I read an article on the weekend about the rise of health conscious women who post beautiful images of themselves on Instagram. Mostly they’re clever and creative women who are simply doing what they love but while I was reading, I worried about how my younger self would have coped with this.
Like almost all women, I’ve had concerns about my appearance over the years but at the time that those things bothered me most, I didn’t have to deal with social media. The comparisons I made were to a handful of my closest friends and I knew those same friends loved and supported me.
Add to this the reams of information we’re exposed to every day about what we should be eating and how much we should be exercising, and it’s no wonder so many of us feel racked with guilt about all of the things we’re not doing right.
Taking care of our health is about so much more than the physical choices we make each day.
There’s no doubt that eating mostly natural foods and doing exercise you enjoy will improve your health but I also believe that one of the greatest positive impacts on my own wellbeing has been how I treat myself mentally.
Guilt and the associated anxiety and stress must be detrimental to our health. These factors may not be easily measured but what I observe anecdotally tells me that stress, guilt and worry impact our relationships, our confidence, how comfortable we are to socialise and ultimately they influence the choices we make about how we treat our bodies in the future.
For the most part, it’s a vicious cycle.
When we loathe ourselves, we seek comfort in food. When we feel unattractive, the last thing we feel like doing is donning our exercise gear.
Many years ago, I had a conversation with Dr Rick Kausman, author of If Not Dieting, Then What about this very issue. Rick is a lovely man but maybe more importantly, he’s practical. He had so much common sense advice to share about how we can take a more mindful approach to eating (you’ll find some of his tips below) but even more interesting to me was his insight that over 100 years ago, voluptuous women were revered and thin women weren’t considered beautiful at all. As a society, we’ve imposed a set of totally unrealistic expectations on ourselves. To think that each of us should be (or even could be) a size 10 or 12 is absurd and more than likely, probably not even a healthy option for many of us.
I’m not suggesting that we throw our hands in the air and say “this is all too hard, let’s just get drunk and eat pizza”, but rather, that we begin to have a conversation from a totally different perspective.
Let’s begin by being kinder to ourselves.
Let’s set sensible, practical goals and be realistic about how we achieve them.
Think back to your grandparents. Mine lived well into their 80s and 90s. They ate white bread, sugar and all sorts of other ‘unhealthy’ foods. One of my grandmothers was a bit of a party girl too. She had a brandy most nights and smoked for as long as I had known her. I doubt she ever did a day of ‘exercise’ in her life. More than likely, she walked a bit in her younger years and I expect there was a time that she cleaned her own house and ran around after her three little kids. She was probably active on an incidental basis. Maybe more importantly, she had a great sense of humour and a happy relationship with her partner. She took pride in her appearance but she didn’t obsess about it and thankfully for her, she didn’t have Instagram to compare herself with her peers.
If you’ve spent years beating yourself up for not going to gym or for eating gluten, dairy, sugar, coffee, wine or having takeaway on a Friday night, maybe it’s time to let that go. If you’re genuinely intolerant, it’s logical that you’ll need to avoid certain foods, but the rest of us need to be cautious about the confusing and often conflicting advice that’s out there and make choices that are good for us at a personal level.
By ‘good’, I mean what feels good to you.
Listen to your body. Start being realistic about your body type and your natural size. Step away from the comparisons you’re making to others and stop listening to all of the noise. Come back to simple, practical ideas about how to genuinely nurture your wellbeing.
Start by trying the following tips:
- Grab a copy of Rick Kausman’s book If Not Dieting, Then What and read his sensible advice.
- Get rid of the idea of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods. Instead, label foods ‘everyday’ and ‘sometimes’ foods. When you do choose a ‘sometimes’ food, give yourself permission to thoroughly enjoy it.
- Give up ‘dieting’ and counting calories forever.
- Incorporate vegetables and natural grains into your meal plans and eat foods as close to the natural source wherever possible and start to make friends with food, rather than treating it like the enemy.
- Tune into your body and learn to recognise hunger. Eat when you’re genuinely hungry rather than eating to soothe your emotions. Enjoy what you eat and only eat until you’re 80% full – your body will take a while to fully register what you’ve eaten.
- Make a list of activities that soothe you emotionally that don’t involve eating. These might include taking a bath, meeting a friend for coffee (or a herbal tea), journalling, walking in the park, doing something creative or booking a massage.
- Be gentle with yourself when you notice the desire to eat emotionally. Be aware of what you’re doing and label the emotions you feel. If you decide that this is what you need for now, tell yourself, “I’m eating for comfort and I give myself permission to do this”. The more mindful you are about your behaviour, the easier you’ll find it to choose alternatives that are just as soothing.
- Listen to your body one hour after eating so you get to know which foods make you feel energised or lethargic. Make choices about what you eat around this information.
- Move your body more, but do it in a way that feels pleasurable. Give up the idea that you’ll get to the gym or go for a run if you genuinely loathe it – instead, do something you enjoy.
- Start being kind to yourself, rather than beating yourself up. Give yourself permission to be imperfect and let go of your comparisons to others.
- Notice your natural beauty and celebrate that every day. Each morning, look into the mirror and acknowledge one aspect of yourself that you find attractive. Look into your own eyes and say ‘you’re a thoughtful friend’, ‘you have beautiful eyes’ or ‘you’re clever and funny’. It might feel weird at first but these small habits help to change neural pathways in the brain and you can genuinely change how you feel about yourself.
- If you have anyone in your life who makes unsupportive comments about your physical appearance, let them know that this needs to stop right now. Be assertive, not aggressive but make it clear that it’s not appropriate.
- Learn to meditate so that you’re more in tune with yourself and to help you discover your innate sense of inner calm.
- Give yourself permission to rest. Our bodies need proper down time. At least once each week find an hour or two to your feet up, switch your phone off and most importantly, let go of any guilt about putting yourself first. You’ll have more to give to others when you take great care of yourself.
- Make a choice to treat your body with the utmost respect not because you think you should but rather, because you truly value yourself and you want to feel more energised today, tomorrow and well into the future.
Please note that I’m not a medical professional nor am I trained in nutrition. This is a personal opinion piece only.