Happy Tuesday, and please enjoy this week’s guest post by Stefanie Bonastia, below!
When Lauren came to me for coaching, she had been controlling her body weight through diet and exercise for fifteen years.
She had finally reached the point where the payoff no longer felt worth the cost, and recognized her patterns of behavior as disordered and “soul-sucking.” She knew she wanted out, but at the same time, she feared what might lay on the other side of her highly controlled identity. Her entire skill set was built around nutrition and fitness. She was known in her friend circles as the “healthy one,” the one who knew what superfoods were trending and how to make Superbowl snacks without carbs. What had started out as a routine gym schedule turned into a certification in personal training, and her body became social proof of her status.
But the lifestyle was beginning to suffocate her. She recognized her lack of mental space for anything other than tracking numbers on MyFitnessPal and planning gym sessions. She was chasing macro goals in between what felt like self-sabotaging binge episodes, and found herself more obsessed and rigid when the pandemic hit. Her world was becoming smaller and smaller, and after learning about Intuitive Eating on social media, she became intrigued and eventually convinced that a change was necessary if she ever wanted to escape the pressure prison she had created for herself.
Unfortunately, Lauren’s obsession with food and fitness had developed during adolescence — a time when our identities are only just forming — and she had never understood her role, purpose, or worth under any other lens.
To abandon this lifestyle felt necessary, but absolutely terrifying. Success, confidence, and talent were only known to Lauren under the umbrella of nutrition and physique.
“I want to be free of this but sometimes I wonder what I’m even doing,” she said to me at our first session. “I’m leaving the only thing I’m good at, and something that honestly gives me a high. Without that, I’m afraid I’ll be bored and… mediocre.”
I meet lots of clients like Lauren, and I’m sure there are more of you reading this article now. If you have dedicated a significant amount of your time and energy to mastering the skill of dieting or fitness, you’ve probably become really, really good at it. You know everything about it. You know what to do, and when, and how. People admire you for what you know and what you do so (seemingly) effortlessly. You are like their guru of health and wellness. When all else fails, you can fall back on your know-how to give you the confidence that others don’t see, or that you may not feel in contexts outside of your appearance.
To give this up is a really, really big ask. It feels like severing ties to your only sense of empowerment. To replace it with vague and abstract promises of “freedom” and “intuition” sounds nice, but not actionable. Even concepts like “neutrality” feel like a let-down, like trading exceptional for normal.
So is that what you’re really facing, when you give up your one Big Life Skill of rigidly controlling food, exercise, and physique? Vague mediocrity?
Let’s unpack this.
I think we need to address the fact that rigid food and body control are always going to have a few things over freedom from food and body control: intensity and immediacy.
When emotions become overwhelming, or when situations beyond our control start piling on, the instinct is to escape or rise above. Controlling food is a quick response. You can literally start dieting right now if you want, and your body will respond to your efforts with a tangible outcome of weight loss (for a short period of time, anyway), and in the meantime you get to bask in the highs of self-control, a focused goal, and accolades from literally everyone. Your friends will admire your dedication, your family will approve of your discipline, and society at large will validate you for being a clean-eating, gym-going, responsible adult doing your part in the collective march towards aesthetic worth.
I mean, what greater high is there than to trade discomfort and helplessness for approval and productivity? When you’re “good” at dieting and exercising, it’s like a drug. It’s quick, it’s easy, it’s concrete, and you know how to get it. The rewards are swift and sure. This is not something that “food freedom” or “body acceptance” can rival.
I think it’s helpful to acknowledge this.
Once we give ourselves the permission to admit that yes, a quick fix would feel so good, we can simultaneously recognize that this is actually only a band-aid. By labeling it as such, we give ourselves the space to see that it’s not what we need.
So what, then, is the larger solution? How do we move past the band-aid to empower ourselves as effectively — especially if the band-aid is our natural skill set?
The first step might be to recognize that controlling your food and body is not really the natural skill set.
Consider: dieting and fitness are merely channels that you have learned to use that harness the power of your actual natural skill sets. What you are good at is not “having a sculpted body” or “eating clean” as much as it might be researching new information and trends, integrating structure, or honoring commitments.
Traits of persistence, organization, and even discipline might be strengths that flow into passions of any kind, but happened to land on dieting and weight control, because that’s where you found the most accolades.
In the absence of accolades, where would your passions be?
Empowerment might lie in the answer to that question. Because I promise that you are good at so much more than diet culture. And if what we are good at can bring us a sense of empowerment, then the mission becomes less about losing weight and more about soul-searching.
Which, of course, is not as glamorous (or as instantaneous) as quick-fix dieting. And it’s probably one of the reasons we don’t as readily turn to it in times of self-doubt or insecurity, choosing instant gratification instead. But if instant gratification has become a hamster wheel of emptiness and burnout, then it might be time to get patient and intentional about cultivating confidence beyond body size.
For Lauren, she had to detach from her identity in diet culture and feel the vulnerability of “what now??” to start moving in new directions. The shift did not happen overnight, but as her self-worth became less and less about her body, it found other areas to find a foothold.
More recently, Lauren was accepted into a doula certification program, which was an interest she had only mildly entertained prior to our work together. She now has new things to think about and other goals to pursue. And while she still has bad body image days, she doesn’t rely on her former obsessions to appease her insecurity. Instead, she finds strength in her studies, volunteer work, and expanding self-confidence.
What Lauren (and so many other clients like her) report back is that the mental space created by leaving diet culture doesn’t leave room for the mediocrity and boredom that was once so feared. On the contrary, it’s hard to understand how a life ruled by food and exercise was fulfilling at all, given the wider scope of a life not dictated by it.
As it turns out, there is more out there.
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