There’s an old diet trick — you might have seen it in movies — where you cover the refrigerator in sticky notes, reminding you that “Nothing tastes as good as being thin feels!” and “A moment on the lips, forever on the hips!” or simply, “Do NOT open this!” Sometimes you might amplify these helpful hints with photos of either very fat people or very thin people, depending on which makes you feel worse about yourself. Basically, you taught your fridge to fat-shame you. I tried it, obviously. And it was super effective at making me feel like a piece of shit every time I opened the fridge. But I still opened the fridge. Anyway, it didn’t make much difference because the sticky notes never lasted long. The only thing worse than being shamed by an appliance is being humiliated when your visiting friend goes to grab a soda, only to encounter an all-caps reminder that, “NO ONE WILL EVER LOVE YOU!”
It’s been years now since I tried any diet trick, having given up dieting and learning intuitive eating. It took a lot of practice and professional help to undo the damage I’d done to my body and brain with things like fridge-shaming. In fact, it still takes practice, and the old struggles sometimes resurface, but for the most part, I eat normally. I can hardly believe it, but it’s true. I can look at all the foods in my fridge as neutral and allowed. But when it comes to my freezer, that’s a different story.
Ice cream, damn it. Every dieter has an internalized bad-food list, and ice cream is usually on it. For me, it was right at the top — the most forbidden fruit. Growing up, I’d sneak scoops out of my mom’s Haagen-Daz in the middle of the night. I’d check the freezer for it during babysitting gigs, trying (and failing) to shave off only discreet little bites. Truly, it would take days to fully explain just how large a role ice cream played in my emotional development. There is an entire chapter in my memoir devoted to it, and I actually had the gall to title it: “Ice Cream, Revisited.”
By the time the book came out in January, I thought I was over it. I had to be! When something’s in a memoir, that means it’s a memory, all processed and packed away. But sometime in March, when the weather turned just a little bit warmer, I started noticing myself noticing ice cream, everywhere. I noticed the half-gallons of Edy’s at the grocery store, the freezer-burned pints by the check-out at my corner deli, and the artisanal scoop shop standing exactly eleven feet from my subway stop.
So, I’d buy myself a cone for the walk home — no big deal. Giving yourself permission to eat is a cornerstone of intuitive eating, the point being that restriction only creates more anxiety around food. In the early stages, each time I found myself stressing over mashed potatoes, eating quickly and far past the point of fullness, I knew to pause and recognize what was going on: I was hoarding mashed potatoes like my old diet self, who saw all starch as the enemy. Sometimes it was as simple as reminding myself, “You have full permission to eat mashed potatoes” and sometimes it took more effort. But eventually, my brain got the message and I chilled out with potatoes. With ice cream, evidently, my brain had zero chill.
The warmer it got, the fuller my freezer. By July, I’d find myself impulse-buying pints once or twice a week. On the one hand, it made sense. It was summer, when you’re supposed to eat ice cream. But the funny thing was, I wasn’t eating it nearly as much as I was buying it. (My boyfriend noticed this too, constantly reorganizing the freezer around my growing collection of mostly full pints). I had some after dinner a few nights a week, or sometimes in the afternoon when that sweet-snack craving hit. Still, I had an ice cream problem. I wasn’t bingeing, but my brain was: constantly weighing the pros and cons of having a bowl, envisioning cartoonish fat grams clogging up my arteries, and panicking over the choice between Cookies & Cream and Peanut-Butter Chip or, fuck it, should I just buy both?
One late-summer morning, I was sitting at my desk at home, working on my laptop, when my brain piped up: Should I eat ice cream after lunch? I don’t like the flavors we have. Ooh, does any place around here deliver ice cream?
I’d had it. I tried the old trick of talking back to my brain: “You know you have full permission to eat ice cream, right? Right?” Nothing. It couldn’t hear me over all that chatter. That’s when I remembered the sticky notes.
I opened my desk drawer, and pulled out an old stack of Post-Its. I chose a brightly colored pen and wrote:
You have full permission to eat ice cream!
I went to the freezer and counted six pints. So, I wrote out five more Post-It notes:
Anytime you want!
This is totally allowed.
No Big Deal
Now, later, today, tomorrow, never — whenever!
I placed one on the lid of each pint. Then, I stared down into the freezer for 10 full seconds. Next, I whipped out my phone, opening Word Swag, an app that lets you make your own version of those inspirational text-on-image photos (I guess so you can post an Instagram photo of yourself on vacay with the phrase, “not all who wander are lost” across your face). Instead, I found a picture of an ice cream cone and reiterated one of my own inspirational messages: Anytime you want. I set it as my phone background. If my brain couldn’t hear me, maybe it could see.
I’d taken the old diet trick and flipped it inside out: not a glaring keep-out sign, but an open, casual invitation. A little cheesy and self-helpy? Maybe, but who the hell cared? I had spent my whole life overthinking ice cream, trying to puzzle it out like the riddle of the sphinx, rather than just eating it or not eating it — you know, like food. I was not going to waste one more second of my life worrying over this nonsense when there are infinitely more important things to worry about. Not to mention the fact that there was so much in my life to not worry about, but things to celebrate, things to enjoy, things to relish and be grateful for. What might my life look like if I could use all this energy to focus on those things instead of dessert? This was an all-out permission assault.
That first day, the change was minimal. I had some ice cream after dinner, and while it wasn’t an anxiety free experience, I did notice the knot in my chest soften just a bit when I saw those cheery Post-Its looking up at me when I took the pint out, and again when I put it back. (My boyfriend noticed the change too, asking what was up with all the signage in our freezer. “IT HELPS ME,” I kindly explained.)
And, in the days and weeks that followed, it did. Each time I opened the freezer, I got a little more permission. I didn’t have to wait for an ice cream urge to hit. I saw it every time I looked at my phone; my brain was barraged with both images of ice cream and with the full, unwavering promise that it wasn’t going anywhere and I was 100% allowed to have it.
My ice-cream shopping habit slowed down. The pint collection dwindled from six to two or three. I noticed myself not noticing the proximity of the artisanal scoop shop every time I went to the subway. I still ate ice cream, maybe a little less. I’m not sure how much, really, because here’s the real miracle: I was thinking about it a lot less.
It worked. No surprise twists here. The permission assault just worked. For the first time in my life, the decision to eat ice cream is simple: Do I want it? Will it satisfy me? Okay, let’s have some. It’s gone from advanced calculus to advanced common sense. Sometimes I do want it and it will satisfy me, but my brain jumps in with a reminder: Oh but I’m going to that restaurant that serves my favorite sundae later. So, maybe I’ll hold off so I can really enjoy that one. And then it shuts the hell up. No counter-arguments, no doomsday visions of chocolate-covered fat grams. It’s just not that important.
That’s the ultimate message here. It might not sound as peppy as, Anytime you want! But it's what my brain really needed to hear: Ice cream is just not that important.
Now that the months have turned cooler, I’ve lost even more interest in ice cream. To be clear, I don’t mean to say that I never eat it and never will again, or that (surprise!) Post-Its are the world’s most effective dieting tool. Post-Its didn’t take away my taste for ice cream, but they helped take away my ice cream obsession. I’m not eating it very much now, not because I’ve conquered it with an iron will to abstain — but because it’s cold out. I don’t feel like it. This is normal. I’m becoming more normal. And this shiny new mundanity is one of the things for which I am so damn grateful.
The Anti-Diet Project is an ongoing series about intuitive eating, sustainable fitness, and body positivity. You can follow Kelsey's journey on Twitter and Instagram at @mskelseymiller, or right here on Facebook. Curious about how it all got started? Check out the whole column, right here.