“I’d just come home from college for the summer; I was 20. I got a job working at Ben & Jerry’s. My skin was really red, which, in retrospect, I think was because I was using all these products all the time—and I have pretty naturally dry skin—and my skin was just exhausted, and had gotten kind of messed up from that. I was so miserable.
So, I was at my dad’s house, and I was just kind of Googling—it was just one of those days where you feel really shitty about yourself. Like, ‘I’ve got to fix this. It can’t last forever. What do I do? What did I do wrong? My skin is so messed up.’ I was searching this combination of terms—this was late at night, after I had passed by the normal websites—and I found this one that was called, ‘Doctor so-and-so’s Plan,’ I don’t remember exactly. It was just this catch-all for curing everything. It was like, ‘Dear readers: Inflammation is your problem and inflammation comes from carbohydrates, because the body’s not designed to burn through carbohydrates, so if you cut them out then you’ll cut out inflammation and all of your problems will go away.’ This was a cure for eczema, psoriasis, bowel problems… For anyone who was miserably Google-searching ‘problem’ and ‘help’ late at night, it was like, Ahhhh.
You just had to get rid of the inflammation, and the way you did that was to stop eating carbohydrates and only eat these two different kinds of fruit—only melons were ok—and vegetables, meat, and eggs. Then everything will be perfect.
I mean, the website was in Comic Sans font—this was not an accredited doctor—with an electric yellow background and orange text. It was so bad, but I was like, ‘Oh my God, ok. I finally found my thing!’ It’s funny to think back on it. I bought this so hook, line, and sinker… but I don’t think I’ve ever subscribed to something since so completely, just because I learned from this experience. But at the time, I was like, ‘Ok, I need to completely change the way I eat! That’s why my skin is so messed up.’
If I found the site now, I’d think: That just sounds like another iteration of all the popular diets—no big deal. But back then all I ate was cereal, sandwiches, ice cream, and pasta. I didn’t eat any vegetables whatsoever. I was heavier, maybe 20 pounds more than I am now, so it kind of fit; it wasn’t weird. So I just decided to completely follow this diet-slash-lifestyle thing, and I had one last sub that night—white bread with mayonnaise and turkey—and I was like, ‘All right. That’s the last carbohydrate I’m ever going to eat… And then my life will be perfect.’
The next day, I forced myself to start eating vegetables. I hated them, they were all disgusting, but after awhile, I just started liking them. And then I started liking everything. My mom was overjoyed when I was finally starting to say, ‘Sure I’ll try this spinach!’ She was like, ‘Oh my God, what happened?!’ But then of course, on the other side of it, I was also saying, ‘Oh, no—no more cereal for me, no more ice cream, no more anything.’ And she was thinking, ‘God, did you just develop an eating disorder?’ And I was like, ‘No, no, no—it’s for my skin.’
On a normal day, I’d have eggs in the morning, vegetables and hummus in the middle of the day, and then that again sort of throughout the rest of the day. I ate no carbohydrates for three months, and nothing happened; nothing changed with my skin.
This was bad; it was weird. I lost 20 pounds in a month, and I started to feel this grossness at my core—when you don’t eat carbohydrates, it’s gross. My body was eating itself too quickly or something, and everyone was worried about me.
Yes, I worked at Ben & Jerry’s but I never once had a bite of ice cream, except on the first day when they make you try a taste of everything so you know what the flavors are. It wasn’t hard or tempting, because when you believe in something… I truly believed that this was the solution to my problems, and I was way more vain than I was interested in ice cream; it was so easy.
After three or four months, the diet-y thing crashed and burned. Eventually, I just decided it wasn’t working because nothing was really that different with my skin. Losing weight hadn’t been the intention; I didn’t really care about that. I’m not sure what made me stop—I think I just noticed that my behavior had gotten really weird. I’d taken the diet with me to back to college after the summer… At that point in the diet, you could start incorporating certain other fruits back in…and then I noticed I would be buying five whole fruits, and lining them up—an entire cantaloupe, a mango, an apple, a banana—and eating them all in a row, as a dessert. One, I was gaining a lot of weight and two, it would just hurt, because it was too much food to eat. I understood this isn’t what normal people do.
I think that once you start regulating the way you eat, you can never quite go back to, ‘Oh yeah, I’m a little bit hungry, I’ll just have something…’ It turns into ‘Now that I’m allowed these things, I have to have them all,’ sort of like a robot. For sure it was disordered eating, in retrospect. People were worried about me, but I was like, ‘No guys, really, it’s just for my skin!’ And it really was about my skin, but then I think it got braided in to weight, because when you get attention—‘Look how skinny you got! You look great…’—then it becomes attached to this whole other thing.
So, anyway, I went back to eating like a normal person for years, but incorporating all the nice, ‘crazy’ foods that I hadn’t eaten before… Like vegetables—I didn’t eat a vegetable until I was 20. And then, when I graduated college and moved to New York, I slowly started cutting out processed foods. I was probably at my heaviest—around 125, 130—and I’m 110 pounds now—but I started to think about what I was eating, and thinking about it as an all-one, unified process—like, what’s going on with my face isn’t separate from what’s going on in my stomach or how I’m moving around during the day or how I feel about myself, stress levels, etcetera. It’s an entire gestalt sort of thing. And then when you start thinking of what you’re putting into your body as having an effect on all other things, it just didn’t make sense to be putting in processed stuff—it didn’t seem logical.
The first thing I cut down on was cereal, which is my favorite food, just because it seemed like the thing to start with. Then, there was basically an entire new world. I was like, ‘Oh, wow, sushi! People eat sushi! Wow, it’s really good!’ or, ‘Oh my God, guacamole!’ Basically, anything that didn’t come in a bag or a packet. I eat a lot of produce and whole grains and beans. I eat a ridiculous amount of nuts—almonds, cashews, walnuts, peanuts.
I’d like to say that I can see results now that I have this routine, but not really. My skin isn’t perfect and not-red—I mean, it's still my thing, but it's much better than when I was younger...And I feel good about my intake; it’s easier. But I’m not a healthy person; I think of the way I eat now as the one thing that I’m doing OK in. I don’t exercise, I drink too much. What are the other pillars of self-preservation? I don’t sleep a lot. It’s sort one of those control things—you just need to be able to control one variable, which sounds kind of freaky maybe, but I think you create these rules for yourself that are sort of arbitrary, but they help. It feels really weird to talk about food so much; it’s not a huge part of my life, it’s just how I eat. Once it becomes something that you think about and plan for and worry about, which it did for me during that summer, then it takes over too much of your brain and your brain has to be doing much more important things.
And I wish I could say I feel more grounded or ‘sound,’ but I feel like shit all the time. [Laughs] I mean, I feel fine, but it’s not like I’ve achieved some amazing level of clarity. I think I’m treating my body nicely, and you read all of these studies about how the Mediterranean diet is the healthiest one and people who eat nuts live for a long time, and I like that kind of information. It’s a nice mental thing; I can pat myself on the back.”
—Edith Zimmerman, as told to ITG
Zimmerman is a Brooklyn-based writer and co-editor of the women’s website The Hairpin. Check out ITG's previous interview with her ('A Skin Thing') here.
Photographed by Emily Weiss in Brooklyn, New York.