I have spent over half of my life on a diet.
By the vulnerable age of 12, I had convinced myself that I was only lovable when I was thin. I spent years painfully restricting my eating, binging and purging, and developing an abusive relationship with diet pills. I’d even cry at the sight of my teenage body in photographs, because no matter how small I’d try to make myself, it never seemed small enough.
At 16 years old, I began noticing advertisements for membership-based diet programs that promised they’d have me dropping weight on a weekly basis. Looking for any way to trim down my body, I immediately jumped at the chance to join them. I walked into these places with a single hope — to lose any amount of weight I possibly could. And despite having a thin frame, I was welcomed with open arms into the programs and set up for my first of many weekly weigh-ins.
For teenage me, the prospect of monitoring my food intake and regularly stepping on a scale was awesome. I could skip meals to save up for a big dinner, load up on stuff like low-calorie Jell-O, and drink a ton of water to avoid extra daily calories. I also secretly loved the unofficial competition of seeing how much I weighed alongside the other members.
Sadly, the only real habits I adopted during this time were how to count my food in points, obsessively weigh myself, and continue to compare my body to the unrealistic images of models in magazines. Not once did I focus on choosing well-balanced, nourishing foods because they helped me feel healthy and strong. Nor did I ever take a moment to question why I was putting myself on a diet in the first place.
This comes as no surprise, because as a teenager, I was still very much a child navigating a complex and misleading diet industry.
While I may not be a child anymore, my stepdaughter Bella is. And in April, she’ll celebrate her 12th birthday. This young girl has just begun grappling with the consuming pressures of school and the need for acceptance by her peers. Add to that the negative comments classmates have made about her body, and I am sure her self-esteem struggles have definitely started. I know firsthand the effect that dieting has on a tender young person, so I plan to be as open as possible with her about my past.
There is one main thing I want Bella to take away from my life experience. Dieting doesn’t, and never will, satisfy the need to be loved. Much like the concept of drinking saltwater, my weight loss efforts as a youth always left me wanting more. Because while I was extremely thin, the beauty and diet industries kept reminding me I could always find reasons to become thinner. What I really needed was an education in feeling loved and worthy in my own skin — something our society still struggles to provide to kids.
More than anything, I will be sure to get real about the destructive lengths I went to achieve bodily perfection. When the weekly memberships stopped working for me, I sought out more extreme weight loss methods. I’d binge out of shame and then secretly throw up my food. I’d pop caffeinated pills that would boost my already youthful metabolism. And I’d continue to hide all of this from the world around me, in an ongoing effort to seem like I had it all together.
Bella needs to know I didn’t.
At a time of deep vulnerability and constant inner questioning, Bella needs to learn how to embrace exactly who she is, at any size. And I definitely want her to have a loving connection with food, rather than see it as a means to an end. The heartbreaking truth is that our children spend the majority of their school days struggling to fit in. And overwhelming societal standards teach them that their worth can be measured in how acceptable they look and how much they achieve. Instead of joining a weight loss program or starting a fad diet, I wonder what would happen if our teenagers were taught to love themselves first.
I definitely plan to teach this to Bella.