On the weekend in between Christmas and New Year’s Day, I attended a fitness class at my gym, like I do most weekends. As a family, we enjoy an active lifestyle and going to the gym has always been a part of that.
Before the class even started, the instructor was going on about repenting for our “sins.” She was talking about how we must all be there to make up for what we had done.
Did I miss something? Had we as a group done something bad?
What I quickly came to realize was she was referring to what she assumed we all ate over the previous holiday. She listed cookies, wine and other desserts in a way that clearly categorized them as awful. All things I myself had eaten, but nothing I felt I needed to repent for.
Until that moment.
As someone who has spent their career treating individuals with eating disorders, I know the risks involved in this type of mentality. I know the sometimes debilitating and negative thoughts that can be taken away from messages like this.
I am also aware that since eating disorders affect roughly 5 percent of the overall population, odds are that the large majority of the people in that gym class would not have been affected in this way. (Still, if 1 out of 20 people were triggered into eating disorder behaviors, that is too many, in my opinion. But that is a topic for another time).
So I am writing this today, not for my eating disorder clients. I am writing it for everyone else.
Now don’t get me wrong. I understand that the instructor of this class meant well and was speaking to the mass of people who likely did not have eating disorders. But there is still a problem in this.
There is a problem in the mentality that we need to punish ourselves for eating. That exercise is a way for us to repent for the “wrong” we have done by said eating. Shame should never be the motivator for exercise. When our visit to the gym becomes the consequence we feel we deserve after eating, as opposed to the wonderful self-care it is supposed to be, we not only run the risk of pain and injury, we are losing a part of the self-love and compassion that tells us we need to take care of ourselves.
While this messaging is not unique to the holiday season, it certainly is exaggerated this time of year. As a mom of two young kids, I want to be able to enjoy my time with them over the holiday.
I want to be able to have jelly donuts with my kids on Chanukah or enjoy an extra serving of potatoes at a family dinner. Furthermore, I want my kids to also be able to enjoy these things without feeling guilty — at all!
We need to be cautious, because even when these messages are not directed at our kids, they are picking up on them. They pick up on the negative thoughts we have toward food and ourselves. And they start to mimic us.
While most people are aware that eating disorders are unhealthy and understand the importance in changing those behaviors, they often don’t get the slippery slope that leads to those behaviors. Eating disorders don’t start out of nowhere. They start with a harmful relationship with food.
As a society, we often mask eating disorder behaviors behind popular diets. Intermittent fasting is basically promoting starvation for large portions of the day, and the gluten-free fad endorses restriction of a major food group.
And while dieting doesn’t always lead to an eating disorder, it does promote a negative relationship with food by placing a moral value on what we do or don’t eat.
How many of you have ever been made to feel like you are doing something “wrong” by eating a particular food? How often have conversations around meals focused on how you are going to make up for what you are doing?
Now let me ask you this, what would be different if you listened to what your body asked? Gave it what it was asking for (we have food cravings for a reason!) rather than what you felt you were supposed to eat? How might exercise fit into your life if you viewed it as self-care, rather than “repentance” for what you ate? How would your kids look at their own body if they saw you love yours?
I am posing these questions to point out what we as a society are doing to ourselves, and therefore our children. We need to focus more on self-love and taking care of our bodies, rather than punishing them for perceived indiscretion.
And while I don’t have a solution yet for how we can change society’s view on this as a whole (although I am open to suggestions!) we can all start with the messages we give ourselves and our families.
Jmore parenting columnist Talya Knable is a psychotherapist who lives in Lutherville with her husband, Stephen, and their two children, Jack and Leigh. Her website is tkpsych.com/. She is also the assistant clinical director of Shalom Tikvah (shalomtikvah.org/), a local non-profit organization that supports Jewish families facing mental illness and other challenging life circumstances.
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