I've been dieting since eighth grade.
I went on my first self-imposed diet at age 13. I was average in size and body shape, but I wanted to be skinny. The kind of skinny people commented upon; the kind of skinny that, in my mind, would make me special.
I sought out ways to be better at dieting, which meant furtively reading magazines with headlines like, "Lose 10 pounds in 10 days!" or "Slim down for summer!" at the bookstore. I also learned some pretty dangerous tips and tricks from articles about people who had recovered from eating disorders. They weren't intended to be instructional, but I was so desperate to be skinny that I made them so.
As I grew older, I came to rely upon dieting as a way to ease my anxiety and feel in control. I was no longer in a cycle of eating too little or of body dysmorphia, but controlling my food intake made me feel less invisible in a sea of girls where I felt like I'd disappear. It was almost a form of self-medication, to know that I could go on a diet and lose a few pounds.
When I was 19 I got really sick and was diagnosed with celiac disease, which caused me to lose a dramatic amount of weight very quickly. I was thinner than ever, but also so sick that I could barely get out of bed. Once I knew how to treat my disease by eating gluten-free, I became healthy again, but it was hard to gain the weight back with my limited food choices.
I stayed very thin for a long time, and people would say things like, "I wish I had your disease so I could be skinny like you!" but for the first time in my life, I didn't really want to be skinny. I wanted to be able to eat cupcakes and go to Taco Bell and feel like a normal young person, but that just wasn't an option. Those foods were poison for me.
I associated my skinny body with being sick, with worrying I might die without anyone knowing what was wrong with me. I didn't feel sexy or cute or fashionable, I felt like I lived in an alien's body.
That all changed when I moved to Los Angeles. Being extremely thin in LA in the early 2000s was highly rewarded. Nobody around me ate much, and everyone smoked like chimneys, all while going to power yoga classes and running up steep mountain trails. Suddenly, this body was like a badge of successful femininity, and I had to protect my status as the "skinny girl," as disturbing as that sounds.
This lifestyle (except for the smoking) followed me into my 30s and motherhood. Losing weight after my second baby was way harder, so I pulled out all the stops to get back to my early 20s weight, which took a serious toll on my health. Every cold, flu, and virus laid me up. I got pneumonia and infection after infection. I blamed being a mom to two preschoolers and exposure to all sorts of snotty noses and viruses for my illnesses, but none of my other mom friends were sick like me.
When a friend called me out on my low-calorie diet and intense workout schedule, I knew it was time to stop dieting. I also knew that because of my lifelong dieting habits, it wouldn't be easy.
But I did finally manage to stop dieting. More accurately, I'm committed to the process of creating a life without dieting. My thoughts reflexively jump to "how many calories is this?" and "how many calories do I need to burn after eating that yummy, rich food?" and I remind myself that I'm no longer trying to balance calories or lose weight.
I'll tell you a secret: My body weighs more now than it ever has (other than during my pregnancies) and I love it. It weighs more because I'm so strong, but it also weighs more because I've stopped putting such a premium on being skinny. I'm still slender — it's just my body type — but my goal is for my feelings of accomplishment to be totally unrelated to my physical appearance.
My life now is about being healthy. I love feeling strong, I love building muscle and sweating hard. I'm working super hard at learning how to exercise and be an athlete without making it about losing weight, or the more insidious "toning up." I think about my strong heart, strong bones, and powerful lungs instead. I remember that healthy bodies come in all sizes.
Skinny is no longer the goal, happiness is. Counting calories is now something I work hard not to do. Sometimes I have to opt out of conversations and group activities that aren't healthy for me, like when my friends did a juice cleanse together or joined a really fun "30 Day Goal-Oriented Support Group" that would likely involve people talking about dieting tricks or how to burn more calories.
But I'm coming closer to loving this body that I used to hate so much. Some days I even feel proud of myself. Not just of my body, but also of the work I've put into building a happier, healthier life.