Trying to lose weight in college while caught between diet culture and body positivity, difficult but not impossible


Elliptical pic. Photo by MJ Rivera

MJ Rivera, Scene Editor

A sweet old therapist of mine told me how damaging diet culture is for people, especially for women in college like myself. According to the Jan. 2022 issue of the Women’s Studies International Forum, diet culture is a term that is “often used by those within the broad anti-diet movement to critique the pervasiveness of dieting norms and practices,” according to

Of course, when I initially set out on my weight-loss journey, I was overwhelmed by the amount of miraculous 20-day diet programs and gym routines that I found online, and that’s where the issue with diet culture lives. Diet culture rhetoric sounds like, “you either commit yourself fully to the rigorous fitness lifestyle, or you’re unhealthy and undriven.”

One of the things my therapist said in the anti-diet train of thought was, “if I want to go to McDonald’s and get myself a small fry just for the hell of it, why shouldn’t I?” Of course people shouldn’t fear food or deny themselves treats, but my problem was that I didn’t want no damn small fry, I was ordering multiple meals, just for myself, every time.

I wanted to lose the 65 pounds that I had gained in my freshman year. No matter how many times I told myself that my body is amazing and I can do anything no matter my size, I couldn’t change the fact that I didn’t recognize myself in the mirror. And, for me, my sense of self is extremely important. 

By July 2022, I had (safely) lost 35 pounds. I wrote down some of the things that people told me after they noticed.

“Do you starve yourself?”

“You look great.”

“What’s your secret, besides diet and exercise?”

“You look…different.” “I lost 35 pounds.” “I mean, I wasn’t going to say anything like that, but…yeah.”

“Are you okay?”

“Congratulations, way to go!”

America struggles with body image and health conversations. We either associate health and fitness with scary diet culture, or assume that anybody who is bigger is making excuses and being lazy, but neither of these views are accurate.

Here’s another issue I never would have anticipated: food is pushed at us everywhere, all the time. At CWU orientation last year, people handed out candy from every table and donuts were served outside the SURC theater. Walking into the Fred Meyer in town, there is always a seasonal display of cupcakes and cookies right inside the entrance by the produce. At the CWU gym, sometimes there is Food Network playing on the TV. At a meal with my coworkers, my boss scoffed when I politely declined dessert. 

Some things my friends said are, “Oh, come on, you can eat that,” and, “Diet? Pssh, that’s so stupid.” None of these obstacles even crossed my mind before I decided to change my eating habits, but once I did, they were all that I noticed. 

If you really want to know my secret, here it is:

Loosely count calories. Calorie tracker apps can be helpful in the beginning, but once you have a better idea of how many calories most foods have, you can just make a mental note to yourself about your intake. 

Getting too specific is too hard to maintain, and diets that are too hard to maintain can lead to “yo-yo dieting,” or frequently gaining and losing a lot of weight. You’ll need to do your own research to decide how many calories you need each day for your body. 

One idea that I love is that you can always eat something delicious, at any time. The reason this idea was so helpful was that it allowed me to say “no” more often. I’ll say no to a cupcake right now because I can always say yes later, when I really crave one. 

I went to the CWU gym four-to-five days each week for a couple months, and I just went on the elliptical for 20 minutes. That’s it. 

When people say, “losing weight is difficult,” I feel like they’re dancing around saying, “you will be very frustrated at times, you will not want to say ‘no’ to anything in the beginning, and you will cave in and cry while eating a bunch of snacks at midnight, more than once.” But, if you have a goal that you are passionate about, whether it be your self-image, your inner health, your energy level or your discipline, you will succeed. 

My relationship with food is mine, and I never developed an eating disorder or exercised too much. I lost 55 pounds in 2022, and I see it as a challenge that I overcame because I had been using food as a coping mechanism. I feel stronger and more accomplished now, but that’s just my story. Do what you need to do for your body and your goals.