*CONTENT WARNING: DISORDERED EATING
I remember my very first diet. I was in high school and didn’t weigh enough to give blood, but I thought my teenage body with new curves could stand to lose a few pounds. Although my weight was absolutely normal and healthy, my body didn’t look like I thought it was “supposed” to in a swimsuit, at least not compared to the models in the advertisements.
A few of my friends and I set up the diet rules—for the life of me I can’t remember what they were—and I remember not losing a single pound. In fact, I never weighed that little again, because I was still a growing teenager.
I grew up in a body positive environment. My mother didn’t pick herself apart and she constantly reminded my sister and I that we were beautiful and our bodies were a wonderful and perfect gift from God. Even still, every Victoria’s Secret “Angel,” every fitness magazine, and every friend with a seemingly perfect body who picked themselves apart, made me second guess what my mom said.
"Too big" as a size two.
At the same time I was also involved in gymnastics. Flipping was my favorite thing on the planet, and I’d do it all day every day if I could. I don’t have to tell you what the body standards are in gymnastics. I remember a well-respected gymnastics coach telling me that I probably wouldn’t make it as a tumbler for a college cheerleading team, because well, they really wanted smaller bodies. I was a size two.
It’s a wonder my self-esteem wasn’t shot by this point, but it wasn’t. For the most part, I was an independent thinker with a good bit of self-confidence. But that would all change.
How winning a fitness competition ruined my self-confidence.
After high school I aged out of gymnastics, leaving a huge gap in my life—I just wanted to tumble. That’s when I found out about fitness competitions. Fitness competitors trained for a two-minute fitness routine that included tumbling. Sign me up!
There was another component to fitness competitions though—swimsuit. And two rounds of it, one piece and two piece. The only reason I was doing the fitness competition—the fitness routine—counted for just 1/3 of the score. Whatever. I got to tumble! I was in.
I was on my way to a fun and healthy lifestyle, or so I thought.
Fitness competition? More like diet competition.
I quickly learned that fitness competitions and their later extensions—figure competitions and bikini competitions (they stopped pretending and got straight to the point with that one), were actually diet competitions. It’s a contest that rewards who can diet the best.
That might sound harmless, because dieting makes you healthier, right? These women must be the healthiest women on the planet if they’re winning fitness, figure and bikini competitions!
I wish that were true.
By this point in my story you know it’s not. The women I met while competing were some of the nicest, kindest, most genuine women I’ve ever met. I have many friends today that I met while competing. Some of them were healthy I suppose. But I’m having a hard time naming one person who wasn’t obsessed with dieting and extremely critical of their body. Sadly, many suffered from eating disorders like orthorexia, anorexia and binge eating disorder, as well as body dysmorphic disorder, amenorrhea, early menopause, and other serious health problems. And while these women did photoshoots in tropical locations and graced magazine covers, they had the lowest self-esteem of any group of women I’d ever met.
The 20 pound battle.
I competed a few times, placing in a few bikini competitions and winning a few fitness competitions. I weighed 20 pounds less than I do right now and in my mind, 20 pounds less made me super hot. I placed in a bikini competition for crying out loud! Everyone told me how great I looked, so clearly 20 pounds less was what it took to be my best version of me. This was my weight standard, what I needed to maintain, and what I thought everyone expected me to be.
Here’s the thing though—20 pounds less was impossible for me to maintain. I’m only 5’2”… 20 pounds on my small frame is a lot. If I wasn’t competing, there was no chance I was at that “ideal” weight. Every day that I wasn’t at that ideal weight was a day that I thought I needed to lose weight. Being that I only competed once or twice a year, this was pretty much every day.
This lasted for about eight years. I remember sitting with a friend and fitness model after a fitness industry event and telling her how I just realized that I’d woken up everyday for the past eight years thinking, “I just need to lose two pounds this week.” She admitted that that’s all she thinks about too. We joked that we needed “diet rehab” along with the rest of our peers. I told her that this thought pattern was absolutely ridiculous, and I vowed to myself to stop wishing I was two pounds lighter and be happy with my body. It wasn’t easy. In all, it probably took two years. But worth it? You bet.
Here’s what happened next:
- I became a better wife because I wasn’t so critical of my body.
- I wore shorts, something I didn’t think I was “fit enough” for the previous few summers.
- I wore a bikini. I’d declined pool party and boat party invites, or didn’t see the pool at all for a few summers because I wasn’t “in shape.” #delusional
- I started documenting memories through photos, without caring if I was skinny enough or pretty enough.
- I freed up space in my head to go to graduate school, move to Nashville, make a career change, and start a business.
- I lived my life, and I loved myself.
I went on to be a nutrition professor and a registered dietitian. I now spend my time teaching women how to live healthier, happier lives with food. And guess what? This doesn’t involve dieting because I believe and the research evidence is clear—diets do not make you healthier. Diets make you crazy (okay, that’s not the language scientists use, but I’m paraphrasing).
It’s possible to live your healthiest life without diets.
I hope you will follow Amanda and I with an open mind as we launch Hot & Healthy Habits and share with you the research evidence that has confirmed what we’ve experienced as “professional dieters” and what we’ve witnessed in the thousands of women we’ve worked with over the years. We won’t just explain why diets don’t work. We will show you how to live your healthiest life without them.
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Ander Wilson, MS, RDN
Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and, the brunette half of the Hot & Healthy Habits team. With an M.S. degree in Sustainable Food Systems and a B.S. degree in Human Nutrition and Dietetics, Ander knows what she's talking about when it comes to all things nutrition. In her spare time, Ander teaches university nutrition courses, obsesses over all things Hello Kitty, and actively recruits everyone she meets to move to Nashville.
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