I started my first diet 43 years ago today. Well, not to this date (it was November 25 as opposed to November 27) but it was the Friday after Thanksgiving, 1977. It took me years upon years to see the connection, to see that my first diet of oh so many diets began the week that my world crumbled to ruins. Three days before, I had come home from school to find that my father had moved out, the garage empty of all his belongings (an image that would haunt me the day he died). It was one day before when I watched as my mother fell to pieces, quite literally to the floor, beating it with her fists and shrieking at the top of her lungs in mourning over the death of her 31 year-old marriage. I was 14 and powerless.
I had grown up knowing that the worst thing that can happen to you is to be fat. Never having been a popular person, never having much skill in any area to speak of, and having struggled with intense shyness for most of my life, I knew that my value in my world rested on what I looked like. And in my world, that value was determined, for the most part, in what I weighed.
I cannot remember a time when my mother was not dieting. Our shelves were filled with every diet book imaginable. We did not eat the chicken fried steak and gravy, the sweet potato pie, the fatback and collard greens of our Tennessee South. We ate cottage cheese and grapefruit halves. Boiled chicken. Stewed squash. We drank skim milk. Lipton Instant Tea with saccharine. Tab. And glory hallelujah the day Lean Cuisines were invented.
But I digress. My diet started the day after Thanksgiving, 1977, but it did not end there. I've told the story enough places and times that most know it. The story of how, 2.5 years later I started a real diet in earnest in hopes of putting shattered life back together. Funny how we assume that pulling ourselves together on the external will mend our fractured insides. The story of succeeding quite well at dieting and then losing control of the very thing I thought I could control. The terror of gaining weight. The horror of a 3 week stay in a psychiatric hospital that knew nothing of eating disorders (who did in 1981?), the healing acceptance of a psychiatrist who saw beyond my frustrating impasse with food, the encounter with God.
There has been so much healing that has happened over the past several decades (yes, decades, because healing doesn't come in the instant variety). And yet....there is still an "and yet." I'll stop here for a minute to clarify some things. I don't struggle with eating. I actually have a very healthy relationship with food. I don't restrict. I don't avoid categories. I don't count calories and haven't since 1988. I don't weigh myself. I don't skip meals. And I listen to my body and eat when I am hungry. That is one thing I have certainly learned over the years.
So what is the "and yet"?
I think the "and yet" is that I am still somehow affected by the toxic fitness culture. To be totally honest, I can still beat myself up for not being as fit as other people. And while I know that walking 30 minutes a day several days a week is a perfectly healthy, reasonable, and sustainable way to live a life, I am still affected by the social pressure to do more.
This, to me, is probably where social media is its most damaging. Oh, I can handle the political posturing and put up with different people's views on all sorts of things. Sometimes I will push back if I think a post is espousing a particularly damaging idea. But somehow what affects me most are the posts of people biking their 50 miles or running marathons or comparing how many steps they took today.
Yesterday Matt and Lizzy and I were hiking a chunk of the Mountains to Sea Trail. I mentioned something about how my grandparents never would have done such at thing at our age. Nor either of my parents. And yet what we were doing was nothing, really. Such small potatoes compared to what most people I know do.
There really does seem to be a push to always do more. Run more. Hike more. Bike more. Exercise more. Join a gym. Join Cross Fit. And the older the people are who are doing these things, the better. We applaud them. After all, health is what matters. After all, our country wouldn't be in such bad shape if we weren't so fat. That's what I hear.
I didn't realize just how powerful those messages were until, thanks to a counselor friend (thanks, Julia), I hit upon the Instagram posts of Dr. Colleen Reichmann, a clinical psychologist who specializes in eating disorders. Her posts are brilliant and so life-giving. She talks a lot about the toxic fitness culture out there. The pressure to always do more, to earn your calories, to earn your rest. And I totally get that.
It wasn't until reading her posts that I realized just how far from a wholistically healthy life our fitness culture has pushed us. And how badly at least I need to resist it.
While I know that my worth was never in the number on the scale or the size of my jeans or the purity of the foods I eat, I need to remind myself that my worth is also not in how many steps I take a day or miles I walk or hike and doing more and trying harder.. My worth is not in fighting my aging body because the world says it's not OK to slow down or look my age.
It is actually this "and yet," this last vestige of struggle, that might be enough to take me off of social media. Or maybe, rather than escaping social media, I will use it to send a message it's OK if you don't keep up with the frantic pace of fitness culture. That your value is found some place much deeper. And I need to remind myself of this. Daily.