'Body Hate Comes and Goes. That Sh*T Is Baked into the Culture'
An interview with journalist and author Steph Auteri on why she decided to quit diets.
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Hey everyone! I’m soooooo excited to debut Dared to Ditch, an occasional series that features the personal stories from people who dared to ditch diets. I’ve got quite a few folks who’ve signed on to tell their stories, and I’ll be sharing them over the next few months.
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Detoxing from diets and diet culture can be one of the most life-altering and empowering experiences of your life. It can be lonely and messy, too. When it feels like the whole world keeps drinking the diet Kool-aid, it’s easy to feel like you’re the only person in the world who’s saying no. While the number of us non-dieters is growing, too many of us go through this experience alone. This purpose of this project is to make those of us who have quit diets—or are thinking about quitting—feel just a little less alone.
My first interview is with seasoned journalist and author, who isn’t sugar coating the good and bad that comes with ditching diets.
Steph Auteri (she/her) is a journalist who has written for the Atlantic, the Washington Post, Pacific Standard, VICE, Rewire News Group, and elsewhere. Her more creative work has appeared in Creative Nonfiction, under the gum tree, Poets & Writers, Southwest Review, and other publications. Steph is the author of A Dirty Word and the founder of Guerrilla Sex Ed. She writes regularly about sexuality and the body. Learn more at stephauteri.com, follow her on Insta at @stephauteri, and subscribe to her two newsletters: Thunder Thighs and Guerrilla Sex Ed.
Questions for People Who Dared to Ditch Diets
How long have you not been dieting?
It's tough to pinpoint the exact moment this shift occurred. I've never been a strict dieter. I love food too damn much, especially food that is oftentimes labeled as “bad.” But I've always had a complicated relationship with my body. My mom raised me on a lot of health foods, thanks to her own complex around weight, and she dieted on and off for most of my life, usually as a member of Weight Watchers. I actually joined Weight Watchers with her in the lead-up to my wedding (I was 26) and, around the same time, tested The Flex Diet for a story in the New York Post (the author insisted it wasn’t a diet but, rather, a 'lifestyle change' that would miraculously lead to weight loss). I've also tried to casually glean tips from books like French Women Don't Get Fat. And just before COVID, I had a good run with a book whose title has since been lost to the sands of time (though I do remember the author insisting that hunger wouldn’t kill me and that I should just ignore my body’s cues until they subsided...yikes!). It was recommended by a colleague who was grappling with her own relationship to food and weight.
I just... anti-fat bias has taught me that my body is not good enough. And so I struggle with the fact that I want to wear the cute clothes and look good in them and not fade into the invisibility that often comes with motherhood and middle age. But at the same time, I love to eat and I'm not big on pushing my body to engage in any exercise that doesn't also feel good.
So I've gone back and forth with my approach to food and eating and body image. This has for sure been impacted by my consumption of body positivity content and body neutrality content. I think it was about two years ago that I read Caroline Dooner's The F*ck It Diet and learned about Health at Every Size and had a bit of an epiphany. That was probably the biggest turning point for me. Between that and COVID, when we all learned to embrace bralettes and eschew hard pants, I became really intentional about listening to my body and feeding it when it wanted to be fed. It's been harder to stop demonizing certain foods and, of course, the body hate comes and goes. That shit is baked into the culture and feels impossible to escape. But I'm trying.
Why did you initially decide to stop dieting?
I was tired of having my worth tied to my weight. I hated being fat shamed by my own family. I didn't want to feel guilty every time I enjoyed food. And it made me angry when my occasional bouts of restrictive eating were validated by others. When I read the research behind Health at Every Size, I felt vindicated. It gave me the permission I needed to stop restricting.
What is your “why” now? What keeps you from not dieting again?
A lot of the things I already mentioned are what keep me on this path: frustration with a culture that seeks to shame me for something I can barely control. A love of food, and of joyful movement for its own sake. I'm also raising a child (she's 9 now), and I don't want her to have to deal with the same angst and self-hatred I've had to deal with my entire life.
Still, no matter how much I change my own mindset, and no matter how I approach this stuff at home, I know that diet culture and anti-fat bias are such ingrained parts of our culture that it's impossible to avoid their impact.
What has been the biggest benefit of not dieting?
SO MUCH LESS GUILT.
Coming in at a close second is the fact that mealtime with my child—who barely ever wants to eat anything beyond mac and cheese, pizza, chicken tenders, and the empanadas I sometimes make—is far less fraught.
How has not dieting impacted how you view diet culture and anti-fat bias?
I just don't have the patience for it anymore. I can see how insidious it is, how it makes us hate ourselves, how it makes us hate others, and I get so frustrated by the fact that so many of my loved ones are still held in thrall by it. It's hard to know how best to support friends and family who are making decisions motivated by anti-fat bias.
At the same time, it remains difficult to untangle the lines between dieting and "healthy" eating, because nutritional choices can have an impact on health and, hell, I do have a family history that includes things like hypertension and heart attacks and various cancers. How do I know when nutritional suggestions made by my doctor or other "experts" are truly grounded in research that is more than just correlative and not just grounded in years upon years of anti-fat bias?
How does how you were raised impact your relationship with food and body image?
I mentioned this earlier, but my mother has struggled with her weight her entire life, and has had body dysmorphia her entire life, and has always been engaged in some way with diet culture. When my brother and I were growing up, she fed us all the fat-free and the sugar-free and the natural foods she could find. She wasn't shy about making comments about our weight. And my dad was constantly making jokes about larger folks, too. How can one help but internalize that stuff when you've been living with it your entire life?
I also recently wrote a post for the Feminist Book Club about my evolving relationship to exercise and joyful movement, and I mention in there my mother's relationship to exercise, and how it was absolutely tied to her relationship to food and dieting. My mom always encouraged me to exercise with her, whether at the gym or at a group fitness class or by going power walking together. I wrote that when my mom encouraged me to pursue these forms of exercise, I knew she marked my “success” at these activities by the number on the scale and the size of my clothes.
Even today, at the age of 43, for the love of god, an off-hand comment from my mother can still send me into a rage/shame spiral. So yes, I try to operate from a place of body neutrality and intuitive eating and health at every size. But the body hate is still there, simmering just beneath the surface.
How do you handle the societal pressure around dieting, diet talk, body talk etc.? Do you have any tips to share?
I mentioned already that friends and family still buy into diet culture, and that it's tough to know how to respond to certain scenarios in a loving and supportive way. What do I say when my mother mentions the almost-nothing lunch she had, or when she makes a comment about how I look and the clothes I (can't) wear? What do I say when my dad makes fat jokes? What do I say when a friend embarks upon a highly restrictive diet program and when another friend starts getting weight loss injections? Do I say anything at all? There's a constant internal negotiation happening in all of these situations. I hate that the people I love are operating from a place of anti-fat bias, yet how do I respond in a way that is not alienating or dismissive? After all, THEY WERE CULTURALLY CONDITIONED TO FEEL THIS WAY.
I've been trying to find a middle ground, one where I'm up-front about my belief that all bodies are good bodies and that dieting is ineffective and unhealthy and that when I exercise, it's because it makes me feel good, dammit. When I teach yoga, I talk about the things our bodies are capable of, how they take care of us, and how we should be proud of that, or at least grateful. I tell my parents that I don't want them talking about weight or "bad" foods or restrictive eating around my child.
At the same time, I try not to evangelize. Because it's not their fault they feel the way they feel. Anti-fat bias is so systemic, and people are conditioned to treat fat folks as less than human. Can I really blame the people in my life for wanting to fall in line... for wanting to be treated with humanity?
If you have kids, how do you minimize the impacts of diet culture on them?
This is so hard. As mentioned previously, I have some ground rules for the type of language others are allowed to use in my home around bodies, food, etc. I've talked to my child about the word "fat," and how it can be a neutral term to describe one's body. I try so hard to treat my body well, especially when my child is around, by not talking shit about it.
When it comes to eating, I always talk to my child about listening to her body in regard to how much she eats. And with help from Fat Talk, I've minimized my labeling of food as "good" or "bad," and have tried to release control of the foods my child is drawn to. I'm trying to trust that she will eventually embrace a wider variety of foods, and I keep reminding myself that she's still young. It doesn't have to happen now. Of course she likes what she likes.
But yeah. She's going to see what she sees. She's going to hear what she hears. Hopefully, she continues to see me as someone she can talk to about the things she observes, so we can unpack those bits of anti-fat bias she inevitably comes across.
Do you have any advice or encouragement to share for those who haven’t yet broken free of diets?
Know that deprogramming yourself from the lies of diet culture isn't something that can happen instantly. It's an ongoing process. Try not to get angry with yourself for the complicated feelings you feel. It's not your fault. It's systemic. And systemic change is HARD.
Extra credit: Is there anyone you know I should reach out to for this project?
Unfortunately, there is not a single person in my life who has also divested from diet culture, aside from those in the Feminist Book Club community maybe? And some of my fellow Book Rioters?
Share Your Story of Ditching Diets
If you’ve found freedom from dieting, we’d love to share your story so that it may inspire someone else…or simply make them feel less alone. Comment below or reach out at at kristik @ substack.com.
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Thanks for reading Almost Sated! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.