Cyclical dieting as a form of bulimia; normal eating; & being so sick of it all.

Emily McCombs, blogger at xoJane and owner of a lovely first name, is not only a dang entertaining writer, but also a painfully honest one. Among the issues about which she is painfully honest is body image, specifically as regards her struggles in adulthood with what she terms “subclinical bulimia.”

There is, of course, a life-story behind McComb’s eating disorder issues, and it’s a well-written, even entertaining story, so I encourage you to read the whole thing, but there are two things that I want to get at specifically, things that I think touch on the lives of a lot of women, myself included.

Because a diet worked so well for me once, I have considered my compulsive eating the problem and adhering to a diet the solution. Not until now have I been emotionally able to see that my dieting is actually part of the binge cycle…. Throwing up is not the only bulimic behavior I engage in. My yo-yo dieting is just as much a part of the cycle as sticking my finger down my throat.

She goes on to reference The Rules of Normal Eating,

which identifies the four basic rules that “normal” eaters follow: 1. eating when hungry. 2. choosing satisfying foods. 3. eating with awareness and enjoyment and 4. stopping when satisfied. Is that definition as mind-blowing to you as it is to me? Do people actually live this way? Can I?

I wrote about the effort to determine what “normal eating” is very early on in this blog’s life (pivoting off a quote that began “Who started the lie, anyway, that women shouldn’t have an appetite?”), because it’s a concept with which I genuinely struggle — a struggle which is, in turn, a thing of which I am ashamed.

I’ve never had an eating disorder, nor have I ever had particularly disordered eating (there’s a difference — & according to one study, two-thirds of American women aged 25-45 have disordered eating). I’ve long recognized that life-long diets are a kind of ED, and I’ve neither dieted nor weighed myself for the better part of two decades (more, actually).

But I am not the size America wants me to be, and that dogs me.

I am (and a healthcare professional has actually confirmed this for me!) broad — my bone structure is literally wider than that of the average bear. I’m proportional, but I’m a bit wide.

I’m also big-busted, and as most naturally big-busted women will tell you, all that pillowy goodness tends to come with pillowy goodness elsewhere on the frame as well. I am, my children have told me, a delight to hug. My husband finds me beautiful and (though I feel shy saying it) even sexy. I still get looks, and the men doing the looking are still cute.

But I am not the size America wants me to be.

I am not now, nor will I ever be. I could, with some truly dedicated disordered eating, get smaller, and when my clothes get tight about the waist, I do consciously eat less until they no longer are. But as I don’t actually eat all that much, there’s not a lot of wiggle room. I’ll never be small.

So I attempt to accept this, as I have attempted to accept it since that day I stopped weighing myself in college (one exception: Prior to our nuptials, the husband and I put on a fair amount of happy fat. We both consciously dieted for the wedding). I talk a good game, because I’m a big believer in faking it until you make it, not to mention not adding to the dysfunction that swirls around us. I don’t bond over tales of self-loathing or food-shaming.

But I don’t accept my size. Not really. Not fully. I am aware of eyes on me (real or imagined, I couldn’t tell you) as I eat in public; I struggle to not be aware of them in private. I eat well, I eat what I want, I stop when I’m satisfied — but I have to tell myself, nearly every single time I put food in my mouth, that that’s all good and fine. That it’s ok to eat.

And that’s where my shame lies. I don’t want this albatross around my broad, pillowy neck for the rest of my life. I don’t want even one more synapse to go to those thoughts and those concerns. I have guitar lessons to take! Books to read! Ideas to have! Beautiful dresses to enjoy! Every self-doubting thought I have about food or my body takes time and energy away from all of those other things and I hate it.

I did recently come to a brand new idea, one that I’m able to access on most days: If I have to struggle, this is a worthy struggle to have. If I am to go to my grave having wasted time on food issues, let it be in the effort to support myself. Let it be in the effort to shout the voices down.

It’s not perfect, but it’s a kind of peace, and it’s the best I have for now. I’m holding firm to the hope that in fighting this fight, I’m helping my daughter forge better tools for herself.


  1. I love that you own your body and now you are owning your struggle. I’m right there with you! You are brave.

  2. dmf

     /  July 3, 2012

    this “stopping when satisfied” sounds right but is not so easy to understand let alone do, people eat for so many reasons that one really needs to be mindful of when/why/what one eats to begin to sort out what makes sense in terms of food and what might be better addressed through other means.
    in my clinical work I find that many people struggle just to identify physical hunger in the midst of all their other drives and triggers.
    because food/eating is such a loaded phenomenon it’s often helpful for people to start paying attention to other things, like our busy monkey-minds, first to get the hang of it.

  3. I was just thinking today how much I regret the amount of time and energy I have wasted in my life, thinking about being fat, being thin, how to get thinner, whether I’m losing weight fast enough, whether I’m losing weight too fast … what a pointless bore! What else might I have done with my thoughts, had I not lost all that time running around on that hamster wheel of weight-obsession? And I don’t think I’m even unusually obsessive about it – just a regular woman in our culture.

    And DMF is so right about getting in touch with our monkey-minds first. Years ago I had the amazing luck to train at a feminist karate school, women and children only, anti-racist, brilliant at accommodating different physical and emotional abilities, just a super-cool place. I would be training there still if I lived anywhere close, like within two hundred miles. Anyway, a lot of what we did was work on clearing our minds of imaginary dangers – such as the imaginary dark-skinned stranger who was going to jump us on the street at night – so that we could focus on real dangers, like the relatives and co-workers who actually did abuse and hurt some of us.

    That process of sorting out real from imaginary problems, including via meditation, had some interesting effects in our lives that had nothing to do with martial arts directly. For instance, about a dozen of us often ate dinner together after the two-hour-long weekly advanced class – so picture a crowd of very fit women, tired and sweaty, all ages, sizes. and body types you can imagine, wolfing down chow fun and hot and sour soup. (All kinds, really: we ranged from a recently retired NYCB ballerina to a woman who was twice as wide as the chair she sat in.) Once, at one of these dinners, our sensei mentioned that she needed to weigh her dog and asked if any of us had a scale she could borrow; “I threw mine away after I’d been training for a few years,” she said, “I thought it wasn’t good for me.” And although we would have done just about anything for her that was within our power, none of us could loan her a scale – because we, too, had given ours away. Without anyone ever saying anything to anyone about it. Mindfulness is a powerful thing!

    Anyway, this is a very round-about way of thanking you for your excellent post and wishing you strength in this struggle.

  4. LongHairedWeirdo

     /  July 3, 2012

    And that’s where my shame lies. I don’t want this albatross around my broad, pillowy neck for the rest of my life. I don’t want even one more synapse to go to those thoughts and those concerns. I have guitar lessons to take! Books to read! Ideas to have! Beautiful dresses to enjoy! Every self-doubting thought I have about food or my body takes time and energy away from all of those other things and I hate it.

    This reminds me a bit of a problem I’ve had to learn to deal with. I have strong emotional responses, and I’ve come to understand how most of them work, and learned a kind of calm that typically avoids any visible emotional displays, when I’m with people.

    And sometimes, when I’m beset by emotional storms, I hate, hate, hate how my life is and who I am, and what kind of *loser* needs to engage in psuedo-meditative techniques to keep from screaming imprecations to kitchen appliances?

    Trouble is, that’s really me hating myself for being human… and for being different. And if I was hating someone else for being human, or being different, that’d be pretty damned nasty. So how can it be good to do it to me? If I can’t practice just basic kindness with myself, well, I’m obviously not living kindness, I’m just putting it on as a mask when I think it’s needed, right?

    There’s a trap, there, of course – now I could hate myself for hating myself for how my life is when I’m beset by emotional storms. Wouldn’t that be clever and twisted? So I have to try to let it go… recognize the path I *want* to walk, and try to walk it as best as I can, no shame, no hate, if I find I’ve left it.

    So I try to cultivate that sense when I’m emotionally stormy: yeah, I don’t like it; yeah, it’s unpleasant, and inconvenient. But if I find myself hating me, ashamed of myself over this, then I think I should try to step back, and not feed it, and acknowledge that I don’t like it, but not let myself feel hate, or shame – or, if I do feel them, that I recognize that it doesn’t make sense, that it’s not right. Maybe it’ll fade, but sometimes these things do, so I also might have to accept that it’s something I can’t control if it doesn’t fade.

    Because I am human, and I deserve at least a basic acceptance… maybe even a “wow… that sucks; I’ll try to be gentle when I realize you’re suffering like that.”

    So… anyway. I have something I don’t like about me, something I really can’t help, and that I wish I could get rid of because it takes away energy from things that *I* like. But, for me, that turned into a kind self-reinforcing cycle that actually got in the way of healing it.

  5. Long, long ago, terror of tuberculosis led neurotic parents to stuff their kids full of food, to make absolutely sure they did not suffer the wasting syndrome that was commonly known as “consumption”.

    My 88-year-old father grew up in such a family. He developed a hiatal hernia the size of a grapefruit from force-eating. Up until his 30’s he was fat. Then his weight dropped to normal, with no particular effort at dieting. But he suffered dehydration a few months back and had to be hospitalized, with impacted food stuck in the herniated pouch of the distended stomach my grandparents inflicted upon him as a child, and also a bowel impaction. I sat with him through three days of sheer misery.

    There is nothing quite so uncomfortable as a nasogastric tube.

    So, for anyone who has problems comprehending the difference between eating until satisfied, and overeating, let this be a learning experience.

    “If you feel a sensation of pain in your belly after a meal, you are NOT satisfied. You have force-fed yourself more than you can possibly digest, and are making a hole in your stomach.”

    And the cure for that condition, is to ignore everything you were ever told about comfort food, go someplace where there is no clock to watch, and wait until your stomach is distracting you from your thoughts, with sensations of hunger. Usually this will happen after going without food for 14 hours or so. THEN, eat a small meal. As soon as the hunger sensation vanishes, put the rest of the food away. Do not eat until hungry again.

    Surprisingly, your weight will stabilize. And you won’t obsess about your weight or your eating.

  6. dmf

     /  July 4, 2012

    for the 4th and freedom from bondage:

    ON journeys through the States we start,
    (Ay, through the world–urged by these songs,
    Sailing henceforth to every land–to every sea;)
    We, willing learners of all, teachers of all, and lovers of all.

    We have watch’d the seasons dispensing themselves, and passing on,
    We have said, Why should not a man or woman do as much as the
    seasons, and effuse as much?

    We dwell a while in every city and town;
    We pass through Kanada, the north-east, the vast valley of the
    Mississippi, and the Southern States;
    We confer on equal terms with each of The States,
    We make trial of ourselves, and invite men and women to hear; 10
    We say to ourselves, Remember, fear not, be candid, promulge the body
    and the Soul;
    Dwell a while and pass on–Be copious, temperate, chaste, magnetic,
    And what you effuse may then return as the seasons return,
    And may be just as much as the seasons.

  7. HelpRecovery

     /  July 5, 2012

    Thank you for sharing your story! One of the best ways to beat bulimia is to share our victory stories. I follow a bulimia blog</a that has great bulimia recovery</a stories. Link here