Two days ago the editor of this site very innocently put out a call for someone to write about the Whole30 diet. Something inside me snapped.
Be prepared to disagree with me (and tell me if you do), and to possibly be offended. I am not a scientist, I am not a nutritionist, I am not an expert. I’m trying to live the best way I can, messing up all the time, succeeding some of the time, and often putting it all out there online. One friend in particular calls me an ‘oversharing Aries’. I wasn’t aware it was an astrological characteristic.
It’s not about Whole30 either: you could substitute the name of any diet at all in there. And if I’d read this piece eight or nine, or even three or four years ago, I probably would have rolled my eyes and said ‘ok, fine for this lady, but she just doesn’t get me’. I’m not afraid to admit I viewed myself as a special case, as many young women do especially in relation to dietary issues. But I’ve changed. And no doubt I will change again. That’s life.
I remember the moment clearly.
I was 14 years old when eating issues came out of my head and leapt into real life. It was the first step down a road that nearly killed me. One that consumed my money, my time, my energy and my intellect, not to mention my mental and physical health. I was not alone, not in my demographic; nor at my school. I recall my early teens as a time where I put myself under enormous pressure to achieve. I wasn’t alone there either. We were lauded: the girls who went from swim team in the morning to choir before school before raising their hands up with all the answers to all the homework questions. The girls who Captained the tennis team and played in band and got more or less straight As. A friend with whom I used to have ‘toast eating competitions’ in the boarding house in the mornings after cross country training was hospitalised with anorexia at one point. I remember visiting her with a mix of curiosity about the treatment she was getting, realising simultaneously that this was not a game anymore. None of this was, from my anecdotal research, a unique experience. Just think how much worse it might have been with Instagram.
‘The what ifs’
Just as we reflect on the ‘what ifs’ of the women whose Hollywood careers were disrupted by sexism and culture woven into the fabric of everyday working life, as if it were as normal as having a cup of coffee in the morning, I now reflect on the ‘what ifs’ of the thousands of young women whose lives are wholly consumed – as mine was – with obsession on perfection (perceived), image and size.
Just as we are discovering the cost of the careers of brilliant actresses who might have been but for the work they missed out on for speaking up, or counting themselves out after experiencing sexual harassment, I am thinking of the cost – physical, mental, personal, societal and even in the workplace, to the talent pool – of our obsession with food and image on my peers. I’m thinking of the women who still might be.
There is a cost to this.
And I’m not just talking about all the thousands of dollars on wasted food. Imagine if women spent their time and energy focusing more on the stuff they were really, really passionate about.. If they got up in the morning and put on clothes they liked and didn’t even look in the mirror, and ate whatever they felt like for breakfast. If, instead of making a million tiny criticisms and adjustments and taking precautions and painting and coiffing themselves to the point where they felt just about able to acceptably step outside the house, they could spend that energy on things they loved doing . And that if regardless of what they loved doing: climbing mountains, kicking ass in the corporate world, being a parent without working outside the house, volunteering at a charity, or doing anything at all, that we could all drop the judgments, encourage one another, and let people be. I’m not saying this doesn’t happen, but I don’t yet reckon it’s the norm, and the rise and rise of social media can be a force for empowerment, but more often I suspect is a force for fuelling comparison and obsession. We need to be brave enough to do this ourselves, and compassionate enough to allow others to do it in our presence too. (These tips on stepping away from social media will keep you mindful).
What is perfect anyway?
Call it narcissism, call it obsession, call it anorexia, bulimia, EDNOS, body dysmorphia; call it whatever you want. But it’s scary and dangerous and it’s consuming the minds of young women and increasingly young men too and I’ll just call it what it is: a mental health issue, fuelled by a society whose currency is style, not substance; which often values image more than intellect.
Decision fatigue is a real thing. Brain power is limited. We are not robots. Imagine if we focused not on carbs or calories but instead on discovering our talents, our special place in life; what we were put on earth to do. On our relationships and on talking to people and looking to see what was inside them, rather than what they were using to cover up? I know that my insecurity, my obsession with food and image; trying to look perfect and be perfect, has cost me dearly.
Now, as a yoga and pilates teacher, I love scrolling through health and wellness sites. Some of the articles really do make me cringe though and I know in my heart of hearts that the site would have been, especially when I was really struggling, a safe harbour for me to sail my ship of pathology and fear in to. It would have helped me justify the absurdity of what I was doing.*
What really matters?
There are bigger issues going around than whether your local café stocks almond or rice milk and whether you can get your gluten-free toast. Bigger issues like: food wastage, like the fact that sea salt is now full of plastic, that there are millions of people who can’t afford to buy food at all; and even more a level just above them who are gasping for air and barely surviving above the poverty line. These people would laugh (and/or cry) at the idea of us: obsessing over whether we are eating too many carbs or too much sugar.
(Please note I am not having a crack at coeliacs, or diabetics, or people with autoimmune diseases, or anyone with medical reasons for being on an eating plan. Obviously this is necessary).
Eating is about joy. Eating is about communion. Eating is about shared experience – and I can tell you from some of my own lonely experiences that half a loaf of bread at 11.30pm at night on your own to try and numb your feelings is not joyful or fulfilling.
So here’s what I do think.
To be healthy, eat more vegetables. Way more vegetables. So many that you don’t have space in your diet or stomach or wallet or life to eat crap. (And don’t eat crap). Eat fruit (sorry Sarah Wilson). Don’t eat processed foods. Don’t pretend that gluten free snacks or other snack foods that are marketed as healthy are good for you. Stop spending so much time worrying and obsessing over what you are eating. Eat with friends and family. Make it fun. Don’t talk about how fat you are in front of your kids. Don’t be on your phone while you’re eating. If you are eating by yourself, make a meal, don’t hunt around the kitchen for scraps of rice crackers or almonds. Light a candle, put on some music, and cook yourself a steak.** I doubt (I hope anyway) that on our deathbeds we will be worrying about a piece of focaccia or carrot cake.
So screw the diet. Screw all diets. If it helps to get you on track, off junk food and in to a healthy routine, I’m all for it. but don’t let it become your life. There’s too much other stuff to get busy doing.
*Dear well+good editors, I still love your site and I still want to write for you.
**Breakfast foods like frittata also count as dinner 😊