Weight Watchers and the Last Christmas Kolacky

In 2008, I joined Weight Watchers for the last time. Really this time, the last time. Whenever I re-joined Weight Watchers, I vowed that it would be the last time. In high school. In college. In graduate school. And now, 2008, was really, really the last time. Except that, like all the other times, I wasn’t quite sure if I believed it. I’d failed to reach my goal weight so many times before despite the hope embedded in each new blank weigh-in booklet. I would get soar from the rush of a clean slate, whipping into a frenzy of promises and vows and public accountability only to inevitably unravel and have to invite disappointed, sympathetic reactions when I admit that it hadn’t quite worked out. I didn’t want to have to make that confession again, so I didn’t tell anyone that I joined Weight Watchers for the last time in 2008.

By early December, my holiday defenses were solid. I was banking Points and earning Points through exercise and avoiding holiday parties. If I couldn’t avoid a holiday party like an office potluck, I’d drink water and chicken broth before arriving so I wouldn’t eat as much. I’d already prepared myself for the upcoming family visit for Christmas–the most sacred of family holidays.

I am 4th generation Chicago-Suburban. That is, the roots of my family’s immigration from Poland, England, and Ireland were planted on Chicago’s south side and have spread to its south suburban enclaves. My family’s Christmas traditions are, like most family’s, an indiosyncratic jumble of cultural touchpoints (Garrett’s popcorn) and inside jokes (Unc’s Christmas mobile). My family is known among our social circles for Christmas cookies–impossibly tiny, in a dozen varieties, made by the hundreds, and shared generously. I don’t have much of a sweet tooth, so I don’t get too riled up about cookies with one exception: kolacky. I am bound by a deep, sentimental attachment to a simple butter cookie with dab of Solo fruit filling in the middle. Our circular kolackys defy tradition because my Polish-Chicagoan grandmother found the folded shaping method too fussy, and switched to a round cutout using a small cordial glass. Each year, I look forward to these jewel-toned delights each Christmas, and 2008 was no exception.

kolacky cookies
These look almost exactly like my family’s kolacky. (Photo Credit: The Spruce.)

Except that, in 2008, I felt that I couldn’t be trusted around kolackys (pronounced in my grandmother’s house as coal-LAHCH-keys). These were one of my “trigger foods,” a treat that I would take every chance to enjoy, and therefore an enemy. I had Weight Watchers tunnel vision. Every choice I made about what I ate was based on how it would affect my weight loss goals. Nothing else mattered. Nothing. Prior to going home for Christmas, I told my Weight Watchers group that my goal for the Holiday Slimdown Challenge was to eat only 5 kolackys–one each day of my visit–and I would walk for 30 minutes each day to burn off their calories. The group clapped politely, and our Leader reminded us that our excuse to eat foods that are bad for us around the holidays–it’s only once a year–is the same reason we can give ourselves to NOT eat them–it’s only once a year! You can say “no” one time!

I stuck to my plan. Every day, I walked for 45 minutes around the forest preserve trail (a little extra just in case) near my grandmother’s house, and stayed out of the room that housed the cookie tins. By Christmas Eve, I felt miserable. I must have said, “No, thank you, I’m not hungry” to my grandmother a thousand times since I arrived. I was angry and frustrated and jealous–why did I have to be the kind of person who agonizes over food? Why wasn’t I allowed to have ONE DAY where I didn’t worry about calories or what I was eating or constantly beat myself up for not having any willpower? In between these mental tantrums, kept telling myself that this is a minor sacrifice. When I finally get to my goal weight,  I thought, I’ll see that it was all worth it. Just stick to the plan.

After dinner on Christmas Eve, I ate 5 kolackys out of obligation to the promise I made to myself. I took no joy in this, feeling only the mild rage and illogical irritation that anyone with disordered eating patterns knows too well. I cursed the holidays for being unpredictable and disrupting my routine and keeping me off-track from my weight loss goals. My grandmother asked if I wanted another kolacky. I declined. “Are you sure? I know they’re your favorite. And I only make them once a year.” I know, I said, with an invisible nod to my Weight Watchers leader. See? That’s the trick. Once a year.

What I didn’t know then was that 2008 was the last year my grandmother would make kolackys for me. She died in May of the following year, five weeks before my wedding.

I was not a thin bride.

If I had known it would be our last Christmas together, would I have eaten more kolackys? I can’t say for sure. Probably, yes. But I’ll never really know. Here’s one thing that I do know with absolute certainty I would have done differently: I would have said, “Thank you.”

The other thing I understand now that I didn’t know then: eating is an act of self-care, and that care is compounded when we prepare, serve, and share food with others. Diet culture strips eating of this connection to our families and cultural communities, suggesting that food choice is a simple, individual, transactional energy exchange. This is an act of violence. It repeats: your desire for pleasure is wrong, your desire for love and connection is wrong, your needs are wrong. Under diet culture, you are considered a success when you can no longer recognize the difference between self-care and self-flagellation.

But what if, in 2008, I believed that I was already good? That my needs and wants and desires were good? That my body is a good body? If I believed that, I would have thanked my grandmother for her love and time and attention not just for my beloved kolackys, but also for the sauerkraut she made for others that neither of us ate. For the way the warmth from the kitchen on Christmas Eve fogged up the bay window in the living room. For the thousands of ways I learned from her how to love and to be loved.

I am fortunate that my aunt has taken up the mantle of The Christmas Cookies. There will be kolackys in 2017, as there has been every year that I have been alive. I don’t actively restrict how many I have, nor do I gorge myself on them in an act of symbolic consumption just in case this is truly the last Christmas kolacky. This is how I resist diet culture: I live my life with gratitude and care and connection, secure in the knowledge that I am already worthy of it all.

 

What Is Diet Culture?

If you’ve been following me for a while, you know that I am 100% anti-diet culture. But do you know what that means? Here are 3 main characteristics of diet culture, and what you can do about it. But first, a definition:

Diet culture is a system of knowledge, values, and meanings that supports interpretations of personal health choices as moral character.

Got it? Let’s break it down.

 

1. Diet culture isn’t just about weight loss.

This is probably the most confusing aspect of diet culture. Diet, of course, refers to what you eat. Overwhelmingly, “diet” is understood by most people as dieting for weight loss. And that’s certainly a major component of what diet culture does, which is convince people that their bodies need to be smaller. But diet culture is concerned with all the choices people make about the food they eat because food=morality. Think about the messages you’ve been told about certain diets and the foods that comprise them. More often than not, you understand some foods as good and some as bad. Cheetos=bad, carrots=good. Vegan diets=good, choosing not to eat vegetables=bad. Sugar=bad, raw honey=good. But wait–honey is “bad” for vegans, so… ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Diet culture assigns “goodness” to certain lifestyles and choices, and that’s morality. We prize restriction and anything considered “self-control” as indicative of strong character. Are people who choose not to eat mushrooms due to taste (me!) better people than those who don’t eat strawberries due to allergies? Nope! We all make different choices about our diets for a variety of reasons.

What to do about it: Be mindful of how you assign morality to choices you make about your diet. And read everything Michelle from The Fat Nutritionist has ever written.

 

2. Diet culture does not support the value of all bodies.

Diet culture doesn’t just show itself through moralizing food choices. It also has a deep concern for assigning hierarchical value to bodies. Again, this comes through most clearly in compulsory weight loss, but the phrase “you are what you eat” also makes this pretty clear. Healthy people look healthy, right?

The place where this part of diet culture is clearest for me is in advertisements for fitness products. There are lots of good reasons to exercise that you can’t see on the body–see this list from Thought Catalog for examples–and I can attest to these benefits having more impact on my day to day life than any physical change. Even physical changes that can come from exercise–improved function for joints, heart, lungs, and muscles–can’t be seen. And yet, nearly every fitness product promises that we’ll look more attractive with exercise. Most leave out other benefits entirely. This sends the not-so-subtle message that your body as it is has inherently less value than it could have. Fitness advertising is also notoriously ableist, meaning that exercise should be used to “overcome” or avoid disability because disabled bodies have less value. This isn’t a naturally-occurring condition–it’s a direct result of diet culture.

What to do about it: Stop looking at fitspo. If you choose to exercise, focus on the non-physical and/or benefits.

 

3. Diet culture does not exist in a vacuum.

Diet culture is just one social system in which people are treated inequitably, and it often overlaps with racism, sexism, ageism, ableism, and classism. I abhor them all, for the record. But it’s important to understand that many issues of oppression and prejudice do not function on their own. If we go back to the Cheetos=bad, carrots=good example, it’s not the foods themselves that signify their worth, but the meanings around them that give that good or bad reading. Cheetos invoke our deeply broken food system, inequities with food access, and people (coded as poor people or people of color) who value inexpensive food. Carrots invoke farmer’s markets, wholesome living, and people (coded as white, economically stable) who value their health.

If you are anti-diet culture, you must also be anti-oppression in other ways. It’s important to recognize the similarities and differences, and how the messages we receive reflect this. Example: Why are yogurt ads so gendered?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zpNOLQINY14

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FicEXpGwzIY

Once you start noticing this sort of thing, it’s hard to stop.

What to do about it: Keep resisting diet culture alongside other systems of oppression. We all deserve better, and the change begins with you! Think twice before you make judgements about yourself and others when it comes to food choice, exercise choice, and access different people have to those choices.

We all deserve better!