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I’m Not on a Bloody Diet

Ah family. You’ve seen those lovely ads for cholesterol-reducing drugs that say something to the effect of “two things that can give you high cholesterol: a steak, and your Aunt Edna.” Well, two weeks ago (yes, note that that’s one week before Thanksgiving) my proverbial Aunt Edna, in the form of my venerable crossed-the-ocean-before-the-revolution Foster family genes, reared their ugly little lipids. Despite a lifestyle that ought be no cause for concern, my cholesterol is “one point away from severe,” my doctor said, and suggested drugs. I told him to give me six months and see what I could do without them.

Though I’ve got a head full of it all, I’m not going to bore you with the debates on the safety of Lipitor, the efficacy of red yeast rice, the most digestible forms of flaxseed, or how well applesauce replaces butter in baking. If you need to know, I’m sure you’ll figure it out, and both your body and your brain might have different ideas about it all than I would.

Nor is it my intention to wax poetic about the effect of being given what feels like a middle-age, meat-and-potatoes-eater diagnosis at my tender and fresh-vegetable-loving age. It sucks, but at least I know how to make healthy food taste good. I’ll be fine.

But here’s the thing that got me in the gut as I plunged headfirst into trying to be “heart healthy” (i.e. lowfat): The realization that everyone’s going to think I’m trying to lose weight. Now I shouldn’t care what other people think, but as I wandered my way through new experiences of saying no to a second cookie, leaving the butter off my bread, and skipping the cheese in my lentil soup, I found myself readying the same defensive reaction I used to have when I was vegetarian and the only vegetarian entrée on a diner menu was under “light fare.” This isn’t what you think! I’m not on a frigging diet! I’ve got a good reason for this! (Or, as a fellow member of the food co-op where I ate in college used to say, “I’m a vegetarian, not a rabbit!!”)

Not that being on a diet is necessarily bad. But I fought long and hard for my good body image. I did my time in middle and high school comforting tearful frantic friends who believed they were fat, holding their hands while they bought jeans and bathing suits, and celebrating the first time they were able to make such purchases without a breakdown. In college, my first-year resident advisor took time off after fall semester to fight an eating disorder. I cheered my roommate on as she took another friend to dump her scale in the lake. This stuff is real, and has every bit as much negative effect as the glass ceiling. (Leaving aside the psychological effects— which I once heard compared to the same expectations as the era of the corset, but imposed without external help—binge dieting causes heart failure nearly as quickly as being slightly overweight, just for starters.)

I did my own biggest battle with body-image when a few months on steroids after a serious asthma attack suddenly bloated me up. I remember clearly a turning point when I was standing behind a very skinny woman in a dance class (where many of my own weight insecurities had often surfaced in high school) and thought to myself “I wouldn’t fit in that body.”

I feel like I emerged from those battles, which practically no woman (and increasingly no one at all) in Western society can avoid in some form or another, in pretty good shape. I’m generally happy with myself, neither rigidly judgmental nor rigidly politically correct about other people’s body sizes. I think I ended up with a decent relationship with food as well. My philosophy was of the “fresh-veggie-and-tofu stir-fry for dinner because it tastes good and if there’s something appealing available for dessert have as doesn’t make me feel gross” variety. Up with the good stuff and don’t sweat the bad stuff. It would have been perfectly sustainable if it weren’t for heredity.

But along the way it became a pretty central part of my identity that I was not a dieter, not a label-reader, not a skim-milk and PAM cooking-spray person. I ridiculed lowfat baked goods (they just replace the fat with sugar, which is addictive and then you eat more anyway) and people who managed to feel guilty every time they ate dessert. I shook my head at people who would destroy the integrity of a pie crust by trying to make it without butter, or willingly imbibe cancer- causing artificial sweeteners to avoid a few calories. I cringed when people said “You’ve lost weight” as a compliment.

And now here I am, basically, whether I like to say it or not, on a (sane, moderate) lowfat, lower-calorie diet. And sticking to it in the presence of anyone else (and I do a lot of social eating) honestly feels akin to coming out. It’s got a similar awkwardness in how much to explain, and when. (Hey, I’m skipping the smoked cheddar because I’ve got a health problem that has challenged my feminist sensibilities! Want some more gravy?) Slightly more dramatic, even, since I never had anything particularly invested in being straight.

I imagine that as with coming out, I’ll get used to explaining or not explaining this as well. I just have one request: If I do end up losing weight as a side effect of trying to not die of a heart attack, don’t congratulate me. And don’t offer me a doughnut either.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

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