The Dieters’ Clusterfuck

It’s 11:52 a.m. You hear your tummy growling and, with satisfaction, remember that you brought your lunch today. Tuna salad sandwich with muenster cheese, sea-salt-and-cracked-pepper kettle-cooked potato chips, a couple homemade chocolate chip cookies, and Honest Tea. You decide to shoot off a few more emails before heading down to the shared office kitchen to retrieve your carefully-packed lunchbag, currently chilling in the refrigerator.

But, like sitting next to a cougher on the subway, your small bubble of contentment is suddenly violently and irreparably popped. All it took was a colleague loudly proclaiming to his open-office-concept compatriots that he “brought [his] low-fat lunch today because [he’s] trying to lose weight!” The implication is, of course, that he believes being fat and either enjoying one’s food or not dieting is poor behavior he’s attempting to best by taking the dieter’s moral high-road. And he’s going to let you—well, everyone—know about it.

Then another employee chimes in. “Yeah, after Holiday X my pants are totally tight and I was like, time to switch to yogurt for lunch for a while! It’s great, I’m not hungry at all.”

Yet another member of the chorus: “Nah, you just need to start running. It’s more sustainable, and just look at my calves!”

And the (nonfat, sugar-free) icing on the cake: “I’ve got a couple free passes to my gym, a group of us should work out together. It’s better in a group anyway so we can keep each other honest!” (and what is worse—that you know they aren’t mentally including you in the group that could potentially get together to work out at the gym, or that it’s being used as a tool of employee bonding in the first place?)

Everyone starts pulling out their lunches. And commenting on them. And praising each other for only finishing half, or for being ‘better’ than their own selves by having a nonfat fiber-stocked twig salad or heavily processed frankendairy sugarfree nonfat yogurt substitute. You, prisoner of the open-office-space concept have nowhere to go, though your pointed absence would have been conspicuous, anyway. Of course the fatty isn’t joining in! Does she even know what a calorie is? Silly fatties. You pick at your tuna sandwich and barely touch your chips. Every crackle of the chip bag is a loud reminder that you’re not a part of their world, that you either don’t agree or are not privy to the Mystic Vision of Food Restriction and/or Sacred Treadmill of Redemption.

But that’s not the whole reason your appetite has fled. Frankly, you’re pissed off. You’re mad as hell, and you don’t want to take it anymore. And, dammit, you’re hungry and want to eat your fucking sandwich and chips in peace!

Welcome to the Dieters’ Clusterfuck.

It’s not just work, it’s parties, family reunions, holidays, anywhere there’s food. Like a timid mouse in the face of the jackal the Dieter glares fearfully at the food table, occasionally darting in to take a single plum tomato or grape or (gasp, “I’m being so bad!”) cube of cheese. Those who share the anxiety of the Dieter—other Dieters—quickly discover each other and coalesce near enough to the food table to feed their starvation ideation and far enough away not to be ‘tempted’ to actually take anything.

If you are the non-Dieting thin your presence in the group, whether you’re eating something full-fat or not, is likely to be received with a level of awe and disbelief. You are Neo, The One. How Do You Eat That and Stay So Thin? they ask, voices trembling in appreciation and envy.

If you are the non-Dieting fat your presence in the group, whether you’re eating something full-fat or not, is likely to be received with a sharp cessation of diet talk (since you don’t belong or they think it might offend you, a silly fatty), or an assumption of inclusion—“oh, I was afraid I was going to be ‘bad’ today and brought my baby carrots with me!” they exclaim as you savor a bite of homemade carrot cake. You see, baby carrots, carrot cake, it’s all the same thing, right? Healthy Alternatives! Why can’t you be as smart as Baby Carrots Lady, who knows that baby carrots and carrot cake are in fact the same thing?!

After becoming thoroughly bored with the Clusterfuck (which takes about 0.68 seconds in my experience) you wander elsewhere. Once you’ve left there’s general agreement among the Dieters—usually unspoken—that you didn’t belong, anyway, and isn’t great they can now get back to their circle-jerk and painstakingly show off to each other how much of the diet culture they’ve absorbed? Their cake and cookies, as it were, is the approval and admiration from their fellow dieters as they detail their regime, or empathy as they verbally flog themselves for not being ‘good’ enough by way of an extra snack or missed workout.

This, as I’m sure you know, can go on for hours. Hours. Despite having been a part of the culture in my memoried past I cannot currently fathom how in the deep dark Hades they don’t fall dead asleep after fifteen minutes. Perhaps it’s a way of keeping busy so that they are distracted from their foggied intellect and gnawing hunger, I’m not sure.

And then, by Jove, there’s the Internet. Whole forums dedicated to continuing the Clusterfuck and cultivating the circle-jerk. Not only hours but days, weeks, years are spent basically talking about the same thing over, and over, and over, and over again. “Holiday X came and my jeans are tight, eek!” “Weight Loss X Plan Pill Bar has worked for me!” “In a perfect world beauty’s on the inside but we live in practical reality, am I right? So how many cals in one Arby’s french fry, again?”And still, they keep coming back for more flogging, for more sympathy, for more emotional cookies. If you are extremely lucky you can escape—as many here have!—but most people unfortunately never, ever escape.

Because the Dieters’ Clusterfuck is, by its very nature, unending and infinitely repetitive. Because if you “keep the weight off” you remain as an Enforcer, a Top Dog, an After Picture. This elite status makes you stay on your Lifestyle Plan Change New Lease on Superior Existence and gives you the moral rectitude to keep Active Members and Dietn00bs in line.

If you are in the process of losing weight you are an Active Member of the Dieters’ Clusterfuck. You are likely between your Before Picture and After Picture, a self-righteous Pilgrim on a journey to Enlightenment. You’ve probably lost and regained weight many times before but This Time It’s Going To Work. Most in the Dieters’ Clusterfuck are Active Members. In truth, though they are widely touted, there are really only a rare few After Pictures. They are often diet forum moderators, family members which get trotted out in food-related conversations whether or not they happen to be present, or celebrities endorsing the Diet That’s Going To Work This Time.

Lastly there are the Dietn00bs, those only just opening their eyes in childlike wonder to the vast promises of the Clusterfuck, How It Will Change Your Life and It’s Just Calories In, Calories Out and Anyone With Half a Brain Can Do it! Dietn00bs also include people who don’t currently diet but believe in the verity of the dieting culture. They can include health reporters, anti-obesity researchers, and a plethora of other ‘concerneds.’

The reason I decided to write this somewhat satirical take on diet culture is that I want to reinforce how lucky we are to be out of it. It’s a sticky thing, the diet culture. It pulls you back in with its snake-oil promises of a better life—even vocal fat activists have fallen prey to it, abandoning fat acceptance out of fear of Eating the World or hope that This Time it Will Work. Even some so-called body image promoters and internal beauty enthusiasts adhere to or otherwise believe in the dieting culture. Even people who are otherwise liberally minded believe in or adhere to the dieting or anti-fat culture.

You—the activists reading this post—are brave. I appreciate you. I know what you’re doing is hard. I know it’s sometimes thankless. I know what you’re up against. And I know it sometimes can be hard to stick to your guns in the face of so much distraction and disgust. I applaud you for plowing ahead, regardless. I celebrate your joy in throwing off the chains of the diet culture and I support you as you weather the backlash from those still immersed in it.

And here’s to seeing the diet culture for what it really is—a giant, self-righteous Clusterfuck.

17 comments on “The Dieters’ Clusterfuck

  1. Thanks, as usual, for writing this.:)

    “Inner beauty” proponents really chap my ass, let me tell you. I remember reading an “Dear Abby”-type entry once in an American Girl magazine about a girl who was insecure about being tall. Guess what advice they gave her?

    Don’t worry. The boys will eventually catch up with you and soon, you will be a normal girl.

    Not “Those kids have no business bullying you.” Not “You should be proud to be tall.” Just “you may be a freak now, but not for long!” Way to miss the point!

    So it is with fat. Girls with low self-esteem, even if it has nothing to do with their body. are told that diet and exercise will improve their self-image. They will be more attractive than they are now. And even if that’s not your issue, when you think about what your issue is, just think, “At least I’m thinner!”

    No one seems to be willing to say that you are worthy of respect as you are and that anyone who doesn’t like it needs to shut the hell up. The VICTIMS need to change. Nonsense!

    Back to the point, between my mother, sister, all my co-workers, and cable TV, there is literally no escape for me from diet and fitness talk. My mother and sister glare at me every time I go for seconds and they are always dropping hints about what sports I might like. I really, really hate it when classmates make comments about my lunch. “Why are you eating that? That’s so unhealthy!” “Ew! Processed food is so gross!”

    Number one, no, it’s not unhealthy. You’ve just been conditioned to see it that way.

    Number two, did I ask you for your opinion about my lunch? No, I don’t think I did.

    Diet mentality is not just destructive to the body or the mind, it’s destructive to manners.:)

    And self-absorbed. If I hear one more person say how much they admire so and so for being thin (I actually heard a fat person say this about Jillian Michaels) I will probably go apeshit. Since when do we look at peoeple as heroes for focusing so obsessively on themselves? What’s really sad is that someone who DOES devote themselves to the expansion of human knowledge, serving others, etc. and who is fat/unfit/insert deviant status here will be looked down upon.

    “She does so much good work, but she has really let herself go as a result. It’s a shame.”

    Shame? Really? Shame that they devoted so much of their lives to a worthy cause, and *not* to vanity/vain pursuit of something out of your control (health?)

    I just don’t get it.

    • bigliberty says:

      And even if that’s not your issue, when you think about what your issue is, just think, “At least I’m thinner!”

      This is such a great point, in fact it really deserves its own post (feel free to write it, I’m so busy with the novel these days that I don’t post nearly as much as I should).

      How many times in my non-fat-accepting days did I think, “Oh, so what if my romantic life is going to pieces and I can’t figure out what the hell I want to do with my life, at least I’m thinner than (insert whatever here)!”

      Or how many times did I interact with thinner people who had internalized this concept (happened most non-subtly in high school)—that hey, so what if they were bad at math or had nothing interesting to say or had no particular talents or interests and were jerks to boot—being thinner got them all the guys/friends/admiration they wanted!

      (just to note, it’s a hell of a way to keep women down, ultimately — convince them that their worth lies primarily in the non-substantial and they are suddenly much easier control, will not threaten the men in the world of power and ideas, etc)

  2. rubyfruit says:

    Hello there! Just swinging by to say that this is an awesome post. And that “Dieters’ Clusterfuck” is my new favorite use of the word “clusterfuck”.

    • bigliberty says:

      Cheers, glad to have you! And since “clusterfuck” is such a funny word in and of itself I feel honored that my phrase is now one of your favorite usages of the term 😉

  3. Rachel says:

    Awesome post! THANK YOU!

    This post is going right into my Eternal Save File, along with Kate Harding’s “Fantasy of Being Thin” post and countless other greats written by the denizens of the FA ‘spheres.

  4. Miriam Heddy says:

    I think what’s worst about this is that, if you’re a woman, this can actually hurt you in terms of fitting into the working world. There’s strong evidence that Fat Talk acts as a social bonding agent and those who don’t engage in it actually make others uncomfortable. And should you ever dare call attention to it, you’re called out as the freak (I speak from experience on that). You’re like Galileo.

    • bigliberty says:

      Yes, absolutely. I’m rather lucky to work in an industry that’s mostly men, in this sense. I mean, “lucky” being a smooshy term in that they exclude me anyway, so excluding me from their diet talk doesn’t seem unnatural to them.

  5. Fabulous post Big Liberty. This is one that burns my bread too. I can’t escape it. Work, friends, family… it’s the real epidemic out there. It’s exhausting bucking against it, but I know I have to for my own health and sanity.

    Will share this post about the place liberally!

    • bigliberty says:

      Awesome, cheers! Always fun to write posts like this. If I had a few more hours in my typical day I’d love to host a fat-positive satirical site a la THIN Institute. I’d love to get a few bloggers together who’d want to write something like that — satirize medical/news reporting on fatties — it would be hilarious!

  6. deeleigh says:

    In that situation, I’ve got to say that I’d be tempted to eat my chips while making loud comments like “Wow! These chips are really delicious.” and “I’m sure glad I’m not on a diet.” But, I’m basically a 12 year old in a 40 year old body.

    …and the thing you can do with diet-talkers that will weird them out a little but won’t necessarily result in social exclusion is switching over the HAES talk. You can still discuss your workout or your newest salad recipe, but at the same time deflect the body negativity and puritanism. It leaves them sort of stunned.

    • bigliberty says:

      Ha! I usually just get irritated and stick my headphones in, turn the music up, and let them fat talk all they want while I blithely chomp.

      • jeanc38 says:

        There is usually someone here who is constantly on a diet, most of the time my lunch hour and the rest of the library’s don’t coincide, but when they do, I love my walkman 😀

  7. mabuse7 says:

    Hi, long time reader; first time commenter, just thought I’d share this since I thought it was pretty funny and while it doesn’t directly address this issue it is certainly related:

  8. bigliberty says:

    Thanks for all the great comments, guys! I love writing these satirical posts, they’re a great way to poke fun at what kind be such a serious business for many of us.

  9. […] I love my work, but I find the food police annoying. Fortunately, they tend to congregate in one location that is easy for me to avoid. I was going to write a post describing the atmosphere in that room, but then came across this post at Big Liberty which does it so much better. […]

  10. This is a great post. It’s always astonishing to me the extent to which people are willing to talk about dieting and offer “tips” to others (like, infinitely), and how crazy people’s rhetoric is in comparison to what they actually do. How stressful and crappy must it be to believe that in order to be a good person, you have to never eat any sugar or carbs or let a non-whole, natural food pass your lips, but then end up giving in to the temptation of the office cake anyway, and then while you’re eating it, spend the whole time talking about how you shouldn’t be so you don’t even enjoy it anyway? I’m really glad my life isn’t like that.

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