Your internal dialogue might sound something like this:
Wow, I need to lose weight. ASAP.
I hate my flabby arms.
My face is fat.
I can’t eat that!
I need to start counting calories. ASAP.
You interpret this internal dialogue, these thoughts, as truths. You see them as indisputable facts. You see them as obvious and blatant and urgent. You see them as vital revelations, as a genuine reality.
But they’re not. Instead, they’re creations of our culture. In other words, they’re totally made-up.
We internalize these beliefs after seeing them in ads, after reading about them in “health and wellness” articles (sadly). For instance, there are plenty of ads for diet pills, and exercise programs that tell us we’ll feel amazing and beautiful and confident and happy after we lose weight. There are plenty of articles and books that tout “strong is the new skinny” or “fit is the new skinny” or “healthy is the new skinny” (none of which is at all helpful or healthy).
There are plenty of articles that say things such as, “I’m good all day and then my hunger demons (and emotional eating) come out in the evenings;” or I “broke down and grabbed a cookie from the break room.” The articles make it seem as if you’re doing something terribly wrong, as if you’re some out-of-control animal, instead of a person who’s simply craving certain flavors. By the way, these are actual sentences from a “health” publication.
Here’s another excerpt from an actual article: “A great pair of jeans can become an awesome litmus test to keep your weight in check. Seeing a little bit of muffin top peaking out or feeling tight in the butt become red flags to ditch that excess fat stat. Vacations, reunions, and weddings are among the many reasons you need to burn fat fast. Fast as in, like, yesterday. You’re not kidding around.”
There are all sorts of shakes that aim to stave off hunger—even though, as author and clinical psychologist Stacey M. Rosenfeld, Ph.D, writes in her book, Does Every Woman Have an Eating Disorder? Challenging Our Nation’s Fixation with Food and Weight, hunger has a biological and psychological function.
“Imagine if other products were designed to help us gain control over physiological processes: an oxygenated air freshener to help you avoid breathing for up to a minute or a specially formulated beverage allowing you to delay urination?…” It’s ridiculous. And so is trying to manipulate our hunger. So is demonizing the desire to eat. So is not eating past a certain time—the popular 7 p.m. cut-off—even though you are hungry. So is disconnecting from our body’s natural cues.
All of this makes me very sad. Because these kinds of messages not only color our thoughts, but they also dictate our behavior. They determine how we spend our time, energy and money. They spark shame. They shape how we treat ourselves. They shape how we let others treat us. And, not surprisingly, it is negative.
We punish ourselves for “being bad,” for “cheating.” Our mood plummets when we step on the scale, and don’t see it budge (or see it go up). We assume we don’t deserve love or respect or kindness (from ourselves, from others), because we don’t fit the—insane—ideal; because we’re considered “overweight” or “scrawny,” or have “a little bit of muffin top” or a lot.
This was a place I lived for years—and it made me miserable. It led me to distrust my own cravings, my needs, myself. It led me to latch onto anyone who complimented my looks (which, in my mind, were clearly undeserving, clearly unworthy).
We can’t completely eliminate or undo these thoughts. Often they fly out automatically. Often it feels like they’re ingrained into our brains. But we can lessen their authority. We can reduce their impact. And over time, they diminish, because they’ve lost their influence; because they have no soil to grow in.
In Does Every Woman Have an Eating Disorder? Rosenfeld suggests making a tiny, brilliant change any time you find yourself saying, I need to lose weight, I hate my arms, My face is too fat, or any similar toxic statement: Follow it up with “I’ve been brainwashed to think this way.”
According to Rosenfeld, this helps us to think more critically about our culture and how it influences and affects us. It helps us to “chip away at some of the powerful brainwashing” we’ve experienced. Because even though these messages, this brainwashing, are powerful and persistent, we are powerful, too.
When these thoughts pop up, we can pause. We can recognize what’s happening. I’ve been brainwashed to think this way. This is not some ultimate truth. It’s simply a message—a collection of manipulative, unhealthy messages meant to sell things.
And we can intervene.
We can stop these messages from dictating our actions. We can choose self-compassionate actions, like moving our bodies in joyful, calming, fun-to-us ways, and savoring foods with our favorite flavors. We can refocus on respecting and honoring ourselves. We can make up our own rules. And we can start creating our own positive messages.