It all started with a health and diet segment on The Today Show, a show I rarely watch, but maybe because I was missing my mother (she watches every morning), I flipped it on. Coming up next, Valeria Bertinelli opens up about getting healthier in 2020. “This should be good,” I sarcastically thought to myself. Word after word of the segment, I felt my blood starting to boil. I thought to myself, who could I talk to who would understand this anger. Not wanting to bother anyone I personally know, I did what anyone with an iPhone and ax to grind would do. I tweeted about it. But I didn’t just tweet to my measly 283 follows. I decided to really get wild and directly tweet to Bertinelli and The Today Show. I’ve never been a fan of “call-out culture,” which makes me ashamed to share but honestly, I didn’t expect anyone to read it. Here’s the tweet:
I find the segment with @Wolfiesmom sad and irresponsible. It misleads viewers into believing that they can find joy by losing weight and how their jeans fit. Awareness and learning your emotional eating triggers is great but not under the guise of losing weight. @TheTodayShow
Even though I didn’t expect many people to read my tweet, there was a small part of me that hoped I’d get some replies or likes in solidarity. Oh, was I wrong. The tweet didn’t go viral by any means, but later in the afternoon, when I clicked back onto Twitter, I had 35 notifications on my icon (35 more than I’m ever used to seeing). Bertinelli had tweeted me back. She said:
“no no no I want to find real joy and happiness in my life and to stop using food as comfort. By helping my inner self I’m hoping the outer will follow.”
Along with Bertinelli’s reply, I also got a slew of comments directed at me, mostly Bertinelli fans from yesteryear who hang onto her every word. I must say, I almost applauded them. They were ready to defend on a T-Swift or Beyoncé level. Some referred to me as a “judgmental a-hole” another said, “you must be blessed with what society deems as a perfect body.”
I know Valerie Bertinelli from her ad campaign with Jenny Craig in 2007. At the time, I was at the impressionable age of eighteen and still remember seeing her walk out in a bikini. The commercials repeatedly showed her before body in the upper left-hand corner. The commercials were everywhere. At this point in my life, I had already done a Lean Cuisine and a Slim Fast diet. Once, I even combined the two, Slim Fasts for breakfast and lunch, then a Lean Cuisine for dinner. I’m surprised I didn’t pick up the phone upon seeing the commercial to sign up immediately. It’s probably because I was in one of my binge stages that is all too common for people who diet.
Now, Bertinelli referred to 2020 as a “new dawn” and informed us that she had been taking care of her mother for the past 2 years before she died. She goes on to say, “I just want to know what pure joy feels like.” She then says that “she uses food as a way to not feel the sadness.” She wants to learn how to cope with her emotions in a way other than food. I feel for Bertinelli and her struggle and also applaud her for investigating her emotional eating triggers. I, too, have been working with an anti-diet nutritionist to do the same. After my therapist noticed a lot of negative self-body talk and mentioning how I really need to diet, she suggested I see an anti-diet dietician. I’ve learned that self-curiosity can be very informational, but I have also learned that a) a lot of times, what we label as emotional eating isn’t that at all and, b) you can have a healthy relationship with food and still “emotional eat.”
She says her past weight was “a symptom of how unhappy I’ve let myself feel and become. I’m not going to let any mistakes I make in 2020 define me as a failure…” I cringed. I’ve learned recently weight and size have no correlation with health or happiness. The unhappiness someone in a larger body may experience relating to their body comes from the stigma and shame from diet-culture against certain body sizes. Personally, it also brings up a time in my life when someone drunkenly told me she figured I must have been “having a hard time this year because I’ve gained a lot of weight.” The truth was I had had a really hard year.
Earlier that year, I had already lost 40 pounds on Weight Watchers but really wanted to take it to the next level. I was curious about “eating clean” and vegan because I had seen the recommendation everywhere, from spiritual healers to influencers to friends. I told myself that eating vegan aligned with my beliefs (which I still think is true), but the truth was I was really looking for another way to control the food I was eating and lose even more weight. It would have been one thing if I had jumped into eating vegan while also eating a healthy and normal amount, but that is not what I did. I had stumbled across a book called The Beauty Detox Solution by Kimberly Snyder. The book gives information not only on why we shouldn’t eat meat or dairy but also the importance of the order you eat your food. I was spending every extra hour, minute, and second of my day either mixing up a smoothie of lettuce, kale, parsley, and every other green plant you could think of or waiting for soup of broth, tofu, and ginger to get to room temperature because Snyder believes microwaving ruins the quality of your food. It was exhausting, extreme, and problematic. These behaviors are what specialists would call “disordered eating.” While I was eating like this, I started having full-on panic attacks. They hit me swiftly and without warning. My heart would race, and I would completely leave my body. I was terrified. There were other factors at play other than just what I was eating, but upon testing, I found I was extremely low on nutrients, and my vitamin D was so low the doctor couldn’t believe I hadn’t had a bone injury. Even though I would have done anything to keep the weight off, with my anxiety through the roof, I just couldn’t maintain my strict dieting. In turn, weight gain followed, and thank God because I was finally giving my body the nutrients it needed.
I have a big problem with the way Bertinelli and The Today Show’s editing team made “mistakes” with diet seem like a failure. This idea perpetuates diet culture’s idea that your self-worth and what you eat co-exist. I struggled and still struggle with this idea. During my years of dieting, I aligned my personal value to the food I was eating. Who hasn’t been with a group of friends when the waiter comes out with a dessert menu, and someone says, let’s be bad, or I’m trying to be good! The truth is food is food. When people start assigning values to the way we eat, it causes problematic eating, eating disorders, and shame.
Then Bertinelli answered the question of “How are you going to work for finding pure joy?” with the response, “by setting a let me feel good in my jeans goal. I want to know what true joy feels like. Let me feel jeans like jeans are supposed to feel, you know, comfortable.” I want to grab her and shake her and all the women in America who think they have to wear too tight of jeans, hoping one day they’ll fit into them. The best way to wear jeans the way they are “supposed to be worn” and more “comfortable” is to go to the store and buy some in your size and just wear them! One of the best gifts I’ve given myself upon turning 30 was getting rid of all the old clothes from my closet that no longer fit me and investing in pieces of clothing that actually do. We are so brainwashed that we believe jeans are not how they are “supposed to be” if they aren’t a certain size.
I know how I must sound, like a fat, bitter, angry person. I may be all of those things, but I want you to know I do have compassion for Bertinelli. I know she has spent her life in the spotlight, and every single thing in the media, the industry she works in, medicine, and culture reflects back to her that managing her weight will make her happy. I have been that person too. It seems all of my adult life, I have spent yo-yo dieting. I have tried the following diets: Slim fast, Weight Watchers (3x), myfitnesspal, juice cleanses, Whole 30, Body Love by Kelly Leveque, and The Beauty Detox Solution by Kimberly Snyder.
I went to my first Weight Watchers meeting with my mom the summer after my freshman year in college. She asked me if I would go with her and told me she would pay for me if I went. Her paying for it was enough incentive for me. I remember getting my booklet and learning how to calculate “points.” I went into the meeting non-committal but left ready to calculate every point of everything that entered my body. As the weeks went on, the weight flew off. I remember how self-satisfied with myself I felt when the older gentlemen in the group commented on how unfair it was that I was young and lost weight easily. I’m pretty sure my mom couldn’t wait for me to head back to school so the meeting would go back to normal. Knowing that made me proud.
It was back at school things took an ugly turn. I spent hours calculating how much weight I would lose and how long it would take me to get to 120 pounds, which I never reached. Thank God. I didn’t want to go out and socialize because I was scared of what I would eat at the parties. I remember one of my best friends telling me, “Your head is too big for your body. It looks like it’s gonna pop off!” At the time, I took that as a compliment. Just like the comments from members of the Weight Watchers meetings, these comments only fueled my dieting. I remember talking to a sorority sister who was also on Weight Watchers and asking her what she did for parties when she was drinking because even alcoholic drinks were assigned points. She told me, “On days you know you are going to drink, you just gotta save up your points,” deadpan, like it was no big deal. The way I, and everyone around, was drinking during college was irresponsible already, but the way the Weight Watchers points worked, it only made matters worse. To not go over my points on the days of big parties in the sorority, I would eat as little or as low in point food as possible and then essentially drink the allotted points I had for the day. Because of this, I had my first blackout, had sexual relations with people I don’t remember, and put myself into countless other unsafe situations.
When I first went to see my anti-diet dietician, I was reluctant and scared. When I first heard of Intuitive Eating, I thought I had a good understanding of the concept. That shouldn’t be hard. Eat when you are hungry stop when you are full. There was also a part of me that thought, well hoped, that the nutritionist would see me as a special case, “Oh, this one really needs to lose weight. She’s not like the others.” I envisioned my fifty-pound weight gain as a horrible medical emergency. Proving further, just how skewed diet culture had control of my thoughts about myself and had skewed my reality. Well, it shouldn’t be a shocker, but my weight gain was no medical marvel. Per the dietician’s recommendation, I was to learn the actual principles of intuitive eating, a philosophy of eating created by Evelyn Tibole and Elyse Resch. Their book “Intuitive Eating: An Anti-Diet Revolutionary Approach” goes in-depth on the ten principles, which are much more than just eating when you’re hungry and stopping when you’re full.
The first principle of the ten is “Reject the Diet Mentality,” and when I look at the principles now, it becomes clear to me that there is no one size fits all for how to work through them. I don’t know if I’ll ever fully remove diet mentality from my life. I have spent thirty years handing every want and need of my body over to diet culture. I had stopped listening and trusting my body. There’s no magical button to turn off that strong influence, but I believe by acknowledging diet culture has influenced my life, I can then start to address it. Other principles like “honor your hunger” and “feel your fullness” emphasize the need to trust yourself and relearn how to listen to your body’s signals. Another reminder that what we need to keep healthy is within and not from an outside source like a strict diet. It’s important to note that there is no mention of nutrition until the last principle in which they refer to it as “gentle nutrition.” They explain that nutrition is important, but if you have lived your life denying yourself your cravings and restricting food, to start to develop a relationship with healthy eating again, throwing on a set of nutrition rules is only going to send you back into diet mentality. It’s important to relearn your body’s signals without any outside influence.
Beyond what I found in Tibole and Resch’s book, I learned in my sessions with my dietician that my relationship with food also aligns with my relationships with people. I have heard that people with eating disorders often have much deeper emotional pains beyond just wanting to be skinny and that their eating disorder was usually just a symptom of an emotional healing that needed to take place. I never thought this applied to me, but I found that in my relationships, I had handed over my own wants and needs and continuously put others before myself. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that around the time my intuitive eating journey started was around the same time I stopped drinking alcohol, ended the relationship with my partner of five years, and embarked on a deep spiritual journey. It was time for me to come home to myself and learn to trust that I have the knowledge to discern what I want and need. Choosing to eat cheese and crackers for a snack may not be a spiritual practice for some, but it is for me.
I’ve had so many of my closest friends live through eating disorders and disordered eating. I feel a sense of shame when I think of all the dinners I’ve been with loved ones and wouldn’t stop talking about the number of calories or points of something I was eating. My process has not been pretty. I get defensive and awkward now when I hear friends start talking about how they can only have one bite of dessert when I know they want more. I have to remind myself to show compassion because I used to be the ring leader, waving my Weight Watchers flag high for everyone to see. There is a large part of me that feels sympathy and understanding towards Bertinelli. There is also another part of me that wants her, her team, and everyone who works at shows like The Today Show to think about the potential consequences of their over simplistic view of happiness, health, food, and body size. How we speak about food and our bodies carries weight and could change a person’s life for the worse or, the better.