Eating Disorders Awareness Week - Monday, February 27 to Sunday, March 5th
*This article includes references to eating disorders. If you or someone you know is in need of support, we've provided resources at the end of this article.
I stare blankly at the computer screen in front of me, my blinking cursor seeming to taunt me. I had made the decision to write a follow-up to my previous submission as an excuse to not only check in with myself and keep myself accountable for the new year but also to reflect on whether anything about the culture and environment around me had changed for the better in the year since I submitted my last essay.
The last time I had written on this topic, I was uncertain whether the diet talk surrounding me at the time would cease. I had naively hoped that more people would become mindful and conscientious about how they spoke of themselves and commented on others, thanks to the impact of the growing body-neutral and positivity movement; however, I was disappointed to find that if anything, I witnessed more instances of fat-shaming than I did the year before.
The worst part? I found myself doing little to challenge those beliefs. To be fair, I wasn’t always in a position where I felt that I could comfortably advocate for myself. It takes everything in me to disassociate during those moments. The amount of time spent, and level of intentionality it takes for me to tune out fatphobic comments is extraordinarily laborious, leaving me little energy left to speak up on the matter.
When toxic messaging such as calorie counting, over-exercising, extreme weight loss, restrictive eating, etc. are discussed in front of me, it gives my eating disorder every reason to normalize my unhealthy and dangerous habits. Still, it has bothered me that despite “knowing better” and wanting better for others, I have stayed silent. I want to do better for myself and others struggling and recovering from an eating disorder, or any form of body/self-dissatisfaction.
It is exhausting to live in a world where I’m told to celebrate my whole self while being encouraged to abandon my basic needs to live a full and healthy life in order to be valued and accepted by society.
Throughout much of last year, I observed many instances of people of all ages making comments on their bodies, their food intake, exercise regime, and at times, the bodies and lifestyles of others.
It was only after I came out of my last stint in treatment that I came to realize how culturally normative body and food shaming was. Since then, my ability to identify the problematic nature and damaging effects of diet talk has intensified.
The pervasive nature of self-shaming comments and food policing is concerning, especially during the holidays when everything becomes so diet-focused, and food morality is an everyday part of connecting with others. The normalization of such a binary, all-or-nothing belief system begs to question: is that all there is to life? What is inherently wrong with possessing body fat or occupying a larger body? What about the unique lived experiences of every individual and their body’s needs? How about their character and treatment of others? What is so unappealing or unacceptable about inhabiting a body as is without prescribing any of society’s “shoulds”?
I recall a conversation that took place recently in which I was surrounded by family members whom I thought understood the severity of my illness, given my painful history, who proceeded to openly and extensively discuss the “brave” nature of a beautiful woman who was pictured in a group photo surrounded by friends for “putting herself out there.”
The woman in question did not conform to what they thought was a socially acceptable weight. Their initial comments were soon punctuated by a simple, “She’s big, huh?” I could hardly believe what I was hearing. In 3 minutes, I witnessed a group of people reduce someone they don’t know down to their weight and appearance. To them, that’s all they saw. Not the joy or happiness on everyone’s face, nor the beautiful scenery, but that she was fat. It was then that I realized that I could not and cannot rely on those who are not actively part of the body-neutral/positivity movement to check themselves or understand their part in promoting dangerous ideations of an individual's worth.
Self-Care in the Face of Fatism
The example I provided prior is one of many similar experiences I had last year, with different members of my social circle, all of whom if you asked, would respond they intended no harm. To those who are biologically and/or environmentally predisposed to develop an eating disorder, overhearing or being the subject of such dangerous messaging sends a powerful message of how one should carry oneself in society.
Of the many factors that contributed to the development of my disorder, diet talk had a huge part in influencing how I saw and felt about myself. Although I recognize the ways in which I was biologically pre-dispositioned to have this illness, I wasn’t born to harbor any preferences for a particular kind of body type or specific food choices. It was taught to me, and it was something that I learned.
I was conditioned early on to believe how I was viewed in this world was one of the most important things. Judging someone or yourself, simply on how you present outwardly, as I have come to learn, is incredibly narrow-minded. It not only upholds an outdated and medically unsound system of beliefs about one’s value and health, but it also doesn’t paint the full picture of one’s whole self. There is more to this life than my food choices and how I am perceived/accepted by others.
So what are the experts saying? What do you do when you find yourself dissociating, internalizing, and/or suppressing any hurt or anxious feelings related to diet talk? The team at Central Coast Treatment Center recommends suffering individuals do the following:
- Talk to your therapist or treatment team
- Tell trusted loved ones and friends how you feel
- Remember you do not have to educate others
- Initiate a neutral topic to diffuse the conversation or plan an exit strategy ahead of time
Of the different recommendations provided by Central Coast, I have found their gentle reminder on education to be the most powerful. By realizing that I do not have to engage in any dialogue or interactions with individuals who are unsafe on the topic of body neutrality and positivity, I have relieved myself of the pressure of justifying my pain to others who may or may not understand the complexities and harms surrounding diet talk.
While I feel that it is vitally important to combat such discussions as they take place, I have personally found it very tiresome to explain my discomfort to others, as well as detail the nuances of diet culture, especially when I do not feel that I am in the right state of mind. Oftentimes I change the subject or leave the conversation entirely. I refuse to add any fuel to what is already a very unsettling dimension of our society. While I can sympathize and can feel compassion for those who struggle with feeling at home in their own bodies, I will not do anything to justify or encourage any unhealthy behaviors that foster any disordered eating habits or over-exercising.
In moving forward, I have resolved myself to stop tolerating diet talk and learn how to better protect my peace of mind. I want to improve my ability to challenge and/or request others to refrain from having weight-related conversations, especially with loved ones and those closest to me. As dedicated as I am to seeing this commitment through, I fully recognize that despite my best efforts to eradicate diet talk, it is nearly impossible to avoid and even more challenging to dismantle. It’s something that all of us have engaged in at some point. At times, it feels inescapable.
I can name just about every scenario where I have experienced this conversation taking place (ex. at the office with colleagues, at social events with friends, during vacations, during family get-togethers, at the gym, etc.). I want to realize what power/choice I have in those moments to shift the conversation; I have learned that I cannot and will not expect others to understand nor cater to my needs (they are equally victims of our diet culture); therefore, it’s up to those of us who have come to understand and have the ability to see through the diet industry and society’s obsession with thinness, to call out the detrimental effects that such a preoccupation has on all of us.
Final Thoughts: Self-Healing and Collective Care
I don’t expect this issue to be solved in my lifetime. I am already anticipating a number of people who read this to respond that there are exceptions to what I wrote, and that I’m being overly sensitive; that I should take all this less seriously and mind my own business. Since entering my 5th year of recovery, soon to be 6th, I feel that I owe my younger self and all those who are affected by this cultural obsession with thinness (which benefits no one), a chance to re-shift their mindset and reimagine the ways they approach the subject of food and exercise from a gentler place, one of which takes into account the full lives of each and every person.
It is not unreasonable to hope that diet talk is extinguished. I want to see food as a joy and privilege, not as something to be fearful of. I want to offer compassion but also to stand firm in my commitment to steer clear of any conversation that is inherently fatphobic. I want to offer support and acknowledge the challenges of accepting ourselves for the way that we are, living in the kind of world we do. I want to continue to eat intuitively, honor my body’s cravings, trust my internal signals, and be mindful of what content I allow myself to consume, and who I choose to surround myself with. I want to stay fully aware of the insidious nature of diet culture and the way external conversations influence my feelings about my body, my food choices, and myself.
I was nearly 8 years old when I first experienced body dissatisfaction and dieting and exercising as young as 12 years old to cope with the pain that came with the disconnection I felt from others and myself. Now in my 28th year of life, I am desperately trying to unlearn the harmful “lessons” that were taught to me the first 22+ of my life, all while living in a society that has yet to acknowledge the dangers of diet talk. I do not doubt that I will spend the rest of my days managing my symptoms and learning how to best protect myself in a world that can at times feel so cruel and unforgiving to those who refuse to conform to society’s expectations of “perfection”. It is my hope that all those who read this article will set a similar intention of treating themselves and others more kindly, for life is far too short to spend wishing and working to be accepted and loved by others.
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