I was 13 years old when my dad brought home our first digital scale. It was Christmas, and at first it provoked the same excitement I felt whenever we got any sort of newfangled, vaguely techy object in those more analog days. I rarely weighed myself before that, usually only at annual doctor’s visits, but this machinery was sleek and shiny, with the ability to tell weight to the absurdly precise tenth of a pound.
It’s not that I didn’t already know that I was severely overweight. If the difficulty finding clothing that fit and the perpetual physical discomfort hadn’t already clued me in, fellow middle schoolers’ flip cruelty would’ve done it. But seeing the number on the scale was my come-to-Jesus — or, rather, come-to-Atkins — moment. I stopped housing restaurant-size dishes of fettuccine alfredo like I was a tween Caligula at a banquet, I reluctantly started exercising, and I convinced myself that flavored seltzer was a treat. (I was way ahead of the curve with that last one.)
Within a year, I lost all the weight I wanted to, and have more or less maintained it since. It wasn’t all that simple or straightforward, but both then and now, I rarely discussed the effort I put into what was a major, ultimately positive life change. For one thing, talking about your diet is inherently uninteresting. But I also held back out of a specific sense of shame that I couldn’t necessarily articulate at the time. I was bookish, inquisitive, and defiant, and I prided myself on those qualities; even though I deeply wanted to lose weight, this desire felt vain and ignoble, an admission that I cared about how others saw me.
I’ve been reminded of that feeling often since then, especially as the body-positivity movement has gained traction and weight has felt increasingly politicized. When Marisa Meltzer explored dieting as a feminist taboo for Elle back in 2013, she admitted, “the guilt I once felt about what I ate has been replaced by guilt over being the wrong kind of feminist — or maybe no kind of feminist: a woman pursuing something as pedestrian and frankly boring as losing weight.” She theorized that many self-identifying feminists who struggle with their weight may feign an attitude of indifference as a front. In the years since her essay was published, I suspect that’s only become more common.
Back in 2013, Meltzer pointed to Lena Dunham as the ultimate self-acceptance icon. Her body has been subject to relentless, often harsh, scrutiny since Girls first aired; most recently, the focus has been on her noticeable weight loss, due in part to working out with Tracy Anderson and eating a more plant-based diet. She’s been vocal in objecting to positive press. A couple of weeks back, Dunham responded to a magazine that included a new photo of her next to the headline “20 Slimdown Diet Tips Stars Are Using.” In a widely circulated Instagram post, she attributed her smaller figure to everything from her long-running battles with endometriosis and anxiety to living in Trump’s America and “realizing who ya real friends are.” She’d previously written, “my weight loss isn’t a triumph … because my body belongs to ME — at every phase, in every iteration, and whatever I’m doing with it, I’m not handing in my feminist card to anyone.”
Regardless of the whys and hows of Dunham’s weight loss, I’m struck by the highly charged way the discussion progressed. Numerous publications (especially woman-centric ones) praised her reaction. But, I found myself wondering, what if she had just wanted to lose some weight for the sake of losing some weight? Should it really be all that controversial or shameful to want to control how you look, especially if you have a job that keeps you in the public eye? Must dropping a few pounds come with a disclaimer, or 20? If women used to avoid saying they were on a diet because it might not seem cool or fun, now we worry about the possibility of offending others or losing our “feminist card.”
Fat acceptance was indeed born during the same era as second-wave feminism; today, body positivity and pop feminism exist as the significantly less radical, more widespread versions of their predecessors. As these ideals have deviated further from their origins, becoming more watered-down and commercialized, they’ve also become inextricably linked. A typical triumphant viral web-story plotline, especially for women’s sites, involves a woman “clapping back” at “body shamers.” Body positivity is now a savvy branding move: Take ModCloth, which pledged not to use Photoshop and publicly lent their support to the 2016 Truth in Advertising Act, calling for federal regulation of airbrushing in ads. (The indie retailer sold to Walmart earlier this year.) And when Dove created soap bottles modeled on different female body shapes, it was hilariously misguided and widely panned — but it was also a natural extension of the infantilizing way businesses have attempted to profit off this mind-set.
It’s not like the industry devoted to shrinking us down has taken a blow: We can hardly go a few weeks without hearing about a new diet plan that features seemingly arbitrary restrictions (what, exactly, is wrong with mushrooms?) or an insanely punishing cleanse. But now, when it comes to actually discussing the deliberate changes we make to our bodies, we either wrap them in innuendo or scramble to deny them altogether, in an attempt to appear more enlightened.
One cultural barometer is the way celebrities talk about their eating and exercise habits (and the media coverage they generate). Unsurprisingly, it’s a long-standing tradition to ask people whose job it is to look conventionally attractive how they got that way and what they consume every day. But few ever admit to being on a diet — nobody wants to reveal how the sausage, or, more appropriately, the grilled chicken breast, is made. “Wellness” has also become a catch-all euphemism that allows one to admit to undertaking a transformation, but chalk it up to “health” instead of superficiality. Eva Mendes couched an answer about her routine by saying that she eats “clean” and, because she’s busy, truly enjoys having the same thing for lunch and dinner every single day. Spoiler: It’s salmon, quinoa, and salad. (“Eva Mendes’s Simple Eating Regimen Is So Refreshing,” Refinery29 gushed, either in willful ignorance or a profound misunderstanding of what a diet is.) A Glamour listicle titled “10 Celebrities Who DGAF About Eating Healthy” celebrated stars like Gigi Hadid, Emma Stone, and Jennifer Lawrence for being “quick to admit eating burgers, pizza, or red velvet cupcakes is just part of life,” though something tells me that, based on the industry they’re in, they must G at least a tiny bit of AF. At least Lawrence — whose meteoric rise to become America’s sweetheart was certainly aided by red-carpet sound bites about loving McDonald’s — finally admitted: “‘I don’t feel like I have a normal body.’ I do Pilates every day. I eat, but I work out a lot more than a normal person.”
The current cultural discomfort around dieting has trickled down to how even I — someone with firsthand experience undertaking significant weight loss — react when confronted with it. When acquaintances said they were trying Whole30 for the new year or posted hashtagged meal shots to Instagram, I remember balking: My first reaction was to think that they didn’t seem like the type of people to go on a diet, much less talk about dieting. (By contrast, the girls I knew in high school and college who now appear to be engaged in a Facebook weight-loss-shake pyramid scheme definitely do fit the mold I associate with “people who diet” — though are their motivations really all that different?) While visiting an old friend, I noticed that she had downloaded MyFitnessPal and felt an odd rush of embarrassment, like I had accidentally stumbled onto something I wasn’t supposed to see. We could talk to each other about our sex lives without batting an eyelash, yet counting calories seemed like a step too far.
I’m not saying we should necessarily be talking about our diets more — again, it’s boring, and I’m generally a proponent of all of us dialing back our abundant over-sharing a bit. But what a relief it would be to shed the anxiety surrounding how we discuss them, to lose the doublespeak and welcome more honesty.