Written by: Rebecca Clegg, LPC
The other day I was in line at Yoforia, my favorite frozen yogurt store. I was standing behind two young girls, who were agonizing over their topping selections.
“I really want M&M’s”, said one girl to the other.
“Ugh, me too, but I shouldn’t…I don’t want to deal with the guilt”, replied her friend.
They both made sad faces at each other and started to giggle a little.
“We could always go to the gym later” said the first girl as she scooped a few spoonfuls of M&M’s onto her yogurt, quickly popping the lid on and hurrying over to the counter to pay, as if hesitating might somehow change her mind.
You may not have been there with me that day, but everybody knows this girl.
She can’t let herself eat without being critical of her choices. Everything she consumes is monitored and categorized, “good or bad”, “healthy or unhealthy”. The tone of her day, her very self worth is predicated around her food choices. The way she relates to food defines who she is and how she feels about herself.
As a therapist who specializes in eating disorders, I watch exchanges such as this with a keen eye. I sat there taking in their conversation, and a myriad of feelings came over me. All at once I felt empathy, sadness, anger and conviction.
It is estimated that in the United States, 20 million women and 10 million men will suffer from a clinically significant eating disorder at some point in their lifetime.
These numbers alone are staggering. But what about all the other millions of women and men who are practicing disordered and unhealthy attitudes and behaviors with regards to food and body image? They may not fall into the clinically significant category, but does this mean their behavior doesn’t hurt them, and in turn, hurt us as a collective whole?
The ways in that we, as a culture, act around food and body image, are out-of-order. The dominant messages we receive rigidly prioritize what we eat and how we look as a necessary component of our self worth. The underlying call to all people is, “diet, lose weight, look good, and fit-in.”
It is all too common to hear someone talk about feeling guilt after making certain food choices. It is commonplace to hear people talk about being “good” when they eat “good’ and being “bad” when they eat something “bad”. Hearing people talk negatively about their bodies is about as normal as hearing people talk about the weather.
The cultural obsession around body image, weight loss and food affects us all. Whether it is you who is relating to this, or you are thinking about someone close to you, we all know someone who is negatively impacted because of their unhealthy relationship to food and their body.
I bit my tongue while the girls were paying. I don’t make a habit of interrupting or butting into other’s conversations, but I couldn’t help myself at the end.
I met eyes with one of the girls as she was putting her wallet in her purse and I smiled. I said, “Isn’t it awesome outside?” (It has been raining all week in Atlanta, and it was finally sunny.)
She agreed emphatically, after which I said quietly, “You know, in the general scheme of things, M&M’s have no power. They really aren’t important, not compared to you and your happiness”.
She looked at me like I had three heads, and smiled awkwardly at me as she left. But that’s ok. I am still glad I said something. Because change has to start somewhere, and every little bit counts.
Even if we aren’t aware, we all know someone who has an eating disorder. We also all know countless people who struggle with a way of eating that is generally disordered as well. That person might even be you.
Our self worth can never be touched by what we eat and what our body looks like. Everything that will lead you to believe otherwise is false.
So the next time you hear body-hate or diet-talk, think about if you want to join in. The next time someone wants to engage you in food monitoring or the judgment of someone else’s body, think about what you want your response to be. The next time you are watching TV, watch with a critical eye and ear.
Question what seems normal. Question judgment and negativity when it relates to food and your body. Pay attention to the language you use with food (avoid good/bad labeling) and ask your self what how your behavior around food makes you feel.
Change may be subtle, and it happens over time, but like I said earlier, every little bit counts. It starts with changing our attitude and thinking. Let it start with you.
Rebecca Clegg, LPC (www.rebeccaclegg.com), is a therapist, writer and speaker specializing in helping women overcome unhealthy eating patterns and body image issues. For the last decade, Rebecca has worked in both hospital and outpatient settings, and has worked extensively with a variety mental health issues. She is the President and founder of Authentic Living, LLC, and creator of the blog, www.lifebeyondthediet.com, both committed to the growth and empowerment of women everywhere.