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.

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.

Truth and Illusion

It is often after a long and challenging practice that I find myself lost in the post-yoga buzz. A combination of intense and still flowing energy, physical sensations, sweat, a wide range of thoughts, heat, sometimes tears, and all of the feelings that can be cultivated with practice completely take over. We come face to face with our truest self, stripped of ego, raw and deliberately exposed with nowhere to hide.

One day I found myself in this space, turned to my side, and through gentle tears I saw myself so clearly for the first time ever. I realized with perfect clarity that I didn’t like myself very much and when that thought came to consciousness the tears really began to flow.

When our yoga practice becomes a mirror for us to see more clearly the life that we’re living we have a number of responses at our disposal. For most of us, it will be whatever our general habits are off of the mat. When we experience frustration, anger, fear, sadness, shame, vulnerability, discomfort it is not uncommon for us to want to avoid, distract or numb ourselves, deny the experience, blame someone or something else, refocus our attention outward, or hide.

When these feelings show up on the mat, the responses will look very similar. Some will avoid the practice all together because of how vulnerable it makes them feel. Some will numb themselves to the feelings that come up or resist what their body, heart, and mind are telling them and continue to push until injury. And when those who tend to run away realize they can’t hide and still maintain this practice there is also the potential to experience a breakthrough.

When I decided to dive deeper into my realization I discovered that at its core were decades of shame. Layers and layers of the belief that I was not worthy of this practice or this life…that I was not good enough to have what I had…that I didn’t deserve the love of my husband, my family, or the friendships that I had managed to develop over the years.

The thing about peeling back these layers is that it takes time to work through. These deeper truths are usually clouded by bigger illusions, stories that we’ve created, to distract ourselves from what’s really going on underneath. So what do we do from here?

Truth is known as Satya in Yoga Philosophy. In The Four Agreements, it is the agreement to “be impeccable with your word.” In order for us to see our truths and the beliefs that we hold we have to first identify the words we use, the phrases we speak, and the thoughts that arise within us with complete honesty. We must first bring awareness to what we do, say, and think now in the present before we can call ourselves out for its insincerity.

Decades of therapy, both with professional help and general talk-therapy among trusted friends and loved ones, were a big part of my journey. Years of practicing and studying Yoga Asana and Yoga Philosophy were also integral for me. The most significant factor of all though is that I have surrounded myself with people who love and encourage me to seek out and live my truth objectively.

My husband is amazing at this. He is the first person who has ever really taught me to see through my own B.S. especially when witnessing me belittle and criticize myself. He does not concern himself with how things appear or what someone else might think. He has the courage to call things out exactly as he sees them with honesty and respect, without holding back and without outside influence. I used to call him my “caller-outer.” He does not let me or anyone else get away with saying things that aren’t true especially when used to manipulate people (including myself) to think or feel one way or another. I am blessed to have him by my side. I am forever grateful for him, his integrity, and his love.

And then I needed my teachers. Taylor Hunt was the first who saw through my attempt to hide, resist, avoid, and stay numb on my mat. He heard me “joke” about how my body had too much “stuff” to twist and bind and he very publicly called me out. I needed this. He saw through the game I played to keep hidden. He saw that I practiced without being emotionally and mentally present, just scratching the surface and going through the physical motions that I knew so well after years of practicing this set sequence. He saw my resistance to going deeper, to trying harder, and to seeing what was really underneath it all. He helped me see the illusions I created and encouraged me to finally face them.

The rest of it is all me. I am reminded over and over again through continuous study, through mentors and through friends that I have power I can choose to own whenever I want. I do not have to continue looking outside of myself in other people’s validation or by achieving a posture to be or feel worthy of my practice or the life I am living. Unlimited potential is mine only when I am ready and willing to stand in that power and finally be seen.

As I continue this journey, I must stay diligent for myself and I must be willing to be that voice for others, lest I fall back into old patterns. Reminding those around me also helps me to remember: Pay attention to the stories you have created to convince yourself and others to look the other way. Recognize the words you use to describe others and yourself, your body, your actions, and your behaviors. Notice when you say something unkind and make yourself see the truth that lies beneath those thoughts or feelings.

It is not true that other people can “make you” feel anything. There is something deeper within you that causes a reaction to the words and actions of others. It is not true that you can make others think or feel or do anything. What someone does is their choice, their story, and has nothing to do with you. It is not coincidence that both of these reminders are also two more of The Four Agreements.

It is not true that you need to have a different body size or shape or structure to be your BEST self. It is not true that you “can’t” and that you need longer or shorter/bigger or smaller of anything to practice where you are. It is not true that you aren’t good enough/strong enough/flexible enough to try anything. It is not true that you don’t have enough time for something you truly want to do. It is not true that you have “no choice.”

When we become aware of our own illusions and can identify the truth that lies beneath, that is where the work begins. We can then call ourselves out when we hear the B.S. We can then take that time to explore where those thoughts or feelings are really coming from and sit with it…feel all of the feelings no matter how uncomfortable it is to speak it and bring it to light.

And as resilience and ease grows with that practice, we can begin to shift our perspective and recreate our habits. We can replace the thought patterns with ones that are rooted in our truth. We can identify the actions that perpetuate those beliefs and begin to make a different choice in how we live. And ultimately, we can choose to own our strength, live in our light, and stand in our power and know that we are all valid and worthy just as we are.

Healing from Diet Culture

As I continue to work on living my best life into my forties, I must face the debilitating beliefs that plagued my childhood, teen years, and younger adulthood. I am grateful for ever coming across The Four Agreements more than 10 years ago to help me start to reset my way of thinking. I realize now that this was a necessary step for me to even begin this journey, but it has been incredibly challenging to undo the thought process of diet culture and it still is.

This undertaking feels massive as the weight-loss industry makes billions over billions of dollars on our own belief that we are all not good enough as we are. Thankfully, we have advocates like Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch who paved the way to change this way of thinking by gifting us with the principles and practice of intuitive eating.

This issue cannot be addressed in one post. It is not enough to cover this topic with one voice. It is worth the effort to call bullshit on this industry and this societal mindset with as many advocates and resources as we possibly can.

Please join me on this journey to heal ourselves from this culture of self-loathing. With each upcoming post I will address beliefs we must begin to overcome together. We need to change the narrative. We need to shift our perspective and begin to see ourselves and each other much more clearly. We need to live more truthfully, choose to live with compassion and embrace our BEST selves once and for all.

A Catalyst for Change

Looking back at the times I was the most lost, the most broken and damaged I have ever felt, I remember feeling like it would never end. It is so easy to swim in despair and stay there……and more importantly, on some level, want to stay there.

As humans, we are so good at adapting whether we realize it or not. When we experience discomfort, pain, trauma, grief, loss we find ways to cope. That new behavior or story we create to justify what we believe creates a “new normal” that can stick around our whole lives and we forget who we were before or without that experience. We become comfortable with our new patterns and attach to the avoidance of pain and the desire for pleasure.

A child being told in various ways both directly and indirectly that she is not good enough, not smart enough, too fat, too weak, too dark, too ugly, too visible, unworthy, and on, and on…may grow up to prefer to be invisible. Coping strategies she develops may include hiding behind the things, behaviors, and people where she feels the most comfort, the most safe. Maybe she learns to believe and own all of those opinions of others and becomes addicted to the coping strategies she developed over time.

We create patterns in our mind, in our heart, and habits in our lives to protect ourselves. We numb ourselves, or hide, or resist, or run away, or lash out, or project on to those around us. At one extreme, some patterns can be irreparably more damaging to ourselves and others than the deeply buried motivation for the behavior itself. And at the other extreme, some patterns are much more subtle.

Sometimes it is simply denial of what we see happening before us. Sometimes it is withdrawing from the people in our lives or blaming them for our own misery. Sometimes it is the jokes we tell at our own expense to deflect or redirect how we really feel. And sometimes it is the stories we tell ourselves, the beliefs we hold, out of habit that is required to continue the very patterns of behavior we’ve created and so the vicious cycle of self-sabotage continues.

So how do we get off this merry-go-round? Sometimes *life* takes care of it for us and brings us to our knees. Sometimes hitting “rock bottom” is all that it takes for the motivation of a better way of living and trying to be a better person becomes a clear choice regardless of how difficult the process of recovery can seem. And sometimes we need a true catalyst for change.

The element of Tapas in yoga is knows as self-discipline, austerity, and is essential for transformation. It is the consistent effort to see ourselves clearly, honestly, and commit to the work required no matter how uncomfortable or emotionally painful the experience may be.

We will tell ourselves and those around us stories about why we can’t do something or why we have to do things one way versus another. Those patterns are often based in the belief that “good” feelings and positive experiences are the only ones worth having. It is the belief that only the things that we (think) we want can be considered blessings and answered prayers. This belief assumes that gifts of happiness are made only of rainbows and lollipops and any other feelings or experience must be thrown away with the trash, blocked out of our memory, and avoided like the plague. And we wonder why some patterns in our life continue to repeat…

A consistent yoga practice allows us to dedicate that time on our mat to be in our body, to listen to the sensations, thoughts, and feelings that come up. It allows us to address the beliefs that suddenly have no where else to hide, and in order to sustain the effort we learn to detach and continuously come back to our breath instead. As insecurities arise, as our ego becomes challenged, as we are made to feel raw and exposed, this practice of Tapas teaches us to build strength, openness, and resilience through the discomfort. We are taught to choose compassion in order to survive. We learn that without challenges there’s no reason, nor is there the ability, for us to grow.

And so that girl who believed once she was damaged beyond repair, begins to fall in love…with herself and with truly living. She begins to embrace and accept her whole self–her past, her present, and future. She begins to treat herself and others with love rather than react from a place of fear. Through her practice, she discovers the ability to see and stand in her power. She finally begins to understand that living life is not about a superficial sense of feeling “good” because the moments of darkness helped to define her light. And as the journey continues, living a life of gratitude replaces a life once filled with despair.

The Answer is Experience

“What is the point?”

An exasperated student asked herself this when she was first introduced to the Ashtanga method of Yoga Asana (physical postures). Depending on how one is exposed to this method or the expectations of yoga the student already has, it can feel very fast, quite vigorous, and for some unnecessarily challenging.

This question, to me, has many layers and it goes far beyond what method of yoga a student prefers to practice. I also hear this question in those who have a certain belief about themselves, their body, and what yoga is in fact meant to do for the practitioner.

I am certain that every yoga teacher has also heard someone tell them at least one of the following: “I’m not flexible enough.” I’m not strong enough.” “My body doesn’t move that way.” “I have too much/not enough _____________.” “My __________ isn’t ____________ enough for that.” “I will try it when I can _____________ first.” “I can’t do that.”

It dawns on me that those who hold these beliefs before trying is in their own way asking “what is the point?” They have already decided what they’re able to do so why even try.

Here’s the thing though–if we spent our lives avoiding challenges, not allowing ourselves to try new things or give ourselves the opportunity to learn and grow beyond our current abilities, we wouldn’t have the chance to evolve at all. Physically or otherwise. No one goes to school because they know everything already.

In yoga, regardless of the method, what we are given is the opportunity to learn more about ourselves and that is power within itself. When we arrive on the mat we allow ourselves the experience of what it feels like to be in our body. We move and we breathe and with this process alone, whatever it looks like, we open ourselves up to feel not just new physical sensations, but also the emotions we hold back, and the thoughts that dictate our lives.

A consistent yoga practice allows us to build a foundation of experiencing vulnerability. When I move in this way, how does this feel? What are the sensations in my body? Can I honor those sensations by finding that balance of Sthira (effort or stability) and Sukha (ease) within my physical state but also in my heart and in my mind? Or do I allow the feelings of frustration to take over and fight, resist, or avoid the experience? Do I allow my thoughts to take over and suppress them, deny them, or proclaim them as fact?

What would happen if we let the stories go? The beliefs that we have about who we are and what we can do and the expectations that we hold for what we “should” do or “should” look like. Because here’s the thing: none of those stories are true.

Yoga does not ask us to contort ourselves into shapes beyond our ability. It doesn’t ask us to balance on our hands or stand on our head without first building a strong, safe, stable foundation. Yoga asks to meet us exactly where we are and build the flexibility, strength, and balance from there. The engagement required in each posture is so subtle and it takes time. A consistent practice–of any method that sparks a light within you–is the way to bridge the gap from where you are and where you’d like to go from there.

This is a philosophy that can’t be understood without experience. And the only way to practice changing the stories, changing our habits and creating new ones is to see the ones we already hold as clearly as possible.

Yoga allows us to engage with that intention and helps us on a journey of growth and evolution. The next time you hear yourself speak in a way that is a story disguised as truth, what you can do is practice shifting your perspective. Rather than declare yourself all-knowing you can approach your practice, your body, and yourself with openness and curiosity.

You can instead choose to allow yourself to fully experience each moment. You can let go of past beliefs and abilities, let go of future expectations, surrender to what is, and simply take it one breath at a time.