How My Misguided Resolutions Made Me Sicker: A Precautionary New Year’s Story
As we near the end of an exceptionally dark year, hopefully pausing to relish in whatever version of holiday splendor to which we might have access this time around, I’m aware of the temptation to engage in a popular annual tradition. Tis the season wherein so many folks, myself included, commonly begin to make hopeful resolutions and establish wise or sometimes lofty intentions, presumably to begin on the first day of the New Year. New Year, New Me! Like everything else in our culture, this practice of resolution or intention setting has been shrouded in marketable services and consumable products. Just ask your local gym, crossfit, yoga, or pilates studio which is their busiest month of the year. If I was a gambling person, I’d bet you they’d all say January. All these memberships, coaching services, meal deliveries, self-help books and cleansing plans are sold to you through the rationale that spending your dollars on these things in support of the goals that you, yourself, have determined, will make you a better, happier version of yourself. But did you really come up with those goals all on your own? And will they really help you feel better?
I can relate to this phenomena — maybe a little too well. One winter many years ago I found myself more physically unfit than I’d ever been before. It had been a tumultuous year by the end of which I wore outwardly my heartbreak, hardship, and self-abuse symbolically in the form of significantly extra weight. More problematic than having to buy an entire wardrobe of larger clothes, my unhealthy coping mechanisms had also caused some scary health problems as well. In response, I found myself a nutritional mentor — through a book, as anything more extensive was beyond my financial means. What a glossy, radiant-looking specimen of a human my author was, smiling confidently at me from the cover of her prescriptive book. Without getting into the details of her eating plan, lest I perpetuate the very problem that I eventually had to overcome, I will share that her plan was very specific. Her logic, while not scientifically supported, was aptly convincing. Her ideas were maybe considered a little fringey back then, but I’ve seen the main tenants of her theories become more mainstream over the years. Even though less popular at the time, so lost and lonely was I in my life that her brand of guidance became something tangible to which I could cling. I became a convert to her non-diet, lifestyle-way of eating. What started as a committed experiment was soon solidified by the rapid achievement of desired results — I lost the weight I had gained and then some, and resolved my scary health problems to boot. Then I became a chronic loyalist.
Years passed and I continued to practice this very rigid relationship with food and eating. I learned how to honor her rules pretty much no matter where I went or what I was doing — waiting tables, traveling, crazy demanding work schedule; all the things that could understandably result in deviance from a challenging nutritional regime. Yet I stubbornly persevered. Because it worked. And by “worked” I mean that I managed to maintain a relative thinness I’d come to equate with “health.” I persisted even as I grew older; my body, life circumstances, and needs in general all changed. Eventually I started a family. The demands of pregnancy and nursing finally began to chip away at my insistence on her nutritional rules. But even as I loosened my attachment to doing things by her book, I didn’t know what to plug into the place where her guidance had lived. It was as if I didn’t know how to feed myself without her — this woman I didn’t know from Adam, whose book I bought randomly in a moment of crisis, and whose credentials I cringe to admit I never even checked. The only credentials I needed, apparently, were the fact that she was published, and she was “beautiful.” The problem with this story wasn’t in my ability to stick with my New Year’s resolution. The problem was that I had deferred to the expertise of someone unqualified to prescribe for my body.
My barely conscious suspicion that this diet wasn’t healthy for me became much clearer when I developed unspeakable (okay, just rather embarrassing) symptoms. I didn’t realize how precisely they were related to my diet until my body malfunctioned so badly that I couldn’t go to work. Yes, I tried essential oils. No, they didn’t help. In fact, they made my symptoms worse. I did a ton of research around what was happening to me, factoring in my diet and my life circumstances. To be safe, I underwent some medical testing to rule out any potential medical causes for my issues, but they were all inconclusive. No cancer, ulcer, parasite, or black mold. I became fairly certain that my adherence to this detoxifying eating plan had eventually backfired.
In hindsight, there were clues that the plan was no good long before my symptoms became so problematic. Unfortunately I hadn’t learned how to listen to my body, respect my intuition, or have flexibility around my self-care as is appropriate when we must weather the ebbs and flows of an ever-evolving life. I’d only learned how to revere someone else’s findings… and her findings from a single moment in time, as if her understanding wouldn’t also continue to evolve. I wholeheartedly accepted guidance which did not include or consider my unique body, experiences, or challenges. I became so dependent on her philosophy that I continued even as my adherence began to take away from instead of adding to my quality of life. I think I was unconsciously afraid that if I turned away from this “lifestyle” I might somehow be ejected back in time to that place of being lost, lonely, unhealthy and heartbroken.
What I understand now is that the diet was not a sustainable solution to my health issues because it didn’t address the underlying trauma or internalized oppression that had led to my weight gain and medical scare in the first place. Not only did it not attend to the causes of my suffering, but this “lifestyle” guidance actually added to my trauma by making me sick and becoming something else to overcome. This nutritional advice was sold under the guise of bringing “wellness”, “health”, and “energy”. Twelve years later, I’ve come to see those words as code for “privilege”, “beauty” and “thinness.” This toxic approach to supposed “wellness” has (obviously?) been extremely tricky for me to put my finger on. First of all, I didn’t come with an actual foundation of what “health and wellness” really are or can be. I’ve been inundated my whole life with mixed messages about food and an objectified sense of my own body. It’s been difficult to see the insidious ways that misogyny and white supremacy have polluted the ethos and tainted my perspective. I’m a white woman from Orange County, California. I didn’t even know that I had so deeply internalized the value of being thin until at thirty some odd years of age I realized that I had prioritized staying thin long after I had stopped being healthy. Even as a staunch feminist. I said and truly believed that I just wanted an optimally functioning body — a stable vehicle through which I could enjoy the gifts of being alive. But my actions revealed a different value, one I hadn’t even realized was guiding me until the truth slapped me in the face. Or, more accurately, destroyed my stomach. That book I successfully followed helped me to look well enough outwardly and to live in a culturally acceptable body. It didn’t free me from the unconscious belief that culturally deemed attractiveness is what’s important. And it didn’t help me obtain real wellness because I learned nothing about honoring my own body or how to identify those who might exploit me. I just went from being lost to being brainwashed.
In case you’re wondering if I am describing an eating disorder, it is worthwhile to note that I most definitely did not come anywhere near meeting criteria for any version of those. I was never significantly underweight by medical standards and I was never obsessed with or preoccupied with my food intake. In fact, I thought I had my relationship with food all figured out. Beyond the initial development of those habits, I didn’t really give it much thought at all until my symptoms demanded my attention. Our symptoms typically don’t qualify as a “disorder” until they begin to interfere with our ability to function. Which mine eventually did. But interestingly, even the most encompassing diagnosis — “Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder” (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders — Fifth Edition) includes the caveat that the “feeding disturbance” can’t be “better explained by….a culturally sanctioned practice.” I’d argue that it is the culture that is disordered because we have more than sanctioned the practice of misguided and disconnected eating.
You may have noticed that I am intentionally omitting my nutritional mentor’s name and hopefully any identifying information about her program. I’m not interested in “canceling” her or participating in cancel culture in any way. While I deeply empathize with the ego-driven impulse to “cancel” those people in society who appear to aggravate such painful problems, I’m not sure that this approach to rectification is going to relieve the pain. No single or handful of individuals are responsible for the layers of exploitation and discrimination we have yet to resolve. I am interested in learning about and taking responsibility for the ways in which I have bought into, participated in, and perpetuated oppressive belief systems. In this case, my re-enactment was in the way I took care of my own body.
What I wish for us on our individual and collective paths to healing and wholeness is, first and foremost, freedom from oppression. Because no amount of “goop” alone can create the conditions one needs to thrive. Freedom, safety, and opportunity are systemic issues, and while I’m not sure how popular these concepts are on the self-help or positive psychology aisle, the unresolved cultural debris in our atmosphere is a factor in all the suffering I’ve ever experienced, sat with, or read about. We have to name what’s in the air we’re breathing that’s making us sick before we can presume that anything unrelated we might try can actually help us breathe. More specifically — if I’m inundated with implicit messages that insist that I am inferior for any number of reasons — gender, race, sexuality, etc — recognizing where those messages came from will be really helpful in my journey to change my own brain-washed mind about my value. You probably know the quote — “Your thoughts become your words… your words become your actions… your actions become your habits…” (Lao Tzu?) But where did our thoughts come from? Probably from the implicit and explicit messages we’ve received our whole lives. Many of which are far from helpful. Rather than beat ourselves up for hosting problematic thoughts, let’s switch gears and become deeply curious about where the fuck those painful thoughts actually originated. They didn’t start with anyone who is alive today.
I also wish for us to each enjoy a robust support system, complete with mentors that actually see you — reflect you back to you, as opposed to pseudo healers getting off and getting rich off of the way people seeking help see them. Okay, sure, I know you’re thinking of that powerfully inspiring quote you read on Insta — your version of my glowing, goddess food guide — she really helped you with that generic advice she gifted the world on social media. Even if it is attached to something she’s selling. She deserves to make a living, too. We all do. And you’re absolutely right. (I know I sound judgmental here. I sound that way because I do feel judgmental about folks who are exploiting others in the name of helping them. If that’s not you, I’m not judging you. And if that is you but you aren’t even aware that you’re doing it, I’m not judging you very much. If you are knowingly using people, of varying degrees of vulnerability, in the name of helping them… I am activated as hell by your lack of integrity). Anyways, this trend of trinket sized wisdom taken out of context and offered as flecks of gold probably has more to do with our decreasing attention spans, worn down by a fast-paced, over stimulating world. And yes — sometimes general advice, encouragement, theory, affirmations, mantras if that’s what suits you — sometimes those artful, meaning-packed bits of verbiage really do strike a chord. The quote lands just right and it hums oh-so beautifully. Inspiration ensues. Just like any other form of art, though, let us remember that the way those words move you may not be the way they were meant, or the same way they move others. In fact, because of our unique experiences, I would venture to guess that those same magical words touch everyone a little bit differently. It’s okay to appreciate the artist of course, but the power may lie in curiosity around why the words felt profound to you. What is it about you, your story, your struggle, your truth that made those words light up in you? After all, it was the the catalyst of your receipt together with the words themselves that made them so profound.
I recently noticed my own inclination to become a worshipping fan-girl resurface in response to a favorite yoga teacher. I maintained my mostly neglected membership at the nearby YMCA only for the purpose of attending one teacher’s Friday morning class. She is approximately a generation older than I am; she’s also strong, flexible, graceful and charismatic in a way that I sometimes long to be — because I occasionally still forget that I’m perfectly grateful for my life exactly as it is. Those things can both be true. Contentment and longing can co-exist. And it’s hard to stay in a state of contentment when I’ve been chronically conditioned to be unhappy with my natural self, because unhappiness makes me want to buy shit, and buying shit is imperative to the system in which we live. Anyways. She wears the best yoga outfits I’ve ever seen, and plays music I find myself searching to add to my own library as soon as I leave her perfectly paced, physically challenging and yet meditative classes. And she teaches at the Y, which I presume to mean she cares about her community. You’re following this, right? She’s a rad yoga teacher, but in 75 minutes a week, as one of maybe twenty students, I don’t really know her very well, do I? Yet here I am, projecting all the things I really value, respect, and long to embody onto this lovely women, mostly because I feel good during and immediately after I take her class. The amazing sensation of being her student becomes associated with her whole being-hood. And just like that, I’ve made a worship-worthy celebrity out of her. I noticed myself wondering, where did she do her yoga teacher training? I wonder if I could afford it? To which I had to laugh at myself. There I go, trying to find myself on someone else’s path again. (To be clear, it is possible that pursuing her teachers could lead me to something wonderful. But it would have to be because it turned out those teachers struck a chord in me too… I would still be me, and not her, at the end of those trainings. And what I really need in my actual life right now is to be her student once a week. That’s it.)
Based on the products folks buy because various celebrities have produced, sold, or vouched for them, I get the feeling that this practice of celebrity-worship is a strong component of our society. How is that going for us? Making moral guides and inspirational leaders out of the folks we originally gave the spotlight because they entertained us? Or maybe they struck a chord in us, and in that moment, it was sweet, or funny, or admirable. Maybe it was educational. But what happens when we give them the power to tell us what to buy and how to live? Whatever you do, don’t let them tell you how you should eat for ten years (or do, I don’t want to tell you what to do). I’ll just say that I’m lucky I didn’t get even sicker than I did. I stopped following her regime and I am in recovery, psyche as much as stomach. Meanwhile we gave a reality TV star power over the whole country. I wonder how long it will take the world to heal from that.
Now that I’ve broken the spell of the internalized patriarchy within my unconscious I am no longer perturbed by the deeply wired expectation that I should desire a thin figure and attractive appeal. I only attend to how I feel and my ability to function. Just kidding. That’s magical thinking… simply becoming aware of that which has influenced my unconscious beliefs doesn’t immediately remove them from my mind. But it can help to notice when those thoughts show up — criticism of my body or longing to look different — those thoughts have less power now that I see them, and see them for what they are — which is old conditioning that I am in the process of working out. I still go for runs but I am very clear that I jog-walk because it makes me feel better mentally and emotionally and not because I’m training to achieve any other measurable outcome. This means that you will catch me literally stopping to smell the flowers, or gazing appreciatively at the clouds. I’m out there for the moment itslef. Being detached from external expectations and motivations has led to a much more enjoyable experience. Hell, I still drink fresh pressed juice from time to time. I feel the privilege of consuming so many nutrients at once, and feel a sense of gratitude in the place of the obligation or duty I often felt in the past. If it isn’t settling comfortably in my belly on any given day, then I can put it back in the fridge (something I couldn’t do when I believed it was more important to follow guidelines than to listen to my body). I haven’t completely broken the spell, but I’m working on it, and I feel better already.
If you’re looking to feel better as we transition into our “new year” on January 1st, I would lovingly encourage you to hold yourself with kindness and to consider the context and conditions around whatever issues you are hoping to resolve. I bet that given your unique challenges, you’re doing pretty great. And I know that you’re doing the best you can, because if you could do better, you would. If something feels heavy, confusing, or painful, get support from someone that will keep themselves out of your stuff, someone who will keep their truth off your path so that you can find your own. (Somewhat hypocritical as a offer several paragraphs of my truth…. I do see that) But really. This year has been hard. There is new trauma to protect and heal, and reactivated old trauma needing attendance and integration. May those of us still blessed to be here celebrate that we made it. May we have the space to grieve what’s been lost. May we have the courage to hope for what is yet to come. And may our intentions steer us well.
Disclaimer- my understanding of the ways in which my experiences have been impacted by the privileges afforded to white folks in our society, as well as the ways in which my experiences have been impacted by the exploitation of women in our society, seem subject to a continual unfolding. I can only write from the understanding I possess in a given moment, yet I hope with humility and resolve that my understanding may continue to evolve.