Thank God (and Kelsey Miller, obviously) for the Anti-Diet Project

Just over four years ago, New York based writer Kelsey Miller was sprinting through the woods in the midst of one of those trendy-but-grueling bootcamp workouts when she had an epiphany 29 years in the making. After a lifetime of punishing herself with brutal exercise regimens and extreme diets, she realized that there was another option: she could simply call it quits. In our thinness-obsessed culture, the idea of “quitting” one’s diet and exercise program is practically unheard of—blasphemous, even. But the unshakeable intensity with which so many Americans worship thinness, fitness, and unattainable beauty standards is exactly why Kelsey Miller decided to break up with diet culture once and for all. 

Since 2013, Miller has been writing about the experience of extricating herself from the diet culture in a Refinery29 column called The Anti-Diet Project. Just a few weeks ago, Miller announced that after four years, she would be concluding the popular column—news that many of her longtime readers (myself included) experienced like a punch in the gut. Since it first arrived on the scene, The Anti-Diet Project has provided a counterpoint to the diet-worshipping media at large. And at a time when studies show that 80% of 10-year-old girls have already tried dieting and 50% say they want “thinner bodies”, that counterpoint was, and is, absolutely crucial. 

“I'm one of the many women who grew up on diets,” Miller wrote in the very first Anti-Diet Project post, “Starting around the time I learned to speak and ask for what I wanted, I was programmed on ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods, and ‘good’ and ‘bad’ bodies (which made you a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ person). Some of it came from good intentions, but regardless, I was on my first hardcore diet by 11. Since then I've managed my disordered eating with brief periods of obsessive dieting and fitness regimens. In between, I revert back to my usual: emotional eating, sporadic exercise, and high-intensity shame and self-loathing. It is a BLAST, you guys!”

Miller’s relatable, conversational writing style was a huge hit with Refinery29 readers. But it wasn’t just the way Miller wrote that was so revolutionary—it was what she chose to write about. Over the course of The Anti-Diet Project’s run, Miller confronted just about every diet, exercise, and body image taboo—taboos that many readers assumed they were alone in grappling with. Miller wrote about eating “bad foods” in public, being the “big girl” at the gym, and breaking all the plus-sized fashion rules. Seeing someone call bullshit on the diet culture myths that hold so many people in a vice grip was always refreshing and exhilarating. But beyond that, it was Miller’s honesty about the ups-and-downs of her anti-diet lifestyle that kept many readers coming back to the column week after week. 

“Quitting dieting was like hopping off a hamster wheel,” Miller wrote in the final entry of The Anti-Diet Project, “Suddenly, I felt the ground beneath my feet. I could lift my head and look around, instead of just staring straight ahead into the void, focusing only on moving, burning, counting, and killing time. I had believed that one day I would find the diet that would give me the body and the life I wanted. But only when I quit dieting did I get to really live the life I had. And somehow, it is so much better than that fantasy life I’d envisioned back when I was still trying to get thin. It’s harder too, for sure. But it’s real.”

In both The Anti-Diet Project and her memoir Big Girl: How I Gave Up Dieting & Got a Life, Kelsey Miller gives readers a candid account of what it looks like to deprogram yourself from the American diet culture. For her, this meant embracing the practices of intuitive eating, rational fitness, and body positivity. In a time when most peddlers of “wellness” emphasize things like juice fasts, clean (i.e. restrictive) eating, and other practices that are basically just diets in disguise, Miller refused to make thinness the goal of her anti-diet lifestyle. So many of us have been raised on the myth that your “real life” can’t begin until you reach a certain culturally-approved, unrealistic standard of beauty. But Miller doesn’t buy that anymore. 

“I now understand that in every regard, the important thing is to not wait until you feel ready,” Miller said in an interview with Teen Vogue, “No matter what ready looks like to you. I don’t know if I’ll ever get to a place where it’s like, ‘I’m 100% ready to write a book today.’ I feel like that’s the lesson that I’m so grateful to have learned, is not waiting for the readiness to arrive magically.” 

Miller’s readers may not be ready to say goodbye to The Anti-Diet Project just yet, but the column has already done its part to shift the way we talk about health and body image online. And while we still have a long way to go, if we want to eradicate diet culture completely, the movements for body positivity, fat acceptance, and radial self-love are steadily picking up steam, thanks to leaders like Kelsey Miller. The Anti-Diet Project may be drawing to a close, but the fight to jailbreak the American culture from the diet industry is only getting started.