Editor’s note: This is part of an ongoing series that takes a closer look at eating disorders, eating disorders, and the relationship to food and body image.
Ending dieting cycles and learning to accept the body you’re in sounds great, but it can feel a bit like a fairy tale.
How to control your diet without counting calories? How to stop planning the day when you are thinner? How do you wake up one day without these shameful, mean thoughts knocking at the door of your brain?
It’s tough, said Bri Campos, a body image coach based in Paramus, New Jersey. The goal may not be to fully celebrate your body or free yourself from all the negative thoughts about weight that stem from diet culture, she said. It could simply mean making progress in feeling less shame or self-criticism.
Diet culture is the prevalent societal message that small bodies are better, big bodies are shameful, and restricted eating is key to an “acceptable” body. Attributing these messages is harmful for people of all body types, especially since it can promote eating disorders and make recovery even more difficult, according to the National Eating Disorder Association.
The promise of achieving (and keeping) the ideal body is hollow, because drastic weight loss in a short period of time is likely to be followed by someone who will regain it. According to a 2017 study, slow, sustained changes are often more successful. And while some studies recommend losing weight to reduce the risk of diseases such as heart disease and cancer, it’s also true that health is determined by many factors – shame doesn’t help.
There are ways to unlearn food culture, Campos said. The process is different for each person, but it can help find community with others with similar goals, she added.
Here are several stories of people trying to reject diet culture and what they found along the way.
Shanea Pallone began to question her experience of diet culture after a doctor shamed her during an appointment. It was difficult to be a patient in a medical system that caused her so much harm. “I’m actively hurt by providers who don’t see me as more than my weight on the scale,” Pallone said.
But Pallone, who lives in Houston, Texas, also works as a nurse; her job required her to assess her patients’ weight, indicate whether they were considered obese on their medical records and teach them the same dieting tactics she was trying to unlearn herself, she said .
Pallone recalled constantly asking herself, “How can I manage my own care and provide good care while working to unpack some of the ways the diet culture is still sinking?” Her response included a throwback to research that showed diets didn’t work – and confirmed she could live healthy and care without shame.
Learning about intuitive eating – an eating philosophy that relies on the body’s natural signals of hunger and fullness – has helped her on her personal and professional journeys.
Changing the way you think doesn’t mean the intrusive thoughts about food and eating go away completely, but it’s become easier to see them and try to calm them down, Pallone said. Now Pallone strives to help her patients achieve their health goals without stopping them from eating the foods they love to eat or making them feel like they’ve failed, she said.
But while she was able to have significant impacts on her patients, she had to accept that she couldn’t save everyone from diet culture.
“It’s really hard to walk away from a woman in her 80s, heading into hospice, who (is) like, ‘It’s really good that I’m losing weight, I’ve always been a little big’,” Pallone said.
Amanda Mittman, a registered dietitian in Amherst, Massachusetts, began to drift away from diet culture after the birth of her son. She couldn’t bring herself to go back to a restrictive way of eating as a new mother, but still felt shame for the weight she hadn’t lost after giving birth, she said.
“We are all still swimming in the same toxic soup,” she said.
Mittman’s first step was learning to identify the food culture around her, in entertainment media, in advertisements and even in conversations with friends and family, she said. .
And once she saw it — like pulling back the curtain on The Wizard of Oz — she found she couldn’t go back to how she saw things before.
That didn’t mean she was ready to give up dieting and completely accept her body. Diets had always offered him a magic solution: lose weight and you can have everything you ever wanted. It was scary to let that dream go – and face the possibility that by living differently, she might gain weight instead of lose it.
But as she found a community without a diet culture and moved her social media feeds away from valuing weight loss, Mittman said coming to terms with the grief and mourning that comes with giving up on those goals has become a big deal. part of his process.
“I always think ‘wouldn’t it be great if I could lose weight?'” she said. But she recalls, “We went down that road and it’s just not available to me anymore.
The work of accepting your body and loving yourself is not glamorous, she says. There’s “no cap and gowns, you don’t graduate — it’s constant work,” Mittman said. “But it gets easier all the time.”
After years on her college rowing team and trying to shape her body to meet expectations, Sandra Thies found herself a bit lost without a strict diet or exercise routine.
“The easy way out is to go on another diet, buy a diet culture online, restrict your diet,” Thies said. “It’s the easy way to feel like you’re in control.”
Much of this desire for control would manifest around reflective surfaces, she said.
Whether it was the windows she walked past, the mirrors in her work bathroom or even at home when she got out of the shower – all were places where Thies pushed and pushed her body, to see if she needed to practice or if she could give herself a little extra at dinner. And days struggling with her reflection turned into nights spent staring at the ceiling, thinking about what she could do better the next day to get closer to her “ideal” body.
Thies, now an intuitive eating counselor in Kelowna, BC, discovered the concept in college and remembers thinking, “Wouldn’t it be nice to be at peace with food and your body?” Four years later, she feels like she’s still learning to move in a way that feels good, to eat what her body needs, and to stand in front of her reflection without taking it down.
But the mirror actually became part of her solution, she said.
She has questions now written on her mirror at home: “What is the feeling? Where do you feel it in your body? How bad is that? Can we sit still in this discomfort? What do you need right now? »
She is now trying to take the time to sit with those feelings. Sometimes she manages to answer all the questions. But on the days she can’t, Thies said she gives herself permission to do what she can to keep her self-talk positive.
“I think about my body and my food very often,” Thies said. “But the voice I use has really changed. It leaves me feeling confident and empowered rather than falling apart.
Dani Bryant thought his experiments with his body would threaten his creative dreams, but instead they turned out to be a way to get there.
As a kid with a passion for theater, Bryant heard similar messages from her directors, chorus teachers, and costume designers: You’re so talented, but your body has to be smaller if you want to make it big.
She was only 9 years old when she first showed signs of eating disorders. During her sophomore year of college pursuing a career in acting, she had developed anorexia, Bryant said.
As part of Bryant’s recovery, she began writing and developed a theater company in Chicago that focused on experiences with body issues and eating disorders, Bryant said. There she found the support she saw as key to her developing relationship with her body.
“My healing is so much about sharing lived experience, building community around it, and that slow unlearning,” she said.
A big moment in Bryant’s healing journey came when she went with her mother on a trip to Ellis Island in New York, where they came across a photo of her family who arrived in the United States some time ago. generations.
In the photo, she saw her great-grandmother, whose body was the same shape as her grandmother, her mother and hers, Bryant said.
There she realized that her body was more than her choices or her diet – it was the result of her family, her genetics and her history.
She wished she could go back to the little girl she once was to show her this photo and ask her to stop fighting the ‘unwinnable war’ for a smaller body than she ever should have had, a- she declared.