The Weight We Carry: How Diet Culture Influences Disordered Eating

In 2010, news broke that the actress Ginnifer Goodwin—known primarily for playing affable, “best friend”-adjacent characters in movies like Mona Lisa Smile and Win a Date with Tad Hamilton!— had been on Weight Watchers since she was nine. The backlash was swift, with many questioning the decision-making of parents who would subject their children to diet culture so early in life.

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I was sixteen then, reading the exclamation-point-heavy Jezebel comments on my laptop before school, experiencing a strange mix of gratification at their outrage and smugness at my own superior sense of agency. After all, I’d been twelve when I’d started Weight Watchers, and the idea to join had been entirely my own, the monthly dues paid for with babysitting money; I had nobody to blame, and nobody to thank.

To the disordered eater’s mind, weight is not something we carry, it’s something we are.

I kept paying for Weight Watchers on and off throughout the first year of high school, then abandoned it altogether until midway through my senior year of college at a small liberal arts school in the middle of Ohio, when I stepped on a scale for the first time after a junior year spent in Russia subsisting exclusively on pelmeni and marked-up Starbucks holiday lattes and didn’t like what I saw. I’d spent my late teens and early twenties trying out keto, gluten-free, and a host of other “eating plans” by then, but Weight Watchers was a kind of return to childhood, a sad little homecoming.

I still knew the system by heart, knew what various foods corresponded to what point values (five points for half an avocado, four for a glass of wine, bananas are free!); mostly, though, I knew that Weight Watchers had been there for me before, a desperately needed—if leaky—life raft in a churning sea of body anxiety and self-hatred.

For a while, things were okay. I logged my meals dutifully, recording each cup of dining hall fro-yo and late-night stoned handful of tortilla chips until they gradually grew fewer. I started swimming laps in the Olympic-size campus pool I’d previously barely registered the existence of, having written off anything that took place in the school’s capacious gym as “jock shit.”

I remember washing dishes in my campus apartment one afternoon between classes and noting idly that it had been a while since I’d trundled to the market in town for a pint of sorrow-drowning Ben & Jerry’s; I would think about this moment later, recalling the days when I merely noticed what I was or wasn’t eating without the hot rush of ensuing judgment. I lost ten pounds, then twenty, then thirty, then forty; by the time graduation rolled around, I was lighter than I’d been since ninth grade.

Later, when things turned, I longed for so much from my college days; not just the glow that lit me up from within when a classmate complimented my weight loss, but the immediacy with which it began to pay off. After a college career spent solo while my friends coupled up, hookups suddenly became available to me (or maybe they always had been; maybe the problem was my confidence, not my body, but I wasn’t ready to see that yet—I’m not sure I’m even ready now).

I hooked up with two guys in two weeks toward the end of senior year, first a sunny blond frat bro who had a penchant for pairing pink polo shirts with purple knee-length shorts, then a sweet, dark-haired art major who referred to me by my full name—Emma Specter—like I was a girl he’d thought about. The sex was okay, I guessed, but what I really liked was seeing my body through their eyes; the hollows of my stomach, the knobby delicacy of my collarbone. I still felt a sick shame in the pit of my stomach in the morning when they left, but it was less like an overpowering stomach flu, more like a mild bug.

As much weight as I lost that year, I managed to keep some semblance of my sanity. After graduation, a group of friends and I took a trip to Rehoboth Beach, and I managed to put Weight Watchers on pause for the week, cracking crabs and devouring lobster rolls and downing sugary margaritas that always held the faint aftertaste of chlorine. I was so happy that week in my two-piece bathing suit, lying in the sun with my best friends and eating what I wanted when I wanted—or, at least, that’s how I came to remember it. I don’t know if there was a time in my adolescent or adult life that was totally untouched by my eating disorder, but until my mid-twenties, I moved in and out of a state that looked, in retrospect, something like peace—if not with my body, then at least with food.

I wanted someone to worry about me, but not to actually stop me from getting thinner.

I can’t pinpoint exactly when things slipped out of my control, when dieting turned from one part of my life to its sum total. That’s precisely the problem for so many disordered eaters who force ourselves to live by the rules of the diet industry; the goalposts in our heads keep moving without our consent, turning what was once a target weight into a prime example of what we swear we’ll never be again. (Because, of course, to the disordered eater’s mind, weight is not something we carry, it’s something we are.)

At some point after college, I know I put a pause on my Weight Watchers membership; was it that summer, a summer when I lived at home and drank a lot, took pills from the unlabeled bowl in my friends’ minuscule East Village apartment, and went home with guys I wouldn’t recognize in daylight? It makes sense that I would have lapsed in self-regulation at that time, a time when the question of who I was and who I would be loomed so large in my mind that I could barely breathe; I’d found new, inventive, decidedly “adult” ways to hate myself, so food was briefly allowed to recede into the background while I experimented with sex and drugs and—well, not rock ’n’ roll, but a whole lot of whiny indie rock.

I moved to Los Angeles with my college friend Eliza in the fall of the year I graduated from college, and all I have from that time are mental snapshots. Me, biking eight miles a day from West Adams to Fairfax to report for my job as a web-series intern because I didn’t have a car. Me, trying on size twenty-five jeans in a cramped Crossroads dressing room and noting with barely suppressed glee that they were too big, then remembering I still couldn’t afford them.

Me, alternately lonely and exhilarated in a city where I knew almost nobody. Me, skipping lunch and dinner, then sitting alone in a darkened office and bingeing on the stale leftover bagels and boxes of Trader Joe’s candy that the writers hadn’t finished during the workday, resolving to start fresh on Weight Watchers the next morning. Me, running my hands over my newly prominent hip bones in the solitude of my bed at night, conjuring some not-yet-existent boyfriend murmuring “You’re too thin” and flushing with the imagined pleasure of it. In my mind, love was worshipful yet unobtrusive; I wanted someone to worry about me, but not to actually stop me from getting thinner.

Somewhere in the deepest recesses of Facebook there exist photos of me hiking in Death Valley with Eliza, raising my arms triumphantly over my head as we summit a hill, my sports-bra-clad torso pale and concave and—by almost anyone’s account—small. I look happy in the photos, lean and confident; what I remember, though, is the oppressive heat that nearly bent me in two, the thirst that left my mouth agape, and, most of all, the hunger that gnawed at my insides with each step.

I felt faint halfway through the eight-mile hike, but I didn’t want to be dramatic about it (how many physical ailments have women ignored in the name of not being “dramatic”?), so I kept going. After the hike, we went to a steakhouse with a salad bar, and I distinctly remember feeling triumphant that I’d earned myself a generous pour of full-fat dressing. The calculus was so simple then: calories in, calories out. A day of hiking or biking or running plus a few skipped meals equaled the license to sit in the tub shoving semisweet chocolate chips into my mouth by the handful, tasting nothing, feeling nothing.


From More, Please: On Food, Fat, Bingeing, Longing, and the Lust for Enough by Emma Specter. Copyright © 2024 by Emma Specter. Reprinted courtesy of Harper Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

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