How I Learned That Food—Unlike Morality — Doesn’t Have A Positive Or Negative Charge

Thanksgiving is a celebration of abundance. Dieting is a negotiation of desire & deprivation. In their Venn diagram, I was the bull's eye.

November 18, 2019

Carla Sosenko
Weight Watchers Frosta, 1976 // Allen

bout a decade ago, my family gathered around the table for the Thanksgiving meal and without warning, the kids’ table gave way. Just like that — boom! — it was on the ground. One of the 3-year-old triplets was hysterical; the 8-year-old said she had glass in her foot. The mood of the room had gone from serene to shrieky in two minutes flat.

I was elated.

Thanksgiving, once my favorite holiday, had become an object of anxiety. I’d recently found weight-loss success for the first time in my life as a result of obsessive Weight Watchers Points counting.

Other people counted sheep at bedtime, but I counted points, lulling myself to sleep with a loop of numbers that indicated my worth for the day.

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If I’d come in at budget, I was good. If I’d gone over, I was bad.

Every night I’d softly remind myself what I’d taken in that day, a mantra meant to reassure myself that I was OK, that I’d made it through one more day without transgression, that I’d bought myself another 24 hours of not reverting to my formerly fat, gluttonous self. For someone who hates math, I was doing a lot of it.

Coffee with skim, 1
Weight Watchers breakfast sandwich, 5
Apple with peanut butter, 6.

Night night, sleep tight.

(Weight Watchers tells you not to come in under your daily points target, that it’s actually detrimental to your metabolism, but that’s secretly what every member is trying to do. Privately, we strived for anorexia, and the nights I had points left over, I felt immensely proud.)

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I was at the height of my obsessiveness that Thanksgiving, having successfully lost — then successfully regained — 25 pounds. I was on a downward trend once more and was worried (no, terrified) that the holiday would derail me.

(If observing the world’s most anxious people sounds like your cup of tea, pop into your local Weight Watchers for a meeting on Nov. 26 or 27.)

Thanksgiving is a celebration of abundance. Dieting is a neurotic negotiation of desire and deprivation. In the Venn diagram of the two, I was the bull’s-eye.

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Back then, I was a willing participant in diet culture. No, make that an ebullient one. I’d replaced one obsession with another: Instead of trying to get my grubby mitts on whatever junky contraband I could — as I had my entire childhood, during which “bad” foods were banned — I now obsessively did the opposite.

I canceled plans with friends to avoid temptation. I suggested dates at coffeeshops instead of bars. Once, at the height of my mania, I skipped a friend’s birthday celebration because I could not fathom eating anything other than the six Trader Joe’s soy nuggets and one bowl of zero-point Weight Watchers soup I’d been having for dinner for the past six months (I’m sorry, Randi!).

Nothing about this behavior struck me as disordered. On the contrary, I felt like for the first time in my life, I had healthy eating habits.

I thought I finally understood nutrition, and the proof was in my shrinking body.

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When the kids’ table crashed to the ground, a few of us removed ourselves to the other room to deal with the screaming children. We fetched ice for my niece’s foot. We cuddled the 5-year-old. It took longer than expected, and when we got back to the table, the meal was pretty much done. Nobody had waited for us, and I was ecstatic.

The relief came over me like a wave of euphoria. Just a little while ago I’d been worried about eating too much, about losing control, and now I would not only not eat too much, I’d do one better: I’d eat nothing at all. I was a success! I was good!

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I was put on my first diet at age 8, at my doctor’s suggestion. I’d attend Weight Watchers meetings with my friend Tammy and her mom Shirley at Temple Hillel, where, after dutifully weighing in, we’d sit through a meeting of mostly adult women sharing stories of success (weight loss!) and heartache (weight gain!).

At the end we’d wish each other a good week the way I imagine alcoholics do at the end of AA meetings. I was 8.

Every week, on weigh-in day, I would say a silent little prayer, promising hashem that if I could just lose a few pounds by the end of the day, magically, I’d be better a better, more determined dieter the next week. It’d be a better person. It never worked, and I lost precisely 0 pounds in my entire tenure as a child on Weight Watchers, because you know who’s bad at dieting? Eight-year-olds.

Here’s the (very, very obvious) thing: Making something contraband only increases its value. Ask any adult who was forced to diet as a kid whether they struggle with disordered eating now and I would stake my life on the answer being yes. It’s the kids who were allowed to eat what they wanted — who were able to nourish their bodies without judgment — that have a healthy relationship with food.

The rest of us are left to figure out how to coexist with food, which, unlike alcohol or drugs, we don’t have the luxury of forsaking completely.

It is up to us to finally get it through our fat heads that foods — unlike questions of morality — do not not have a positive or negative charge.

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A decade after that chaotic Thanksgiving, I am no longer good — I am great. I am also fat. I would not have been able to hear this back then, but I finally understand the insanity that is dieting.

In my most recent go-round with Weight Watchers, in 2015, I lost more weight than ever before—40 pounds—and kept it off longer too (around two years). After that, I started to put weight back on, but told myself it was OK, that I knew this was coming and that as long as my clothes still fit, I had nothing to worry about.

When my clothes no longer fit, I told myself that I would lean into eating for a while and then, like all the other times, start it all over again.

When I found myself fatter than I’d ever been in my life, I told myself that this, too, was part of the reality of dieting—each time you gain weight back, you tend to gain more of it—but that I’d successfully dieted before and could successfully diet again.

It was a process I’d endured before and assumed I would endure again for the rest of my life: lose, gain, restart.

Only, this time, something was different. I couldn’t make myself get back to Weight Watchers no matter how hard I tried. I would set an alert in my phone, with a day-before reminder. When that reminder came, I’d move the meeting back a week.

It wasn’t news that I didn’t want to go back—that happened every time—but what happened next was new: I realized that I didn’t have to return.

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I did not have to go back to Weight Watchers. I can’t explain how revolutionary this was.

I didn’t think about or understand the ramifications of this decision—clothes would keep not fitting, and I’d need help from someone in the field to learn about intuitive eating—but the decision to jump off the hamster wheel of dieting was probably the first decision I’d ever made about my body that was made for me and me alone.

I didn’t want to do it, so I wouldn’t. I was done.

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When I was at the height of my weight watching, I was obsessively fixated on one thing and one thing only: the number on the scale. I had no exit strategy for this deprived way of life, nor did I want one. All I knew was that thin was good, and once I got even thinner, the reward would be enough. Maybe I could get so thin I’d just disappear.

Ask anyone on Weight Watchers (the only diet I have any real experience with) whether they feel deprived and they’ll tell you they don’t. They’ll say they feel healthier, lighter, better. That’s WW’s promise and why it’s been successful for so long.

Members in the Cult of WW may actually believe that hype — I did — but they probably also feel nervous, hyperaware of how they look, increasingly dependent on positive affirmation from others about their shrinking appearance and, conversely, heartbroken when the affirmations stop because they’ve hit a plateau or started to gain the weight back.

Most of us gain the weight back. Of course we do. The diet industry couldn’t survive if we didn’t.

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I’m now 43 and I eat what I want. My cholesterol is up, and for a brief moment, so was my blood sugar. I’m not saying those are good things — they’re not. What I’m saying is that I’m working on finding ways to stay healthy that don’t depend on institutional deprivation — because you know what? That wouldn’t be good for my body either.

Yo-yo dieting can double your risk of heart attack, according to a 2017 study in the New England Journal of Medicine, and if you ask me, all dieting is yo-yo dieting. Weight Watchers and Slimfast and Nutrisystem can’t promise that you’ll keep the weight off, only that they can help you drop it in the first place.

Like an abusive boyfriend, that’s to their advantage: They want you to come back to them when you’re down and out, but what they don’t tell you is that that’s not actually very good for you.

When I stop and think about how much time and energy I devoted to trying to make myself smaller — trying to actually fight nature (spoiler: Nature always wins) — I feel the same as when I think about all the guys I dated indiscriminately in my 20s: What a colossal fucking waste. I missed friends’ birthdays. I missed experiences I can’t even name. I missed Thanksgiving!

Not this year. I now eat whatever I want on Thanksgiving because I eat whatever I want all the time. I don’t always know what I want, because years of dieting mean I’m not always in touch with my body’s desires and needs. But I’m working on it—(with a Health at Every Size nutritionist, yes, fat people can be healthy too!) — because I want to feel good in every way, and good does not equal thin, at least not for this body.

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