Why Breaking Up with Diet Culture Leads to Dating Success


TW: eating disorders, suicidal ideation

When I was eighteen, I was hospitalized twice within a three-month span for bulimia. While in treatment, I spent my days getting weighed, having supervised meals, and fantasizing about killing myself. Which, to be fair, wasn’t much different than my usual day-to-day life (minus the supervised meals). From age thirteen to nineteen, when I wasn’t busy bingeing, purging, restricting, or compulsively over-exercising, I was thinking about food, calories, my stomach, the gym, my stomach, clothing sizes, my stomach again, and killing myself because I couldn’t even imagine a life where I wasn’t consumed by these thoughts.

After dropping out of college because I realized I wasn’t well enough to do the coursework, I threw my arms up in surrender on June 1st, 2009 and decided to devote myself to recovery. Through years of CBT therapy, finding community in people who weren’t dieting, and the love of my friends and family, I recovered. It took a lot of hard work that I continue to do to this day. I was able to finish college. I got a job in the book publishing industry because all I ever wanted to be was a writer. After seven years in book publishing working as an editor, I left to go out on my own to write my own stories. Six months later, I became a contracted sex columnist for Playboy and never looked back. The first year of my sex writing career was also the same year I found myself in an abusive relationship with a man I was planning on marrying. Then I got myself out of it. Far out of it.

So far, in fact, that a little over a decade after that second hospitalization as a teenager, I found myself packing up my car to spend a year driving (and dating… and fucking…) across the entire United States and back by myself. And that’s exactly what I did. And it was fabulous.

As a recovered person and professional sex writer, it wasn’t long before I realized the toxic similarities between my old life (diet culture) and my new life (modern dating culture). I can even list out a few right here off the top of my head:

1. The idea of “I can only be happy if I have my goal body” and “I can only be happy if I have a partner.” Both the diet and dating industries operate on the idea of scarcity—that there’s only ONE correct way to be (“attain” the “right” body/“attain” the “right” partner) or it’s not even worth it.

2. Desperately wanting control over our body / desperately wanting control over the people we date (i.e. “He’s ‘bad’ for not texting back right away!” “What if he leaves?” “What if he’s cheating??!”)

3. All-or-nothing type thinking and perfectionist thinking. (“I have to look a certain way before I can wear shorts in pubic.”/ “I have to look a certain way before I’d ever post a full-body pic of myself on a dating app.”)

It all comes down to: “I have to be perfect before I can even start living my life.”

It makes sense that the diet industry and dating industry work hand-in-hand because, after all, both tell us that we have to look a certain way in order to be considered worthy. After all, most people work out/eat a certain way/focus on thinness because they believe it’s the only way they can attract a potential partner.

And I’ll even take it one step further and say diet culture and modern dating culture are… pretty much the same fucking thing. Here’s an example.

Without falling too far down this rabbit hole, I date a lot of recently divorced dads. Before consenting to go on a date, I always ask this demographic 1. What their current co-parenting relationship is like with the mother of their kids (I don’t date men who shit talk their kids’ mom, regardless of the circumstances) and 2. Why they got married and why they had children. 99.9% of the time when I ask that second question, the answer is: “I thought I was supposed to.” My heart breaks every time I hear it.

My heart also breaks when people tell me they aren’t going on great dates with great people. Why are so many people wasting so much time with people they feel “meh” about or barely know? (I’m not of the mindset of “Just get yourself out there and go on a ton of dates!” and agreeing to meet up with just anyone. Fuck that. I always say “Agreeing to go on a date with someone after 30 seconds of small talk is like agreeing to attend a 2-hour work meeting you’re not even sure is for your department.” Do your research. FaceTime before you agree to meet someone IRL and see if there’s any interest there because your time is valuable.)

But that’s what people do. People measure dating success by how many matches they get, how many messages get answered, and how many dates they go on. (Does this obsession with numbers sound familiar?) We think about dating a lot. When we first start dating someone, all we do is worry about what could potentially happen (good or bad) instead of just experiencing the present moment and dealing with things as they come. When we focus on numbers, food, and exercise, we miss out on so much of life. But guess what? When we focus on finding a partner, how many dates we go on, how many matches we get, “what does it mean if he hasn’t texted back,” “what if xyz happens” we miss out on so much of life that way, too. 

I see so many former ED people who just switch from hyperfocusing on their body to hyperfocusing on another person.

I want us all to have full, beautiful lives that are lived authentically and with passion. You know what is the mortal enemy of an authentic life? Doing things because we think we’re supposed to, and not because we actually want to do them.

Another hard thing for ED people to grapple with is something I tell my clients all. the. time. And that is: Dating is the only facet of life where your success is not guaranteed. Read that again. A lot of ED people struggle with this concept because we’re used to putting in a ton of effort and seeing some sort of results. For example:

1. We work really hard in school, we graduate.

2. We work really hard in our jobs, we get promoted.

3. We engage with our ED symptoms, we see changes in our body.

But here’s the thing. You can work really hard in dating and if we don’t meet people who vibe with us, we remain single.

That doesn’t mean throw in the towel. It means changing your mindset so you start to date with intention. Dating smartly. Dating intuitively. And if we’re going to spend a lot of time being really fucking picky about who we share our time with, that means working on the relationship we have with ourselves. Because when we refuse to go on shitty dates and only hold out for good ones, we will end up spending a bunch of time alone.

And that can be really hard for ED people because our EDs force us to spend a lot of time alone already. I spent so much time eating and puking and shitting (laxative junkie over here, lol) and exercising in secret. So learning how to enjoy spending time by myself—something was historically associated with bad behavior—felt like having to make friends with someone who felt like a stranger to me. That’s where the year-long solo road trip came in. 

So I built a relationship with myself. When I wasn’t busy going out on dates with people who were super interesting to me and I discovered I had chemistry with (hello, FaceTiming before dates), I was dating myself. I was taking myself to dinners where I’d sit at the bar of a very fancy restaurant with a book and eat multiple appetizers, an entrée, and dessert. I went to movies alone for the first time in my life in Boston. I got stoned and walked around the Denver Botanic Gardens for hours. I ate an ice cream sandwich in the sweltering July heat of the desert at the Grand Canyon. I enjoyed multiple trips to my favorite spa in Chicago. I spent so much time dating myself, in fact, that I had fewer slots of time that I was willing to give to someone else. I was picky about the dates I went on. And here’s why:

“Meh” dates are like diet food. Sure, you can eat the cottage cheese and celery because you think “you’re supposed to,” but do you even like it? If you love cottage cheese and celery, by all means, eat it to your heart’s content. But if you’re doing it out of a sense of obligation and not actual desire, well, to be frank: fuck that.

I’ve found that people get a better grasp of intuitive dating when I present it in a way that’s similar to intuitive eating:

While dieting, how many “meh” salads have you eaten? Probably hundreds. And now think of a memorable meal. There are probably significantly fewer of them, but the memories are much more positive—the slice of cake at your mom’s 60th birthday party, the cotton candy you ate at the Rockettes' Christmas Spectacular, the really good pasta meal you ate on vacation in Italy. At the end of your life, when you look back on it, will any of your positive memories be associated with the meals you felt like you had to eat? Or will they be associated with the ones you consciously chose to enjoy?

Now think of how many “meh” dates you had. If I ask you, at 80 years old, to tell me about all the dates you went on, you’d never tell me about the “meh” ones. You wouldn’t tell me about the ones where the conversation fizzled after thirty minutes and one drink and you went home. But chances are you might tell me about the time you spent two weeks in Hawaii with a guy from Tinder as a third date (or maybe that’s just me).

My recovery taught me that my time here on Earth is valuable and could be spent in much better ways than being sucked in to diet culture—and I sure as shit am not going to go on a bunch of dates just for the sake of going on them. Your time on this Earth is valuable, too, and shouldn’t be spent eating meh foods, going on meh dates, keeping a meh job—any of that shit. Another thing I tell my clients all the time when it comes to dating is the phrase “No expectations, high standards.” When it comes to dates, it just means I forfeit all control about what the relationship will be (i.e. realizing this person may end up a 1-night stand, a 3-month fling, a 2-year relationship, a lifelong partnership, etc—and since I don't have a crystal ball, I don't know which one it's gonna be and that's okay!), but I only date people I’m excited about.

And that’s just how I live my life in general. I have no idea what the future will bring, what opportunities will be presented to me, but I am only showing up for the ones that light a fire inside of me. 

How I got to this place is through radical acceptance. First, I practiced this concept in how I relate to my body (i.e. “I will treat my body with kindness. I will eat what I want when I want and move how I want when I want and however my body looks in response is a-okay with me.”) because the only constant thing about bodies is that they change. I had to give up on trying to control my body. I had to give up trying to control other people, too. Because people, like bodies, change. And therefore, because relationships are comprised of people, it would be only natural (expected, even!) that relationships change, too. 

I don’t believe the number one reason relationships succeed is compatibility. I believe it’s both parties’ openness to change.

I am constantly told—by ED people and non-ED people alike—“I could never do what you did.” And to that I say: Babe, I was hospitalized for bulimia multiple times. Yes, I recognize my immense privilege that I had access to the type of care that saved my life. But I was once a very, very ill person for a very, very long time who transformed into someone who goes to fuckin’ nudist resorts, dates incredible people, and eats whatever tf I'd like. Because I know the quality of my life is not tied to my relationship status or to my body size.

The biggest thing we have to accept is that there are no rules. Read that again. In food and in dating, there are no rules. There is no “good” or “bad.” There is only: how does this make you feel? Do you want to grab one of the cupcakes sitting out in the break room? Great. Do you want fries smothered in cheese sauce at 3am after going to that concert with your buddies? Awesome. Are you craving pretzels and hummus LIKE NOTHING ELSE RIGHT NOW while you watch Netflix? Cool. That’s intuitive eating.

This is intuitive dating: Do you feel excited to experiment with dating multiple genders? Great. Are you happy dating one person? Awesome. Do you feel fulfilled dating a bunch of cool people at once? Dope. I don’t give a flying fuck what kind of food you want to eat or dating experience you want to have, all I care about is that you enjoy the hell out of it. I want you, at the end of your life, to be able to look back at it and be able to say, “I had so much fun.”

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