Walking around campus, to and from classes. Standing in the bars downtown. Looking in the mirror getting dressed each morning with my roommates. Sitting in my nutrition classes. Riding the bike/working out in the gym. And hidden (or not so) almost everywhere in marketing and advertisements. I hear words everywhere, and these locations in particular sometimes feel clouded with the exact language I hope to highlight here and squash.
"Why do you make me do such bad things? I never eat pizza!" she whined to her friend (the one encouraging the pizza slice), in a tone that boasted her idea of health and her discipline when it comes to eating habits.
"I was so good this weekend - I didn't eat a single piece of candy," - she proclaimed, as if her rigid self-control during the Halloween holiday was something to brag about. I'll take her leftover Kit Kats and Reese' Cups!
"You are only as a good as your last meal," a quote written on the whiteboard outside the kitchen in a local hospital. And my heart plunged into my stomach and my brain wires practically exploded in confusion at how a health facility (both mental and physical) could possibly focus on such a potentially demeaning statement.
"Clean-eating", "guilt-free", "sinful", "junk".
Those are only a few of the phrases I've overheard in the past few months that haven't left my mind and seem to echo when they enter. I can distinctly remember these types of thoughts controlling my mind, though I didn't always vocalize them (because I wanted to cover up a serious issue), and their re-entrance into my life via my surrounding peers inspired me to write this because 1) my last wish is for anyone to feel controlled by such thoughts and 2) awareness of this topic is much-needed, especially around the holidays.
WHY THESE ARE HARMFUL
Gandhi said it best, I think.
Whether or not you believe in this diet chatter surrounding you, its likely to still affect you. There certainly are days when not only do I believe in it, but I fall prey to participating in it, as well. We aren't protected by rock-solid walls to prevent negativity from invading our minds throughout the day. Diet chatter is just on example - think of all the ads we see, all the conversations we overhear, all the words that stare back at us from books, news articles, magazines, etc. More or less, this invasion is like osmosis in our brains. Keeping negativity out requires conscious effort.
Gandhi warns us of the danger of all this diet chatter, if we aren't careful to set up protective boundaries and response mechanisms when we encounter it - thoughts, in essence, become our values and our future, as individuals and as a society. Words that demonize a food itself or oneself or another person for eating said food create a negative image for that food or feeling for that person, which in turn can become a permanent association or a recurring thought cycle in one's mind.
And not many negative images of specific foods or recurring thought cycles are required to spark restriction of specific foods and, in turn, eating disorders and simply poor self-esteem/body-image. With the prevalence of diet chatter today (seriously, just listen closely and pay attention to conversations, advertisements, magazine articles, and food labels), resulting eating disorders and poor self-esteem/body-image are more common than we may think.
Sociologist Dina Rose, PhD, shared in a blog post about one of the first times her daughter used the word "fat" in a sentence. And keep in mind - her daughter was three years old. Examining her belly, Rose's daughter told her mom she knew she'd be fat when she grew up because of that belly. Rose later learns that her daughter also thought her mom had a negative body image of herself, as she never liked the way clothes looked on her and must not have hidden her self-criticism from her daughter as well as she'd hoped.
Rose also shares quotes and studies conducted by other psychologists that show "fat bias" (also known as fat shaming, fear of fat) can begin as early as age three. If children can recognize poor self-esteem/body-image and, as a result, potentially experience their own self-esteem issues later on in life, how well do you think teens and young adults can? Answer: quite well.
Am I making sense? Diet chatter, fat shaming, and overall negative phrases regarding food and one's or another's own body can become our own individual thoughts, words, actions, values and future, if not kicked in the butt before they establish themselves in our minds. Look back up at the phrases and words at the beginning of this post. How can those potentially cause harm?
WHAT WE CAN DO
1) Most solutions to problems start by practicing mindfulness, which encompasses recognizing the potentially harmful phrases and words when you hear them. Again, open up your ears and your eyes when you're in public (common places: gyms, work environments, grocery stores, clothing stores, etc.) - you will most likely hear or read at least one piece of diet chatter a day. Carefully take that in, but don't absorb it. Roll it around in your brain and evaluate its possible meaning and effect. If someone says it to you, hoping for a response, be extra mindful. If you have to, don't verbally respond. I can't tell you how many awkward laughs and nods I've given in times like this because I don't want to mindlessly agree with this potentially harmful statement. Is temporary awkwardness not safer than perpetuation of negativity?
2) Once you're able to recognize this chatter, set up positive affirmations as a defense mechanism. Remind yourself of who you are - your passions, your values, your unique characteristics that shape you - so that the invading chatter doesn't try to tell you what you are - your jean size, your workout schedule, your eating habits. I like to tell myself exactly that - that the time I spent at the gym (or lack thereof), the number on my clothing tags, and what I did or didn't eat in a day has nothing to do with my value as a person. Those are superficial matters, and my intelligence, my desires, my passions go way deeper.
Another quote that stuck with me the minute I heard it is from Kylie Mitchell's interview on the Food Psych podcast (not verbatim, but pretty close): if being thin is the most interesting thing about me, then something needs to change.
3) Implement change. Be the first wave of positive encouragement for those around you by respectfully and thoughtfully responding to diet chatter, and by initiating uplifting phrases. Some examples of how I've done this:
- when someone deems a food "junk"/"bad"/"unhealthy", I try to remind he/she that in small amounts it won't do much harm (if any at all) to the body and can actually be worthy of enjoyment. everything in moderation!
- when someone says he/she neeeeeeds to go to the gym after a meal or certain amount of time off, I try to remind that person that days off are crucial, too, for muscle to rebuild itself. rest is key!
- when I see a quote in a well-known hospital that tells patients they are only worth their last meal... well, I'm still figuring how to respond to that. ideas are welcome! :)
Also, I recommend taking a second to read this post from Robyn, The Real Life RD, about dealing with "diet talk".
As I always say, I'm no Registered Dietitian or other trained professional - just a girl who's "been there", so I'm offering up my experience and tips I've formulated based off of that and what I've heard/observed from others. I hope this has created awareness if it wasn't there before, and encouraged action if you haven't yet taken any, but find opportunities to do so!