mental health

Health as Shame

A picture of a black woman looking directly at the camera

The first time I had a negative thought about my body was around the age of 10. By the time I was thirteen, I was already skipping meals to be skinny. By the time I was fifteen, I took pride in not eating for days. At 31, I find myself still battling my body image. I have spent two decades of my life battling my body. I am always too fat. 

Finally, I have reached a point where I realize that the problem is not my body. The problem is the way I have been socialized to look at my body. It has been ingrained in me for so long that in order to be beautiful, I had to skinny. Not just any kind of skinny though. I had to be the kind of skinny that was still voluptuous. You know the kind of women’s body I am talking about. The big boobs, big ass, small waist, flat tummy and just the right amount of neck skinny. Oh! I almost forgot to add that you must also have that space between your thighs. Thinking about it know, I feel like the ideal woman’s body is like the specs for a car or a machine. It is not human. It is not real.

After another attempt at dieting to shrink my body and the inevitable mental health deterioration that accompanied it, I am putting in my resignation letter. I am not interested in dieting anymore. I am not interested in restriction anymore. For those who feel the need to talk to me about health, please don’t. 

I have found that the conversation about health is often a euphemistic discussion on shame. How can a woman who does not have the criteria listed in the ideal female body specs not have shame? I have  to admit that this shame is not reserved for the fat. In many ways, it extends to skinny women as well. How many times have we publicly discussed a woman’s body because she looks like she doesn’t eat.

We have begun to talk about shame much in the same way we talk about sex. We don’t talk directly about it but we do talk about it in other ways.  Just like we judge women for the number of men they have sex with, we judge women for the amount of food they are eating. And the problem is that we never allow women to be right. Whoa! You have only dated one guy. A woman should never have sex with more guys than she can count on one finger. Just like a woman should never eat more than salad on a date. A woman must never talk about having a libido just like a woman must never talk about her love of food. 

Of course, there are exception to every rule. In the health world, a woman can talk about her love of food as long as she meets the specs. A woman like Giada De Laurentis or Nigella Lawson can talk about food because they meet the specs. Every other woman must respect her “health” and avoid food like the plague.

Clean eating has become akin to pursuing new virginity. Sugar is universally reviled. Fat is still the demon. Unless you are on the ketogenic diet, in which case you worship at the altar of fat. The point is that diets have become a way of capitalizing on our shame. Just follow these few rules, and you will feel superior to all others. If you fall off the wagon, shame on you. You just need to try harder. Just think of how much better you would feel at 110 pounds in that bikini. Nobody ever says anything about how sad it feels not to be able to eat full-fat ice-cream.

Please, give me a moment here while I talk about how much I hate diet foods. I particularly detest the new generation of diet food like 50 calories a pint ice-cream that taste absolutely nothing like ice cream. Between diet books, diet foods, cult workout plans, the waist trainers and the detox teas, our culture of shame has spurned a whole industry that churns out millionaires by burning through our wallets.

After thinking critically about it, I have decided that I no longer want to be part of this cult. I have no more money to give to anything new diet ideas. There is no more time to contemplate if I should try the Whole 30 or keto my life. I am in transition out of this cycle of shame, disappointment, and self-destruction.

 I recognize that I have let food become a way of constantly shaming myself.

Don’t get me wrong; I still have lots of shame that I have to work through. The big difference between me of today and me of yesterday is that I recognize that I have let food become a way of continually shaming myself. I acknowledge that I have become a hateful critic of my own body. If I am sincere, sometimes I project my own shame to other people.

The work that lies ahead for me is to learn to silence the shame. I have started doing for myself in small ways. I am eating the foods that I find interesting instead focusing on restriction as the path the health. Part of recognizing the shameful way I have been relating with food is being able to call out myself when I am using food as a mechanism to get out of boredom or soothe anxiety. This work is tasking. However, I accept the tasking nature because it is never going to be easy to dismantle decades worth of shame and process.

As I get through my transition though, I don’t know what the other side of the shame-filled diet culture looks like or feels. I know that there has to be a better way than loathing my own body.