How I Learned to Give Dieting the Middle Finger

“A chocolate croissant is a perfectly acceptable breakfast.” —my very beautiful former therapist

“EVER BEATEN YOURSELF UP WITH A DONUT?” I saw the billboard one day while driving down Lyndale Avenue in Minneapolis. As a matter of fact, I had, just a few days earlier, done exactly that. A Baker’s Wife in Minneapolis makes a cake donut that tastes like it’s been fried in angel fat — perfectly crispy on the outside, warm and gooey on the inside — and someone had brought a few dozen of them into the office. (A note about my former workplace, Minnesota Public Radio: it was an endless parade of sweets and leftover catering, due to a prevalence of Midwestern bakers, published cookbook authors, and one fabulous food show. My first year there, I gained twenty-five pounds.) Donuts in the office — no big deal, right? A common occurrence. But, for me, these were more than donuts. They were little golden loops of manic joy. And baked inside of each, like the baby in a King’s Day cake, was a dark little nugget called Everything That’s Wrong with Me. One bite of that nugget unleashed a torrent of self-criticism, and the only way to shut it up was to say la la la and keep eating. I ate in a blind flurry of joyless desire, one after the other, until I’d put down five of the fuckers. I ate as if I’d received news of A Baker’s Wife’s closing, or a federal ban on donuts, or like I’d never be able to eat anything ever again for the rest of my life.

This ad changed my life.

It was over so fast. I was left standing there, blinking: Did I really just eat five donuts? If you’d asked me how they tasted, I could have given you a general idea, but I didn’t really remember eating them. And there in the wake of my donut amnesia, the panic began to set in. Here’s what the panic sounds like:

Hey. Hey, there. You’re pre-diabetic, remember? You can’t go on like this. You have a daughter now, and she needs you. You are going to die. Every day that passes in which you don’t lose weight is one day closer to your death, to the moment you leave that little girl motherless. You know this, yet you eat the donuts anyway. Why? Because you love donuts more than your own, sweet daughter. Because you are one seriously selfish bitch. Oh, wait — did I forget fat? A fat, selfish bitch.

I saw the billboard on Lyndale Avenue and I said, “Yup.”

The next day, I called The Emily Program.

The intake appointment for The Emily Program is three hours long. It involves a therapy session, and a battery of quizzes. These are not fun Buzzfeed quizzes — rather, they’re a lot like the quizzes I took as a kid when my exasperated parents left me in the hands of a child psychologist, completely befuddled by my teenage depression. I answered each question honestly, but one thought played on a loop in my head throughout the whole intake process: You’re a fraud! You don’t have an eating disorder! When I thought “eating disorder,” I thought anorexia, bulimia. My knowledge of eating disorders was colored by a youth spent watching after-school specials about girls who starved themselves thin. I’d never starved myself, I’d never made myself throw up (unless it was to make the room stop spinning after a night of collegiate drinking.) Eating too many donuts and feeling like shit about it? Decades of struggling to lose weight? Lack of self control, maybe. Laziness, perhaps. But not a true eating disorder. I looked around me in the reception area: morbidly obese men and women, young girls with hip bones and clavicles that looked like they could cleave meat. I didn’t fit in. And on some level, this thought terrified me. I wanted to have a problem. I needed an answer; an end to the shame and the endless cycle of dieting and failure. I answered each question honestly, but I was afraid they’d they’d tell me I wasn’t a candidate, that traditional therapy (of which I was a long-time veteran) would be better for me.

“We think you’re a perfect fit for The Emily Program,” the intake therapist told me the following week. My diagnosis: Compulsive and Binge Eating Disorder.

I don’t remember when I first started dieting, but I can tell you that it was sometime between my first period and being old enough to drive a car. Puberty had put some meat on my bones, as well as increased my appetite. Before puberty, I wasn’t exactly the model of health-consciousness. I supplemented Mom’s cooking with two or three Coca-Colas a day and made frequent after-school forays to the off-limits top-shelf of the pantry that housed the Doritos and Pop Tarts. My weekday breakfast consisted of any number of sugary, brightly-colored cereals. I ate like most kids in the 80s. But by 12, it caught up with me. Whether it was the way I ate, or just the natural progression of my body into womanhood is a mystery that can’t be solved — not without a time machine that could take us back to the moment before my very first Weight Watchers meeting. I don’t blame my mother — she wanted the best for me, and had been raised in a culture that was cruel to people who weren’t thin. (I say that like it’s past-tense. It isn’t. And, okay: I blame my mother just a tiny bit.)

Throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s and pretty much until the day I walked into The Emily Program, I was the poster child for yo-yo dieting. In the ‘80s, I actually ate an AYDS bar (remember those? I didn’t think so.) In high school, I ate plain tuna on rice cakes for lunch, while other girls bought slices of pizza. In the ’90’s, I took Formula One until my heart felt like it was going to fly out of my chest. Over two decades, I intermittently Weight Watched my way from Exchanges to Points to PointsPlus. I Slim Fasted, South Beached, Atkinsed, Paleoed. I saw holistic nutritionists. I did pretty much everything (except that one diet that’s all cookies because that sounded fucking stupid.) In addition to the countless diets, lapsed gym memberships littered my past like bodies on a battlefield. If you could lay them end to end, you’d have two lifetime memberships.

Explaining my eating disorder to my mother was hard at first, until this conversation:

Mother: “But … if you’re an alcoholic, you can stop drinking. How does this work? You can’t stop eating.”

Me: “Mom. It’s not the food. It’s the dieting.”

Dieting. Then not dieting. Then dieting again. Dieting, but wishing I could just eat like everybody else — without counting, weighing, planning, always always thinking about food. I was obsessed with food, but didn’t want to be. I was in a constant state of restriction — declaring the food-villian-du-jour (fat, sugar, gluten) as off-limits, then pretty much falling face-first into a vat of it. I need a t-shirt that says “I spent a near-lifetime sprinkling steamed vegetables with Molly McButter, and all I got was this t-shirt and a general feeling of WHITE HOT RAGE.”

I would never diet again.

One of the first assignments given to me in treatment was to eat dessert. Sounds simple enough, but every cell in my body recoiled at the suggestion. It wasn’t until I did this — ate dessert because a licensed, trained psychologist told me to — that I realized it had been years since I’d truly enjoyed dessert. I baked a fresh batch of chocolate chip cookies, sat at the table with a glass of milk, and ate them slowly. I felt a veritable parade of emotions march through me— elation, fear, panic, contentment, sadness. I may have cried (I don’t remember, but my spouse might recall.) And at the end of it, I felt a fullness that was only partly physical. I felt like I didn’t need another cookie. In that moment, or for a long time. Someone had thrown wide-open the once-locked cookie cabinet, and suddenly knowing I could go in there any time I wanted, diminished my desire.

I probably owe The Emily Program my life. I definitely owe it my joy.

Over the next few months, I began to shed my deeply-embedded food “morality,” or sense of foods being bad/good, right/wrong. And as these transformations took place, I began to — as warned by my therapist — put on weight. That part was not fun, but it was sort of necessary. It was the bellhop of my psyche bounding in and shouting, “HERE’S THE REST OF YOUR BAGGAGE, MADAME!” And from there I unpacked all kinds of weirdness: body dysmorphia, my inherent judgement of people fatter than me (you read that right), my inability to stand up for myself, my tendency to jump through hoops for manipulative/mercurial people. In The Emily Program, they say, “It’s about food, but it’s not really about food.” HOO BOY!

My therapist broke up with me. She transferred to another clinic about the time I was interviewing for a job in Texas. I got the job, and left Minnesota and The Emily Program. In Texas, I tried to find a program like it, but it was located across town (if you know Austin traffic, you understand that “across town” = “on the moon.”) My insurance connected me with a therapist who specialized in eating disorders, but the therapist’s office didn’t return my calls. Getting back into treatment became one on a list of many Things I Really Should Do Soon, along with getting a mammogram and volunteering somewhere.

I could finally eat a donut with joy and abandon, but I was still obese. I work at a radio station on the campus of UT Austin, and my blood work results from the campus Wellness Fair were less-than-rosy. My fasting sugar was inching from pre-diabetic into the diabetic range (I’d had gestational diabetes while pregnant and can’t say I enjoyed it.) I had hypertension. My bad cholesterol was high and my good cholesterol was low. And my liver was just like “I don’t even know what the fuck I’m doing here! ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.” I’m a fierce advocate for Health at Every Size but, for this body, my current weight was not doing me any favors. I knew I needed to lose weight, but I didn’t know how. I had funneled enough co-pay cash into treatment to know that my old friends — South Beach, Atkins, Paleo, Whole 30 — were very bad company.

One day, I got an email from my employer’s benefits office. Living Well was the name of the office, and I was pretty accustomed to ignoring emails from them with subject lines like “Free Mammogram Mixer!” This time, they were inviting me to apply — I had to apply — for a free weight-loss program. I clicked the link to watch the video, and could tell right away that this was different than other programs I’d done. It began with a kicky, synthy can-do theme-song that would come to haunt my dreams. Then, a well-manicured lady appeared and explained in a Texan drawl: “YOU are not a diet failure; diets have failed YOU.” Yes! Yes, they have! I applied immediately, which required me to lie about my eating disorder, but I didn’t care. The program’s promise that “It’s not what you eat, it’s when and how you eat,” told me this new friend would be nothing like my old ones. I was accepted into the program and, a few weeks later, received a box in the mail. It was stamped with the words Naturally Slim, and nested curiously inside were a plastic bowl of Pringles and a little airline-sized bag of peanuts.

“Dr. G”

Naturally Slim costs roughly the same as a year of Weight Watchers but is only ten weeks long. It’s done entirely online. Upon completion of the program, you’re sort of a lifetime member, whether or not you’ve shed a single ounce. Naturally Slim markets itself not to individuals, though, but to insurers and workplaces, who offer it free-of-charge to employees in the hopes of reducing insurance costs. The program does not include any counting or food restriction (with the exception of a very temporary ban on sweets). Participants learn, through ten weeks of watching a half-hour of weekly videos, behavior modifications that result in gradual weight loss. The videos are hosted by a perky little team including Todd Whitthorne, a preternaturally athletic, 300-year-old vampire who is like a real-life Chris Traeger; Chief Medical Officer Tim Church, who sounds more like a college football coach than a doctor; and the no-bullshit, breath-of-fresh-air that is psychologist Georgita Frierson, or “Dr. G” (who, FWIW, seems to be Naturally Slim’s lone person-of-color on staff.) And then there’s Marcia Upson, Naturally Slim’s creator and President, and the videos’ main narrator, who I probably wouldn’t have liked had I met her at a Pampered Chef party.

Marcia Upson is a little bit sketch. Her origin story is that of a Texan nurse practitioner who was concerned for her many overweight patients, but a Google search also reveals connections to the oil and gas industry. Upson founded Naturally Slim based on weight-loss principles her mother taught her, but we never get any info on her mother, who wasn’t a medical professional, but was merely interested in the habits of what she called “True Thins.” Upson helps run ACAP Health, which gives off all the soft-focus, white-coated trust of the Mayo Clinic but is 100% a for-profit entity, even if its commitment “to slow the production of disease” is noble. And Upson’s narration sometimes feels a little condescending. Her chiding reminder that there are no taste buds in my stomach gives off the slightest whiff of fat-shaming. In one video, she performs an unnecessarily long, physical demonstration of the number of teaspoons of sugar in a can of cola — as if I, and every fat person with an internet connection, don’t already know this. And there’s something about her well-rehearsed hand gestures, French mani, and general Talbotsness that makes me want to hate her.

But I’d like to kiss her. Like, hard. On the mouth, y’all.

Marcia, Marcia, Marcia.

Because I don’t care if Marcia Upson fat-chides me to the ends of the earth, or if the pockets of her Ann Taylor slacks are being lined with my hopes and dreams. This program works. (For me.) Despite 10 weeks of insufferable videos, I’ve lost weight with so little suffering, my spouse actually remarked upon it (“I haven’t heard you complain at all.”) And that’s the part that feels truly revolutionary. As long as people see fatness as some sort of moral failure, they think — whether they’re conscious of it or not—that it should be punished. And we’re offered two choices of punishment: be fat and live in a world that isn’t at all hospitable to large people, or suffer our way to thinness. That I’m losing weight without suffering feels like giving the punitive culture around fat a sports-foam-sized middle finger. It has actually made some thin people (mostly on the internet) very angry. I’m not entirely sure why they care.

At the end of the program, I was down 13 pounds; as I write this, I’m down 20. I’ve been down 20 pounds at least 20 times in my life. But this time, I got there doing what every diet on earth wishes it could claim: “Eat the foods you love!” And I don’t mean the Lean Cuisine shadow-versions of The Foods I Love. On Naturally Slim, I’ve learned to turn my nose up at salad that wasn’t loaded with cheese and dressing. I eat pizza, hamburgers, and tacos regularly. I have dessert. Here’s where the Weight Watchers devotees chime in with “You can do that here, tooooo!” But a really big difference: I don’t count. Anything. Ever. Calories, points, ounces, carbs? Nope. I food journal sometimes. (Okay, hardly ever.) This is huge for someone like me with my special brand of disordered eating. To go through my day making decisions about food based only on the hunger inside my body? WHAT A NOVEL IDEA. Since I was barely menstruating, I’ve been making decisions about food based on external forces/ideas/cues: How many fat exchanges have I eaten today? How many bonus points would I expend on this here mango margarita? JESUS GOD, IS THAT BREAD? GET THAT OFF MY PLATE.

My best friend is thin. (Sometimes too thin — she struggles with anxiety that wrecks her appetite.) For fifteen years, I envied her ability to buy bikini swimsuits in the Old Navy kids’ section. But what I envied more was her relationship to food. She was a mystical creature who only ate when she was hungry and could never finish her fries (I’d finish them for her.) She’d order two tacos and put one in her bag for later (we dubbed it the “purse taco.”) Occasionally, she’d overeat a bit and would feel slightly nauseous and need to unzip her skinny jeans. (I could put down an entire frozen pizza and not feel a thing.) Over the course of decades, I’d become so out-of-touch with my body’s internal cues that I didn’t even know what hunger felt like unless I was starving, or what satiety felt like unless I was completely sick. My reliance on external forces to know how and when and how much to eat meant I thought about food — and all its myriad, shitty subcategories (“bad” food, “good” food, calories, gluten, BLAH BLAH BLAH) — every waking minute of every day. My thin friends thought about other things: social justice, cats, Father John Misty … and sometimes food, usually when they were hungry or figuring out where to have dinner.

I don’t think about food like I used to. Partly, I think, because I no longer live in that world of constant restriction. If I want french fries, I eat french fries. (I just eat them when I’m hungry.) I’m losing weight at a nice, healthy clip of a quarter-pound to a half-pound per week. Some weeks I don’t lose anything; some weeks I gain. I don’t sweat it. I just keep eating the way I’m eating because the alternative — going back to that place of shame and counting and yo-yo dieting and eating to the point of sickness — is so undesirable to me now, I’d rather watch 1,000 hours of Marcia Upson than ever live through it again.

I want to see the culture around fat bodies change, and it’s changing, slowly. Science is catching up to the idea that diets have failed us. That maybe they were wrong about butter. That severe dieting is wrecking our metabolisms. That bodies come in all shapes and sizes and that’s cool. That fat people can be healthy and thin people can sometimes be unhealthy. I’m seeing women of all sizes in magazines, and that makes me really happy. And I’m seeing shitty, fat-shaming trolls on the Internet get shut down left and right, which makes me downright giddy.

But our relationships to our bodies are complicated. And inside the notion of Health at Every Size, we have to make space for those complications. For the fact that, sometimes, we might not like the way we look or feel at a certain size. That some of us might not have the same level of energy or vitality when we’re heavier. I’m in a Facebook group of plus-sized moms, and when one of them posts a picture of themselves with a comment about how terrible they look at their size, I can almost hear the collective groan of every woman of the same size in that group. When you disparage yourself, you disparage me. It took me a long time (and a lot of treatment) to understand that. But a culture of fat-acceptance doesn’t mean some of us won’t still want to lose weight for our own personal reasons. Losing weight doesn’t make us traitors to the cause. I plan to stay in that group even when I’m not plus-sized anymore. Before I went into treatment for my eating disorder, I judged those women. Now I love them, to the point of tears. And when I encounter one who is unhappy with her weight and considering this or that diet, I want to scream, “Don’t do it!” I’ve been there and back, and there’s a better way.

If you think you might have an eating disorder, seek help before attempting any weight loss or nutrition program, including Naturally Slim. (Trust me — you will be glad you did.) Also, for those for whom Naturally Slim is prohibitively expensive, start here.