diet tribe

Jamie Zipfel
8 min readMar 21


She seemed nice, maybe a little distracted, as I settled onto the paper-covered chair. I felt the first twinge of today’s migraine rumble beneath my right eyelid. The appointment was nothing special, although after awhile they all start to run together. That is, until I started time-travelling from right there in the office. My brain had just enough time to think, “but what about the headachhh — “ before I was sucked back through a wormhole.

The last thing I remember, the doctor is sitting at her desk, hair neatly tied up, an impossible dainty finger pointing at the screen I am leaning over to squint at. She’s skipped over most of the history stuff and gone straight to, “Did you know that a study found that people who stuck to 1,000 calories a day and 90 minutes of intense exercise. . . “ something, something. I begin to form a response, something like “a thousand calories is also what they recommend for toddlers,” or “yeah, but how many of them offed themselves after?”, but it doesn’t come out because all the air leaves my body and the room spins and grows cold as I’m transported back, back, back. Past yesterday when Mom left a tray of brownies on my counter because she “can’t have those in the house”. Past Gwyneth Paltrow making the rounds for eating nothing but bone broth. Past the latest causal use of the phrase, “If I could just lose this belly,” or “Oh, I’m being bad,” while something delicious is devoured with a reverence we usually reserve for the dying or the dead.

When I land, I am somewhere near twelve and starving, staring into a fridge full of ingredients with little numbers meticulously Sharpie’d on. Weight Watchers Points. There’s a color-coded wheel that sits on the counter, and a guidebook to determine if the snack you’re about to consumer is a “good choice” or an “indulgence”. This is only the latest kitchen onslaught. We’ve already been through the lo-carb, lo-fat, and lo-cal eras, as well as Atkins, South Beach, Beach Body, and Total Body. The manual says that a handful of blueberries or eight almonds is a “good choice”: but I’m allergic to almonds and we are all out of blueberries. Abandoning the fridge, I head for the pantry, where all the snacks come in pre-packaged, hundred-calorie varieties.

If you were to look around the house back then, you’d see all the detritus of diet culture gone haywire — the dusty treadmill, the Tae-Bo tapes, the half-eaten boxes of Special K, the Subway Sub Club cards, half-stamped. The half-empty supplement bottles with increasingly difficult-to-pronounce names but easy-to-understand promises. On the end table is the latest issue of Woman’s World, promising recipes that BLAST BELLY FAT or inspiring stories of women who WALKED OFF 105 POUNDS. All of this is a concession — Mom’s house at least have ingredients, even if you have to look past the Sharpie on the boxes to get to them. At Dad’s, I mostly survive on Five! Alive! orange juice-like product and LIFE cereal, the sight of which still makes me nauseous.

The doctor would know none of this, of course — she got the kind of genetic mix that means she can politely eat a salad for lunch and not want to murder anyone by three p.m. I’m guessing she never pulled a coat and tiny boots on over a leotard while a dance teacher told her mother, “she just doesn’t have the body for ballet” — as though any six-year old from Bumfuck Nowhere, practicing pliés next to the NAPA Auto Parts, was destined for the Bolshoi. She probably knows nothing of being safety-pinned into a dancing dress and stuck in the back of the choral ensemble because the moms in charge of costuming couldn’t imagine more than one girl over a size 8, and the soprano needed to be in the front. I’m guessing she never shoplifted Abercrombie & Fitch cologne at 15 — if you couldn’t afford or fit into their clothes, the least you could do is smell like you could. I guarantee that she’s never been called “pretty for a big girl”, and been expected to take that as a compliment. As if being seen with her were some kind of compromise.

I want to hate the stupid doctor. I want to hate her, looking straight at her while she rattles off the benefits of intermittent fasting or lentils or some shit. I’m certain she delivers this speech at least ten times a week. I want to hate her the way I hated every girl who has ever said, “oh, I look so fat” while looking down at herself wearing clothes that came from a place that looked like a nightclub, instead of the vast savannah of the end-of-season racks at JC Penney. The thing is, I can’t hate her — she’s too fucking nice for me to hate her. I’m not even mad at her for talking about diet and exercise. I’m mostly mad because she’s talking and not asking. She took one look at this body and decided without question that it looks the way it does because I’m not doing enough. That there was no way I ate enough vegetables, or drank enough water, or got enough exercise. And that furthermore, if I could just do those things better, that my Magical Mystery Tour of unexplained rashes and blinding, stabbing headaches would magically dissipate into a fine mist and go away.

How many pounds do I have to lose before we can talk about the migraines?

I’m not sure how she came to any of those conclusions. She has no idea how much water I drink, or how many vegetables I consume, or that most of my workday is a sprint between buildings. She didn’t’ ask how often I eat takeout, or how often I am able to squeeze in a workout. She’s just gone right ahead and assumed that I’m already doing none of that, or doing it wrong. Her advice, well-intentioned though it might be, fit about as well any of the gowns that filled up the dressing room before prom. Eventually, I gave up and picked the least-worst and tried to keep my watering eyes to the ground as I marched out of the cubicle.

Had she asked even a single question about my history with diet an exercise, I would’ve told her about my history of disordered eating. About being too scared to join a sorority after hearing horror stories of girls taking Sharpies to the pledges, their admittance contingent on making sufficient, undefined progress. I would’ve told her about the 4x4 — four hours in the gym, four days a week — until I lay down in bed one day before graduation and couldn’t get back up, as though I’d been sideswiped by a piece of lumber. I’d tell her that the “lifestyle changes” she recommended sound remarkably like the starvation practices I kept up for years until I fit in a size 6 suit — given that I wore shapewear and didn’t drink too much water. No carbs, no sugar, no dairy, yeah, yeah, yeah. I’ve heard it all before, usually amongst a group of girls feeling good about themselves until they bring a forkful of salad to their mouths with a splash of morally-righteous vinaigrette before being crestfallen by the stray thought about whether or not chickpeas have too much fat in them. I’d tell her the obscene amounts of nicotine and Redbull that got me through senior year, purchased in lieu of dinner with my campus meal plan.

That’s the thing I’d most want her to know, if I could catch her between breaths as she tells me to switch to brown rice. Studies show that there’s no discernible tong-term benefit to brown rice over white, or to intermittent fasting, or to calorie-restriction. The best I can hope for is a hot-girl summer before my willpower breaks because I’m so goddamn hungry and I gain it all back and then some. I know that because I’ve read the studies. There’s nothing more motivating that thirty years of being told that you are a collection of trouble spots squeezed into an empire waisted-dress. If I could manage to form the words into a sentence, I would tell her that it took me five years to put cream back in my coffee. That it was last year before I ate a cupcake I baked for someone else’s birthday without hearing that little voice in my head saying, “Oh sweetie — are you sure about that?” That despite reading on average fifty books a year, that last month was the first time that a fat girl got to be the main character in a story — and her arc didn’t involve losing weight to get what she wanted.

I would tell her that I still have no idea how to pick clothes because I like them, and not because they hide the parts of me I do not like. That I still have no idea how to look at myself and attach the words “beautiful” or “sexy” — that the absolute best I’ve ever managed is “pretty”, “cute”, or “attractive”, and only with an “if only. . . “ tacked on at the end. I would tell her that I’ve spent the last few years single because I’m trying to break the habit of going out with someone I only half-like and wondering if I should accept less than I deserve because I take up more space than she thinks I should. I would tell her how hard the fight has been, how hard it is, to take up space.

I would tell her that if she wants dieting tips to pass along to her clients, that she should start asking her fat patients. Because I guarantee that we know more than she does — we’ve tried them all. You don’t ask for sobriety advice from someone who’s never struggled to stay sober — why ask for diet advice from people who are already thin?

She brushes her dainty hands against her desk and stands to walk me to the door, clearly satisfied with her handiwork. She wants a follow-up in four months to “check my progress”. I want a goddamn drink, but gin is full of “empty calories”, and I know I won’t enjoy it. Despite years of work, and thousands of hours of effort trying to eradicate this exact behavior from my repertoire, I settle in for dinner: a cappuccino, a big bottle of water, and a Pall Mall. I’ll have a headache in the morning, but what else is new?



Jamie Zipfel

A writer/teacher/designer split between the Midwest and the Middle East.