Sometimes I feel like everywhere I turn there is a new diet program and it’s subsequent “community” popping up. I’m noticing it so much more because of the significance that social media now plays in most of our daily lives. It has changed so much about how businesses are run, how products and services are marketed, and on how we interact with each other. I’m seeing more people becoming “entrepreneurs” selling fitness programs or the latest, greatest nutrition supplements, and more health communities and accountability groups form in our virtual reality because of the convenience, exposure, and instant gratification that social media provides.
While I usually just brush off people selling diets or similar programs, unfollow the accounts, and move along to enjoy my life, it’s becoming a bit too much to ignore. Thankfully I know that diets, weight loss programs, and supplements are ineffective and not backed by the scientific and nutrition research that we currently have. I know they are generally just full of flashy, feel-good marketing to scam people out of their money while simultaneously encouraging them to form a negative self-image (maybe even an eating disorder!). What I am getting more and more frustrated by is seeing people – good people, intelligent people, self-aware people – falling victim to these schemes in droves. I wouldn’t care as much if they were being sold something trivial like scented candles or Tupperware containers – but this culture of obsession over health, dieting, fitness, weight loss, and “holding each other accountable,” is having a much broader and more destructive impact on mental and physical health.
I feel increasingly obligated to speak out against this culture so that there is an alternative message out there for people who are seeking health and wellness support, and need to know that there is a way to focus on health and to make positive lifestyle choices, without falling into the trap of a diet, a “program,” or even a hashtag (*cough* clean eating *cough*). I am hopeful that my message, and other messages like it, can be the life raft someone needs as they are drowning in the sea of nutrition misinformation, body shaming, restrictive dieting, and discriminatory, fear-based health marketing.
One of the most common responses I hear from people who are entrenched in diet culture (weight loss or fitness programs, meal plan or supplement programs, or public “health journeys”) is that their particular program is all about connecting them with a community of people who are supporting their health goals. They argue it builds up a positive environment that is motivating and keeps them accountable to being healthy. While I 100% agree that it is absolutely essential to have a community and to be surrounded by positive support systems, I don’t believe these particular types of health communities are the answer. However positive, peppy, and accepting these communities may seem to be on the outside, more often than not these communities often become a safe space for disordered thoughts around food, exercise, and body image to thrive. They can take an interest in health and create a socially acceptable breeding ground for self-criticism and orthorexia.
The underlying belief of so many of these “health communities” is that eating, exercise, and physical appearance are the only parts of your life worth sharing or focusing on in order to improve health, and ultimately become measures of your value as a person. Perhaps the most damaging message they promote is that you do not possess the intuitive ability to trust your own body in order to define what a healthy lifestyle looks and feels like for you; that you should trust the experience of someone else as a model for your own life. I don’t care what the marketing pitch tells you, if there are rules, guidelines, meal plans, log books, trackers/counters, or controlled portions, food choices, eating times, etc. then it is a diet. Diets are not about health promotion, they are about control: weight control, social control, and the illusion of control over one’s health and one’s life.
Even if they’re calling it a “healthy lifestyle,” the moment that something or someone begins to control and place restrictions on your body or on your choices, you are being short-changed on true health. You are being sold on someone else’s idea of health – which may or may not work great for them. This is a problem because you are not them, my friend. They have never lived a day in your body or a day in your life, yet why do you feel as though they can be trusted more than your own self to make decisions about what healthy choices are for you? NO ONE is the expert on your health but YOU, because YOU are the only one who can experience what health feels like in your body and mind.
Even in health communities that claim to be all about “balance” and moderation, how often are the people in them actually showcasing balance and flexibility in their lifestyles? If everything that the community is promoting is just pictures of people in their workout gear, their calories burned at the gym, their perfectly portioned meal prep and green smoothie bowl after green smoothie bowl, then that is NOT actually depicting a balanced lifestyle.
I want to see your donuts, your takeout, and your PJs-and-Netflix-all-day side of life too. I want to see your self-care practices, your spirituality, you laughing with your kids, playing with your dog, and crying about something that broke your heart. I want to see your having a less-than-perfect-sunshiney-rainbow day too – because that’s REAL LIFE and we need to stop pretending that it’s only okay to be blissfully happy and grateful all the time and that there is something wrong with us if we can’t always see the silver lining in everything. And no, it doesn’t count if you share these aspects of your life while including self-deprecating remarks that allude to guilt, shame, cheating, or failure, or if you have to make excuses for not exercising or not eating in the name of physical health/nutrition. These communities have to put their money where their mouth is. They can’t advertise balance, but neglect to actually promote balance. They must move beyond the superficial to offer a truly holistic understanding of health.
Whether intentional or not, these communities create the ideal conditions for you to participate in the comparison trap and to continually judge your own decisions based on the decisions of others. It becomes a daily game of “well he/she/they did this exercise or burned this many calories or ate this size of meal today, so I should do that too,” or “I didn’t exercise at all and I ate dessert twice today so I should feel ashamed or guilty because no one else in my community ever does those things (that I can see…) so that must mean I’m weak/ lazy/unmotivated/bad.” If any community you are a part of isn’t supportive and accepting of ALL parts of your life and the nuances of your lifestyle, then it is not a community that is actually promoting holistic health.
If you wouldn’t share your real life (which includes your worst days and low points) instead of your highlight reel without fear of judgment, exclusion, or someone trying to define your feelings for you and tell you how to live your life, then that is not a community promoting holistic health. If your community is only equipped to support you if you are making certain “acceptable” choices or playing by their “rules” instead of respecting your own body’s cues and cravings, then that is not a community promoting holistic health.
However frustrated I may be with this whole system, I completely understand and empathize with the attractiveness of it. We love rules, routines, structure, guidelines, because all of these things make us feel safe. They give us a feeling of being in control. They give us targets and goals, and a clear outcome to strive for. But in reality, these rules and routines end up controlling us to a point where we don’t know who we are without them, and we completely lose our intuitive connection with our own bodies and minds.
There is no formula for health. There is no magic number on the scale that solves all your health problems. There is no program for a healthy life. I wish it could be that easy, but it’s the frustrating, honest truth. Health is a completely individual experience. No one can give you health, no one can sell you health, no one can define health, and no one can tell you what health looks or feels like to you. Health is an inside job. It’s a personal journey that you’ll be on for your entire life. It is not a goal to be accomplished or a box to check off and then never have to worry about again. It is something that will ebb and flow, something that will grow and change, just as you do throughout your life. It is something that you continually create, not something that you can buy for a one-time-only-limited-offer. It is a lifestyle that only makes sense to you, not a lifestyle you need to be approved or validated by anyone else.
Check back tomorrow for Part 2 of this article….
Love, Brooke xo