There are three important things you need to know about me. First, I like tacos, chihuahuas, nail polish, Bob’s Burgers, potty mouthing, and nearly inscrutable books on theoretical topics. Second, you need to know that I’m a fat woman of color. I’m a 250-pound lady who lives in a culture where the “ideal weight” for my height is about 130 pounds and the ideal tone for my skin is “ivory.” I dieted for nearly 20 years (roughly ages 6 to 26) before being introduced to fat activism and undertaking the task of becoming an Unapologetic Fat Babe.
And, third, I’m an ACA: Adult Child of Alcoholics/Dysfunctional Families.
Now that I’m on the twin journeys of recovery from both dieting and a dysfunctional family, I’m able to reflect on how they inform one another. What I’ve realized is that making myself small was the goal of dieting; I believed that if I could just lose weight I could finally deserve love, respect, and the sense that I mattered.
And being small, was the goal of enabling my emotionally volatile family, too; I believed that if I could just stop needing to feel safe or feel heard or feel angry that I could finally deserve love, respect, and the sense that I mattered.
I found out a few years ago from my friend Michelle that I exhibited signs of being an “adult child.” According to the Adult Children of Alcoholics World Service Organization, the term ‘adult child’ is used to describe adults who grew up in alcoholic or dysfunctional homes and who exhibit identifiable traits that reveal past abuse or neglect. The group includes adults raised in homes without the presence of alcohol or drugs.
I was raised in a multigenerational immigrant household characterized by a textbook alcoholic family framework. In a family shaped by alcoholism and/or dysfunction, each member has a role to play, and there are common archetypes that can be seen in these families. My role was to be a shining beacon of success that allowed my family to believe that everything was just fine. My archetype was what’s called “The Hero.”
In ACA parlance, the Hero is “an achiever, usually (but not always) the oldest child. Often a workaholic who can identify other’s needs and meet them, but is without an understanding of their own needs. This is often a child who uses their success to find a sense of belonging — the one who shows the family is ‘all right,’ but who is unable to feel the benefit of his/her achievements.”
The term ‘adult child’ is used to describe adults who grew up in alcoholic or dysfunctional homes and who exhibit identifiable traits that reveal past abuse or neglect.
Even though the head of my household—my grandfather—never drank, his father struggled with a violent addiction to alcohol. My grandfather abused rage the same way his father abused booze, and (I theorize) was addicted to the chemical highs that his rage created.
Both he and my grandmother had unresolved trauma from their own upbringings and their immigration experience, which included addiction, racism, xenophobia, assimilation, classism and fatphobia. My grandmother was “The Enabler”—the one who steps in and protects the addicted person from being called to accountability. They went on to have two children. My mother is bipolar and became a hybrid of “The Hero” and “The Scapegoat”—the one who is a screw-up and allows attention to be deflected away from the real problem.
At age five I was introduced to fatphobia: the belief that fat people are inferior to thin people and deserve to be treated poorly. I was taught that the solution to being the victim of fatphobia was to become a thin person through dieting. Dieting could be defined as pathologically restricting and controlling what you eat in hopes of becoming a smaller person. I’d already started to develop thought patterns and coping mechanisms for navigating my tumultuous home life, and I was able to use them to cope with fatphobia.
At age five I was introduced to fatphobia: the belief that fat people are inferior to thin people and deserve to be treated poorly.
Earlier this year, I began to interrogate how being an ACA had informed my dieting behavior—and the experiences of other ACAs in diet recovery as well. So, recently, I made a short survey for 33 ACAs in recovery from dieting or eating disorders.
I found striking similarities between the way that dysfunctional families and diet culture operate. Here, I’ll share them along with the incredible narratives and insights of those who provided their perspectives.
1. Victim Blaming
One of the first things I learned as a fat person was that I could stop other people’s abusive behavior if I just became thin.
Rather than holding my fat-hating abusers accountable, my bullies encouraged me to blame myself for not being able to conform to their demands. I believed that abuse was a justified response to my alleged inability to stop eating “too much.” This is victim blaming, and it mapped onto the self-blame I developed growing up in a volatile home. Because there was no chance of escape during my childhood, it was easier to blame myself for the abusive behavior all around me and channel my anger and sadness into achieving at school.
I’ve learned through my recovery that a child’s response to abuse is self-blame because it’s simply too overwhelming to imagine that your caregivers are harming you. This acceptance of blame is a survival mechanism for people experiencing abuse—whether it’s cultural abuse (like fatphobia) or familial abuse (like the volatility caused by dysfunction or alcoholism).
“Being an ACoA means I was raised in a chaotic environment, and my family tried to control the chaos by engaging in diet culture. Now, as an adult, it’s hard for me to know what “normal” eating is because my intuitive sense of normal or stable has been perverted by the twin chaoses of addiction and food restriction.” – Temperance
One of the core myths of dieting and diet culture is that your weight—and how you’re treated as a direct result of your weight—is under your control. Diet culture teaches us that by staying small we can control how others perceive and treat us. This mirrors that way that my family taught me that I could help control my grandfather’s emotional outbursts by making myself small—in other words, pretending the outbursts didn’t affect me and that this behavior was normal, thereby negating my true feelings of fear and anger.
“It’s hard to remind myself that I don’t need to control myself in the way diet culture makes us think we have to, and the way I wish my alcoholic parent had limited herself.” –Liz
3. Conditional Love
Diet culture attacks our core human fear of not having access to love.
One of the primary reasons I started dieting was because I was taught that no one would ever love a fat person. Diet culture says that if you make yourself physically small you can make others love you.
This was similar to a rule I’d learned at home: the best way to stay safe was to contort my needs to align with my abusers and stay silent.
“It has been a battle to view myself as a being that is worthy of respect and love. I was used to contorting myself to meet everyone else’s needs or to gain the smallest amount of validation.” –Veronica
The further I got down my path to healing the more I realized that diet culture and my dysfunctional family sought to do the same thing to me: Make me and my world as small as possible. With diet culture I was taught to self-sabotage (not eating enough is a form of self-sabotage) and told that it was the key to my success. With my family I was taught to self-sabotage (not ever articulating my needs is a form of self-sabotage) and told that this was the key to my safety.
“My alcoholic mother was even more controlling about food when she was drunk. I learned early how to restrict my diet so I didn’t have to be confronted by her, and it was the only thing I could control in my life. Those bad habits continued into adulthood.” -Amy
“My mother cycled addictions including alcoholism, bulimia, anorexia, gambling, and rage. My father has Narcissistic Personality Disorder and was totally detached and gaslighting. The combination left me with no self-worth, PTSD, and no boundaries… Dieting was just striving for the impossible: validation and self-worth.” – Tam
Both diet culture and alcoholic/dysfunctional families make us inclined to doubt our experiences of reality. This undermining allows the abusive behavior or oppression to remain normalized, while anyone who speaks out against it seems—and may feel—like a trouble-maker.
Dieting pushed me to doubt my hunger signals. My family pushed me to question whether their abuse was real and whether my trauma is justified.
“There is a lot of guilt and self-pressure to be both perfect and as invisible as possible. I think those feelings made it take me much longer to accept myself as human let alone as a fat human. I am still way too hard on myself, blaming myself regularly for having lupus, and inflammation-caused diabetes from the lupus, while simultaneously wondering if I’m making the whole thing up even while knowing I’m not. There is SO much self-doubt that comes from growing up in an abusive alcoholic-parent environment.” –Jessica
Every dieter knows the “high” of losing a pound and the “low” when you inevitably regain it (weight gain is a sign that our bodies are doing the amazing work of surviving the threat of starvation!). The euphoria I felt when I’d hit a weight goal was unparalleled—and the emotional dip when I didn’t was unbearable. Every bite of food and visit to the scale was like a soap opera. The stakes felt high all the time.
The volatility of this cycling behavior was very familiar to me. It mimicked the vibe of my childhood home where emotions could shift quickly and without notice. I had to learn to navigate things going from happy to angry to sad in an instant.
“…Mom would go through periods of dieting/restriction and periods of binging. Dad hated fat women (all women really) so he would degrade my mother for her weight, be initially supportive of her when she started a diet, then tear her down and enable her binges when she started to feel good about herself (which sadly was just based on her weight loss). Everyone had a role to play in the sick dance of binging and dieting.” – Renee
It’s no mistake that large-scale cultural abuse and small-scale family abuse share commonalities. Alcoholism and dysfunction are often responses to trauma. Dieting is also a response to trauma. We live in a culture that relies heavily on abuse, such as structural racism and rape culture. Allowing myself to see this reality reminds me that I am not alone, and that I can bring my healing tools into service to others.
There is no safety in being the tiniest version of myself.
Diet culture and my wounded family have tried to make me afraid of my own power—of my largeness, both literal and figurative. I am still learning how to take up the space I need to thrive. I still have a lot of questions and insecurities, but I feel pretty damn clear on one thing: There is no safety in being the tiniest version of myself.