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Carol Munter talks with Karen Zivan: A Non-Dieter Describes Her Experiences

Karen Zivan began attending our weekly workshops in New York four years ago. Karen is 56. She has worn many hats in her life, including teaching school and owning a gourmet cooking store. She is currently busy doing a lot of volunteer work and being the grandmother of five. Karen and I talked one afternoon about her experiences with non-dieting.

K: When I was growing up, the biggest discussion in my family was about fat. My mother and one of her sisters were large and their other sister was extremely large. They were always on diets. I'd go with them when they got their injections and pills from Dr. Bloom. By the time I was 11, I was on pills too. I see now that I was a large child, but not very fat. I don't remember my grandmother ever saying that I was too fat; my father also always accepted me as I was. My mother was a different story; she really wanted me to be different. She always criticized. As an adult, I'd hear her telling other people about the good things I did, but she never said those things to me. I think she was superstitious about saying good things, but it would have been nice.

I was never a rebellious kid. My mother would say I should diet and I would. She'd be doing the same thing. I always heard "You'll never get married. Men don't like fat women." Yet, that was confusing because my father never complained about her weight. But other than an occasional "Leave her alone," he also never intervened in her attempts to make me thin.

Despite all the hatred of fat in my mother and her sisters, dressing was always a big thing. My mother always wore nice clothes and I've always worn nice clothes. It used to be a struggle to find them, but I never wore tents.

C: So your father and your grandmother did not join in the general uproar about fat. And even your mother was inconsistent in that, fat or not, she allowed herself to dress well. Those kinds of inconsistencies make a difference. I think they pave the way for a different kind of thinking later on. What about your social life growing up?

K: My social life was average. I met my husband when I was 23 on a blind date. He's not small either. His family is stocky and it was never an issue. I kept on dieting after I got married—I tried all of them. Growing up, I'd constantly go up and down a few pounds. When I graduated high school, I was a size 18—that was after a stint with the diet doctor. The yo-yo got bigger as I got older. I never came down to goal. If I was supposed to lose 40 pounds, I'd lose 30.

Given the social pressure of the corporate environment we lived in, I think my husband was happy when I would say that I was going to diet to lose the weight. During the last five years of our corporate life, I think he realized that my size was going to remain the same.

C: You've told me that you had stopped dieting before you moved to New York.

K: Two years before I moved here, I saw an ad in a Rochester newspaper about stopping binging and stopping drinking. A woman who'd been addicted to everything and had hit bottom put a lot of stuff together and was leading a group. At that point, I knew that the dieting and binging was killing my body. I hated never knowing whether I would be fat or thin come next season. I knew I had to do something other than diet. That group planted the seed. I stopped dieting and my weight stabilized. That came as a big surprise. When I was out, I'd still eat as if I were dieting—"No thanks, no cake." Even at home, I was still categorizing foods as "good" or "bad." Some time after I came to New York I heard about Overcoming Overeating.

The book made sense to me, but it was very scary to go buy food. I knew I was going to have to negotiate with my husband. He didn't want food in the house for his own reasons and also because he didn't want me to eat it. It wasn't easy at the beginning. I kept my food in a separate cupboard, but it was hard for him to understand that it belonged to me. If he thought I wasn't going to finish what was on my plate, he'd take it. It took a long time for him to get used to the idea that I might want the food to just sit on the plate.

Not eating at mealtimes has been hard for me from the beginning and is still a problem. There's a lot of socialization to undo and there's still a lot of pressure. For a while I was working for my aunt, one of my mother's sisters, who has always struggled about being fat. If I went to eat something from my food bag, she'd give me a very hard time. I finally ended up going to the bathroom to eat and I hated it.

It's taken a long time for my husband to get used to my sitting with him while he eats but not eating myself. At this point, I'm better at being able to juggle my hunger so that it coincides with a mealtime if I decide I want to do that.

C: As I remember it, it was not only your husband's ambivalence about this approach that was hard for you, but you had to confront a close friend of yours as well.

K: That's right. One night, when the two couples were out for dinner, as I reached to put something on my plate, my friend said to me, "Do you really need that?" My friend is a lot younger than I. She was pregnant at the time and disturbed about gaining weight. It was clear to me that she didn't even want to sit near me that night and I knew I had to straighten it out.

C: What did you say to her?

K: I told her that I understood that she was upset about gaining weight, but that her anxiety had nothing to do with me. I told her, "This is my life; this is what I'm doing. If it bothers you to be in a restaurant with me, we'll have to socialize differently." I wanted her to understand that I wasn't going to change my ways for her. I asked her what she thought would be different if I lost 50 pounds. I'd still love her the same and do the same things for and with her. It would change my appearance and that's it. She was very surprised that I confronted her. It was the first time we'd had an uncomfortable situation between us.

C: It was a big thing to do.

K: It was early in the process, but I had a lot of confidence. I knew this was how I wanted to lead my life. It was something I really believed in. I felt that people I knew well should know what I'm about.

C: It sounds like your world did not make it easy for you to pursue this road. Given what you've said about always going along with your mother's agenda, how were you able to deal with so much external resistance?

K: At the same time I was doing this, I was developing more self-confidence. But it's true that I've always been the kind of person who needs a guideline, someone to say, "It's OK to do it this way." The fact that all this was written down was very helpful. I was also beginning to realize what I'd done to myself with the up-and-down yo-yo. I suppose it helped me that there was a lot about it in the media. I found that I could fight the pressure rather than give in to it. I could convince them that it was my way. They didn't have to like it or do it; they just had to respect my way.

C: If you were to point to what's really changed in these years, what would you say?

K: My attitude toward food. Also, for me, Overcoming Overeating has meant overcoming a lot of bad feelings about myself. It's made me personally a lot more self-confident.

I'm also much freer about my body. I couldn't believe that I chose to take off my bathing suit the night at the spa when we held the workshop at the pool. I used to want to hide my body even with my husband. I'm not ashamed of it anymore. I look in the mirror with some comfort now although I have a ways to go with that, with looking and being totally accepting.

I occasionally still have bad body thoughts and I have mouth hunger from time to time. Like yesterday. I was feeling crummy and I wanted to eat. I went to the store and stocked up. When I got home I was hungry and I ate exactly what I wanted. Later on I had mouth hunger and I ate and that was OK with me. I can't always get to what's bothering me, but I don't beat myself up about it.

C: What's happened to your size during these years?

K: Maybe I go up and down five pounds. I wear the same clothes from year to year. I've never had that before in my life. My husband uses the scale so it's still in the house. Occasionally it's tempting, but I think about it and then I don't get on. What good would it do? I'd be mad or glad. What's the point?

I've never been rejected by friends or people because of my weight, but, then again, I don't allow myself to get into situations where someone might make a comment. At times, when I've looked for work, I've been careful not to put myself in a position where I felt my size would be an issue, but I'm conflicted about it. I'd like to lead Overcoming Overeating groups and I think about what would happen if the leader's not thin.

C: What's been particularly helpful to you in this process?

K: The idea that you can eat what you want when you're hungry. You have to learn first to distinguish between stomach hunger and mouth hunger. Once you've figured that out, you're on your way. It has also been helpful to me to realize that thinness is the same thing as paying attention to what your stomach is saying. In other words, thinness is me minus my mouth hunger.

C: I'd like to sum up a little. I think it's useful to think about what makes it possible for someone to make the kinds of radical shifts that are necessary in this approach to compulsive eating.

It seems to me that even with the anti-fat barrage in your family, there was enough dissent to allow you at least to have some sense that large was not necessarily bad. You felt good enough about yourself to feel entitled to a relationship with someone who was not fat-phobic in any major way.

Later on, you were able to look at your own evidence vis-à-vis dieting, take your distress seriously and allow yourself to be enticed by an ad that promised another route. Still later, the book gave you more validation for what you already knew to be the case and supported you in challenging the resistance you encountered. Your story shows us what happens when someone knows what's right for her and has just enough self-respect to be able to use the support that's out there in order to buck the tide. Thanks!

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