Food, Fear and Focus in Global Pandemic: How to deal with a society that is fixated on thinness and dieting 

Hope Virgo, Author, Mental Health Campaigner and Founder of #DumpTheScales

“Lose weight in 21 days”

“Get the perfect body right here” 

“We must tackle obesity”

“You need to shift that lockdown lard” 

The messages are everywhere, powerfully hitting every area of life. From the moment we wake up, to the moment we go to bed. On the TV, radio, walking in to public places and of course on social media. Recovering from an eating disorder in this current world can feel like a total mindful, but not only for those with eating disorders, but society seems set right now on judgment. Set right now on making us feel like we aren’t enough. 

Whilst I am by no means saying we shouldn’t be tackling healthy eating and exercise; we need to be doing it in the right way and not fat shaming, or scaring individuals! As someone who has had an eating disorder not only do I see the damage of these messages on my mental health but I see the dangers on others. 

Eating disorders are serious mental illnesses with the highest mortality rate, yet we seem set on creating a world where individuals are fixated on numbers numbers! Would it surprise you to know that 25% of people who become fixated on numbers and calories will go on to develop an eating disorder? 

But let’s go back to the start of all of this! In March 2020, life as we know it changed and lockdown began. All of us will have had different experiences of lockdown and it will have thrown up our own unique challenges. For me, it was hard at times; and probably quite a lot of you a bit like a rollercoaster. Some brilliant days when life felt okay, to days when things felt quite challenging. Combing that for me was feeling totally out of control a lot of them, the uncertainty and this constant obsession with food. Left right and centre people began baking banana bread (seriously!) and then this whole thing around fitness sessions, and people sharing every single workout they were doing and then body image issues! The constant zoom calls, whilst staring at your face, picking it apart. Or if you are anything like me, occasionally trying to vary things up so standing up in my room for a zoom call, next to a long mirror, and spending some of the time (if not all of it) looking at different parts of my body. You might think that’s vain, but the constant pressure on our bodies and food during this time has really caused a lot of turmoil.

Then to top this off as lockdown eases we again go back to bodies! We are told all over the TV to shift that weight, to start weighing kids, to focus on numbers. And as individuals we need to find a way to resist this, to not let it impact our mental health and to find a way to push back on this messaging from society. 

First things first the science; we know that calories are simply a unit of energy and are often 25% inaccurate when we look at food labels. Added to this the shame that people when they start calorie counting, when they don’t hit the target and then when they begin to constantly think about food does more harm than good. I am by no means saying that we shouldn’t be living healthy lifestyles but encouraging you think about the way you are doing it. We should be moving away from these numbers and instead thinking about education, empowering people to make decisions and working to tackle social inequalities so that people really can access the right food. I recently came across some work being done in Andover as part of the Love Your Neighbour Campaign. Here they had put together food packs to make a roast dinner, not only was the food provided but there was also a recipe explaining how to do it! Surely this is the sort of messaging we should be delivering – proper long term education. 

The second bit of science I would love to pull out here, is the inaccuracy of BMI. BMI doesn’t take in to account our muscle mass, and is based on a white male! So before you start feeling bad about yourself for this, have a look at the evidence. 

So; how do we resist the pressure and the unhelpful emphasis on weight at the moment? 

1. Be mindful of what messages we are flooding our minds with:

Yes, some messages are hard to ignore, but as individuals we need to take some ownership of this. Curate your social media feeds so you are following accounts and looking at things that make you feel good. 

2. Remember it is okay to leave conversations with friends or family members who are fixated on dieting! 

Have your excuses and your change of topics in place, and I guarantee you others will be relieved you have moved the conversation on. 

3. Be Bold and make an active effort to not comment on a person’s weight

We live in a world where people glorify thinness, but this is so damaging for so many reasons. But also makes things for people with eating disorders harder. So how about instead of commenting on weight, commenting on what the person does or has to offer!

4. Talk!

If you are finding the diet chat and messaging hard, take some time out! And seek support from others. I have people in my life who I am accountable to and it is these people who I can off load on to and check in with. Talking can feel hard and sometimes you might think silly when it is about something like this, but if it matters to you it is important.

5. Focus on what your body can do and not what it looks like 

Sounds basic but for me it really helps. Yes I might not like my thighs but they enable me to run! 

6. Interrupt that thought trail if you find yourself beating yourself up too much!

Name something else, distract yourself! When I look in the mirror and hate what I see if my mind starts bombarding me with nasty comments I will also stop, take a step back and say something out-loud. This distracts my mind (and also the more we do it the easier it gets)

7. Vent! 

If you had looked through my window a few weeks ago, you would have seen me watching this ridiculous and extremely dangerous diet program (I had to watch to review it!) I was fuming, pacing around and getting very annoyed. Sometimes we can turn this frustration with diet culture into something big and exciting! Allow yourself to vent and be angry and then move forward! 

8. Seek support from your GP if you are worried about your weight or mental health 

If you are finding the messaging too much and are worried about your own mental and physical health, please do reach out for professional support. Don’t wait until you hit crisis to ask for support! 

9. Be kind to yourself and show yourself some compassion  

We have just been in a pandemic, and life is so strange right now, full of uncertainty and a lot of fear. Please keep doing things for yourself! Take some time out for you. 

10. Count memories not calories!

My final life-long mantra! Focus on memories, not calories! 

Right now the world can feel like a minefield and I don’t know what your story is, or where you are at but please know that things can get better. I lived my life for so long controlled by numbers, feeling rubbish about myself… but it gets better and easier to navigate. As a society we need to keep standing up to diet culture and these dangerous messages, and keep supporting ourselves and those around us!

Hope Virgo, 25/08/2020
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