Dieting Makes It Impossible to Live in the Present

How I finally denounced the diet culture that was robbing me of today

Photo: MirageC/Getty Images

I’I’ve been on a journey. I don’t remember exactly when it began, and I have this feeling it will never end. Sometimes, it’s a one-step-forward-two-back thing. Or I leave the path completely in search of a phantom. Other times, I can go miles without even looking over my shoulder.

It’s a journey of renouncing diet culture and all the misguided thinking and behavior that comes with it. There’s a lot of stuff in that diet culture package, like self-hatred and magical thinking and disordered eating and fat phobia and internalized misogyny and myths about what it means to be “feminine” and capitalism and class and race and and and and — so much.

For me, one of the most damaging symptoms of the infection of diet thinking is how it’s kept me from being present in my actual life. Going back as far as sixth grade, when I first listed in my Garfield planner the calories of everything I ate (trying to keep the total 800), life has been on a strange sort of delay.

Because when you’re convinced there’s a better version of you that exists in some unknowable tomorrow, today is just an obstacle. The you that exists right now is only a waystation to what you believe is the real or right you.

True, I had other things going on in my life that contributed to this kind of dissociation from the present, but I know my thoughts and behavior were far from unusual. Every girl I knew who wasn’t the size she wanted to be bought goal clothes instead of clothes that fit right now, went around high on over-the-counter diet pills like Dexatrim (it was the ‘80s, and we could essentially buy speed at Walgreen’s), and restricted the type and amount of food she ate until she couldn’t take it anymore and “pigged out.”

For some people, living like this was a phase, but for a lot of us — through school years and beyond — life was basically a permanent fantasy called When I Am Thin.

For some of us, ambitions, dreams, and desires were deferred so often and from so early on that deferring became our default setting. We got good at not living now and daydreaming about living later.

This habit of thinking plays directly into diet culture and mythology. It supports the story that there’s a realer and better you that exists out there, or a thin person in there, waiting to be freed.

When you’re convinced there’s a better version of you that exists in some unknowable tomorrow, today is just an obstacle.

The thing is, as a lot of people whose weight has fluctuated know, meeting a goal is no guarantee that you are suddenly going to know how to live in the present after years or maybe decades of habitually not doing so. Even when I was at my thinnest, I felt convinced there was a better version of me waiting to exist. When my body was bigger, I was equally convinced that there was a better version of me in the past. At neither time — at no time, actually — was I a “now” version of me that could be accepted.

Embracing intuitive eating (IE) is finally helping me change that.

There is a ton of information circulating on intuitive eating right now. It’s not all good. We are so saturated in diet thinking that it’s very easy to turn IE into another diet, and I see that creeping into many conversations about IE. The twist happens when people view IE as a means to an end, and that end is weight loss.

I get that. We’re trained to view bodies as problems to be fixed and perfected. So it makes sense that those of us who have been attempting to solve that “problem” by controlling our food intake since the age of 19, 15, 12, 10, or 8 are going to have trouble with a mind-shift that there could be a way of eating that’s just…eating. Because you’re hungry right now. Because food is good right now. Because you’re with friends ready to enjoy a meal right now. Because it’s your lunch break right now.

The true spirit of IE is very much about “now” being a real thing that exists, that the you of “now” is a real, worthy you. The body you have right now is worth care. The body you have right now can be accepted. The body you have right now has wisdom you can listen to and learn from.

It’s not about sitting there chewing every bite with absolute mindfulness so that you can say you’re doing it “right” and achieve some sort of outcome. The practice of IE shouldn’t be another way to shame or scold yourself. It simply honors that you as you exist right now and are allowed to feed yourself, meet your needs, and accept your body.

The outcome is being here now. Just… living, which is shockingly — or perhaps not shockingly — difficult for many of us.

I’ve been working at IE for something like five years at this point, and only recently have I started to think that I might actually be becoming an intuitive eater. I’ve also realized that in a way, IE is a metaphor for all the problems I have with living in the present.

Life shouldn’t be a fantasy called When I Am Thin or When I Am Rich or When I Am Married or When I Am Successful. If I were still a religious person, I’d say thinking like that is a lie of the devil. Whether it’s diet culture, hustle culture, perfectionism, the worship of romance as the ultimate love, or any other kind of lie, all it does is make us think real life is somewhere else, with someone else, in some other time, when the truth is it’s always now.

I’m a novelist and I also write about writing (and writing-adjacent topics), personal growth, and growing up in an alcoholic family system.

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