Unlearning diet culture helped me to flourish

Rebelling against a diet culture that oppresses women, girls and non-binary people helped Amy be her full self.

Written by Amy O'Brien


TW // This article references eating disorders. Bodywhys helpline: 01 2107906 or [email protected]

When I was young, my size and how I looked didn’t really matter to me because when I felt proud of myself or happy, it was because of the person I was or something I did.

I went to an all-girls primary and secondary school so I presumed that the schools would be similar to each other. Of course, there would be changes like using lockers, having more than one teacher, eating lunch in a canteen etc. But there was one big change I hadn’t expected. I started to slowly realise that it was considered ‘normal’ to always want to be skinnier.

Bear in mind, I don’t think I ever actually wanted to change my body, but at my school it was normal to diet, for people not to eat lunch, to sneakily throw away dinners, and to criticise their own bodies. Unconsciously, I got swept into that culture.

Toxic validation

Of course, some girls around me had great relationships with their bodies, and whether or not that was the case, many people did not restrict or over-exercise. But by the end of first year and into second year, my routine had become to eat a piece of fruit at most for breakfast, no lunch and as little dinner as I could. That was at my worst.

I felt a consistent hunger but my body got used to it so it was never unbearable. Mam was always watching me, which I’m so grateful for now, but other people used to describe me as having ‘good willpower’ and praised my ‘control’. I knew they were wrong, but at the time it was like validation. I hadn’t had a period, I was much colder than I ever am now, I couldn’t sleep on my hips because they were so sore, and when Mam took me to the doctor to check all these different problems, the doctor looked at me and said, ‘well, she’s eating plenty anyway.’

In reality, I was the thinnest I’d ever been, and that may have felt victorious for some people, but my body was no longer home, it wasn’t even mine. I found buying clothes to fit me quite difficult. Now, pieces of clothes that make me feel confident are an incredible thing, such as knowing the jeans that suit my shape, and tailoring clothes because that dress you will buy in the shop is for a generic body, and we are all unique in some way. Going out for food at restaurants, I would try my best not to eat at home for the whole day.

Lockdown reignited my love for food

Then lockdown came, my routine of not eating and distraction was lost. All my family were working at home so our mealtimes and our breaks were all together. I wanted to eat breakfast, lunch and dinner with them, but for a long time I wasn’t actually hungry, so I sat in their company trying to eat. I had always loved baking and cooking. Now I had time to make food every day and I tried new recipes that made my whole family light up. But where I had more time for food experiences, I also found more time to exercise.

I started running, walking, exercising and just moving my body with all the wrong motives; of being obsessed with it, feeling guilty if I did less for a day and not appreciating what my body could do for me. With time, I was able to run, listen to music, walk for a bit and think, come home, shower, have to look in the mirror and be grateful for my ability to move, but also to rest. Now, most of the time, exercise actually helps me to appreciate what my body does for me.

Finding space for my mental health

At the start of lockdown, I also downloaded Instagram and from the offset, followed mainly food and body positivity accounts which really helped me along with listening to feminist podcasts. Around the same time, Cork County Comhairle na nOg (the youth county council in Cork)  meetings were beginning which was my first real interaction with youth work and our topic that year was mental health.

I didn’t comprehend it at the time but having a space to honestly learn about and talk about mental health every Saturday was huge for me. There were so many amazing people my age as well and I gained new friends,  something that most people were completely deprived of throughout online school.

Positive weight gain

It was a very slow journey of progress. Getting better physically meant weight gain, also my curves and shape developed, my period became regular, the soreness left and the extent to which I felt cold improved dramatically. But also mentally, I’m able to catch my thoughts that are disordered, I have a good relationship with food and exercise and I’m generally confident in my body. It’s now September 2021 and my appetite is only really normal now. Nothing was ever wrong with me or my body, my mind was struggling so any physical progress was a result of my mental journey to improve.

You deserve to love your body

I think especially as girls, women or non-binary people in this world, the messaging about how to look and that your value is attached to your appearance is constant so for me, learning about diet culture, colonial beauty standards, feminism and the root of these issues that are wider and deeper than I, urged me to rebel against them.

When I was thinking about food and exercise most of the time, I couldn’t flourish, but most importantly, I couldn’t be me. Learning to accept my body, love myself and be soft was difficult and long, but an eating disorder is so much worse. Here’s a reminder: you are a complex and unique human who deserves to be your full you.

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