With New Year’s right around the corner many a resolution is being made, oftentimes centering on weight loss and fitness (Statista, 2017). The season of celebration that marks the end of one year is closely followed by the season of new beginnings and the harmful idea of redemption from holiday indulgences. While there is certainly nothing wrong with the idea of self-improvement and personal progress (although there is an interesting article published in the New Yorker in 2018 regarding how helpful the idea of improving ourselves to death is), it is also important to reflect on and deconstruct some of the stereotypes and cultural values that pervade our collective conversation at this time of year.
Empowerment and the idea of working towards positive change in our lives and ourselves seems great in healthy doses, but it’s important to keep in mind that we can begin again every moment of every day, not just once a year.
This idea that there can be new beginnings each moment we decide to begin anew is certainly easier said than done; unfortunately it is all too easy to fall into the trap of black-and-white thinking, especially for those with eating disorders and its common companion, perfectionism. Black-and-white thinking can often lead us into the all-or-nothing trap, wherein if I make a “mistake” then everything is ruined and I might as well go all out. It’s important to critically think about and deconstruct what we are classifying as a “mistake” and where those ideas come from, whether they are our own, our culture’s, and most importantly, whether they reflect things we actually value. In this example let’s go with the typical New Year’s resolution - weight loss, changing one’s body as a means to pursue success, happiness, etc. So when I make a “mistake” in this case I am seeing a mistake as “falling off the wagon” or essentially not restricting myself and my body. In this circumstance, all-or-nothing thinking kicks in to tell us that we must berate ourselves for “failing” and tells us that if we’re already “failing” we might as well go all out before we have to “get back on track.” This restrictive mindset leads people into a cycle of feast and famine which unsettles the body’s normal, intuitive rhythms.
This is where dieting can (in some cases) start to mimic and/or lead to an eating disorder. Eating disorders are much more complex than body image pressures, diet culture, and exposure to thinness as an ideal, but these things certainly contribute to eating disorders as well. In my discussion of behaviours here, I want to note that I am approaching the topic more from a diet culture perspective which includes, but doesn’t speak to the entirety and severity of an eating disorder. These are related issues, but again, eating disorders can also stem from much more complicated issues than diet culture by itself (although it does contribute).
At its core, the binge-restrict-(purge) cycle is fueled by shame and our collective idea that self-control is the marker of a virtuous character. The often-cited Stanford marshmallow studies conducted in the 1960s and 1970s by Walter Mischel and colleagues was first thought to show that children who could delay gratification (or demonstrate self-control) early on in life did better on SAT scores, educational attainment, and other life measures generally considered to indicate a better life outcome. Years later and the conclusion first drawn from this study has been shown to be inaccurate, but that is not what is generally remembered about this experiment. Later studies by Mischel found that simple re-framing of the situation for a child had a more significant impact on outcomes (more on the topic of re-framing and personality is explored in a really excellent episode of Invisibilia, the podcast).
The truth about the binge-restrict-(sometimes purge) cycle is that our bodies are very good at (and very determined to) protect us. If you restrict yourself, you will more than likely end up overeating or potentially bingeing. There is no inherent shame in that, no personal failure, or reflection of poor character, it’s just biology and the magnificent resilience of our bodies fighting to survive.
Bingeing of course (as an eating disorder behaviour) can serve an entirely different and much more complicated purpose than just being a reaction to deprivation. In itself it can be a coping mechanism that serves various purposes (whether comfort, causing physical distress the individual can focus on over their emotional distress, or alterations to appearance to cope with body image, sexuality, and trauma related issues, etc.)
Shame however is quite marketable for weight loss and fitness companies and they make good use of it. New Year’s is perhaps one of the most popular advertisement times for new fad diets, gyms, new workout routines, new weight loss supplements, and the like. There are even new regimes, diets, workouts, self-help, change-your-body-change-your-life content that criticizes the traditional regimes, diets, workouts, self-help-change-your-body-change-your-life content, promising to be more real than their previous versions. In reality, they are the same thing, just delivered in a slightly novel way.
Every year various public figures get in front of the camera to vouch for different companies (Jenny Craig, Weight Watchers, etc.) Every year we see people like Oprah proclaiming she has struggled with her weight, but finally found the solution. Despite every other success in her life, she is still measuring herself in pounds instead of personal achievements, experiences, family, and friends, contributions to society. That is a powerful message that we are bombarded with to an extreme at this time of year and it becomes the norm for us, but that doesn’t mean it has to be.
A couple years old, but check out this commentary by Melissa Perry RE: Oprah’s New Weight Loss Ad.
People often misinterpret an anti-diet stance as promoting obesity and everything we connect to it (i.e. laziness, poor moral character, unhealthiness, etc.) whether or not these things are truly correlated to weight . Rather, Health At Every Size is a weight-inclusive approach to healthcare, with a focus on behaviour change rather than body change. If the behaviour change results in weight change, that is beside the point. Weight never determines a person’s worth and the thing is, diets don’t work, that is what the research tells us. In fact, diet culture and weight stigma can even be harmful to people’s health, a topic explored in depth in Christy Harrison’s FoodPsych podcast. If a doctor prescribed a costly and potentially harmful medication that didn’t work, it would be an ethical violation. If a store sold a costly and potentially harmful product to customers in any other circumstance, it would be an ethical violation. Why is the recommendation of dieting any different?
This viewpoint may represent an extreme that is uncomfortable for many people and that’s okay, it’s simply something to think about, to remember that there are alternate ways of thinking and being and that just because something is the norm in our society does not mean it has to be (or that it’s necessarily for the best).
There are so many more important things to focus on in life besides weight and if you’re going to set a resolution for the new year, why not set a different kind of goal for this year? One that reflects your own values, not the ones you are told you are supposed to have by our culture. Why not measure ourselves, this year that’s just passed, and this year ahead of us in different ways? What are other aspects of “health” and life that matter to us?
Whether New Year’s is an important celebration for you or just another day. I wish you the best as we head into 2019.