Last year, I resolved "never, ever, to blog." Really. Never. I had a private blog by the end of the month and a public one about three months later. So much for resolution credibility.
This year's resolution is much graver. I resolve never to diet. I come from a family of dieters. And, as I watch the younger women in my family struggle mightily with eating disorders, I know that failing to keep this resolution is perilous.
I have said before that my children have literally saved me in this regard. I won't do anything to compromise a growing baby in utero or successful breastfeeding, so as long as I'm pregnant or nursing, I don't starve myself. Since I've been pregnant, nursing, or both for the last 19 years, I've pretty much dodged the agony of self-inflicted starvation that plagues so many women.
Although I don't exhibit the behaviors of an eating disorder, I have, at times, been haunted by the guilt behind them. Like so many women, I've been taught by my environment that thin is better, even that only thin is acceptable and that the thinner, the better. So, while I didn't starve myself and achieve thin, I was tormented by the failure not to be thin. Success, it seemed, was getting back into that size six by the six-week postpartum checkup. As I got older, and had more babies, success began to evade me.
When success is evasive, we feel failure. Well, maybe not all of us, but certainly those of us who are perfectionists. It is only natural for perfectionists to be looking for the perfect diet. Whether it's the Marilu Henner approach (vegan: I literally walked around repeating "no meat, no milk, no sugar, no caffeine") or the Sally Fallon approach (lots of meat, raw milk, fermented veggies, soaked grains only), we are on a quest for the perfect diet.
Sometimes, the quest is only about health but for most women, it's usually about weight loss, too. And if you read enough books, try enough diets, believe enough gurus, there's nothing left to eat. For instance, read the above restrictions. If you follow Marilu and it doesn't make you thinner and you don't feel better but you still believe her and then you try Sally's approach (while still hanging on to Marilu's advice), you're pretty much not eating at all.
I tried so many different diets and read so many different theories that I really didn't know what (or whether) to eat at all.
A few years ago, a friend suggested a book that literally changed my life because it changed my perspective. If I could, I'd keep a case of these books in the car to hand out to every starving waif I see. It's called Fed Up! The author, Dr. Wendy Oliver-Pyatt, takes a long hard look at dieting in our culture. She points out that 100 years ago, Lillian Russell, who weighed nearly 200 pounds, was considered the greatest beauty of her time. Once upon a time, Marilyn Monroe was a sex goddess and she was a size 12. Then the fashion industry embraced Twiggy, who was a 5'8'', 90-pound twig. Now we have dresses in size 00 because the waifs need a new goal. Women haven't changed. Perspective has.
Oliver-Pyatt goes on to explain the very real health risks to "regular dieting," not just anorexia and bulimia. She illuminates the typical diet plan diet which is likely to have about as many calories as a typical concentration camp diet (I'm not kidding).The book busts myths and offers support. More than anything, it points out that an obsession with thin has fostered an epidemic of self-hate. Isn't that so sad?
I've learned to eat when I'm hungry, stop when I'm satiated and decline when I'm full. I've promised myself never to diet again. And I've made that promise out loud to a friend or two who have suggested along the way that my obsession with the perfect diet and with body size would be really, really detrimental to my daughters. As a matter of fact, when that observation was made was when my dieting days were over. Remember? I won't do anything to compromise the health of those precious babies. I'm still working on the negative self-talk and it might take me a lifetime to silence a voice that grates against my positive self-image. But it's progress.
I've seen up close and personal what the expectation and the quest for perfect physical form on the part of mothers can do to the girls who are watching. Diets are forbidden in our house, as are any references to being fat (unless we are talking about a certain delicious baby). But what to do about all the conflicting information I've read over the years about what to eat? How to regain a long-lost approach that puts food in its rightful place?
I had lost the ability to make rational decisions about food, to eat anything without feeling guilty. There were too many diet gurus chanting in my brain. I wanted a guide that put the emphasis on health, one that embraced and enjoyed food –all food — within reason. I settled on Eat, Drink and Weigh Less by Mollie Katzen and Walter Willet. Katzen is an old favorite from my vegetarian days, but this isn't a vegetarian book. The emphasis here isn't on weight loss (and the title is most unfortunate); it's on changing unhealthy behaviors and replacing them with healthy ones. Readers are encouraged to take a quiz covering several lifestyle parameters to get a pretty good idea of the state of your health and then make a decision not to be thin, but to be healthy.
For years, I thought the goal was to look like I'd never had a baby. Now, the goal is to acknowledge I've had eight and to protect their health by setting an example of good eating habits. I don't want to teach my daughters how to diet. I want to teach them how to cook and how and what to eat. My motivation is not the numbers on the scale. My benchmark is not my dress size. Instead, I want to be a good mom. Good moms are healthy eaters. I resolve not to diet.