Adele recently went for lunch with some friends and all they could talk about were diets they were starting tomorrow, diets that started last week, and all the weight that needed to be lost. This was after the party she attended during which party goers actively avoided desserts because they were watching their weight, eyeing the sweet table all night. And that had been after she finished her workout, hearing about how “this workout is burning last night’s cheat dinner!”
Adele became angry about how everything seemed to revolve around restriction, food, and exercise and she couldn’t seem to talk to a person anymore. She felt like she was spending time with walking, talking diet machines. That’s when she began to feel sad. She felt sad about the way people have become consumed with the pursuit of thinness, at times, to the detriment of their physical and mental health.
What’s the Goal?
We no longer think about nourishing our body, respecting our body, and loving our body. Instead, we focus on how we can shrink our body size. If you think about it, the size of our body isn’t as important as we believe it to be.
When you ask someone what losing weight or being thin means, they’ll give you all sorts of ideas: being beautiful, strong, successful, loved and respected. But none of those things are directly related to thinness! So, in a way, we are pursuing beauty, love, and respect by restricting our food intake and exercising compulsively. That’s confusing since one would think that if one wanted to reach a goal, one would take steps that lead directly toward achieving that goal.
But of course, we human beings are ever so complicated and we can’t possibly simplify the obsession with weight loss in that way. People’s feelings and deep emotional experiences often seems to get in the way of making what looks like logical choices. We aren’t always aware of these experiences, which is why we choose to focus on things that are not as esoteric, complicated or scary, such as food or exercise.
To illustrate what I mean, let’s talk a bit about Lisa. Lisa has a large family and many friends. She frequently had parties to attend: wedding showers, engagement parties, weddings, bar mitzvahs. Her calendar was always booked solid. She often found herself feeling anxious about attending these parties, especially when they were evening events, as they interfered with her eating times, safe foods, and overall eating habits. She always had a plan of what she would or would not eat. However, she never stuck to her plan. Lisa felt perpetually guilty after each party since she ate a lot more than anticipated and felt shame that she could not control herself. The following day, Lisa would go to the gym to work off the food and vow to stick to her diet at all future events.
What’s Really Going On?
What if we look at Lisa’s situation in a different way? Let’s try to understand what may be going on for her underneath the food. Let’s explore what Lisa is feeling before the party. Is she feeling anxiety? Excitement? Dread? Why does Lisa feel these emotions? What does she fear about the upcoming event?
At the party itself, what is Lisa thinking and feeling? Her preoccupation with food is preventing her from being present with her friends and family. Is there something about being present that seems scary or uncomfortable? Is there something going on that makes her feel that it’s easier to remove herself emotionally? Does Lisa feel empty (metaphorically so) that she needs to fill the void with food? What is that emptiness? Is she feeling lonely amongst the crowd?
After the party, Lisa feels compelled to get rid of what she ate. Something about what she is feeling is so intolerable that the only answer seems to be eradication. She also feels guilty. What if something else happened that is making Lisa feel guilty? Does she feel too threatened to attach her guilt to a person and therefore contributes it to food instead? And what is making Lisa feel so out of control that she attempts to regain control through food?
It’s Not Just the Food
Our relationship with food often encompasses so much more than just food. If we choose to look at what else might be going on for us in relation to food and body image, we will gain a deeper understanding of ourselves. With these insights, we can learn to accept ourselves, emotions and all, feeling less compelled to change our body or conform to what others expect us to be. And then, and only then, will we realize that we already are beautiful, loved, accepted, respected, and strong exactly the way we are.
Sometimes it is hard to identify if we struggle with emotional eating. Here are some ways to think about whether or not you have trouble with your relationship with food and when it may be time to seek help.
- often eat when I am not hungry?
- eat well past my full capacity even after I repeatedly tell myself that it’s time to stop?
- feel guilt after eating?
- eat only “safe” or “healthy” foods and fear gaining weight?
- feel anxious about how I will eat/not eat before a get together that involves food?
- constantly start new diets?
- go to the gym to “work off” the “fattening” foods I ate?
- have obsessive thoughts about food?