Coming out of the dieting closet.

My mother enrolled me in Weight Watchers when I was twelve.

It was something we'd do together, she explained to me over breakfast one morning. I looked doubtful. It would be fun!, she proclaimed, a exaggerated smile of excitement brightening her face. A way for us to spend time out of the house one night a week. Just us girls.

I was overweight when I was a kid. I started putting on weight around the age of ten, when I became sick with asthma and pneumonia. While in the hospital, where I was pumped full of steroids for two weeks, my family brought food more enticing that those served by the nurses - pizza and candy and soda and sometimes even McDonald's. Between hacking and wheezing and breathing treatments, I'd share my M&M's with my brother, who was skinny as a whippet and spent most of his visits scowling jealously in a corner.

I gained weight in the hospital, and in the months afterwards, when exercise was restricted. Athletics didn't interest me, anyway. I was far more inclined to read Anne of Green Gables novels in the cozy nest of my room than throw a softball or run laps around a track. The seclusion was a comfort.

The fact that I was overweight didn't occur to me until my mother pointed it out. She's tsk as I poured my morning cereal, fussing over bits of Cheerios that sploshed over the side of my bowl. There were complicated diets concerning calorie counting and journals tracking everything I ate, diets that I mostly ignored. Until Weight Watchers.

Back in the 1980's, Weight Watchers meetings mostly revolved around the weigh-in. A scale loomed in the center of a room contained in the cave-like recesses of a musty church basement. The aroma of stale coffee permeated the air. Every week, my mother and I climbed onto that scale, often in front of a throng of people awaiting their turn on the gallows. I was the only kid there.

I felt sort of special, because of that.

When I lost weight, the Weight Watchers staff would make an announcement to the room. "Two pounds lost!" they'd squeal. My mother beamed. There was applause, hugs, nods of approval. When I didn't lose weight, a yawning silence prevailed. The lack of response humiliated me.

At home, between meetings, my mother and I would plan our meals. We'd pour over Weight Watchers cookbooks, dissecting the caloric difference between turkey meatballs and spaghetti squash and fat-free sauteed tofu. When I made a sandwich for lunch, I'd weigh single servings of turkey on a food scale as she hovered nearby.

"That's too much," she's declare, peeling off a slice. I'd stare at her glumly.

I lost thirty pounds at Weight Watchers. My mother was exceedingly proud of my accomplishment. She called me slim. To this day, I don't think there's another word I find more chilling. Slim was reserved for the emaciated models who stared vacantly from the pages of Seventeen magazines, deadened looks in their eyes as they gazed off at some point in the distance. Slim was the style of jeans I could buy at The Limited after losing weight. Slim slithers from your lips, serpent-like, a warning of the danger to come.

At Weight Watchers, I learned that I was good at losing weight. Counting calories and fat grams became an occupation. I enjoyed the mathematical simplification of determining what I could and could not eat. Food became either "good" or "bad." There were rules. If I followed those rules I felt powerful, in control, a teenager in size 0 jeans zipping through the day on a haze of flavored seltzer and saltines and fat-free turkey breast. When life became overwhelming I'd retrieve my calorie count book and methodically track what I'd eaten that day. That way, I could cope. I could distract myself from orchestra auditions and less than perfect grades and boys who wouldn't call and my parent's divorce and my brother's underage drinking.

I could cope.

Eventually, I became so good at dieting that it landed me in the hospital - this time, for anorexia. Ironically, it was the same hospital I'd stayed in when I was younger. Some of the nurses recognized me.

"Don't I look slim?" I crowed, to anyone who would listen. My clothes hung off me. My head was too big for my body.

They looked away.

For a long time I believed the only thing I was truly good at was not eating. While my mother attempted diet after diet, eating gallons of cabbage soup and grapefruit and miniscule Jenny Craig frozen entrees, I skipped meals entirely. As she battled against weight gain brought on by menopause and middle age, I got more emaciated. I entered treatment center after treatment center, "recovering" and getting discharged and relapsing again. Nothing made me feel as strong as starvation did. Nothing gave me as much confidence. Without it, I literally did not know who I was. Anorexia made all my decisions for me.

I'm coming up on the fourth anniversary of my last relapse and subsequent inpatient treatment stay. I am more than a little embarrassed and ashamed about the 20+ years I spent being sick. There is nothing glamorous about heart damage from laxative abuse and low kidney function and chronic dehydration. There is nothing admirable about missed holidays and birthdays and lost friendships because of time spent arguing with hospital staff over meals I had to eat. I actively don't dedicate much time to discussing my years spent languishing in treatment centers, gaining and losing weight and getting sick and better and sick again. For one thing, my psychiatric rap sheet is really nobody's business. After so many years of being known as The Girl With Anorexia, I don't want to associate with that identity anymore.

There are other reasons I don't like bringing up my eating disorder that are sort of the last vestiges of anorexic thinking. My worst fear is that someone will tell me that I look too fat to have ever been anorexic. Or "But you don't look like you have an eating disorder..." Which we all know is a load of bull. An eating disorder is a mental illness. It doesn't always come with a heroin chic look.

A lot of my real-life friends don't know about my anorexia history. And some of you, faithful readers of my blog, haven't know either. Truthfully, the creation of Dress With Courage was part of my recovery process. There is nothing more humbling (or terrifying) than posting photos of yourself on the internet for all the world to see. Maintaining a personal style blog keeps me accountable. It's an incredibly effective technique for staying healthy, humble, and out of treatment.

My daughter turns twelve this week. She's smart, and eloquent, and funny, and loves math and science and music and drawing anime and arguing with me about her bed time. She's also overweight, a solid kid blessed with the same sturdy eastern European stock that I am. She's not happy about her body. I know, because she's told me. But I'm resolved to teach her that there are so many more things that she can be good at other than dieting. Dieting is a bad word is our house. It always will be. And I'm determined to keep it that way.

What's your dieting history? Did you grow up with female role models who dieted?


  1. Wow, Elissa. What a beautiful, transparent post. I grew up in a household where weight wasn't discussed; everyone was naturally slender, and when my mother gained a lot of weight on her last few pregnancies she eventually lost it intentionally and has kept it off.

    So why do I also have such struggles with my weight? I have been slowly losing weight after having my daughter; less than five pounds from my pre-pregnancy weight finally, I feel I've been on a journey that will forever change the way I view myself.

    Nothing profound to add her, just a thanks for your great post. Lately your blog has been getting better and better, in my opinion.

  2. Elissa this post left me with tears in my eyes. So powerful and yet so intimate. One of the things I love most about reading your blog is the searing honesty you bring to the table. You seem to demand it of yourself each time you sit down to write. Even when writing a post on your daily outfits or a silly and happy post. You never shy from telling us how it is.

    I grew up watching my mom diet, lose weight, gain it back, and start the cycle over. She never really discussed it with me, and I never thought too much about it. I was a curvy kid-had this butt even in first grade when my ballet teacher called it a ski slope. Got picked on for the shape of my body often starting in fifth grade, but I would internalize it. I was not heavy at all-petite in stature and only grew curves where I was "supposed to." By the time I was in high school though I started to notice I wasn't quite as thin as the popular girls. But dieting wasn't my thing. It took a painful breakup, difficult student teaching experience, and financial strain to spiral myself to the edge of an eating disorder. I dropped 50 pounds without blinking-through restricting myself to one meal, and sometimes not even that. I loved feeling hungry. I loved the way my clothes would hang on me and the fact that I was smaller at 23 than I was at 13.

    Fortunately I made it through the depression and disordered eating without going further down the path into a full-blown disorder. I was able to see what was happening, gain control over myself, and get help. This doesn't mean I don't struggle with body-image or with my anxiety. I just try to deal with it in healthy ways. And remember that there is always light at the other side.

  3. I was ten when my mother called me "chubby," and I remember how completely heartbroken I was. Since about that age, I have had a weird relationship with food. What bothers me is that I have to have a "relationship" with it at all.

  4. I agree with Emily - your writing is improving. I am really enjoying reading your work.

    We were constantly on diets in our house when I was growing up. My mom was always trying the latest "trendy" diet and often took the rest of the family with her since she prepared most of the meals. To this day, she gives me dieting tips. I've been failing at a perpetual quest to lose weight since probably 1999, even though I'm a size 6.

    My fiance and I spoke about our family medical histories and have landed on an eating regimen that encourages health in our household. We have weight loss and fitness goals, of course, but we also have goals to make sure blood tests come back the way they're supposed to. All-around health is our goal, not just weight loss.

  5. Thank you for being so open about this topic. Is there a woman out there for whom weight is not a thorny issue? Who can ignore fashion magazines and the celebrity culture of one day too fat and the next too thin?

    I too am of hardy, European stock, but never really tried to lose weight as a child or teenager, not that I wouldn't have loved to wake up one morning skinny and popular.

    I have been following weight watchers for over two years now and I like the program and it has helped me so much. But at the same time I have worried over the ways that some people there celebrate weight loss and see lost weight as good and gained weight as bad, especially as my goal now is to stay within the same weight. From the very beginning I wanted to approach this in a positive manner so I did not damage my relationship with food and go down a path similar to yours. I hope if I ever veer in that direction it is something I will recognize and be able to heal.

  6. I think you are truly brave and beautiful for sharing this. I read an article in Vogue a few months ago by a woman who put her 8-year-old daughter on a diet. There were photos of mom and daughter together; the daughter was wearing a really expensive designer dress. She was maybe 9 or 10 and had lost a lot of weight. She had felt bad about her body when kids teased her and called her fat, so her mom put her on a diet. The article argued that the mom did the right thing; that making your kid diet to a healthy weight was the same thing as making your kid wear a seatbelt. After I read that article, I could not stop thinking about it.

    When I was 11 my parents divorced, which was a blessing because my dad was a drunk and he abused all of us. All I remember about the divorce is Oreo cookies. The Oreo cookies got me through it. I ate a lot Oreo cookies that winter. After I had gained quite a bit of weight, I told my mom I felt bad about my body because other kids were teasing me and calling me fat. Plus I lived in this society, I read magazines, I watched MTV: I knew fat was bad. My mom told me that I was many wonderful things: smart, talented, funny, sensitive, caring, kind, and brave. That those things were what counted, not my weight. That she wouldn't lie and tell me that people wouldn't ever tease me or call me names or judge me, because people would do those things no matter what I weighed, and it would hurt. But as long as I knew I was a good person, what they said didn't matter. And that she thought I was absolutely beautiful and perfect and would not change a thing about me and would always love me no matter what I weighed.

    Twenty years later, I still struggle with my weight. The Winter of the Oreos coincided with puberty and my body was never the same. I have struggled with disordered eating and diets and weight ups and downs. I look back at what my mom told me and I know that she did the right thing. I'm glad she didn't put me on a diet. I think she let me be a kid for a little bit longer. I think it has something to do with how little girls naturally feel about their bodies - unashamed - and how at a certain age we become aware of others looking at us and it makes us feel ashamed. Our bodies become commodities and we have to treat them as such.

    I don't know what would have happened if my mom had put me on a diet. By the time I was 15, I was putting myself on diets fairly regularly and asking her to buy me special lo-fat food and take me to the gym. She did those things for me when I asked because I asked, but she always told me she thought I was perfect just the way I was. I wonder what would have happened to that little girl in the designer dress if her mom had told her the same thing. I guess for me it just comes down to letting your children remain children until the outside world intervenes. They will learn and experience hard things because life is hard. Maybe it seems better to some parents if they are the medium for that message. I think it's better to just let them feel unashamed and whole and perfect for as long as you possibly can.

  7. Thank you for writing this entry. My mom tsk'ed me about my weight and made it a topic of conversation at the table and in front of family and friends. How humiliating. I learned at a young age that being slimmer was desirable. I used Weight Watchers when I was 20 and followed it to the extreme. I lived on less than 1,000 calories a day. My weight dropped--quickly. Others started to make comments. My parents threatened to put me in the hospital, but never did. I "recovered" from my anorexia by turning to binging. While anorexic, I thought I was eating "healthy", but as a bulimic, I KNEW I was sick and had to get better. I was in university then and read all I could on eating disorders. It was a revelation to me when I realized that eating disorders have two causes: sexual abuse and/or loss of control over one's life. Pick B for my case. My parents controlled my life, even into my adulthood. They told me how to dress, who to befriend, etc. When I regained control over my life, my eating became more normal.
    I am "sturdy" at size 10/12 and have finally realized that I am never going to be the slim woman my parents want me to be. I revel in how strong I am (exercise is so empowering that way)both physically and mentally. My husband reminds me, too, that I am just fine as I am and that I don't need to change to please anyone but myself.

    I believe that having an eating disorder affects us profoundly forever. It reminds me on a daily basis of the personal progress I've made. I'm proud of the person I've become after regaining control of my life. I hope you feel the same pride in yourself.

  8. Great post Elissa, and wonderful to get to know you more.

    My family was always very slender, and we never really had to watch our weight. My siblings and I grew up playing sports, and I've stayed dedicated to exercising throughout my life (just because I enjoy it.) My question is, did your mom forcing you to Weight Watchers and always picking at your diet lead you to anorexia? Sometimes I worry that I might be that mom, because honestly I sometimes criticize or try to change the way my husband eats/exercises because he is overweight. I never want to nag at my children or hurt their feelings about being overweight (if they are one day). What is your advice for a new mom?

    Thanks so much!

  9. Thank you so much for this heartfelt post, Elissa. You are so brave to share this intimate part of yourself. I started reading this blog right after one of your posts about your past struggles with eating, but I honestly have never thought of you as "The Blogger With the Eating Disorder." I promise. You have always been "The Blogger Who Is The Thrift-Master," "The Blogger With The Sunday Smiles," and "The Blogger With The Awesome Red Hair and Killer Style." Who we were in the past doesn't need to dictate who we are today. You have obviously learned so much through all of your struggles, and it's amazing that you cherish your daughter for who and what she is, not merely her body shape.

  10. For years I have struggled with my weight. Mostly, when I was younger I thought I was fat. I was so wrong. I wasn't fat at all. I was in fact rather thin. But, my constant dieting led to me gaining weight that I would then lose and then regain. When I was diagnosed with asthma and also given so many steriods, my weight went up and hasn't come down. I am now really and truly fat. I exercise and try to watch what I eat, but I am what I am. I am trying hard not to beat myself up all the time, but it is a constant struggle. How can it not be? We live in a world that values thin and constantly tells us that fat is BAD.
    I admire your courage in sharing your journey. You are an amazing writer and your words have power to help others. Thank you.

  11. Thank you for sharing your story. It clearly wasn't easy, and I appreciate your willingness to say true and difficult things in service of others. Please keep on being you, and know that you're an inspiration for the rest of us!

  12. Wow. I Almost cried reading this. It is so well-written and honest, and I can also relate. As a teen and into my early 20's I was anorexic and bulimic. I was never hospitalized, but I went through therapy, and still struggle with it as a 30-year old, married, mommy today. It has taken me years to realize that much of my depression and anxiety attacks stem from still having these issues with food and diet. I had pegged myself as recovered because I not longer starve myself or purge, but I still have the though patterns, fears, and occasional obsessions that can be extremely painful. I took a big step this year when the anxiety got to s breaking point and sought therapy again. It is helping so much.

    Though I still sometimes struggle with my body image and thoughts about my weight, I am a much happier person, and more sure in my own skin than ever. I imagine it is a bit like being an alcoholic who hasn't had a drop to drink in ten years, but still feels the swell of emotions and temptations in a bar.

    Anyway, thank you for your story. It is helpful to see others working through some of the same things and knowing I am not alone.

  13. This was like reading bits of my own story. Thank you so much for sharing your struggles. I grew up with my Mom on a perpetual diet. I remember being about five and wondering why Tabb tasted so yucky and the coke that my friends got to drink was like some sort of heavenly elixer. I also know that a fateful girl scout parade where I weighed almost nothing kind of changed the relationship I had with food forever. My Mom announcing in front of the girls and their Moms that "if I gained one more pound" my legs would rub together. I never forgot that and through junior chubs and high school starving, I never really got over it either. Although never hospitalized for the eating disorders I spent quite a bit of money on therapists over the years. Although I have not had bouts as severe as I did back then, I think that builimia demon is always lurking around in a corner somewhere. I think your blog is beautiful, funny and honest just like you and I love it.

  14. I don't remember my mom ever dieting, because she was always thin. But I do know she obsessed about her weight, because she gained 60 pounds when she was pregnant with me. She went from 90 to 150 lbs. There are no photos of her pregnant, or of her holding me after I was born. I was anorexic for awhile in high school, which then turned into bulimia. I was very thin, but I ate in front of other people, so they didn't bug me about it. A few people at school knew I was purging and tried to intervene. I just shut them out.

    The only time I remember my mom ever commenting about my weight was around the time of my senior prom. I had placed a dress on layaway (size 4) and a couple of months later, picked it up - it was a size 2! There were no other dresses left, so I starved myself to fit into it, and my mom was SO proud of me that I had the discipline to do that. The dress didn't fit me a week later.

  15. Wow, it was so brave of you to post this. I was enrolled in weight watchers for the first time at age 10 with my entire family. I've never struggled with anorexia, but I have struggled with emotional eating my whole life. I coped with crappy stuff by eating and never learned how to healthily express my feelings. My grandmother was the woman in my family who was obsessed with being thin. She's been thin all her life, but thought she was chubby as a child. I realize now she ended up pushing her fear of being overweight off on both my mom and I. Luckily I am starting to become much prouder of the woman I've become no matter what anyone says. My relationship with food is improving too. Maybe someday I'll have things more figured out. Thanks so much for sharing though. It's nice to know I'm not the only one who ever struggled with these issues.


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