side goes a long way towards making this kind of thing do-able.
RAGEN: What’s your number one “love your body” tip?  
VA: To remember that there are SO many different ways to be pretty. Loving your body doesn’t happen at the expense of somebody else, or even your own “before” pictures. Me deciding to love my curvy body isn’t an indictment of every size two model out there — it’s about understanding that there are lots of different kinds of beauty in the world and they are all equally valid and wonderful.

Filed under Beauty Labor, Beauty Standards, Health, Never Say Diet, Press

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  1. Jamie
    Posted May 29, 2012 at 5:35 pm | Permalink

    beautiful….simply beautiful!

  2. Posted May 30, 2012 at 11:53 pm | Permalink

    “there are lots of different kinds of beauty in the world and they are all equally valid and wonderful.”

    Right there. Why is this so difficult a concept for everyone? I’m guilty of it too, or I was for years, then recently it just hit me and it was like a huge revelation that literally changed my life.

  3. KateEms
    Posted June 2, 2012 at 5:05 pm | Permalink

    I was recently in LA too and I was amazed at how quickly my confidence in my appearance dwindled and then disappeared. I live in New York for God’s sake! I should already have plenty of “beautiful people” to compare myself to. And yet… there was something about the aesthetic there that made me feel like a disgusting piece of crap. I can’t really explain it, but it was deeply depressing.
    I couldn’t believe I was so looking forward to returning to a city that could be deemed just as superficial as LA. Maybe it’s simply because it’s my home, but I feel a million times more comfortable in my own skin there.

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