In this personal story, a woman expresses how diet culture within her family and an introduction to dieting at an early age negatively affected her relationship with food and her body.

I was in grade 11 and age 16 when my mother put me on a diet. I was an average height and weight. My mom did not accuse me of being overweight, nor did she say anything negative about me or my body. She said it was just to be “healthier.” This was when the Atkins diet was really popular. She gave me a book about the diet that focused on what I could and couldn’t eat, and all the food had numbers attached to it. I was to follow this diet during the week, and then on weekends I could relax with my food choices. This began the binging/restricting cycle I was in for the next 15 years or so.

It got progressively worse as I experienced different life stages. I began to see myself as the food I was eating. If I ate a salad, I was good. If I ate some potato chips, I was bad. I began obsessively weighing myself, congratulating myself if I weighed a “good” number or if I weighed less than before. I shamed myself if I was a “bad” number or I weighed more. Although my mom introduced the diet out of love and had good intentions without saying negative things about me, it was her actions and messaging behind them that I internalized and made me believe otherwise.

Learning from observation

My mom, too, was dieting. It was what I saw in my household and what I believed I had to do. My mom was also a perfectionist and was such a hard worker who never took breaks or had time for self-care. I observed this and became similar. I did everything perfectly, including my food intake, until I couldn’t and would “mess up” my diet, In which case I would hate myself for what I had done. My mom would never show herself grace or self-compassion, so neither would I.

​My thoughts, feelings, and behaviour also changed during this time. I began sneaking food, hiding food, and alternating between intense food restriction and intense binging. I began to be very rigid in my thinking about food, about myself, and about where my life was headed. I saw food as either morally good or morally bad. There was never anything in between. I saw myself and my body as different, like my body worked differently than other people’s bodies. For example, my friends could eat what they wanted to but I couldn’t – because I had rules.

Hiding the truth

I would have to say that my relationships with my loved ones didn’t change in the beginning, or for the first few years. I was so good at hiding and denying anything was wrong and I also was too young to know any better. I truly thought I had control of myself and my life, and to some extent, I did. It was also such a slow and steady decline that I was able to maintain my friendships, my academics, and my employment that I felt like I had tricked my body and my mind into harming it. I also thought my body could handle what I was doing to it. It wasn’t until a few years later, where it felt like my body and my mind just gave out,that the deterioration really did me in.

Looking back, I wish I had received treatment and interventions much, much earlier. I wish my doctor could have recognized the signs and asked more questions and had more knowledge about eating disorders and mental health treatment and services, and how to support me as a patient. I think that would have made a world of difference. I would have gotten my life back so much earlier.

My first counsellor was awesome – she specialized in eating disorders. Then my doctor finally told me, 13 years later, about the Vancouver Coastal Health eating disorders program. This program saved my life. I cannot say enough good things about it. All of the staff are incredibly knowledgeable, supportive, and skilled, and their groups have helped me heal in so many aspects of my life that were previously so damaged. I owe my life to this program!

All of my coping skills I learned from the VCH eating disorders program. The way I talk to myself is so different now. I’m so much more nurturing and self-compassionate. When I was really struggling, I would do those adult colouring books. Also, my dog is the best, so he has been a big part of my recovery.

About the author

The author of this Q&A submission has requested to remain anonymous and is currently a self-identified female in her early thirties living in Vancouver, B.C.