Dear Diet Industry,
I’m breaking up with you.
After almost three decades of togetherness, I’ve decided to go it alone. I need to find out who I am without you, maybe recover a few pieces of the person I was before we met. This is going to be hard for you to hear, but I know the last thing you’d want, Diet Industry, is for me to sugarcoat it.
I remember the day we met. It was the early 80s. I was a spunky six-year-old girl with pigtails, a foul mouth and a penchant for pink Sassoon jeans. My mother stood over a slow-cooker filled with cabbage soup. For over a week, the house was rank with the smell of it—like being trapped in a gym bag with last week’s moist sweat-socks.
It was my mother who introduced me to you over her fourth cup of cabbage soup that day. When I asked her the reason for the smell, for the lack of food in the house, for the constant cup of piping hot roughage in her hand, she explained that she wanted to lose a few pounds. This was what she called a diet, a miraculously simple way to lose weight. All you had to do was starve and stay away from any possibly tempting or edible food and release so much awful smelling gas that you end up on the EPA’s most wanted list.
It wasn’t my mother’s intention to make me fall in love with you. She didn’t have to.
It seemed that all the women in my life were in love with you, too. Jane Fonda on every morning talk show with her legwarmers and shellacked hair. My ballet teacher, who spoke often of watching our little figures. My grandmother, who never finished a family meal without apologizing out loud for having eaten the entire contents of her plate. My lands, I shouldn’t have done that. I’m going to pay tomorrow!
And then there were the after-school specials, so many of them about the delicate, beautiful, overachieving anorexic girl. I suppose these specials were designed to warn young girls about you, about how dangerous you could be, which only made you sexier, more tempting. You were the rebel, the Heathcliff or Johnny Depp on 21 Jump Street. I was, even then, stubborn to a fault. You saw me coming from a mile away.
We flirted for a few years, but the summer between fifth and sixth grade was, truly, our summer of love. I wasn’t fat or even chunky, but the peace-altering process of puberty was in full swing. My body was getting round in awkward places, and changing almost by the day. I didn’t know what was happening to me, exactly, though I’d been told by my mother and had spent many months at the public library, sneaking glances of a well-worn copy of The Joy of Sex. I really only knew one thing: I had no ability to stop this terrifying shift.
Well, until you.
It wasn’t that you could stop it entirely, but you seemed to have more control than I did. You offered me chalky, low-calorie shakes and miniscule candy bars that tasted like cardboard. You had videos and television shows and every other article in People magazine was about you. You were everywhere, a constant friend and lover. You made me feel powerful—like I could stop this malignant body of mine from growing.
This first flush lasted maybe a year. For that year, you were everything. You made me feel whole and sated. After a while though, I wanted more. I felt suffocated and controlled and would walk by the downtown bakery window very slowly. I’d ogle cookies in the grocery store and fiendishly watch Jacques Pépin on PBS with drool running down my face.
This is when you introduced me to pills—Dexatrims, remember? I spent sixth and seventh grade sweating through my New Kids on the Block t-shirts. I spoke fast, I wrote fast, and I got through a silver punch-packet of pills fast. You had me on speed, something I wasn’t fully aware of. The fact that I, an 11-year-old, could purchase them myself at the local pharmacy gave them an air of safety and effectiveness.
It didn’t matter that I was on an emotional roller-coaster and doing tremendous damage to my body, a fact that became terribly clear
Then I began having outrageous panic attacks in the car on the way to school and breakdowns in the bathroom at Tastee Freeze after having three bowls of mint chocolate ice cream in a row. It didn’t matter to you, but it mattered to me; so we took another break.
We continued like this for the next 20 years—breaking up, getting back together, breaking up, getting back together. We would do this 50, 60 times a day. I would swear I wouldn’t go back, then I’d find myself drinking a Diet Coke for lunch and dinner. I’d starve for a day or two, then find myself eating an entire cookie sheet of biscuits. You’d tell me that I was getting fat, that I needed to take control and order some product or another for five installments of $25. To use my damn willpower. You’d bully me and ruin Christmas dinners. This only furthered my resolve to eat until I burst. To rebel outrageously.
Then came the other great love of my life: yoga.
I have to admit, Diet Industry, we were at a really good place when I started cheating on you with that Anusara class out in the sticks. You had me down to a size 4, the utopian end of the jean rack. I was eating almost nothing and spending every bit of free time at the gym. I would run mile after mile thinking of how pleased you’d be. It was actually you that told me to go to that yoga class in the hope that I might lose even more weight.
How naïve you were! You practically threw us together, me and yoga. Yoga loved me—it told me that I was, simply and without reservations, divine. It told me that my physical body was strong, flexible, and capable of standing on my head the way I used to as a girl. Yoga gave me moments of delight at the very fact of being alive. My body became a receptacle for something more than bitterness and ravenous hunger. I was, and still am, filled up with joy.
Where yoga gave me love and compassion, you gave me fear and self-hatred. When yoga gave me a community, you isolated me and left me terrified of dinner parties and potlucks. When yoga told me that I should channel my focus and dedication to promote good in the world, you told me to use it to torture and destroy myself. I gave you everything, and in return you gave me sugar-free pudding.
Don’t call or write or try to re-friend me on Facebook. You’ve been blocked. When I see you on the cover of magazines with a new trick, I will promptly turn away. When I see you on a CNN segment, looking all gussied up with your new pills, I will change the channel. I’ll avoid your section of the grocery store and head straight to produce, to real food with real taste that’s real good.
Leave my friends alone, too. Even though things are over between us, don’t think you can fuck with my friends. I know that you’ve messed around with them before, but I’m calling a stop to it. Don’t come around my friends or family, and Shiva help you if you lay one hand on my goddaughter. I’ve gotten a lot stronger since you faded from my life. Don’t make me prove it to you.
I know that you’ve been out and about with actresses a lot, lately. Last week I heard that you forced actress Jessica Alba into a double-corset to get rid of her post-baby weight. How bold and 17th century of you. How sad and painful for her. I suppose you’ll always find someone you can dominate and enslave.
Diet Industry, that someone is no longer me.
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Ed: Kate Bartolotta