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A carnival of empty promises

“Would you like to get on the carousel?” 

The magician’s face was hidden behind his hat and I wasn’t quite able to see the expression on his face, but his voice sounded kind enough. Sensing my hesitation, he stretched his hand out invitingly. I glanced up at the blinding colors, the smiling faces painted on the roof of the canopy, the laughing people who were currently on the ride. My fear and apprehension suddenly seemed foolish. Of course I wanted to get on the carousel. Who wouldn’t? 

I eagerly boarded the back of the wooden horse. The carousel started, and round and round I went – it was just as wonderful as I had expected. 

Then it was going too fast. I panicked. I asked whether I could get off. But everyone just thought that I was laughing. I screamed louder, but my voice was soon drowned out by the whirring machinery of the carousel that was only getting faster. 

When I could stand it no more, I jumped off my horse and landed heavily on my chest on the cold hard ground. 

I sat up and turned back to face the carousel. The lights on the canopy above were still bright, shining on the horses below – but now all I could see was peeling paint and the chipped wooden hooves. 

The power of a mind can be a dangerous thing. 

On the day of my fateful body checkup (where I would discover that what I had thought was “just fatigue” was actually a side effect of a dangerously low heart rate resulting from malnutrition), I still believed that I was perfectly “healthy”. My blind belief in the empty promises of diet culture labelled extreme deprivation as determination and dedication. It convinced a starving body that hunger pangs were signs of success. It tricked a dying body into thinking that it was thriving. 

An eating disorder is faceless. 

The thin woman on the billboard – with her hair blowing in the wind behind her, her white teeth gleaming, every limb poised just so – is such a mesmerizing, hypnotizing image. It is so easy to believe that her life is perfect. It is too easy to forget that this image represents less than a second of this woman’s life. Too easy to ignore the hours of editing that likely followed that split second. 

When I look at the photos of myself during my illness, I wonder if anyone can tell that I was struggling at all. I am smiling in all of them. I am doing something “interesting” or “fun” in all of them. I remember that someone even asked me how I got so “fit”, the day before I went for my body checkup. The short answer is, no one but myself and a few close family members and friends knew. 

For all we know, the model with the flowing hair and the gleaming teeth could have collapsed the moment after the photo was taken. 

—-

It came to me disguised as “health” and “success.” 

I was a couch potato growing up. I hated exercising, and often pretended to be sick just to skip my weekly swimming lessons. So when I took interest in yoga during my high school years, my mom was thrilled. For once in my life, she didn’t have to force me to get my weekly dose of exercise. 

My mounting interest in yoga led me to purchase my very first health and fitness magazine. I was suddenly exposed to a world of vocabulary and imagery that I had never known before: diet plans, calories, what a “fit” body was supposed to look like – the novelty of it all stimulated my senses. Entering into my teenage years where I felt insecure and alien in my body and mind, I was entranced and hypnotized by the confident smiles and flashy promises that plastered every page of these magazines. I wanted to be admired by others, to stand tall, to know exactly what I wanted – all of which was promised to me by the mysterious creators of these diet and exercise plans. 

I never got what I was promised. And each time, I would blame it on myself. I must have messed up on one part of the regime, or my body must not have responded “properly.” I would desperately find another plan, which promised more of the same, but in different words. Scientifically proven methods. Different from the rest. First of its kind. Guaranteed results. The dieting industry spun these words and concepts around over and over, like cotton candy. I got lost in the mess of the pink, swirling, flossy magic. I didn’t realize that I was caught in an endless cycle of the same empty promises. 

Sometimes I did “succeed.” My weight began to drop, and I was able to exercise for longer periods of time without stopping. Happiness would hit me for a split second, then morph into fear that it couldn’t last. The magician’s wand grazed the top of my head for a moment, and then darted away before I could even hold onto a wisp of the glitter. You can’t hate yourself into accepting your body. It never dawned on me that the feeling of security and confidence I sought did not lie at a body size. It never hit me that nearing my “goal weight” didn’t do anything to change the fact that I was fundamentally the same, insecure teenager – just now in an increasingly weak and emaciated body. 

Living in a culture that normalizes dieting and the pursuit of thinness, it was painfully easy to shroud my disordered behaviors and attitudes. Deep down, I knew that I was far from happy, but at the same time, I didn’t realize that there was an alternative. It seemed that every other female I knew was on a diet, or was somehow dissatisfied with their body. Hating one’s body almost seemed like part of growing into a woman, part of the coming-of age-process. In a way, dieting made me feel like I was a “real” woman. In my teenage years when I constantly felt invisible, under-acknowledged and lost, dieting was the most explicit and controllable way to make myself visible and “real”.  

Why this path? Anyone who has been on a diet can attest to feeling an eclectic mixture of physical and emotional discomfort (“hanger”, a combination of anger and hunger, comes to mind), the obsessive food-related thoughts that only become more frequent as the duration of deprivation lengthens, and the obligation to make “sacrifices” in order to stick to one’s diet rules. What it all boils down to is a need for social approval. We all want and need love. And we want it now. This is precisely what the diet industry capitalizes on – our desperate need for acceptance, and our impatience to get there. 

We come back to the panacea of weight loss because it is sold to us as the fastest, most straightforward way to obtain our goal of social approval. We are enamoured by the promises of diet culture because this fast track to love and approval means that we don’t have to think about what it is that really means something to us. By believing that happiness lies at a body weight, we don’t have to think about the hard questions: what do I want to do with my life? What are the values that I hold dear? How am I going to honor those values? 

As you drag your crying, starving body to the finish line, after all the glitz and glamor of the nice comments and likes from your Facebook friends has worn off, what then? What happens when you finally reach the end of the rainbow, and the pot of gold is simply not there? You are left with yourself again. You are left with the same questions and insecurities. Changing your weight has shrunk you, as well as all that you care about. All the moments that you missed because you needed to stick to your diet. All the emotions that you didn’t let yourself feel, because you concentrated all your energy into maintaining a rigid sense of control. 

And for the life of you, you can’t even remember what the magician looked like. 


Recovery reflections  

Although my physical downfall mainly fell between the years of 2010-2012, my mental and emotional recovery continues to this day. The above piece describes a main reason why it is so difficult to detach from the ideals of diet culture despite knowing how harmful they are: these ideals too often wear the guises of health, happiness and success, and body dissatisfaction is too often portrayed as a normative sensation. 

            As I speak to above, my eating disorder began as what I believed was a harmless “health kick”, which only later morphed into a monster. The main question that guided me in recovery was “What did I do it all for?” It was only during my recovery journey that I questioned the messages of diet culture – why did I feel that it was so important to adhere to these standards? Who was telling me these messages? Why did I feel so accountable to them? 

Recovering meant uncovering the true nature of this harmful culture of dieting. I soon realized that I had no idea who these rules that I felt so accountable to, were made by. Why had I given up precious time with family and friends, just to eat “safe foods”? Why had I ignored the cries of my body in order to reach a size that a force I couldn’t even name had set out for me? It was these questions that motivated me to refocus my values and intentions in life – to pursue a life where I based my sense of worth and fulfillment on time spent with others and the ability to honor my body’s needs. Things that held real substance, that gave me back as much or even more than I invested in them, rather than throw at me one empty promise after another. 

I realized that happiness could not be quantified by absolute numbers, and that emotions, both good and bad, were not meant to be numbed out by an obsession with control. Recovery, to me, means living fully – being unafraid to feel, experience and to take up space. It means not being afraid to challenge societal norms, and to never let a faceless power take my life away again.