When you hear someone talk about a relationship that is oppressive, shameful, controlling, and detrimental to the person’s physical, mental, psychological, and spiritual wellbeing: How would you define the relationship? Would you want the person to stay?
If you heard someone say that their relationship made them isolated, depressed, disconnected: Would you encourage them to stay?
This is the type of relationship people are often pushed into when subject to weight biases and trying to follow the rules laid out by diet culture.
This relationship describes the relationship I developed with my own body when my mind was overtaken by the rules of diet culture, which started innocently before developing into anorexia, an eating disorder that has consumed and threatened to take my life, leaving deep scars along the way.
Working to heal from this relationship and an eating disorder shapes my advocacy as I see and hear the abusive relationships with our bodies all around me.
I’ll pause to say: Eating disorders are mental health conditions impacting people of all bodies. For me, anorexia has been a key coping skill that has numbed me from psychological pain. The role of weight stigma and diet culture in my eating disorder was that following the rules of diet culture and controlling my food and exercise allowed me to have a sense of control in my life that ultimately exposed my predisposition to developing anorexia.
As a massive rule follower and (recovering) perfectionist, I studied the rules of diet culture and tried to combine them all: I came up empty. Completely empty since the recommendations often contradict one another.
Do I eat low-fat? High fat? Low carb? High carb? No meat? All meat? Frequently? Intermittent fast?
Ultimately, trying to follow all the rules led to anxiety about eating anything at all.
Sure, we can’t follow all the diet recommendations at once. We are taught to “do what works best for your body.” Through cycling through diets to figure out “what works best for me,” I became controlled, trapped, anxious, and hyper-focused on the perceived flaws of my body. I consumed all diet messages and wanted every exercise machine that I ever saw on infomercials. I even skipped school to ride my bike to the local grocery store for diet products (i.e., weight loss pills). I became obsessed, and I went all in. Diet culture promised me such a better life. Of course, I wanted all in. Anorexia promised me that following all the rules would give me a sense of control: Why wouldn’t I want that?
The reality? I spiraled out of control.
Following the rules from diet commercial messages that promised me happiness, increased self-worth, and a better body led me to hate myself more, even when I got the results that were markers of “success.”
Further, when we focus all of our attention on weight loss: We often lose much more than “weight.”
For me, I lost time with friends, family, relationships, jobs. I lost myself.
Healing from the abusive relationship with myself, I feel angry when I see diet messages. I see clearly, now, how the messages preyed and capitalized on my vulnerabilities and insecurities. Diet culture sells us hard and receives a great profit as dieting actually perpetuates the vulnerabilities and insecurities that lead people to consume the messages in the first place.
I see, now, how diet culture’s messages that I must be “smaller” made me speak up less and held me back in other aspects of my life. I was taught not to “take up space.” How oppressive! Why do we allow these messages to persist? Who’s winning here?
Last year, I found myself in a medically compromised state as my mind and body had taken on one more battle with diet culture and anorexia as means to cope with the stresses of life. This time, I had enough, and I finally saw my relationship with diet culture and myself for what it was: abusive. This is where the healing started.
To get my life back, I had to confront the lies of anorexia, diet culture, and weight biases pervasive in our health care system and society, which simply had no place in a true commitment to eating disorder recovery.
Before this past year, my journey has been mostly in silence. Silenced? Wow. How commonly associated with abuse.
Well, being silent helped no one. We must use our voice. So here I am, in hopes that my messages will help others.
As I look around, I know I am not alone. I feel how consumed we are in diet culture and hear the messages around “weight” that we are taught in medical school that needs to be challenged. Let’s challenge them: The health at every size movement is a tremendous start.
The reality is that our focus and methods to promote “health” by focusing on “weight” often contribute to the opposite.
Let us help others to heal the wounds of weight stigma and diet culture and nurture the scars these long-held beliefs leave behind.
For me, the scars of constantly being driven to “lose weight,” “eat less,” and “exercise more” come in the form of losing so much life as I isolated and numbed myself from the shame of my body (regardless of weight).
In using our voices, we can free ourselves.
And on the road to healing, I prescribe self-compassion. Though I am not your doctor, that’s one prescription I am happy to write for all. When we have such deep-rooted self-compassion and awareness of our inner self-worth, we may learn to reject the oppressive messages to “be smaller” and remain silent. We may learn to stand confidently, speak up, and appreciate the amazing gifts that our bodies provide.
No scale can measure all the amazing things a body can do. No scale can measure your worth. You are inherently worthy, and no one is more perfect at being you than you.
Jillian Rigert is an oral medicine specialist and radiation oncology research fellow.
Image credit: Shutterstock.com