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The Diet Survivor’s Handbook: 60 Lessons in Eating Acceptance and Self-Care

Ellen Frankel

Ellen FrankelMy Story: The Short of It

For years I specialized in the treatment of eating disorders. Working predominately with girls and women of varying ages, we looked at the underlying reasons for starving themselves, for bingeing and purging, and for eating compulsively. We examined the symptoms and discussed the emotional and physical and toll they exacted. I was also active in prevention, and often spoke to schools and universities about the dangers of dieting, and the fact that dieters are eight times more likely than non-dieters to develop an eating disorder. Often, I would use personal examples of my own eating and dieting history.

The development of an eating disorder has a lot to do with striving for power and control, and an exaggerated response in seeking the cultural ideal. When I look back now, I can see that the disordered eating and poor body image I experienced spoke to other aspects of my size than weight alone.

I often spoke with students, many of them already long-time dieters, about these issues. For example, I would explain that whenever I thought about losing weight, or attempted to lose weight, I would imagine myself shedding pounds and getting thinner. But-and this is crucial-I imagined myself tall and thin.

The image I had of myself losing weight was of a tall, leggy, thin woman walking along the seashore, my long blonde hair swaying gently in the breeze, my blue eyes as crystal clear as the turquoise sea. I would be, in essence, Sea Time Barbie. Never mind that I am 4 feet 8 ½ inches tall with read hair and brown eyes. These were mere details.

I, like many others, learned to worship both tallness and thinness, and strived to change my body to fit the images paraded before me in the magazines and movies. People often commented on my height, and would stress the importance of being thin because every pound on a short person, they promised, would show. I decided that if I couldn't fit the tall and thin ideal, then second best was to at least be short and thin. Along with my friends, I tried to diet. During high school, my dieting behavior turned increasingly disordered with symptoms of anorexia nervosa, bulimia and compulsive eating. I would diet, binge, yell at myself, and then resolve to diet again, sometimes using diet pills as reinforcements. My diets turned into days of starvation, and my methods of accounting for the eventual binges included taking diuretics (water pills) and engaging in excessive exercise. I weighed myself repeatedly, often stepping on and off while moving the scale to a different part of the bathroom floor that offered a more favorable reading. Regardless of what the scale told me, if I had lost weight, or gained weight, I wasn't satisfied. If I'd gained weight, of course I was furious, and would vow to diet with more vigor, and exercise even more. The result of this resolution was exhaustion, the eventual binge, and the continuation of the cycle. If the scale showed I'd lost weight, I calculated how much more I could lose in the week, (because whatever I weighed, I always wanted to weigh less) which basically put me on the same destructive path.

At some point, I became tired of measuring my self-worth by the scale, and living a chaotic life based on what I would or wouldn't eat, or whether I was starving or bingeing. I wanted to lead a full life, rather than the constricted one I had created. I began reading some books by the pioneers of the non-diet movement. Deeply inspired, and knowing from experience that diets don't work, I just plain quit. I quit counting calories eaten and I quit counting calories burned. I no longer counted grams of fat or carbohydrates. The idea of relearning how to trust my internal cues for hunger and satiation made sense to me. I was ready to nourish myself physically, emotionally and spiritually. During my college years, I let go of dieting and threw away my scale. I learned to trust and listen to what my body needed. It felt like taking off shoes that were so tight, the feet had become numb. Once those shoes were off, I was able to see just how much pain dieting had caused me. I was able to relax in real comfort, as I walked toward a different path, one based on self-knowing, self-trust, and self-affirmation. Each step was gentle.

For the past twenty-five years, I have continued on this path of attuned eating, and have enjoyed the immense rewards that come from a healthy relationship with food, with my body, and with myself. These lessons have been life changing in my personal life, and served as a guide in my clinical work as well. My life is no longer measured in inches of height or pounds of weight. Rather, I choose to live by the immeasurable stirrings of the heart, and with compassion and love for myself, others, and for the world in which I live.