Why Dieting Often Begins As An Attempt At Self-Care
Imagine yourself drawing a bath (and if baths aren't your thing, stick with me here).
You have waited a while to make this happen, blocked off your schedule, the bubbles and bath bomb are ready, the wireless speaker with your favorite podcast is on, the candles are lit around the bathroom and you are waiting for the tub to fill up.
You sit and listen to the water and notice you are excited by the thought of taking the bath even before you have gotten in as you anticipate how you are going to feel after it’s all over. You take a moment to reflect on all the past baths you have taken that felt like they gave you a sense of ease. A smile forms on your face.
The tub fills up. You turn off the water, take a deep breath, and slowly slide your foot into the...“OUCH!”, you yell. The temperature of the water is much hotter than you thought, in fact it’s hard to stand in the water as you place your other foot inside. But, you have been looking forward to this moment for some time, so you push through the pain. First the feet, then the legs, then the upper body, until you are fully submerged and dedicated to the bath. You are going to make this happen.
It’s uncomfortable, really uncomfortable. You are sweating and irritated. Even the podcast is pissing you off.
But, you stay because it’s supposed to make you feel better. You think to yourself, “maybe I am doing this wrong? Maybe I don’t know how to do baths the right way. I felt successful in the past, but now it feels really hard and uncomfortable. This is called ‘taking care of myself’, right? ”
So you sit, committed and frustrated gritting your teeth. The water starts to cool slightly.
Time passes and you get more comfortable as the temperature changes. Now, you are ready to relax, but your body and mind won’t let you. You keep thinking about the discomfort from before, how much you needed to rest instead of bathe, and how you wished you could be like other people who have “successful” baths. Your body feels tense.
Before you know it the brief moment of reprieve from the hot water passess and the water is getting cold. “But I worked so hard to stay in this bath and feel relaxed! I am not getting out now!”, you say to yourself.
You spent money on the bubbles, candles and nice soaps. Giving up doesn’t feel like an option. So, you sit in cold water and shiver all thewile. “I am going to be able to tell my friends and family that I had a nice bath today and they are going to be proud of me for taking time out for myself. And, I will look nice with my bath glow,” you think as you examine your pruned hands in the candle-lit bathroom. But this doesn’t last long.
Finally, you have had enough. After sitting in the bath feeling angry and frustrated, you get out.
You are done for today, and notice that you feel more exhausted and mentally depleted then when you started. You feel mad at yourself for not having figured out how to do something as “simple” as take a bath. You wonder if you are ever going to get self-care “right” and decide that next time you are going to do it better and work harder.
You are going to take a bath even if it comes at the cost of your own happiness, wellbeing and sanity. Afterall, aren't baths supposed to be good for you? You decide all of it was your fault.
This is what dieting is like. Like the bath, your intentions feel right, and you start restricting and dieting with the desire to want to care for yourself.
But overtime, the attempt comes at the cost of your wellbeing and you push through it because you have been told that it’s supposed to make you happy, calm and satisfied, much like the bath.
And it makes sense that this is the case!! You have been sent the message that through careful, and at times obsessive, monitoring of your food intake and the way you move your body, that you will arrive to a place where you feel content and settled, but this is not the case.
Like the bath water that is too hot or cold, over time dieting leaves you feeling uncomfortable and frustrated. And with each dieting and restricting attempt, it becomes harder, more fraught with difficulty and has greater negative consequences. You wonder what is wrong with you (“why can’t I diet the right way and everyone else can?”) rather than to place the blame where it belongs: on the diet and dieting culture.
Diets are also not innocuous like baths. They cause harm mentally, psychologically, socially, developmentally, and interpersonally. Many years of research shows us that more than 95% of diets fail, lead to weight gain, and encourage disordered eating behaviors, not to mention that they are often the springboard for the development of many eating disorders.
They perpetuate weight stigma and weight biases; the myth that a smaller body equals a bill of health and increased attractiveness, to name a few.
But it can feel hard to do it differently! If you have been dieting and restricting for some time, the idea of dropping the diet, rules and perceived control can be scary and confusing. It takes time to unpack the impact that dieting and food rules have had on your life.
Like the bath, you must reflect on your experience, invite compassion into your past dieting attempts, assess whether your attempts at self care via dieting are truly self-care, and question if you are ready to let go of the pursuit of dieting for good even though your friends/family/culture might tell you otherwise.