'To know that you are accepted for your whole self is worth more than thinness'
A Q&A with writer Jamie Cattanach about finding body liberation after years of eating struggles and atypical anorexia.
Hello, everyone! This will be the last post of the season, unless I get a last-minute burst of energy to finish one of several drafts I’m kicking around. For the last six months, I have published this newsletter twice a week, and it’s time for a little break.
The subject matter here on Almost Sated is near and dear to my heart, but it’s also a polarizing topic that puts me at odds with most of society, including some of my closest friends and family members. In this sense, it takes an emotional toll, and quite regularly I question whether I should continue with it. It doesn’t help that the business of publishing here on Substack is its own form of being weighed and measured, with people talking openly about subscribers and other metrics. Most of the writers here have to learn how to set good boundaries around this.
What’s remarkable to me is that every time I go through one of these periods of questioning, someone reaches out and tells me that what I’ve written has either helped them or touched them, and it reinforces the work I’m doing. I have so much gratitude for those of you who have taken the time to reach out to me, whether it’s to leave a comment or note, or to text me or tell me in person. I’m especially grateful for recent recommendations from, and and a pledge from of . The women behind these publications are doing amazing work lifting the world up while keeping it real, so please go check them out!
Today, I am sharing writer’s story of quitting diets. (You can find all of my past interviews for Dared to Ditch right here.)
Jamie’s story is different from many of the others I’ve featured here because she was diagnosed with atypical anorexia, which is on the rise and much more common than typical anorexia. It’s also less likely to be diagnosed, so sufferers often struggle for longer periods of time without a diagnosis or treatment. In the midst of Jamie’s struggles, she was praised by doctors for her weight loss while being prescribed meds to help kick start her missing period.
You can read more about atypical anorexia here, but this one stat from the Eating Recovery Center caught my eye: Contrary to popular belief, malnutrition caused by eating disorders can occur at all body weights—not just very low body weights.
What’s interesting is that Jamie’s story begins like so many of ours have—early indoctrination into the world of dieting, struggling with weight and thinking thinness would fix everything.
Jamie Cattanach is a writer based in Portland, Oregon. Her words have been featured in SELF, HuffPost, Insider, Ms. Magazine, CNBC, Fodor's, Fourth Genre, Nashville Review, Thin Air Magazine and many other media outlets and journals. Her in-progress memoir—which chronicles her experience of atypical anorexia—was chosen for the 2022 Tin House Manuscript Mentorship program. She's also the creator and editor of the newsletter Change of Heart and assistant editor of the essays column at The Rumpus.
“All the stuff I thought I would find by attaining thinness—creative and professional success, deep romantic partnership, belonging—actually came to me far more easily when I was finally eating enough to really be present in my life.” —Jamie Cattanach
Kristi: When did you quit diets and why did you initially decide to stop dieting?
Jamie: "Quit" is maybe not the exact right word. My body kind of unilaterally decided it was done with my bullshit.
It was the winter of 2018-2019 and I, a native Floridian, was living in Santa Fe—which many people don't know gets down to like seven degrees Fahrenheit in the winter. Having grown up fat, I'd lost a very substantial amount of weight through extreme dieting when I was 21. I was just about to turn 30. Food and exercise had ruled my life for nine years by that point, and it had developed into full-blown anorexia for the last three, though nobody recognized it—not even my doctors, who simply patted me on the back for my massive weight loss and prescribed me courses of progesterone to pull out the periods I'd been missing for months on end. (This is what's called "atypical" anorexia, where your BMI never dips below "normal," though all the other symptoms are in place and it's still super dangerous. Basically, I'd just been considered a rare instance of successful weight loss.)
Anyway, it was winter and I was freezing and my body just wouldn't allow me to keep starving. I would wake up in the middle of the night and find myself eating raw, unsalted almond butter or even coconut cream with a spoon—whatever was most calorie-dense in my extremely unpalatable-on-purpose kitchen. I put on a few pounds that winter, and by spring had started to sniff out that something was amiss and that my "healthy lifestyle" was actually deeply unsustainable. In June, after reading a few relevant books and working with a registered dietician who specialized in eating disorder recovery, I made an agreement with myself to eat what I wanted to, when I wanted to, no matter what. Forever. It was so, so scary, and the most important piece of self-care work I have ever done.
Kristi: What is your “why” now? What keeps you from dieting again?
Jamie: Over the next six months, I put back on half the weight I'd initially lost—and immediately found my setpoint, where I've stayed pretty effortlessly ever since, just by eating intuitively and exercising when I want to in ways that feel good. The why, specifically: All the stuff I thought I would find by attaining thinness—creative and professional success, deep romantic partnership, belonging—actually came to me far more easily when I was finally eating enough to really be present in my life. While it's true that there is a social and cultural incentive for thinness—I got so much attention when I was starving—it was the thinnest veneer (hah) of the deep connection I was looking for.
Kristi: What has been the biggest benefit of not dieting?
Jamie: Having energy to be in my life. Recognizing that the shape of my body has little bearing on my ability to live a complete, fulfilling, and liberated life. And—counter to what I'd been taught for so long—better health! As soon as I started eating again, my periods became regular for the first time in my entire adult life. I was 30!! I hadn't had normal periods for sixteen years, and it turned out all I had to do was eat food. Wild. My cholesterol and blood pressure readings are also better than they were when I was anorexic.
Kristi: How does not dieting affect your relationships and social choices?
Jamie: See above. Everything got better, including romance, which I of course had been fully under the impression would only be available to me if I stayed as thin as possible. I also find that I tend to have deeper, more meaningful friendships, which I think has two causes: A) the increased confidence I was sort of forced to develop in having to grow into and learn to love my body as-is, and B) the energy I have, now that I'm eating, to actually show up in relationships.
Kristi: How has not dieting impacted how you view diet culture and anti-fat bias?
Jamie: This journey totally turned my initial understanding of the ways bodies work, metabolically, on its head. I understand now that people come in many different shapes and sizes; even if we all ate and exercised the same, we would definitely not all look the same, and that's due to both natural and nurture-based causes.
Kristi: How does how you were raised impact your relationship with food and body image?
Jamie: I mean, I think this is a known thing: Women have passed down the pressure to be thin over generations, and usually as a misguided kindness. Thinness = attractiveness = access to a husband = support and survival. That is of course an old narrative, but not that old, and pieces of it became basically subconscious over time, I think. My mother was fairly forward-thinking for her time, but I was born in the late ‘80s, right before the low-fat craze of the ‘90s, and our family does not have the thinnest genes in the world. I watched my mother worry over her belly for my entire childhood, trying out the South Beach Diet and Herbalife and Atkins. It was the water I swam in.
Kristi: How do you handle the societal pressure around dieting, diet talk, body talk etc.? Do you have any tips to share?
Jamie: I'm really lucky to live in Portland, where the culture is fairly aligned with not dieting—or at least not dieting in this way. (We've got plenty of vegans for the animals!)
But generally speaking, I'm in a place in my life where I can handle and empathize with someone else's body talk/concerns without taking it on for myself, and if it's bad/constant enough that that's not the case, I simply let them know—or remove myself, if they can't quite respect that boundary.
Jamie: Do you have any advice or encouragement to share for those who haven’t yet broken free of diets?
It's really, really scary, I get that—and for those of us with disordered eating habits or eating disorders, I really think it's something you have to live and evolve with for the rest of your life.
But truly: the liberation you can feel on the other side of dieting, and the energy, and to know that you are accepted for your whole self, is worth more than thinness could ever be.
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 kristik@ substack.com.