I was catching up on some posts going back to International No Diet Day on May 6, and I found that I was panicking at the thought of signing the important and excellent INDD Pledge (via NotDieting.com and SizeNet). Now, you might think that this is because I’m on a diet, and the idea of a day without point-counting and pitting foods against each other in a good vs. bad grudge match would freak me out. For the typical dieter (that is, the typical woman) I suppose that would be the problem. But as I thought about it further, I realized that this was not really what was bothering me.

So what is my problem, exactly? The pledge states “I will feed myself when I am hungry.” When I first started Weight Watchers, I didn’t always do that–I spent a lot of time hungry. But nowadays, I pretty much do (over time I’ve increased the number of points I eat). The strictures of the diet these days for me pretty much fall in the areas of stopping eating when I would prefer to have a larger portion, not snacking at night because I’m out of points, choosing an option that is lower in points just because it is lower in points (like having a skim latte when I would rather have a regular mocha or something), making sure I exercise, etc. I know a lot of women who have been dieting their whole lives routinely ignore their hunger and are literally starving themselves, but I wouldn’t put myself in that category. So feeding myself when I am hungry is not the problem (though I have spent much of my life from a young age on a diet, so certainly I have not always fed my hunger). It’s the ongoing struggle not to feed myself when I am not hungry that is the source of a lot of deep-seated shame and guilt for me. That is, I am afraid that I would not be able to keep the part of the pledge that says “I promise to feed myself when I am hungry,” because I would be feeding myself inappropriately all the time, hungry or not.

When I comment about my “failed” experiences with intuitive eating, I think a lot of folks tend to assume that I’m some kind of IE newbie. That if I just “stick with it” long enough, I’ll find that I prefer healthier foods and only eat a half a cookie and oh look, there’s cake in the office and I didn’t notice because I don’t even like that yucky supermarket cake! (If I sound mocking about this, it’s not because I have a problem with people who eat this way; it’s just because I’m bitter that I have never arrived at this point.) I mean, sure, sometimes I don’t eat a piece of cake in the office because it’s yucky supermarket cake. But to be totally honest, I pass up the cake in those instances because I don’t want to expend the points or because I know I’m not supposed to like yucky supermarket cake, not because I actually don’t like it. In point of fact I do like it and would pretty much always rather have a piece than not, regardless of whether I am hungry, unless it has that weird Cool Whip-type frosting on it (as opposed to the oh-so-much-less-weird fake “buttercream” made solely of petroleum products, I suppose). The same goes for Girl Scout Cookies, donuts, fast food, and other various whipping boys of HAES that supposedly, once you start doing IE, you end up discovering are actually gross and you don’t even want them.

But the fact is, I bet I have known about Geneen Roth for at least 17 or 18 years now, and Overcoming Overeating only slightly less than that. I have given various IE philosophies a pretty sincere and lengthy try, and have revisited some of them more than once. (Though I have to say that attempting to “stock up” by buying cookies with my own money and stashing them in my closet in my parents’ house when I was in high school didn’t work so well.) And even though this concept should probably be meaningless (there is no real way to do IE “wrong”), they haven’t worked for me. Having to constantly check in with my hunger à la Geneen Roth, the Weigh Down Diet (OK, that link not only plays sound, but Gwen Shamblin is way more scary on video than I realized, so click at your own risk), or The Seven Secrets of Slim People (warning: diet book, as if you couldn’t tell) makes me crazy. I had “mouth hunger” all the time on OO and gained 75 pounds (part of this was “diet rebound” that I would have regained anyway; part of it was from frequently stuffing myself), yet I felt insane when I tried to ignore mouth hunger and eat from stomach hunger only. I just was not happy when I was attempting to eat intuitively. Part of the problem on OO was something I could probably navigate a bit better now; I have OCD, which I didn’t know at the time, and I was tormented by trying to determine whether I was “really” feeling mouth hunger or not. And the more anxious I got about it, the more the words “you’re hungry” would appear in my brain and I would feel like I “should” eat, but I think now that it was really just an intrusive thought. I tend to have a lot of trouble with stuff like that (the thought will come into my brain that “Wouldn’t it suck if you started thinking [x] all the time?”, and then I do start thinking x all the time), and perhaps now I would be better equipped to see the “false” mouth hunger for what it was.

But I think the crux of the matter is that, to me, being prohibited from eating when I’m not hungry–being told that I can’t simply eat for pleasure, because it tastes good, because I’m stressed, or because it’s there and I like it, which are all reasons I like to eat even when I’m not hungry–feels just as onerous as a diet. So I figure that if I’m going to have to exist in a way that feels uncomfortable for me, I might as well add a few additional restrictions and make it a diet as well, in order to keep my weight down and help me feel more “socially acceptable.” (Note that I don’t think diets actually function this way for everyone–many fat people can eat far less than I eat now and not lose any weight.) That’s the ugly truth of the matter. I know a lot of people get discouraged with IE because they falsely believe that it will help them lose weight, and when it doesn’t, they go back to dieting. But in my case, I didn’t care if I lost weight or not, at least in my more recent attempts; I was just desperate to break the hold food had on me and not have to obsess about it all the time anymore, because it was exhausting me. And I still found the approaches uncomfortable and unworkable for some reason.

I’m not saying I have the answer and the answer is that IE is stupid and doesn’t work and everyone needs to plan out every bite that goes in their mouths. To the contrary, I don’t really think there’s any way for IE to be “wrong,” because how else could we have evolved to eat except in response to our hunger? I’m not happy that what “works for me” right now feels so imperfect and punishing sometimes (mostly on weigh-in day). But for now, it feels like a fucking DIET is much less stressful than my IE attempts ever were, and that is disheartening. I feel broken.

Then there is the possibility that I am overthinking this, and me now is me “doing IE.” It’s not like I dislike the foods I’m eating now; most of the time, I like them very much. I do like vegetables and whole grains and lean proteins. Just now for dinner I had some cottage cheese, dried cherries, fake Meijer brand organic Ritz crackers (they’re called Applause–isn’t that cute?), frozen mixed vegetables, and dry romaine lettuce (stupid anti-reflux diet again) and it was all delicious, even the plain lettuce. I am a good cook and cook healthy, tasty meals on a regular basis. I eat desserts and more “non-diet” meals (like I’ll order a hamburger and fries if I really want one, though I do record the points) on the weekends fairly often, though I’m not sure how much of that is me really wanting those foods every time, and how much is the fact that I’ve gotten used to the idea that I can’t have them during the week but am “allowed” on the weekend. In short, I don’t have a lot of forbidden foods or food hang-ups anymore.

To some extent I even “get” and have experienced the part of IE where you eventually get sick of eating junk all the time and start craving “real” food; however–and this is a big however–at that point, I still want the junk in addition to the real food. If I ate everything I wanted all day long, I would be eating A LOT. And that is where I don’t consider myself a “normal eater.”

To try and give a better example of how this feels to me: If I weren’t dieting, obviously I would rather, say, go into Panera and order a sandwich and a cookie, or whatever I’m in the mood for that day, than whatever my pre-approved lower-points-value lunch is. But in most cases, I would then like to eat that entire sandwich (or half sandwich or whatever it is) and cookie, even though I’ll probably be a little too full at the end of it. What I think most better-adjusted IE’ers would do–that is, order the sandwich, skip the cookie because they know they’ll be too full for it, then eat only the part of the sandwich they need to curb their hunger–really doesn’t seem to be me for some reason. If I’m going to not “get to” eat very many calories, I’d rather those calories be spread over a lot of bites of something I don’t like quite as well, rather than just a few bites of something I love. If that makes any sense. It’s almost more painful only to get a little of something delicious (the sandwich and cookie) than it is to skip the delicious thing altogether and just get a slightly less acceptable alternative that I can eat a lot of or that sort of keeps my mouth busy for a while. So I order my low-point lunch, eat it all, and generally enjoy it quite a bit. And on the weekends, I order a hamburger and fries, eat it all, and feel guilty because nobody else at the table finished their meal.

To be totally honest, it actually scares and disgusts me a little how “healthy” my outlook seems to be these days–unlike many I see who are new to FA and tragically mired in hating themselves and their bodies, I’m no longer starving myself, I no longer think 1,200 calories per day is necessarily an adequate amount of food for a grown woman, I eat a variety of foods and pretty much no “healthy” or “unhealthy” food is off-limits in my mind. I have been on the path of learning to love my body for a long time, and I guess some might go so far as to say that I’m mostly “cured” of diet mentality, disordered eating, and body obsession; certainly I have cast off these pressures to a hundred times greater an extent than many. I feel good about my body now, and at a size 22/24 I still felt pretty good about it and certainly believed that I deserved respect as a human being and was not a lesser person because of my weight. Again, I was not always so “enlightened,” and these are all good things.

But if I have truly come so far in my FA journey, my greatest fear, and the only thing I can conclude at the moment, is that my “unnatural” eating desires really are, then, separate issues from feminism, fat acceptance, backlash to dieting, or any other psychological or social force. Maybe I’m just hiding behind pressures that other fat women face that I am really not facing anymore. Maybe I don’t really have any problems other than my own weakness. Maybe what it comes down to is that I am just a greedy, hedonistic pig who needs to control herself in order to achieve the level of self-discipline that most fat and thin people exercise naturally (maybe they pass up foods they want all the time, and that’s just a par for the course thing that everyone else does but I am too undisciplined to handle). And I am so afraid that I won’t be able to keep controlling myself forever.

With all that, I still dream of a make-believe world where nobody attaches moral value to eating or being fat, so that I could “stuff myself” to my heart’s content–even if it wasn’t from hunger–and not have to feel bad about it. The guilt I feel is so tiresome that I just wish I could put it down for one day, but if I did, I would eat and eat and then I would feel even worse when I was plunked back down in the real world the following morning.

I hope by this time next year I’ll be ready to sign the INDD Pledge. I’m not feeling so great about it at the moment, but as I mentioned, I have made a lot of progress in a lot of areas. So we’ll see.