We Are All Victims of Diet Culture

As I continue to speak out as an advocate against diet culture it’s clear to me that it may be helpful to simply list the signs of its effects so we can all better identify its existence in our lives. In order for us to truly change what’s acceptable in our society we have to first see what’s woven into our shared beliefs and understand how it effects our behaviors.

Every single one of us has experience in suffering from diet culture. To know this for yourself, please read through this list. If you have ever done, said, shared, repeated, believed, written, posted, or even thought any of the following about yourself or others you have suffered from diet culture:

  • Gone on any diet NOT due to medical reasons or advised by a physician, dietitian, or nutritionist
  • Been a serial or yo-yo dieter
  • Counted calories, carbs, fat grams, etc.
  • Valued your weight over yourself as a person
  • Joked about your eating habits
  • Joked about your food choices
  • Joked about your body shape
  • Joked about your fatness or skinniness
  • Joked about your “body rolls” or “chicken legs,” etc.
  • Deprived yourself from foods or drinks you enjoy
  • Consumed foods or drinks that you didn’t enjoy
  • Valued the numbers over how you feel (pounds, inches, clothing sizes etc.)
  • Hid from taking pictures
  • Hid from being seen at all
  • Judged yourself for eating or drinking anything
  • Skipped a meal or worked out to make up for a previous or future indulgence
  • Worked out to lose weight rather than to feel good or have fun
  • Felt ashamed by how you look or how you eat
  • Preferred to eat alone so no one else sees the choices you make
  • Denied yourself a social outing because you didn’t trust your ability to make choices based on your food restrictions and rules
  • Felt like the size of clothing you wear matters
  • Believed that you are not good enough or capable of something unless you lose weight or change your body first

As I stare at this list I know there are many more that could be added but I will leave it there and hope that the message has come through loud and clear. The thing about this list is that it is mine. It is a list of the debilitating thoughts and behaviors that impaired my quality of life for so many years. And even if any of the above hasn’t been part of your own life’s experience, if you have agreed with or laughed along with someone who did think or behave this way you have, along with all of us, supported and perpetuated this painful culture of dieting.

What we can do now that we’ve called ourselves out for our own habits is to just begin noticing them in action. If you can find that extra breath and pause when you hear or see it come up, make the choice to no longer support them.

So many of us think that we need something big to happen to change our lives. We feel like some grand gesture is the only way to be our best self, or experience growth or enlightenment. We feel like if we can only achieve that peak posture or float in our yoga practice, or wear that size 2 dress again, or get that job instead of this one, or be in that kind of relationship, or have that person, or have that kind of money, or drop 50 lbs, or look good naked, and on and on, only then are we worth this kind of love and attention.

Brahmacharya is considered to be the conservation of or the “right use of” one’s energy to maintain one’s path towards God or enlightenment. We waste so much of our energy on worry, judgement, fear, and anxiety that we hold on to beliefs that do not serve our path towards living our best lives. In truth, it is the small habits, the minor, over-looked uses of our energy and focus that matter the most. It is the work and effort towards those achievements we reach for that matters more than what we think it “should look like” in the end. It is the moment to moment practice that you invest your time and attention on every single day that creates real change.

We may all be victims of diet culture, but together we can help end it. We start with ourselves with every word we speak, every single use of our energy, every thought and belief brought to the surface. Then we listen. We listen to each other as we learn to listen to ourselves and we actively, consciously, and diligently change the narrative between us. It is time. We deserve it.

A Life of Gratitude

Only with gratitude can our hearts take flight.

In the beginning of each asana practice I first work to settle my nerves. I calm my thoughts and begin to let go and just before opening my eyes I say a prayer of gratitude for this body, this life, and this practice.

The beauty of the Ashtanga method is that it is a set sequence, a constant, and the only variable when we arrive is ourselves. Whatever we bring to our mat is what shows up in our practice for that day. Whether it be physical ailments or ability, insecurity, shame, pride, or self-judgment, it will show up. How we choose to handle it when it does is then also up to us.

For many years my practice felt very heavy. I chose to ignore that feeling of heaviness by just skimming the surface as I moved with my breath. I wouldn’t let myself go very deep or try very hard. I only did what felt fun to do and ignored all of the rest. I had all the excuses lined up if I was ever faced with the idea of going deeper but for the most part, I simply avoided it.

This is why the guidance of a teacher and being part of a community is so important. We can move into postures and do all of the things we think we’re supposed to do but having a teacher who knows me and my habits and a community who can bear witness and see through the stories I choose to hide behind is essential to growth.

With guidance and when I was finally willing to go deeper I was faced with some very difficult truths. I had never felt so broken as very old and buried wounds were brought up to the surface. For one thing, I finally realized that I first began my Ashtanga practice already injured and unknowingly kept tearing myself up. Simultaneously, I had to face very dark emotional and mental truths about myself in order to see my physical body clearly so I could begin to heal.

What that looked like for me just earlier this year was to start my practice over from the very beginning, as if I was a brand new yoga student, because I was. As only Vajrasana, a seated position sitting on my heels, was accessible to me for the first week or so of coming back, I had to start with stillness. I came into the mysore room, set up my mat, and sat in silence, eyes closed, in contemplation of my current state. I watched all the thoughts and feelings rise to the surface and stayed with them all, just breathing through it.

This experience was in complete contrast to the year or so before when I spent many, many, many moments in this space at Hamsa that we call home flooded with tears. Clutching myself, trying to breathe, unable to speak, and sobbing so loudly that it bounced off of the walls, and echoed down the hall. I fully invested in pushing myself forward, creating space for me to be vulnerable and for all of that to be seen by my teachers and those who practiced around me. I understand now, it is simply what I needed to finally open my eyes.

As I transitioned from a practice of seated meditation to finding movement again I went in with that same intention of seeing clearly. I began an open communication with my body regularly checking in. I went in with the intention of finding the subtle strength and grounding required in each posture and each transition not taking any sensation for granted. I allowed everything that needed to come up to surface with ease because I no longer judged myself for what I saw.

I am still on this journey of recovery now. What’s important to recognize is that it’s not that I no longer feel heavy in my practice or that I don’t have experiences that feel difficult or challenging. The difference now is that I can experience the challenges and have learned to adapt. I do not waste my energy on creating stories around the heaviness or pain I experience. I do not feed into anything that makes me want to hide, ignore, make up excuses, or avoid feeling whatever I have to feel to live and practice more truthfully.

I do not judge what comes up, I do not compare myself to others or to my past, or attach myself to what I want to look like in the future. Through this practice I have found and finally understand Santosha, the practice of contentment and in essence gratitude. The ability to recognize all that we have, all that we are, and embrace every part of ourselves no matter what it looks like to others or some made up ideal. The ability to not only accept and appreciate the memories and things about ourselves and our lives that feel “good” or be the way we think it’s “supposed to be” but truly all of it.

Every moment, every feeling, all of the darkness and all of the light makes us whole and who we are. When we step onto our mat or out our front door, when we begin and end our day, whatever we are faced with, and we choose to reflect on that which we are grateful we shift our perspective away from illusion and darkness and doubt. When we live a life of gratitude, peace and contentment is what fills our hearts. This is what leads to liberation and allows us to truly soar.

Redefining Self Worth

In my early twenties I worked in a bank. I was opening a new account for an elderly Chinese couple one day as the husband stared at me. Finally he shared what he was thinking and asked, “Why do you look Asian?” I responded proudly and with a smile “Oh, because I am!” He then responded in disbelief, “But…..you’re so BIG!?!”

At 18 I went to visit family in the Philippines with my mom. I would pass strangers as they turned to get another look at the Pinay (Filipina) American. Comments that included “laki” or “taba” in Tagalog which translates to “large” and “fat” would often follow complete with hand and arm gestures pointing in my direction.

On this same trip I was able to meet new family members who were just babies when I last visited as I was only 6 years old during that time. As we were getting to know each other one of them made sure to tell me, “You would be pretty if you weren’t so fat”….as if it would be helpful for me to know. And these are just a few of the “you’re too fat” references that have paved the way for my journey today. It doesn’t even include all of the similar memories I have from my childhood and none of the experiences since.

Maybe your history includes a different story but I’m sure you can draw up something you were repeatedly told based on others’ beliefs and perceptions about you. Maybe for you it was about being too skinny instead. Maybe you were told (directly or indirectly) that you weren’t feminine or masculine enough, too good or too bad, too tall or too short, too sensitive or too cold, not smart or talented enough, or just “not enough” period.

These memories and experiences have all made imprints in our mind. Impressions that have stayed with us and shaped us known as samskaras. The power of recognizing some of these imprints and how they influence who we are from day to day is to, over time, recognize that these stories we were told were just that—stories. They are illusions based on other people’s beliefs and perceptions of what should be valued. They are NOT based in truth. They are the subjective opinions of others and we DO NOT have to own these beliefs for ourselves.

The initial reaction to hearing stories as my own, I can imagine, may feel horrible. People may feel pity for me or just sadness. If it hits a samskara of their own, feelings of rage at the audacity might come up or even shame in the recognition of what it probably felt like to be on the receiving end. But the first thing to practice in any situation that might elicit strong reactions is to remember that we do not have to take anything at all personallythe second agreement.

Armed with the practice of separating these stories from our own truth, and also not judging anyone else for whatever issues they carry themselves and instead choosing equanimity, we are now ready to begin changing the narrative of the ideal.

Diet Culture has told us over and over again that beauty and now “fitness” and “health” has one acceptable physical standard. It says that unless you fit within a certain box of long and lean, slender with maybe a little curve but not too much and only in the right places, defined muscles or at least a flat tummy, and preferably toned arms and legs then you are not good enough. Diet Culture says that because you are not good enough you must lose weight, go to the gym, stop eating carbs, work out harder, count your calories and your steps, put down the fork, never enjoy dessert or food in general, make fun of yourself and others who are also not good enough, and oh yeah, celebrate, glorify and continue to covet those bodies that do fit in the box while you look on in shame.

If the previous paragraph did not convey enough obvious sarcasm I will state as clearly as I can now and again and as many times as I need to in order to get this across: Diet Culture is BULLSHIT.

Diet Culture has made it possible for a billion-dollar-plus industry to exist only because those who buy into it keep going back. Entire lifestyles are centered on these false beliefs and have become a breeding ground for eating disorders and general behavioral patterns that perpetuate this cycle of not valuing who we are and not seeing our worth beyond our body’s shape and size.

It’s time to redefine self worth and stop buying into the B.S. Save your money, save your heartache, save your mental anguish, and let’s begin to heal the wounds that have created this world where it’s okay to talk trash about yourself and others.

Stop sharing stupid jokes or memes that are self-deprecating and reference your body, dieting or anything that you “should” or “should not” be doing. Pay attention to when others make similar comments and don’t engage in that type of talk anymore. Don’t support the idea that your worth, or anyone’s worth, is defined by your weight, the size or shape of your body, and whether other people can accept you and see you as beautiful. You are not ugly. Your are not stupid. You are not disgusting. You are not a joke. Self-acceptance and self-worth can only come from within—we have to stop looking outside of ourselves to find it.

In the practice of yoga, we have whatever time we spend on the mat to still our mind, whether sitting in a seat for breath work or meditation or moving through postures that help us to be more in our bodies and in the present moment. Take that time to let go of anything outside of yourself and be with your body and your breath. Meet your thoughts and feelings with openness, compassion, and most of all curiosity.

Begin to identify that this is the practice of self-care and self-love. Allow yourself as many moments of stillness in body and mind to begin creating a new reality—one that is pure of heart, honest, and clear. One that is not influenced by those around you but rather developed by standing in your own light and finally owning your power.

And as you do, one day with consistency and determination, you will not feel hurt or struggle to look back on those impressions that once caused you pain and sorrow. Instead you will be able to reflect on those memories with neutrality and even in gratitude. You will learn to embrace all of those experiences knowing that each one of them helped you to grow into the person you have become.

The Power of Equanimity

When we think about what causes us distress it is typically our reaction to the cause which feeds into the anxiety, sorrow, or pain that takes us far beyond where we intended to go. In order to find balance and stillness within our lives we must first be willing to see clearly the cause and then ourselves with firm objectivity.

First we practice separating truth from illusion. We identify the words and phrases we use so we can speak more clearly and live more truthfully rather than exacerbate false beliefs about ourselves or others. This practice reminds us that we create our own reality…that if there’s something we feel needs to change we can begin to shift the direction of our life with our current thought patterns and what we choose to speak out into the universe.

Oftentimes what challenges us with this practice is when we are faced with the feelings that come up. We have learned over time or as children that some feelings are “good” and some are “bad.” We think that if we feel sadness, anger, or frustration that something is “wrong” and has to be “fixed”. We immediately judge the emotions that create discomfort within ourselves and those around us and so begins the self-induced torture of simply being human.

What if instead we began from a clear, neutral state—like a still pond, or a clear sky? What if we allowed ourselves the experience of keeping our mind and body still and allowed our heart to feel whatever it needed to feel to live out its truth? And when the storm comes in and creates ripples in the water or darkens the sky, what if we allowed it to pass through—without reacting to its thunder no matter how loud? If we could do this we would have the opportunity to truly grow without the distraction of added chaos. This is the power of equanimity.

When we give ourselves the chance to develop strength, flexibility of mind, and the softness of heart we have the ability to take action…to change direction…to create the reality in which we want to live. In our daily lives we can practice equanimity within a wide range of situations. Everything as small as waking up later than intended, to experiencing the traffic on the way to work, to having a disagreement or even a full-blown fight with a friend or loved one can be met with steadiness of mind.

Our emotions will rise first, signaling our distress. Maybe our heart rate will rise, maybe our cheeks will flush, maybe our body heat causes us to sweat. From there as you notice your physical reactions take over, pause whenever you can and choose to shift what you say and do next. In the beginning old habits will step in but you have the power to choose equanimity and the more often you do the more new habits will replace the old.

In the beginning of the Yoga Sutras it is Chapter 1.2 that says yogaś-citta-vr̥tti-nirodhaḥ which translates to “yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind” or “yoga is the stilling of the changing states of the mind.” When you are practicing asana (the physical postures of yoga) you are repeatedly putting yourself in situations that require effort. In order to find ease you are not able to do so if you allow yourself to attach and react to all of the sensations that come up.

This happens very often in the beginning of one’s experience of practicing yoga asana. As humans we are so good at identifying what we believe is wrong with us—when we think we’re not good enough, when we think we can’t do something. We declare it and speak it out loud as if everyone around us needs to know. We apologize to others for being who we are.

But when you hear yourself react in this way on the mat I will remind you that you have a choice. You can instead let go of that story in your head. Let go of believing that you can’t, or that you are not enough…let go of thinking you need to lose weight or gain more muscle…let go of thinking that your body fat matters at all, or that you need to be stronger or be more flexible. I will help remind you to let go of your attachments to beliefs that no longer serve you.

This is where that practice begins. Hear yourself speak non-truths, and begin to replace those thought patterns with ones that help you grow. Allow yourself to pause and be still in body and mind. Stop fidgeting or moving around because of the discomfort—be where you can breathe deeply and, again, be still.

Stop your racing thoughts from getting away from you and just follow your breath in and out. Notice the sensations in the body without judgment. Allow yourself to experience each movement and take note of what your body is telling you. When there is restriction it is simply your body’s way of protecting you. Practice where you are and take note so you can work to grow from there. There is no rush to building strength and flexibility…but we won’t build it without doing the work.

The practice looks the same off the mat as well. You do not have to hold on to beliefs that cause you pain and suffering. You can choose to see yourself and others more clearly when you do not immediately judge what you see. Choose equanimity, steadiness, and be still like the sky. Allow yourself to be where you are. Do not suppress it. Do not resist. Do not judge. Do not react. Just breathe.