My First Diet Was At Age 11

I went on my first diet when I was 11 years old. Was I fat? I thought of myself as a little “chubby.” I was clumsy and had hit puberty early and felt very uncomfortable in my new body that came with breasts and widening his (and a period). I had no idea what clothes to wear and was teased at school because I was different in shape than other girls my age (also, hello — boys will be boys attitudes). I hated physical activity because I felt so uncomfortable in my body and therefore hated P.E. and running and anything that took me outside my house.

This discomfort with myself made it easy for me to latch onto the diet that my older sister was doing. I think she was nervous about me joining because I was so young, but ultimately, when I offered to go halfsies on the groceries, she relented. I had no idea why she wanted to go on a diet because at 11, I thought my 17 year-old sister was the most beautiful teenager I’d ever seen. And isn’t this just the way that it is? We are never happy with ourselves, no matter how perfect others think we are.

I don’t remember what this diet was called specifically, but I remember that all we got for breakfast was hot lemon water, and that dinner was some seasoned chicken. My guess is that there weren’t a lot of carbs involved. It was a good thing I wasn’t swimming five hours a day that year, like I did my senior year in high school, or wasn’t training for an Ironman twenty-five hours a week like I did a couple of years ago. Because a low carb diet in those situations is stupid and possibly dangerous.

It was still probably dangerous. I wasn’t finished growing physically. I needed brain food. I got faint a lot in those few weeks. I lost a few pounds, sure. I maybe felt like I was stronger psychologically because I could fight off hunger pangs. For a while, anyway. I also learned that this was what it meant to be a woman, to care more about pleasing other people by making my body into an acceptable shape than about listening to my own body’s signals. I didn’t like it then and I like it even less now. But does that mean I’m now able to stop trying to make myself fit into some magazine’s idea of a perfect body? No, I’m afraid it doesn’t. I don’t care about makeup and I don’t care about fashion, but I care about my body’s shape a lot.

For at least the past twelve years, with the exception of one week just to prove I wasn’t “addicted,” I’ve been logging every bite of food and every minute of exercise I’ve done on the app MyFitnessPal. I haven’t been hungry for ten years, but I’ve also never chosen to eat anything without feeling like I have to “earn” it. So if I’m going to have an ice cream sundae, I have to do a two hour bike workout before. I look at restaurant menus on-line so I can choose an item that has fewer calories and that fits in with my goals for the day.

I’m an athlete (an amateur, but I’ve reached All-American levels at times), so you’d think that my focus would be on making sure that I taper properly and am ready for each race, right? Wrong. I find it very difficult to not get in my 10,000 steps or my 500 calories of exercise each day, so I can measure those against my calories and not go negative. And yes, I know that this is a mild form of what many women face. But it’s still not good.

You know that scene in “Notting Hill” when Julia Roberts is first introduced to Hugh Grant’s friends at dinner and they’re arguing over who gets the last brownie? And she tries to talk about how she’s had two plastic surgeries and has been on a diet for ten years? So, basically, she’s been hungry that whole time? Then everyone laughs and tells her she doesn’t get the brownie because she’s just trying to make them feel sorry for her?

Yeah, that’s me. I think that is all of us. Whenever we try to talk about being hungry and diets and beauty standards for women, we’re dismissed because that’s petty. There are people dying of cancer and wars and on and on — you want people to care about women being told they’re fat? Get over it. If you’re fat, just show some self-control. If you’re not fat, then why are we talking about this? It’s clearly not your problem.

But it is. It’s everyone’s problem. We’re all participating in this. And yes, I happen to think it’s an important issue. Not because I care about my body anymore, but because I care about my daughters. I have become more and more concerned that no matter how loudly I proclaim my own body positivity and that it doesn’t matter what shape or size you are, taking out my phone and logging every bite speaks more loudly than any words. If I have to earn every bite, then what am I saying about people who aren’t the size 2 that I am? This is crazy.

For a long time, I justified myself by saying that everyone should be logging their calories. Whenever people talk about “going on a diet” not being feasible, I would congratulate myself by thinking that I wasn’t on a diet. I was just counting calories and it didn’t take that much energy. Besides, I let myself go negative. Sometimes. For special occasions. And I didn’t feel bad about it. At least, not very bad.

But the sense of being locked in a prison of my own making has been growing this last year, and I made a decision a week ago. I’ve given up counting calories and earning every bite. I’m going to try to have a healthier attitude toward food and toward my body. Instead of looking at food to see how many calories it has, I’m going to (gasp!) try to look inside myself and decide what food I want to eat. And then I’m going to (double gasp!) eat it. No more measuring food. No more measuring my body. I’m still going to exercise and I suspect I’ll have to go through a second layer of deprogramming to let go of my current step-counting watch. But it’s a beginning.

I know no one feels sorry for me. I’m not asking you to. I’m just trying to let go of some bad attitudes that I’m afraid have been leaking out of me for a long, long time.

Written by

Author of The Bishop’s Wife mystery series, The Mormon Sabbatical Podcast, Princeton PhD, fiction editor at Exponent II, autist, she/her

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store