Weight change is an inevitable aspect of recovery. Our undernourished bodies — that survived on a diet of alcohol, drugs, and infrequent snacks — seek to heal and adjust to eating food more regularly.
Those changes can be uncomfortable, though, and can lead to us seeking quick fixes. This is problematic for women in recovery who commonly learn through the process of recovery that they have had a dysfunctional relationship with food and their bodies. These factors make women in recovery a prime target for diet culture.
What is diet culture?
Diet culture permeates our society so much so that we have become conditioned to its key tenets being cultural norms. We:
- Pathologize fat bodies
- Conflate size and health
- Encourage following external rules about what, when, and how much to eat
- Equate our worth and moral value with our body size
- Create thin privilege, making the world more accommodating of people in smaller bodies
- Suggest that movement is a punishment for being fat, to be used only to prevent weight gain rather than for enjoyment
The message that we are not thin enough is reinforced everywhere we look. Marketers use photoshop to make models in smaller-sized bodies look flawless, thus creating the illusion that we are inherently flawed for not being small and flawless. So we spend our lives putting ourselves through punishing regimes seeking to fulfill that illusion, believing fat is some kind of affliction.
This is problematic for women in recovery because we view these changes to our body as something to be rejected, and we seek quick fixes that don’t allow our bodies or our relationship with food to heal effectively. And, for some of us, dieting can trigger eating disorders.
We spoke to three women in recovery about their relationships with their bodies, how diet culture has impacted their lives and their recovery, and how they overcame this detrimental messaging.
What a disordered relationship with food looks like for women in recovery.
“I actually had disordered eating way before I started using alcohol and drugs. By the time I was 13 years old, I had full-blown bulimia nervosa,” says Mariel Hufnagel about her relationship with food.
However, when Mariel found recovery, she experienced a re-emergence of her eating disorder. “In early recovery, I was experiencing a lot of difficult and negative emotions: Fear, shame, guilt, remorse, helplessness and hopelessness, not to mention a heightened level of awareness about myself,” she says. “Not using alcohol or drugs to escape or ‘numb out’ left my eating disorder as the only tool I had. What I found, however, is that my eating disorder — although it provided some temporary relief and a false sense of control — ultimately only exacerbated the feelings I was originally trying to escape.”
Mariel was able to get a handle on her eating disorder by using the principles of her mutual-aid meetings but she needed additional support and saw a therapist for five years. This was vital to her sustained recovery. She adds, “I also needed to comprehend the symbiotic relationship between my physical health and my mental health. And in order to be physically and mentally healthy, I needed to learn new healthy habits with food and exercise and redefine my relationship with both based on this new precept.”
“Not using alcohol or drugs to escape or ‘numb out’ left my eating disorder as the only tool I had. What I found, however, is that my eating disorder — although it provided some temporary relief and a false sense of control — ultimately only exacerbated the feelings I was originally trying to escape.”
She goes on: “Today my recovery includes clean eating, regular physical exercise, radical acceptance of my imperfections, and an understanding that my worth and value are not and have never been related to the number on the scale or the size of my clothes. Perhaps most importantly, it is grounded in accountability through peers, friends, and family who love me and support me unconditionally.”
For Renae Sager, her eating disorder also preceded her addiction. “My eating disorder came before my alcohol use disorder. It started as anorexia, then shifted to binge eating, and was followed by bulimia,” she says. Renae tried everything to find recovery from her eating disorder; “Treatment, 12-step groups, getting boyfriends, being single, getting roommates, living alone, buying all the food, not buying all the food, not letting myself eat after a certain time, different diets. You name it, I tried it!”
Robin Cruz explains that she had to quit drinking alcohol to support her recovery from an eating disorder. She explains, “I had tried to get recovery from an eating disorder for seven years. Having tried all that was available to me treatment-wise, I still chronically relapsed into eating disorder behavior. I noticed that every time I drank alcohol, I’d have little to no defense that night or the following day in acting out eating disorder behavior. So finally, I tried giving up my use of alcohol, and that enabled a stronger eating disorder recovery.”
How diet culture impacts women.
Diet culture isn’t just about following brutal and extreme rules for eating and then using exercise to eat what we want. There are wider systemic impacts on our well-being and self-esteem.
Mariel explains, “Our society — via the mainstream media — presents an unrealistic unattainable depiction of ‘beauty’ and places an incredibly high (and in my opinion inappropriate) value on such ‘beauty,’” she says. “This can implant in our psyche that the way we look is not ‘good enough.’ This can be difficult to navigate for anyone, but especially someone who already struggles with their confidence, esteem, worth, and value.”
This kind of value system makes it challenging for women to exist both alone and among other women. “I have found that it is very easy to compare myself and come to the conclusion that I’m not pretty enough or skinny enough, and that conclusion can then lead to an unhealthy obsession and the subsequent unhealthy behaviors which follow to try to change these things,” says Mariel.
“Diet culture screws with your mind. It made me believe that I should easily be able to control my food — a very small amount of food. I also believed I needed to look a certain way to be okay. At first I always just wanted to be smaller. Never thin enough. Then, stronger with all the muscles. Basically, I was never enough, no matter how my body looked.”
For Renae, diet culture led her to believe that she should control her food and change her body. “Diet culture screws with your mind. It made me believe that I should easily be able to control my food — a very small amount of food. I also believed I needed to look a certain way to be okay. At first I always just wanted to be smaller. Never thin enough. Then, stronger with all the muscles. Basically, I was never enough, no matter how my body looked,” she says.
Robin explains that before recovery, diet culture negatively impacted her relationship with food. “I’d spend my day sifting through fashion magazines for the latest fad diets or reading about diets before each binge, ensuring that I would have something that would enable me to lose weight immediately after,” she says. “I thought there was something I hadn’t figured out yet. That if I just tried harder — will myself more — then I could be a specific size (the ideal size) and, therefore, more lovable and more seen.”
She continues, “Diet culture promotes ignoring one’s own body cues, distrusting our bodies, and therefore encourages an unhealthy relationship. It also suggests that there is one body size to being healthy and that our body size is a gauge of our worth. These messages are terribly harmful and limited.”
How to overcome diet culture.
In order to overcome diet culture, we first need to have an awareness of how it looks and how it has impacted our lives. And awareness doesn’t necessary lead to the logical step of taking action. Just like with substance use disorder recovery, it can take years to heal our relationship with food and our bodies, and it can take equally long to spot and reject signs of diet culture. But it is possible.
For Mariel, the answer is investing in herself and personal program of recovery incorporating substance use, mental health, and eating disorder recovery. “For me, it really equates to investing holistically in my well-being, and then I’m less influenced and impacted by diet culture.”
She reminds us, “Recovery is not linear: Not from a substance use disorder, not from a mental health disorder, not from an eating disorder. However, the longer I stay in sustained recovery, my health — physical, mental, and spiritual — continues to improve. As such, overall my relationship with food and my body has changed tremendously, and most of the time I feel good about not only what I look like, but about who I am,” she says.
“Recovery is not linear: Not from a substance use disorder, not from a mental health disorder, not from an eating disorder. However, the longer I stay in sustained recovery, my health — physical, mental, and spiritual — continues to improve.”
“But it’s not perfect, and probably never will be. I still struggle, sometimes more than others — I can be unbelievably cruel to myself and become overwhelmingly obsessive — and at those times I need to examine what in my daily life I am doing (or not doing) that is causing this.”
Renae says that acceptance and awareness are key. “I see diet culture pop up everywhere. It’s sometimes sneaky and sometimes blatantly obvious, and it is so infuriating to me!” In fact, that passion is one of the reasons she helps coach women today. “I think a lot of the ‘help’ out there is actually hurting people and their relationship with food. Then the people feel like they are broken,” she says.
Robin no longer looks at diets but listens to her body instead. But it is a process. “After so many years in eating disorder recovery, I can still sometimes look in the mirror and think I should be a certain size or have less cellulite, especially as I age,” she says. “It’s usually when I’m dealing with emotions. I remind myself that diets don’t work — they never have. In fact, they put us on a fast track to further body dissatisfaction and perpetuate the broken body image culture that says that what we look like must be one size fits all. That our body size is the measure of our success and lovability; that weight bias is alive and well. I don’t want to be a part of that for myself, for my daughters, and those I advocate for.”