By: Sarah Normandin – Confluence Daily is your daily news source for women in the know.
As bikini season swiftly approaches, I notice the all too familiar feeling of self-judgment begin to creep into the back of my mind. I start thinking about bathing suits and cellulite and age more often than I’d like to admit, wondering how long it might take me to get in better shape, if it’s worth buying some “miracle” cream or if I could secretly get liposuction in Mexico. I’m pretty sure I’m not the only woman this happens to–we all seem to spend a little too much time obsessing about how we look. It’s rare that I run across a woman who is really comfortable in her own skin. Whether it’s the last 5 pounds or the first 25, most women I know are pretty invested in having their bodies look a certain way. And it doesn’t really seem to matter where you fall on the spectrum, it never feels good enough.
Anyone who has worked with me, most likely knows that I don’t support diet culture. And that’s putting it kindly. I really can’t stand it, and yet I fall prey to it just like everyone else. Diet culture contributes to more of women’s mental health problems than most of us probably realize. Being unhappy with the way they look, is one of the main reasons many of my clients site for their low self-esteem, lack of confidence, social problems and frankly unhappiness. A lot of them are hell bent on starting another diet, another exercise program, another, another, another. But you will never catch me agreeing with any of them that they need to lose weight.
We have been sold on a lie, a myth that being thin is basically the answer to everything–all of life’s problems. If we were just skinnier, then we would have everything we want–a successful career, a perfect relationship, the admiration of others. This sets the stage for the diet industry to lure women into trying to lose weight that they usually gain back, because spoiler alert: diets don’t actually work! If they did, wouldn’t every woman be a size 2? Weight gain is not for lack of willpower people, the truth is that when you try to lose weight, your mind and body rebel. Your body wants to keep weight on, to survive in times of famine, to support your fertility. When you try to lose it, you send the message that nourishment is scarce and you can gain more weight than you lost in the first place.
I came to really understand this in myself a couple of years ago. You see, I’d had a pretty typical relationship with my body over my lifespan, things were up and down, but I was doing ok at that point. And then I had a health problem that no one could figure out and someone suggested that I try a really restrictive diet to help. And in my desperation to feel better, I cut out nearly every food known to humankind. I mean, I wasn’t eating much. No grains, dairy, legumes, acidic foods (so most fruits, tea, coffee), no nuts or eggs. And I was sad, so so sad. And I lost 10 pounds. And then I realized that it wasn’t helping, so I started eating normally again a few months later and I gained 15 pounds. I could tell that my mind was terrified that I was going to cut all those foods out again, proving to me that restriction, simply resulted in weight gain after the fact.
It blows my mind that we still buy into this. But we do. Over and over and over, while the diet industry rakes in the cash, and women flock to me wondering why they don’t feel good about themselves. It’s the scam of all scams–and it’s hard to watch women throw away their mental health and well-being on the newest diet fad. The irony is a lot of people use diet and exercise to manage their anxiety. It goes something like: if I can just control this one part of my life, I can feel safe. I can feel accepted, I can feel loved or lovable. The problem is that this eventually creates more anxiety as you struggle to stick to extreme diet and exercise routines, you get more and more worried that you won’t be able to maintain it, which leads to more anxiety, which leads to an ever increasing need to control your weight.
And I’m going to go out on a limb and say something REALLY unpopular. I think a lot of over-exercising is being sold as health. If your main emotional coping strategy is exercise, I think you may have a problem. Because what if you can’t exercise? I see this happen all the time. For example, someone runs a lot and gets a lot of kudos, because let’s face it, we think people who run are morally superior (that’s a separate conversation). Someone runs all the time and it’s their thing. Their life is built around it. And then they can’t run anymore for some reason or other, and then they fall apart. Using exercise to avoid pain is like taking a mortgage out on a condemned house. The walls are falling down and sooner or later you’re going to be homeless.
Before I totally piss off all the runners, I’m not saying that a lot of people don’t have healthy exercise patterns, but disordered exercise does exist and is quite prevalent and frankly is encouraged. Moving your body is important–you’re going to want to maintain your mobility as you get older, working up a sweat can be satisfying, it’s good to be strong. But too much exercise does not make you better than other people, and most importantly, it does not provide you safety or security. Exercise in of itself cannot ensure your wellbeing and the problem is that the diet industry would insist that it does.
The same with treating certain foods with religious fervour. Vegetables are great, but eating vegetables in of itself will not guarantee your everlasting health and happiness. Because the truth is, we don’t even know what’s healthy anymore. When hard pressed, I don’t think any expert could tell you that they know for sure what you should eat besides food–and that’s a dicey prospect at best. There’s too much conflicting evidence, and too much money at stake. I’m sure some company out there is already trying to make a case for a diet that consists entirely of sour candies and cheese puffs. The problem is, nutrition advice is not always altruistic, there’s big money to be had by selling us on some diet or another.
I guess at this point, I’m just asking women to rethink their self-criticism and acknowledge these pervasive beliefs that we just seem to take for granted. The diet industry has gotten really good at making it seem like we need to buy into their dogma, or be sad and unhealthy and full of “toxins.” So I dare you, eat a donut because it tastes good and don’t feel guilty if you’re too tired to exercise today. Go for a walk instead, enjoy the sights. Do things that feel good. Eat food that is satisfying. You’re not a bad person if you don’t CrossFit regularly and eat spaghetti on occasion. So this bikini season I hope you’ll find me frequenting bakeries and lying on the couch when I feel like it, because thinking about diet culture is exhausting and I need a nap.
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Sarah is a therapist and coach who has been supporting women for over 12 years in creating lives that align with their own values. As a mother and a wife, she understands the complexity of modern life and how to manage stress while juggling many responsibilities. She believes in having fun, taking naps and saying no as often as possible. If you’re interested in exploring motherhood, imperfection and doing less to have more–or just want someone to tell you to take a break, you can find her at sarahnormandin.com.
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