Got Food Guilt?

You wake up and remember the fun you had with your friends last night. But before long, the guilt sets in. You remember when you came home you had two slices of pizza and a half a box of gluten-free cookies. Cue damage control: if you run 5 miles today and eat paleo the rest of the week you should be able to cancel out the late-night indulgence. Over breakfast you and your friends talk about how you’re really going to try be healthy this week and make a pact to stop ordering late night pizzas.

Today we live in a diet-driven culture with poor body image, and the facts are astounding. According to NYC Girl’s Project, a public-education campaign in New York City:

  • Over 80% of 10-year old girls are afraid of being fat
  • By middle school, 40-70% of girls are dissatisfied with two or more parts of their body
  • Young girls who dieted had 3 times the odds of being overweight 5 years later compared to girls not using weight-controlling behaviors

Additional psychological studies have concluded that:

  • Constant dieting and the relentless pursuit of thinness has become a normative behavior among women in Western society. [Rodin et al., 1984]
  • Thinness has not only come to represent attractiveness, but also has come to symbolize success, self-control, and higher socioeconomic status. [Forehand, 2001]

I used to be obsessed with dieting. After my freshman year of high school, my parents sent me to a summer camp for golf and creative writing in Scotland. It was awesome: kilts, Scottish brogues, and a room down the hall from Kate Middleton’s freshman dorm at the University of St. Andrews. Equally as wonderful was the food; I ordered fish n’ chips for every meal of the day and binged on all the junk food I wasn’t allowed to have growing up. No surprise, I came home fat, or at least what was my idea of fat.

I stood in front of the mirror and felt so confused, alienated inside my own skin.

Ignoring all that Dove beauty campaign crap that told me I was beautiful “just the way I was” I looked instead to popular magazine headings and reality TV. I adopted the habits of female role models in my life: girls and women who constantly counted calories, tried new diets, counted points and routinely made New Year’s resolutions to drop those unwanted pounds by bikini season. The message I walked away with was that my worth as a girl was determined by my appearance. If I wanted to be worth anything, I needed to be thin.

I disguised and confused my newly skewed body image with an honest interest in health, but in retrospect I now believe that the negative thoughts I had towards my body were more detrimental to my health than any twinkie could have been. Juice cleanses, detoxes, paleo, vegan, mayo clinic, the 8-hour diet, intuitive eating plans, portioning plans, macrobiotic—you name it, I have tried it. And every time I failed, I convinced myself that something was wrong with me for not having enough willpower. Restrict-binge-repeat. Restrict-binge-repeat. The cycle was abusive and exhausting.

It was also addicting. Every failed diet sent me looking for another one to try. This one will work, I would tell myself. Once I succeed, then I will be happy. Once I look a certain way, then I can follow my dreams.

And when I wasn’t finding results from the dieting, I decided the next logical solution would be to run a marathon. Twenty-six point two freaking miles. While my marathon experience taught me valuable lessons and was an important legacy to my father and grandfather that I will forever cherish, the problem was foundational. My initial motivation to run a marathon was to change my appearance.

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Worst of all, this whole time no one questioned my obsessive behavior. In fact, more often than not, I was praised for my dieting ways or for spending my Sunday afternoon with bloody feet on a 15 mile run. People even came to me for advice! The positive feedback and commentary reinforced my negative behavior and thought patterns.

Before I left for my freshman year of college I was fed up and felt more worthless than ever. How was I ever supposed to be or do anything important in this world if my thighs touched when I walked? Thankfully, my cousin and the creator of The Fuck It Diet, Caroline Dooner, introduced me to the world of the anti-diet. Because I had finally realized how obsessive and miserable dieting was making me, I decided to give up restriction and dieting for good.

It is essential that I clarify what I mean when I say that “I gave up dieting”. More specifically and more importantly, I gave up the diet mentality. Experiencing feelings of guilt while eating a brownie or planning a vigorous workout to cancel out a slice of pizza are examples of this mentality. The difference between giving up dieting and giving up the diet mentality is more than just eating whatever you want, it’s allowing yourself to eat whatever you want. This difference is key. If you allow yourself to eat a brownie but still restrict the decision in your mind, you might as well still be on a diet (and your brain still thinks you are). Once we let go of this mental restriction, food loses its power and becomes neutral to us.

At first, I was terrified. Eat whatever and whenever I want? Who would stop me before I ate half the United States? Who would recognize me when I puffed up like a washed-up Beluga whale? At first I did eat a lot, but once those negative associations with food dissolved, I was suprised to find that I actually returned to my natural healthy weight and I could eat a brownie… or six without an ounce of guilt.

The anti-diet is rooted in unconditional trust and acceptance for our bodies. Trust that each of our bodies has a natural and sustainable weight range and that it will let us know when and what to eat if we let go of control and stop portioning and restricting. Acceptance for our bodies as they are or were yesterday, today, or tomorrow. No mental or physical restriction, no holding on to control, and no negative thoughts associated with food or body image.

Our society advertises that pretty means skinny, but disregards the fact that skinny does not always mean healthy. I do not think that dieting or excessive exercise are the answers to good health. When taken too far they can become unhealthy.

Health comes in all different shapes and sizes, no one type being better or worse than the other.

Our perception of beauty is completely subjective. If we learn to venture outside the narrow boundaries of what our culture defines as beautiful, perhaps we could broaden this definition and find the true and inherent beauty present in all beings. When we criticize our bodies, or the bodies of others, we waste precious time and make ourselves feel worthless.

The Body-Positive Movement is on the rise. Refinery29 launched “The Anti Diet Project” in 2013 and celebrities like Portia de Rossi, Lena Dunham, Mindy Kaling and Jemima Kirke have shared their personal journeys reconciling with food and the unforgiving diet-culture we live in. Bloggers like Isabel Foxen Duke, Caroline Dooner, Katie Dalebout and Maddy Moon, among others, are inspiring us to live lives of passion and creativity by discovering self-worth internally rather than clinging to external validation.

Additionally, neuroscientist Sandra Aamodt’s TedTalk on why dieting actually does more harm than good gives insight to why diets don’t work and why they are making us so unhappy. “If dieting worked, we’d all be skinny” Aamodt says. Science has proven that diets do not work; experience tells us diets do make us feel worthless.

Negative body image is affecting people of both genders and of all different ages. Media and the internal and external language we use about our bodies are the powerful diffusers of this negativity. We don’t need to shame or promote any body type or characteristic. What we need is universal acceptance for all bodies. Think of all your body did for you today: protected you from disease, circulated blood, balanced out hormone levels, transported you to new places, created new projects, verbalized your thoughts, digested your food, breathed fresh air, saw, listened, felt, and smelled; for all these things and many more all bodies should be celebrated.

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“I love dieting!” said nobody. Ever. Food-shaming and the use of common phrases like “food-guilt” and “cheating” support this idea that our worth is derived from the shape of our bodies.

Unless you baked that chocolate cake with blood from a murder, or put on a ski mask and stole it from the bakery down the street there is no rational reason to feel guilty about it.

I want us to learn to enjoy our food and to stop deriving our worth from our waistline, because we are worth so much more.

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