*Warning: This article contains an image of unnaturally low body weight achieved by unhealthy means that may be triggering for some.*
“I can’t. I’m on a juice-cleanse. I just need to lose X pounds.”
I swear to God if there’s one thing that will make me willingly leave this city, it’s hearing another group of brilliant, inspiring women talk about their “need” to reach some arbitrary goal weight they’ve determined will be the impetus to their elusive self-acceptance.
You know why it’s so hard to lose “those last x pounds,” peeps? Because you’re probably not supposed to. Because your body wants to keep you where you are because that’s where it’s functioning optimally. That’s where your hormones are balanced, your sleep is sound, your energy is focused, your mood is stable, your sex is the best. Yet because of the effed up, destructive messaging out there, most women believe their body doesn’t look how it “should.” So they attempt to change it (and some temporarily do).
You see, when our weight drops below where our body wants it to be, a couple things happen: first, we almost inevitably trigger a binge. This is a physiological response to restriction (starvation), meaning you don’t have much control over it. So if you’re beating yourself up because the last time you tried to follow some low-calorie plan, you ended up powering through a loaf of bread, this is why. So when you “fail” at your diet (sorry, “lifestyle”), this is why.
Second, we go into a state of anxiety in which our mind fixates on food. This is why when you’re on a diet you dream of eating, and are always thinking of your next meal or how to maintain “willpower” when you’re “tempted.”
Both physiological responses are evolutionary. In caveman times of deprivation, it would make sense we would be hyper-focused on finding food and eating everything we can get our hands on. Only now we’re self-imposing such conditions on ourselves and expecting a different evolutionary response.
The belief that women are supposed to look like photoshopped fitness models is a dangerous social construction that feeds a trillion-dollar industry.
This (social) media-generated and perpetuated belief causes us to feel really shitty about ourselves and waste money and energy on dieting (sorry, “detoxing, cleansing, and reseting”). And of course, the fixation undermines our power: as I’ve said before, when we’re distracted with trying to achieve impossible standards of beauty, we’re less likely to spend time advocating, creating, and innovating.
Even if I didn’t have my own volatile history with food and exercise, it would still be maddening to witness the unnecessary suffering so many go through as a result of the lie that they’re not enough as they are; however, it’s particularly infuriating for me because I drank the proverbial (sugar-free) Kool-Aid for more than a decade.
Eating disorders are in my DNA. My dad’s mom, who was at one time on the Canadian National Ski Team, ultimately starved herself to death. My Mom, who (at least from what I can tell in photos) shared my athletic thighs as a young woman, is a skeletal version of her early 20’s self–my oldest memories are of her stepping on and off the scale and fat-free everything. And then there’s my dad, who skied and played tennis competitively, exercises compulsively, and never had a filter when it comes to women’s weight (cue #daddyissues and fusing my weight and self-worth).
I’d skied and played soccer and tennis from the time I could walk, and when at fifteen I grew a butt and hips on top of my already muscular lower half, my unaware guy-friends began to make comments about my “thunder thighs.” Awash with shame, I decided to diet, which quickly transformed into bulimia. *Bulimia almost always starts with a restrictive diet. Recall the body’s way of responding to self-imposed starvation (yes, that’s what dieting, overexercising, and other forms of restriction are) is bingeing, and many respond to that by purging. Then restricting again. Then bingeing again. Then purging again. And so on.
What began as a strategy for weight loss (LOL!) doubled as an effective way of running from myself. I was a particularly angsty, self-loathing teenager (can still rap every Eminem Show lyric fifteen years later, whattup), and I decided I was not allowed to feel feelings. And when I was engaging in my eating disorder, I didn’t have to feel.
After eight years of crying on the bathroom floor, my eating disorder took a different form. I stopped purging and fell into the throes of anorexia. I starved and overexercised, justifying my behavior as the “walking the walk” as a personal trainer. In my mind, I had finally beaten bulimia and just had excellent self-control. I praised myself as I obsessively counted calories and added them up in my journal. I considered myself “disciplined” when I snuck into the gym where I worked to run on the treadmill at 2am. I convinced myself it was just projection when my mom, aunt, dad, stepmom, brother, doctor, physical therapist, and two best friends had interventions with me. I never made the link that my crippling perfectionism, depression, anxiety, and low self-worth might also share roots with my eating disorder.
If you’re interested in a more detailed account of my journey and what led to my recovery, check out my interview with Christy Harrison on Food Psych Podcast. In short, it was combination of rock bottom and serendipity: a breakdown, a breakup, a book that changed my worldview, an overexercising injury that brought me to yoga. Recovery was really fucking challenging. I remember crying a lot. Shame, anxiety, frustration, and powerlessness colored my everyday. I declined events, untagged photos, and threw temper tantrums every time I tried on an item of clothing. But somewhere along the way, I decided to stop fighting my biology and permit myself to be the athlete (and accompanying athletic shape) that I am. And holy shit, was recovery ever worth it. I truly didn’t know life could be this joyful.
I tell my story because the imagery and messaging in the wellness industry both triggers and perpetuates eating disorders. Visit any wellness website or influencer’s profile, and you’re inundated with pictures of thin, white women, detoxes and cleanses, and intense workouts. The result? A narrow, dangerous interpretation of what “wellness” means.
The term “wellness” should not conjure up images of restrictive diets and impossibly low body-fat percentages. But it does. Those who value wellness should not feel shame for eating a pastry. Or eating “the whole thing.” Or eating more than their partner. But they do. Why? Because of what we don’t see:
We don’t see the night sweats, the anxiety, the missed periods, the digestive upset, the fights with their partners because they’ve chosen their workout over Sunday morning together–again; the bingeing, the purging, the overexercising, the guilt, the shame, the conflict, the crying, the obsession with food, the self- and other-judgment. We don’t see genetic influence, metabolic rate, privilege, stress, mental illness, addiction, or trauma.
Nor do we see the millions of larger-bodied men and women who value wellness and embrace nutritious foods and movement; who have healthy blood pressure, heart rates, cholesterol, hormones, and other markers of health, but whose BMIs suggests they’re “overweight.” We don’t see disability, diversity, cellulite, soft bellies, dessert, syrupy cocktails, and days of rest–when all can and should be embraced as “wellness.”
Subsequently, two things happen: First, we are made to believe that the ideal fed to us is achievable without sacrificing health and peace (and we beat ourselves up for “failing” to achieve it while attempting Insert Health Coach’s Name here’s 30 Day Plan!).
Second, we are made to believe that a body that doesn’t fit into a reductionist view of wellness is unwell (and we beat ourselves up for being hypocritical–for valuing “wellness” but not embodying it).
My clients often share with my their shame about their habits. “I feel like such a fraud,” they say. “My friends have always admired how healthy I am, and little do they know what I’m doing to my body” (usually in reference to bingeing, purging, night eating, or consuming demonized foods like sugar and gluten). Or, “How will anyone take me seriously as a trainer/yoga instructor/dietitian with a body like this?” (in reference to their NORMAL body).
But if you think about it, the wellness industry would select for individuals whose bodies naturally rest above media ideals. Because let’s be honest here: What causes most of us to become so interested in “wellness” we want to pursue it as a career? You guessed it. We land there on our journeys to manipulate our physical bodies into “good enough,” because naturally, in our opinion, they aren’t. I’m certain my obsession with nutrition or stint as a personal trainer wouldn’t have been part of my travels if it weren’t for my belief that if I were thinner, I would finally feel like a worthy human being.
Which brings me to wellness “influencers:” You are called an “influencer” for a reason: you influence others’ decisions, actions, and beliefs about their worth. I know you’re on your own journey toward self-acceptance as well, but (and particularly those with MD, RD, ND, MSc, etc. next to your name), please know the power you hold, and advocate for a safer, more inclusive, realistic portrayal of “wellness.”
When you post about your water fast (true story), your keto meal, your #noexcuses workout–when you allow your eating disorder to control your social media account, you endorse an industry based entirely on the idea that you are not good enough as you are.
There is nothing wrong with enjoying certain foods over others and exercising from a place of love and care. But there is something wrong with deceiving vulnerable followers into believing their bodies are to be manipulated. There is something wrong with limiting “wellness” to abs and macros and (occasionally) red wine and tequila.
So to wellness media, please consider including diverse body types and interpretations of “wellness” in your imaging and messaging. Consider emphasizing health over aesthetic. Consider considering not everyone needs to avoid gluten.
And to wellness influencers, please tell the whole story, and consider where you might be unknowingly projecting your inner demons out to vulnerable followers (and for the love of God, don’t use FaceTune to flatten your stomach and shave down your thighs!);
And finally, to the woman who wants to lose those last X pounds, consider unfollowing “fitspirational” accounts. Consider your body is right where it wants to be for optimal functioning. Consider you are already enough exactly as you are.
If you or someone you know is struggling with and eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association’s toll-free Information and Referral Helpline at 800–931–2237, or visit their website.
Megan Bruneau, M.A. RCC is a mental health therapist, wellness coach, and host of Forbes’ The Failure Factor. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube.