When I started writing my first book in 2014, I was on fire.
I tore through NaNoWriMo. I let my manuscript rest for a month and then I picked it back up and finished the draft. Then I got on my edits and got beta readers, did more edits, and I was ready to query within about a year.
That was 2015. It has been five years and I haven’t yet seriously queried another book.
I’ve written two full manuscripts that I have done substantial edits on, but haven’t gotten them to full querying shape. I have two other drafts I’m still working my way through, but it’s been extremely slow going. I can make a lot of excuses for why I’m been so stuck: I suffered major mental health setbacks after the 2016 election, I got a new, more demanding job, I moved to a new city and got an even more demanding new job, etc, etc. And sure, all of those things contributed to where I’m at with writing.
But the single most detrimental factor to my writing has actually been diet culture.
According to Christy Harrison, diet culture is a system of beliefs that:
Worships thinness and equates it to health and moral virtue, which means you can spend your whole life thinking you’re irreparably broken just because you don’t look like the impossibly thin “ideal.”
Promotes weight loss as a means of attaining higher status, which means you feel compelled to spend a massive amount of time, energy, and money trying to shrink your body, even though the research is very clear that almost no one can sustain intentional weight loss for more than a few years.
Demonizes certain ways of eating while elevating others, which means you’re forced to be hyper-vigilant about your eating, ashamed of making certain food choices, and distracted from your pleasure, your purpose, and your power.
Oppresses people who don’t match up with its supposed picture of “health,” which disproportionately harms women, femmes, trans folks, people in larger bodies, people of color, and people with disabilities, damaging both their mental and physical health.
It’s no coincidence that around the same time I was finishing up my first book, I joined a popular online wellness/fitness community. I can’t say that the experience was all bad; to the contrary, I made some of my closest friends in that group, and I gained a lot of physical strength and confidence from learning how to work out.
Unfortunately, these wellness/fitness teachers didn’t stop at posting fun workouts on YouTube and building a community of like-minded women. Their main money-making mechanism at that point was a nutrition plan, and the most insidious kind, too, in my opinion: they never outright said that the point of the plan was to lose weight. They would heavily hint at it, of course, and all of their fitness challenges began with a routine of measuring and weighing yourself and taking “before” pictures. They also marketed their community with before and after pictures that members submitted, where the clear message was: “Join us. You’ll lose weight and be healthy and hot like us.”
There was a lot of mixed messaging like that, where being lean and being healthy were conflated, becoming basically interchangeable ideas. That’s the worst part about modern diet culture; so much of it is wrapped up in “wellness” and “clean eating” and health messaging, so it’s easy to think that you’re just doing something good for your body. You’re just practicing self-love by always saying no to the burger and only saying yes to grilled chicken breast. It’s tougher to suss out because so many of us grew up in a time when diets, the old Weight Watchers and calorie-counting kind, were considered passe, and yet, they’ve just repackaged it (literally, in the case of WW) as wellness. And we’re buying it, despite knowing somewhere inside that diets don’t work.
[There’s a lot of proof and studies out there that diets don’t work, so I’ll link a few resources at the end of this post and get on with my story. I prefer an Intuitive Eating approach, which, again, I won’t go into too in-depth here, but I’ll leave some of those resources as well.]
So despite my inner conflict, I fell into this community, hard. Between their nutrition plan, which consisted of no calorie counting but a WHOLE lot of rules about what to eat and when along with frequent “slimdown weeks” which were basically starvation diets, and their workout regimen, which commanded that we work out twice every day (once for cardio and once for resistance/strength training), my physical, emotional, and mental energy outside of eating and exercise slowly dwindled, not to mention the actual *time* I had left for the rest of my life, including my full-time job and my writing.
Even when I got wise to what was up, when I first discovered Intuitive Eating and realized that diet culture wasn’t doing me any favors, I spent the next couple of years in a cycle of rejecting diet culture, embracing IE, and then picking diet culture back up in sneaky ways for months at a time. Telling myself that tracking calories wasn’t as bad as cutting out food groups (as is the custom in most “wellness” programs aka diets) because at least I was calling it what it is, which felt healthier in some ways.
But it still took up vast amounts of my time and money, preparing food, weighing food, measuring food, tracking food, and enormous amounts of mental real estate, because now I was not only doing the constant arithmetic of tracking calories, I was also fighting the internal battle of whether or not what I was doing was actually okay or not. Was I still enabling diet culture by doing it this way? Was I actually satisfied by eating light Babybel cheeses and making protein coffee drinks as a way to hit my macro targets? Was I hurting my self-esteem by weighing myself every day? And this is before you take into account the workout programs, the exercise regimens, the sheer amount of time and money spent on trying to find the elusive thing that would work for me (i.e. help me lose weight).
I recently picked up Anti-Diet by Christy Harrison, an Intuitive Eating RD, on a whim. I think something inside me realized that even if I had ostensibly rejected the Intuitive Eating approach and embraced food restriction, I still needed a check-in to see how it was all sitting with me. I had recently taken a short Instagram break and after a few days away had noticed how my overall body satisfaction had gone up seeing as I wasn’t looking at thin, blond influencers all day every day. I wanted to go with that spirit of liberation and see if there was more work to be done.
Within just a few pages of her book I realized just how far I had strayed, and just how much my sneaky dieting was impacting my life. I work a very demanding day job now, both mentally and emotionally as well as being an erratic time commitment, and the idea that I was wasting my precious time outside of work to MEASURE EVERYTHING I PUT IN MY MOUTH suddenly seemed like the absolute most ludicrous thing I could be doing.
No wonder I haven’t queried a book in five years. It’s been a constant battle just to clean the bathroom regularly between my day job and fretting about food and my body.
[Sidenote: I know there are plenty of people out there who have a lot more on their plate than I do and still manage to write: moms, dads, people who work multiple jobs, people who deal with mental illness and trauma, marginalized folks, etc. I am not by any stretch of the imagination saying that I have it particularly bad. I’m just saying that given my particular bandwidth and commitments, I struggled mightily to write when diet culture took up an inordinate amount of space in my life.]
So I’ve been back in the Intuitive Eating mindset for the last few weeks, and suddenly my productivity in all areas of my life, including writing, has increased immensely. I just have so much more SPACE, for creativity, for spending quality time with my spouse, for exercising in fun, interesting ways that don’t result in injuries from overtraining, for making overall choices that support my future rather than cutting myself short because I’m stretched thin and just trying to survive day to day. For engaging in real self-love and self-care.
For some of you, this might not resonate, and that’s fine. You might be doing great with whatever way of eating you’ve got going on, and you may have struck a sustainable balance with your life commitments, and you might be writing up a storm and kicking ass. That is awesome! If you’re killing it, don’t let me bring you down. Do your thing.
But I suspect that at least a few of you might see some reflection of yourself in what I’ve described here, and if so, you might benefit from learning about Intuitive Eating (IE), Health At Every Size (HAES), and breaking up with diet culture. Some of us really internalize negative messages about food and our bodies to the detriment of our physical health, mental health, and the rest of our lives, and we could use the support* of a different approach.
I’m going to leave a list of resources at the end of this blog post for you to check out if you’re interested. I’m not here to debate about this, because I’m not trying to convert anyone against their will, but if you have earnest questions or want to chat, feel free to comment or DM me over on Twitter.
*If you are suffering from an eating disorder (including anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder, or orthorexia), studying Intuitive Eating and Health At Every Size will not suffice. Please seek professional support.
(This is not an exhaustive list of resources but if you’re curious about anything I’ve talked about, this can get you started.)
Intuitive Eating by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch
Anti-Diet by Christy Harrison
Health At Every Size by Linda Bacon
Body of Truth by Harriet Brown
Big Girl: How I Gave Up Dieting and Got A Life by Kelsey Miller (this one is an EXCELLENT audiobook, btw)
And I love everything Kelsey Miller wrote on Refinery 29 about Intuitive Eating and rejecting diet culture. These articles are a great way to dive in and see what it’s all about: https://www.refinery29.com/en-us/the-anti-diet-project