A (Very) Honest Discussion About Dieting
When I first set out to assemble a group of editors to discuss the truths of dieting, I knew it would be fairly easy to find volunteers. Through all my friendships, acquaintances, and even passing interactions with women over the years, I’ve learned that most of us—if not all—carry some kind of baggage with our bodies. Even the most confident among us have certain things they might change if they could. We’ve all used a range of methods to shape ourselves into some kind of idealized state, even if we swear it’s for health and not vanity.
But after recruiting three of my very bright, very talented, very beautiful co-workers and delving into our own stories, I realized that what we had in common was far more salient than failed juice cleanses, the freshman 15, and a general distaste for cellulite. Every single one of us has a history with eating disorders, and although those wounds still twinge from time to time (and are, for some of us, still raw), they’ve shaped our lives and how we see our bodies, for worse and then, thankfully, for better.
This reality is simultaneously enlightening and heartbreaking. We’re a small sample group, to be sure, but if 100% of us have this kind of tortured history with food and its relation to our physical appearance, then isn’t it safe to assume that many women—a majority, even—harbor these same stories to varying degrees? If that’s the case, then why aren’t we talking about it? How have we collectively become so vulnerable to this pressure? Moreover, is it ever possible for health, vanity, and acceptance to coexist—especially after recovery?
There are no easy answers. We like to point a vague finger at society as a whole, but it’s more nuanced and complicated than that. It’s impossible to get real answers—and, in turn, progress—from such generalizations. To better understand, we have to share our stories and see where they intersect, and that’s exactly what we’re aiming to do here.
Read ahead as we cover everything from the double standard of being the “chill hot girl” to our first memories of dieting and how we’ve learned to accept and treat our bodies with respect. But first, get to know our panel:
How old were you when you went on your first diet? It was in seventh grade—so about 12.
What word or phrase do you most associate with your body now? Yikes, this is a hard one. Right this minute, it’s finally “good” enough. And I don’t mean that in the way it sounds—I guess what I mean is that I finally feel good enough.
Your (non-)guilty pleasure food: Soup dumplings.
The healthy food that always hits the spot: Kale salad with a spritz of lemon and pepper. And juice!
How old were you when you went on your first diet? I started experimenting with food restriction when I was 14.
What word or phrase do you most associate with your body now? Relief. It was initially very scary to relinquish control and just let myself enjoy life and food, but it turned out to be so freeing. And it’s astonishing how much better I function on a daily basis.
Your (non-)guilty pleasure food: Vegan doughnuts, and chips and guac.
The healthy food that always hits the spot: I drink a green smoothie every morning—it’s my favorite ritual to start the day. I also have to give a shoutout to CAP Beauty’s Coconut Butter ($26), which is borderline indulgent but SO creamy and delicious.
Associate Features Editor
How old were you when you went on your first diet? 12.
What word or phrase do you most associate with your body now? Chillin’. Or normal, which sounds like a copout but is actually a huge relief—it’s taken me a long time to get here.
Your (non-)guilty pleasure food: Pasta, all day and all night.
The healthy food that always hits the spot: Any kind of banana-based smoothie.
Associate Social Media Editor
How old were you when you went on your first diet? 12. (That’s horrifying.)
What word or phrase do you most associate with your body now? Acceptance and patience.
Your (non-)guilty pleasure food: French fries, all day.
The healthy food that always hits the spot: Chocolate cashew milk and raspberries.
VICTORIA HOFF: One of the things that always kind of breaks my heart is learning how early we start warring against our bodies. Like, when was the first time that you thought about what you were eating and how it affected your body? I know for me, I always had a weird thing with my thighs from a very young age. And I remember that having the discipline to lose weight felt very aspirational. Like, Oh, I could diet, but I don’t have the self-control for that. I wish I did.
AIMEE JEFFERSON: How old were you then? Like, when did you first become aware of your body as something you could change?
VH: I first became aware of the fact that I didn’t like the way that my thighs stuck together whenever I was sitting down when I was 10 years old, maybe even a little younger. But then I didn’t actually think about how I could control my diet with food until maybe I was a freshman in high school. I was at an age where I could whatever the heck I wanted and was still so, so skinny. A day of eats would be like, fried chicken, Costco chocolate chip cookies, Hot Pockets and Stouffer’s french bread pizza. All of the above, but then I would also go through these weird phases where I would just be like, Okay, I think I’m getting too fat, so I just wouldn’t eat for, like, half of the day. But then I’d be starving when I came home from school and I’d eat all the cookies.
AJ: Where did you get that idea, like, that that would be the method that you use?
VH: Honestly, I can’t remember specifically except the context: I grew up surrounded by my mom’s fashion magazines, but I started really reading them and really paying attention when I was 12 or 13. I began idolizing models, and then it was just about wanting to work in fashion, and that whole world—along with all the dieting articles and model stature—became very aspirational to me. But it didn’t become a huge issue until I was in college I gained the freshman 15, developed an eating disorder as to overcompensate and… yeah.
HALLIE GOULD: That world felt seductive to me, too. I started dieting at a pretty young age—I remember this experience I had at a “cool” store in my town. They had the junior/tween sizes downstairs and their adult clothing upstairs. At a certain point, like any normal soon-to-be-teenager, I had to start shopping upstairs. But, somehow, it was mildly traumatizing to shop on a different floor than all of my friends. That was the first time I started having negative associations with my body. From then on, it got worse and worse until I hit a breaking point.
There are so many markers in time—my first pool party, school dances, spring break—that I would put myself on a diet for. I went so far as to believe that once I lost weight, all my other problems would simply vanish. “Skinny” translated to “happy” in the most dangerous of ways. I developed an eating disorder in 10th grade that I shrugged off as more of a love for fashion than anything else. I wanted to look good in my clothes.
AMANDA MONTELL: I guess for me it was in middle school. When I was in sixth grade, I befriended this girl who had a “hot bod”; she looked a lot older than me, and she got a lot of attention from boys. She had a tiny little waist, boobs, and all that stuff. I am no longer a perfectionist by any means, but I think I was at the time. I was very dead-set on being the best at stuff and this was one thing I wasn’t the best at. I wasn’t better than her at being hot, and that really rubbed me the wrong way. I was super jealous of her, and so I was like, “Well, if I can’t be hot, I can be skinny.” And so I started dieting. At first it was kind of a way to beat her, you know?
My dieting process—I don’t know where I learned this. I think I actually learned it from my mom, that to lose weight you count calories. Then I logged onto a website where you could type in your age, height, and weight, and it would tell you how many calories you should eat in a day to maintain your weight, gain weight, and lose weight. And so I was like, Oh, here’s the number! I’ll just count my calories and then I’ll lose weight and I’ll be skinny and people will think I’m hot. I was 12 years old! But it worked. I don’t know why my mom indulged me. She should’ve put the brakes on. I would ask, How many calories are in this tuna sandwich? How many calories are in this pork loin? How many calories are in this carrot? She would tell me or I would look it up. Then I became obsessed with the calorie count of things. And, I mean, it worked. I lost five pounds or something, which is a lot when you’re 12 years old and 4’10”. But people did think I was hot. Boys did comment, “You look good!”
AJ: No one thought I was hot when I was skinny. Literally, no one.
AM: It’s not like I had boys lining up at the door, but people totally did comment. When they said, “You’re so skinny,” that was just a really enviable thing because it made me feel like I had won and I had something that nobody else. Then it became the mid-2000s, and this is the era when a bunch of celebrities lost a ton of weight and people seemed horrified by that, but everyone secretly wanted to be like that, too. I actually really f*cked up my body during that time. I am actually convinced that I would be taller if I didn't eat, like, 1200 calories a day from the age of 12 to 14. That was a terrible age to go on a restrictive diet. That was dumb. I just got very obsessed with the idea of skinny equaling self-worth, and then I didn’t even care if it was healthy. I didn’t even do research. I just thought calorie counting was dieting.
AJ: I don’t know if this was a thing for you guys, but I feel like middle school is a very weird time for moms. They want to teach you things about food so that then you can make better choices as an adult. But it can be really damaging your self-esteem as a middle school girl. It’s hard enough to be a 12- or 13-year-old girl. You don’t need someone who’s supposed to protect you and care for you make you have all these false pretenses about eating. It’s a really dangerous ball game.
But I definitely relate to your competitiveness—I started dancing when I was 2 and I started competitive sports when I was 5, so for a very, very long time in my life, I could eat whatever I wanted and nothing showed up because I was hyperactive. But I remember in middle school I suddenly became really curvy and I was really unhappy, and my mom constantly made comments about my body. I told myself I was dieting, but I was definitely not dieting—I was definitely just starving myself, but mentally it was competing with myself. I was like, How long can I go without eating? Two days? Okay, I did two days. Three days? Can I do four? And it’s this sick game that you’re playing, and then suddenly I would have issues where at the same time I was still super active and I would almost collapse at the gym. And someone would be like, “You should go home!” And I’d be like, “Oh, okay,” because you don’t want anyone to know that food is a problem for you, because we have this weird stigma that food shouldn’t be a problem. Food is something that should make you happy—it’s supposed to nourish you. And now I’m someone who loves food. I love cooking; I love learning about food and where it comes from. I’m obsessed with food, but it’s still a weird topic for me. Sometimes it’s like, I love food, but this is going to show up on me later. My thighs are going to touch if I eat this cheeseburger, but I really want this cheeseburger.
AM: It’s crazy because at that middle school age—a critical period—you learn things and adapt to them so quickly. Something becomes normal to you so fast just because your brain is solidifying who you are in real time, every single day. Whereas, as an adult—first of all, I’m too busy to dedicate as much time to scrutinizing my body and starving myself as I was able to at the age of 12. You just have so much time on your hands at that age!
AJ: I don’t know how to have a 9-to-5 job and diet, I really don’t. Are you a CEO or a VP and can afford to have your meals delivered and/or prepared? I can’t do it.
AM: I just have bigger fish to fry at this point. But then again, when you want to be pretty and skinny, you make the time to diet—
VH: It’s also just hard at that age because your body’s changing and you can’t help it.
AJ: Oh, totally! And while your body’s changing, you’re ruining it. You’re like, Hmm—I’m filling out and expanding in some ways, so I’m just going to stop eating. That’s horrible! You’re really messing yourself up!
AM: I didn’t get my period until I was—16? It’s funny because as much as dieting screwed with my brain, I just as quickly got over it. That was 10 or 12 years ago and it really does feel like that long ago. Now I do not feel connected to that whatsoever and I haven’t dieted in years. I feel like I even overcompensate. I don’t even touch the idea of dieting, because I just feel like I don’t even know how to do it.
AJ: I’m kind of there, too. I don’t have a healthy relationship with dieting, so I’m just like, No, I don’t diet. I genuinely don’t know how to diet without starving myself, because it just becomes a sick competition.
VH: I’m really glad you brought that up because—full disclosure—I only started healing from my eating disorder fairly recently. I just never thought that I’d ever be able to restrict in a healthy way, you know? To me, restriction is restriction. But I’ve also gotten to a place where I’m like, I’m a few pounds heavier than I would want to be. I’m fine, and I know I could lose a few pounds healthily and just for my vanity and that’s okay. But where does it get to a point where I’m afraid it’s going to spiral out of control again?
AJ: I think it’s really difficult. I had a really nasty time with eating and restricting and being in an anorexic realm in high school, and I remember my therapist at the time was like, “It takes 10 years to fully recover from an eating disorder.”
AM: I second that! I haven’t counted calories in a very long time, but I will say this: It was exactly 10 years between the first day that I decided to go on a diet and the first day that a whole day went by when I didn’t think about calories. That’s bananas! It wasn’t 10 years before I was restored to a healthy weight. It wasn’t 10 years before I didn’t identify with having an eating disorder anymore, but it was 10 years until I could go wake up in the morning and fall asleep at night and not even think about weight, insecurity, or calories. I truly don’t think about that anymore. I will say, though, only recently within these past few years have I been able to look at my naked frame in the mirror and not suck in my stomach and just be like, Eh! That’s good!
VH: I like what you said about getting to a healthy weight before you stop dwelling on calories. After you’ve gained the weight back but your mind-set still isn’t completely there, you feel a little trapped. Like, what is this body that I’m in?
AM: Oh, it was horrible! I was recovering and going through puberty, but between the ages of 15 and 17 I gained 50 pounds. (I’m 5’2”.)
AJ: Where'd it go? Just where it was supposed to be all along?
AM: I've lost some weight since then. Not because of dieting, but because my body needed to restore. This is what my body is supposed to be. I don't diet, but I don't eat shit. This is just what my body is. Whatever, take it or leave it. And I'm fine!
AJ: Totally. When you're finally like, I need to put down my eating disorder for a second—I'm gonna start eating. I've wanted to eat certain things for years, I'm going to do it. And you start to gain the weight and you're just like, Whoa. What's happening? I've been working so hard! But you haven’t been working hard—you’ve been hurting yourself.
AM: So do you guys think there is a healthy way to lose weight if you aren't overweight?
VH: Totally! Obviously you have to be wary of your own tendencies and mindset, but I think it's okay to want to lose a few vanity pounds and I think there's a healthy way to do it. At the end of the day it's a mathematical equation: If you burn a certain amount of calories more than you're eating then you're going to lose a couple of pounds.
AM: But let’s say for someone's who never had a history with eating disorders or a pathological relationship with food. A regular adult, comfortable with their weight forever. (I've never met this kind of person, but let's say they exist.) Let’s say they're getting married and they just want to look skinny in their dress. Is that fine? Is that healthy?
VH: I think it depends—and then we kind of get into the whole discussion of why do we need to be skinny? Why do we need to look that way in a wedding dress? Because it’s a matter of how we’re conditioned by society.
AJ: But in terms of healthy weight loss, I think a lot of it comes down to what are you eating. I mean, I'm a really big snacker, but I do not make the best choices when I snack. If I'm going somewhere where I know I'm going to be photographed and I'm like, okay, it's game time, my snacks very quickly become carrots, apples, berries. They become snacks that I should be eating that are good for me instead of Chex Mix and Goldfish. I don't need to be eating preservatives and GMOs and just… crap. I don't need that in my body.
AM: Ever since becoming vegan, for the first time, I have come to associate making healthy choices about food less with weight loss and more with just overall health, longevity, happiness, and ethics. To me, it's such a healthier mindset. When I get through a day where I've had this amazing almond butter cashew milkshake for breakfast, then a really good salad for lunch, then another smoothie and some avocado toast for dinner, I’m not thinking Cool, maybe tomorrow I'll be a pound thinner. That's a day where I'm just like, F*ck yeah, I nourished my body today!
AJ: I think it’s weird how you have to make that switch. I totally agree with you. I don’t own a scale; I don’t believe in scales.
AM: I haven’t weighed myself in five years.
AJ: I won’t do it! I think the number alone is enough to rip you apart.
VH: Also, the number’s just BS because, literally, if you wake up with some water weight you could be 10 pounds heavier than what you actually are! Really, who knows?
AJ: And then if you’re a woman, like—okay, my D-Cup boobs, those are like what, five to eight pounds?
It’s crazy! That number doesn’t represent what you are. It’s just a really nasty composite score.
VH: It’s kind of funny that you mentioned it as a composite because I actually remember a gender studies professor I once had who described the way we scrutinize our bodies as violence: You’re mentally sectioning off and dismembering your own body, tearing every bit of it apart. And you talked about eating to feel good and you feel good after you eat, but most of the time that’s not the goal. Most of the time you eat to be this certain number and to look this way and it’s all for what? Is it really health or is it what society tells us is ideal that week?
AM: It’s kind of a mind-blowing disconnect: I say the food I put in my mouth is making me feel good, makes my blood pressure drop, makes me feel more energetic, or more nourished, or less bloated. That all makes sense, so it’s just a funny phenomenon to me that this whole societal attitude toward your weight has nothing to do with food.
VH: Like, are we ever really dieting for ourselves, or are we dieting for other people?
AM: Normally I think people are dieting for others, which is really the saddest thing. It can be people of any age, but especially young girls. Kids are really mean, and the closest people around you who don’t even know they’re doing it put these ideas in your head that you have to be a certain way, and that just couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s different if you personally feel unhealthy and you feel like you could afford to gain or lose a few pounds depending on what your body needs, but if someone else is the reason behind, you need to seriously consider that.
VH: But there are the people close to you, and then there’s the sneakier part, which is what society presents. Jennifer Lawrence said it a few weeks ago—our idea of “normal” is just so f*cked right now because we’re constantly bombarded with these (mostly altered) images of very skinny people.
AM: And then the other thing that isn’t normal is that we quote all these celebrities and models being like, I eat pizza! I love burgers!
VH: That also comes down to this ridiculous double standard of being the “cool girl” and the “hot girl.” The “hot girl” doesn’t diet.
AM: The “hot girl” eats pizza and is a size 0.
AJ: There’s literally an Instagram called Hot Girls Eating Pizza. Are they really eating that pizza?
AM: That’s not real! There are certainly hot girls eating pizza, but they’re not all a size 0! And that’s so profoundly unfair.
VH: It really is, because you don’t want to be known as the girl who goes to a restaurant and orders salad, but you’re still expected to have this amazing body.
HG: It really feels like so often women are stuck between a rock and a hard place in that respect.
AJ: And I think that especially for a lot of women, especially models that are honestly naturally thin, they just won the genetics lottery—that’s really all it is. In the end, we can’t play that game: Whenever I see articles about what models eat, I’m like, it really doesn’t matter. You have an expensive trainer; you probably have a personal chef.
VH: I’ve actually found that recently I want to know what they’re eating just in relation to their skin. I don’t make the association with what they’re eating and their weight. Most of them spend hours at the gym every day anyway, which I’m certainly not going to do.
AM: If I was paid to look good, I’d be at the gym.
VH: On a related note, there’s the whole aspect of whether dieting really is just something we do for men. Because I’m a staunch feminist, sometimes I feel really guilty about caring about my weight. Does it make me a hypocritical feminist?
AJ: I don’t think I agree with that. For me, it’s about having a balance and being able to make my own rules. And if my rules for that month or whatever are to rearrange what I’m eating to be on a healthier regimen and to be on some form of a diet, that doesn’t make me any less of a feminist. If anything it makes me more of a feminist, because I’m deciding for myself and I’m making my own rules and I’m making my choices, and they’re no one else’s but mine. It’s my body.
HG: At this point, I diet for myself. Is it possible to be a feminist and be on a diet? Of course. Yes, I love male attention and want to be attractive. But what I really think is I come off more attractive when I feel good, that confidence is palpable. So in the end it has to be for yourself, right? Otherwise how will it ever be sustainable? I’ll always be a work in progress, and my weight will somehow always come into play, I’m sure, but I feel stronger for having been through what feels like war.
Only recently has it felt like I’m finally cured, finally free of all the food issues that were clouding my brain for so many years. I’ve started to adhere to this really great balance, this way of satisfying my cravings for delicious foods while also maintaining a helpful relationship with my body and my health. It’s easier said than done, but I think (after years and years of struggle) I’m finally there. Not being hard on yourself feels like the key to life, doesn’t it?
Now we’re turning the floor over to you. Join our discussion by sharing your story or any thoughts in the comments below.