You’ve completed the Whole30® – and it was a smashing success. You made it through the headaches, the cravings, the dreaded “carb flu.” You found the increased energy, reduced bloating, and clearer head that others who have done the Whole30 have promised you. You now love vegetables, aren’t afraid of saturated fats, and have learned to cook delicious and nutritious meals for yourself and your family. And most importantly, you’ve changed your relationship with food. Food now is your friend, your partner in health – not your enemy. You and food work as a team to help make your body look, feel, and live its best. It’s an amazing and freeing feeling, right? So now, we have just one question for you.
You’ve changed your relationship with food. But have you changed your relationship with yourself?
There’s been a lot of buzz in the blogosphere lately addressing the issue of the “new body image.” The premise is simple, and one we agree with – if you are concerned about your overall health and well-being, it is important to eat good food and exercise. But unlike the images portrayed in mainstream media, those in the paleo and CrossFit communities are no longer eating well and exercising to be skinny – they are doing so to be strong, lean, mean machines.
In this house of healthy eating and exercise, skinny-fat just won’t do.
As evidenced by the explosion known as “Fitspiration” (the new form of motivational posters seen everywhere on the web these days), there’s a prevailing call-to-arms to shove our old thin body image ideal into a lean, muscular, often glistening new package. The archetype around health is shifting and, through this shift, we might truly be making Fit the new Thin.
And that’s not necessarily a good thing.
“Why not?!” you ask. “Being strong and fit is greater than being skinny and weak!” But consider this: An ideal body image is an ideal body image, and all ideals can be harmful to your psyche.
Body Image: Man (and Woman) Made
Ideal body image is a social construct. What we think a woman or man should look like is a creation of the community, culture, and era in which we live. This is evidenced by the diversity of ideal body types in different time periods, different countries, and even different age groups.
The point is, where the prevailing idealized Western body image has been and still generally is thin and feminine for women, muscular and masculine for men, the movement toward fit (but not overly fit), muscular (but not too muscular), lean (but not skinny) is a construct of a new culture – one that you may be promoting without giving much thought as to the long-term implications.
Hooray! We don’t have to live on 1,000 calories a day, cardio until we can’t cardio no more, and inject ourself with HCG to be super-thin like Kate Moss anymore!
Now we just need to hit the gym five days a week, give 110% (because we can always do more), eat perfect paleo every meal of every day, get 10 hours of sleep each night, and have zero stress to be perfectly chiseled like Olympic athletes.
See…Fit IS the new Thin.
Hopefully you’re starting to see where we’re headed with this.
Why Ideals are Harmful
Shooting for an ideal makes you stop listening to your body.
When you stop listening to your body, you break your focus on overall health. When you stop focusing on your overall health, you sabotage your new, healthy relationship with food and eating. When you sabotage your new relationship with food and eating, you are back to square one.
If you’ve completed the Whole30 and have reset your system from the inside out, it is likely that you have become more attuned to how food affects your body and your mind. Some foods might make you feel slow and sluggish, while others give you more energy than you ever knew you had stored away. Over those 30 days (and the subsequent days when you added things like dairy, grains, or sugars back into your diet), you learned to listen to your body. Now, you eat when you feel hungry. You avoid those foods that make you feel puffy or bloated. You limit foods that you know will mess with your emotions and your mood. You no longer punish yourself with extra exercise or fewer calories when you make a deliberate decision to indulge something off-plan. This is your new relationship with food.
It was hard won. And you don’t want to go back to the way it was before.
Here’s the thing; we are bombarded daily with messages about what we should look like. Traditional media, social media, healthcare providers, our friends, our trainers, our moms, our significant others – all are directly or indirectly giving us cues as to what our appearance should be.
And often, the person who is giving you the loudest cues about what you should look like is you.
Whether you end up believing that you need to be thinner or more muscular or leaner, it is very likely that there is some image of an “idealized you” in your head. The fact is, 80% of women report being unhappy with the way they look. That number is less for men, but many reports show that men’s body satisfaction is also steadily decreasing.
In plain speak, this means that the great majority of us have some degree of body dissatisfaction.
Unfortunately for most people, body image and body satisfaction are irrevocably linked to self-esteem, self-worth, and depression (among other things). In fact, a recent analysis of the scientific literature by an international group of experts in the field of body image and eating disorders reported:
Body dissatisfaction, the experience of negative thoughts and feelings about one’s body and appearance, is a powerful (in fact, the most potent) and consistent precursor of a whole range of unhealthy body-related behaviours. These include: unhealthy dieting regimes and problematic eating behaviours (starving, binging, and purging), clinical eating disorders (anorexia, bulimia), cosmetic surgery, extreme exercising, and unhealthy muscle-enhancing behaviours in boys and men (such as taking steroids or other supplements). It is also linked to depression, anxiety, sexual dissatisfaction, and low self-esteem. Therefore body dissatisfaction is a significant risk for physical health, mental health, and thus well-being.
In this context, body dissatisfaction can be a chronic stressor. And as we’ve mentioned before chronic stress can really do a number on you psychologically and physically. Not only that, but stress can negatively affect the way we eat. (Raise your hand if you’ve ever used food as a coping mechanism.) And as we outline in detail in Chapter 4 of It Starts With Food, prolonged stress elevates cortisol levels, which kindles cravings for sugar and other unhealthy foods.
Bye-bye, new healthy relationship with food. Hello self-medicating box of Krispie Kremes.*
*It doesn’t have to make sense that you’d be both striving for an idealized body while comforting your lack of an idealized body with unhealthy foods. Hormones > willpower, and trump any manner of right-brained logic.
Ride Your Own Body Image Bike
Now that you’ve changed your relationship with food, it’s time to change your relationship with yourself.
Even though it’s easy to blame our negative body image on everything from fitness magazines to Fitspiration, the likelihood that those things are going away or changing for the better in mainstream society anytime soon is slim (no pun intended). This means it’s left to you to realistically assess, understand, and change the internal and external messages about ideal bodies and their effects on your self-esteem and self worth.
Here are some things you can do to find peace with what you see in the mirror, and create positive body image habits.
Focus on health: Here at Whole9, we encourage you to ditch your scale – not just for the Whole30 but forever. The number on the scale does not tell you anything about the healthy changes that are happening inside your body. When you change your habits based primarily on things like the scale, or your pant size, or the curves you see in the mirror you may end up sabotaging your health. Instead, focus on other, more relevant factors. How are you sleeping? Is your energy steady and solid, or fluctuating like a roller coaster? Are your emotions on a more even keel? Are your workouts making you feel better or worse about yourself? These real measurements of health are impacted by what you eat, how often you play, how much you sleep, your exercise routine, and your interpersonal relationships – and have nothing to do with how you look.
Question the “ideal”: Between television, Facebook, Pinterest, etc., the average American is exposed to more than 5,000 media images each and every day. Some research shows that nearly 1 in 4 of those media messages includes some sort of commentary on what is (or is not) attractive. It’s time to get honest with yourself about the mold that you are trying to jam your body into. There are certain personal physical attributes that we can change and those that we can’t. There is also a limit to the level of fitness, muscularity, or leanness we can realistically achieve due to time, body type, genetics, and currently lifestyle factors. Be honest about who you are, who you want to be, and where these two people meet in the real world. Letting go of the impossible-to-achieve ideal you’ve been carrying around with you for years can be incredibly freeing.
Practice positive talk: There is a growing body of research showing that “fat talk”, or discussion about one’s dislike of their personal appearance, is approaching “normal and expected” in our society, especially among females. Fat talk only makes things worse when it comes to body image by increasing body dissatisfaction and internalization of body image ideals. Set a good example by refusing to engage in “fat talk” about yourself or others. Instead focus on what you have accomplished, and be proud of where you are right now, because if you are reading this site and have completed even one day of our Whole30 program, we know you have things to be proud of. (We’ll help you out with this one later this week, in a follow-up post.)
You’ve learned a lot from your Whole30 experience, and have taken control of what goes into your body. Now it’s time to take control of what goes into your mind. Lose the ideal. BE REAL.