Why we need to get angry at the diet industry.

My postgraduate research is focused on social media and dieting. I have looked at the history of dieting and the role of social media in reinforcing the ‘thin ideal’, and I am now beginning to look at how social media is used by people with or in recovery from an eating disorder and how social media is used for body image activism and education. For my final research project I will be looking at the impact of female fitness and dieting accounts on social media users.

There is a reason I am so passionate about this topic, and that reason is connected to having had anorexia nervosa, but it runs so much deeper than that. My experiences of anorexia as a teenager, developing into an adult, have seen me become very aware of the messages that the diet industry puts out there. I do not buy into any of it. Living with an eating disorder has made me less immune to the diet industry than the typical person is, of that I am sure.

What I have become most aware of goes beyond the impact that diet culture has on people with eating disorders, and my interest now is heavily on the impact of diet culture on everyone. Being surrounded by other people my age (and of all ages) has made me extremely aware of this; as someone in recovery from an eating disorder I often find myself questioning who is the one who has had the disorder. It often feels like the people around me are now more disordered than I am.

I am anti-dieting. Ridiculously anti-dieting. This does not mean I am against weight loss. It does not mean I am against healthy living, nor does it mean I am against exercise, weight lifting, or most other things. It does mean I heavily question standard approaches to weight loss, and how we are defining healthy. It does mean I am against diet pills, valuing ourselves based on our weight or shape, and denying ourselves pleasures in life.

The dieting industry is primarily a money making industry. I often remind myself of that. Those diet plans you pay for? Yep, they care about money above anything else. The message is that if you spend enough money, you can be perfect.

Diet culture has been built around the ‘thin ideal’ that tells us that in order to be happy and healthy we need to be thin; it leads us to judging our self-worth on how we look and what we weigh, and often it even leads us to judging other people in this way too. Weight gain is seen as being related to a lack of self-control and so we see ourselves and others as flawed when they gain weight, and yet often when people gain weight it is because they have learnt to let go of the strict rules and boundaries dieting places on our lives. Do not feel guilty for falling into this trap – sadly, I think we all are guilty at times, and this is because of the messages we receive.

The reality is that bodies come in all different shapes and sizes based on a multitude of factors beyond lifestyle choices; genetics, age, gender, race, physical health, mental health and hormones. Our size changes over time, and it is not something we can always control.

Health is so much more than a number on a scale, and happiness is never going to be found in pounds lost.

We need to learn how to trust ourselves and our bodies. We need to get angry. We need to get angry at a society that dictates how we should live our own lives. Angry that we are sent mixed messages. Angry that we feel bad for eating chocolate, and feel that we are better people for eating “clean”. We need to be angry that we can book a consultation with a plastic surgeon who will point out all of the surgery we need to look better like we are not enough as we are.  We need to be angry that our body dissatisfaction is now affecting the younger generations. We need to be angry that we are being pushed down a road into a way of living that can ruin the happiness of our children. We need to be angry that when we exercise we are thinking about how many calories we burnt rather than running like we did when we were young; for fun.

Health is important, but health does not equate to thinness. We need to be approaching our lifestyle in a way that is sustainable – and dieting is not. We need to be leading a lifestyle that is in balance, and that enables us to eat and exercise and enjoy ourselves.

I always remind myself that nobody is on their death bed thinking that they are glad they said no to dessert every now and then.

 

 

 

Mental Illness Doesn’t Discriminate, So Why Do We?

I was at an appointment the other day. The staff were aware of my mental health problems, and they asked me what I do in my free time. I said at the moment I am working and at university. She looked shocked. She then said “unpaid work, though?” because obviously us crazy folk cannot hold down a paid job. I mean, what kind of fool would pay me to work?

It annoys me. Number one unpaid work is a brilliant thing to do for experience, and for giving something. Number two, why would you assume my job is unpaid?

I was then further annoyed when she said I needed to come back on Monday to see their consultant. I told her I had work, and couldn’t make it. She looked at me and said “well, you have to have see the consultant” and then booked me an appointment any way. I was stood there thinking ‘yup, please ignore me, my words mean nothing’.

I honestly do not think that if I was ten years older, and not in for something mental health related, she wouldn’t have ignored me. But hey, I am crazy so my job cannot be that important, right?!

We think that we have progressed with our attitudes towards mental illness, and my gut reaction is to say some progress has definitely been made. I mean, we do not lock everyone away in asylums anymore, people are not oblivious to mental illness, and people know what depression is. Mental health is talked about more. Being homosexual is no longer a sign of insanity, and we do not drill into peoples brains hoping it will ‘fix’ them like we did in 1935.

My research in my undergraduate degree proved that making a definitive conclusion is not that easy. Some things have improved, some things have not. Do you know what schizoaffective disorder is? What about obsessive compulsive personality disorder? Unless you have an interest in mental illness, or personal experience, probably not. Even spellcheck does not think ‘schizoaffective’ is a word.

While general attitudes have become better, I would argue it is something we are fine about as long as we do not have to come face-to-face with it, and for a lot of people mental illness is something that affects others, not themselves. Did you know that only 46.9% of disabled people are in employment? Which is a gap 33.1% higher compared to people without a disability. The disability employment gap is one of the most significant inequalities today.

In 2015 the Conservative Party stated that to half the gap they would need to change policies, practices and public attitudes.

Not all disabled people can work, fact. That is why there is no goal to get rid of the gap completely. But some can, and some want to. It is easy for people to respond to this huge gap by saying that disabled people do not want to work, that they want to live off benefits, and all of that other rubbish that realistically applies to a very small percentage of those with disabilities, and actually also to a larger number of people without

I do not personally have much of an issue with the term disability. I would agree that I do have a disability, and that it can be extremely disabling. But it can also be worked with if I am surrounded by people who are willing to be understanding, and to provide me the right environment to minimise the impact my disability has on my ability to work, and to succeed.

Starting my recent internship has made me aware of the difficulty I would definitely have to work full-time, while juggling my medical appointments. I can see why this could be unattractive for an employer, and even for me; even if I managed to find an employer who was happy for me to take time off work for appointments, it would mean that my disability would still be impacting my ability to work full-time, and receive full pay. But this is the thing. I would not think about that; that is something I have to live with, but being discriminated against, is not.

I would be overwhelmed by the amazing support of my workplace to enable me to work. I would arrange my appointments as best I could to avoid interruption. I would stay late at work if I could, or arrive early. I would give everything I could and more, and being able to have my necessary appointments would actually boost my productivity at work, compared to if I was having to delay them, hide them, or become stressed at managing them.

The thing is, people can discriminate against people with mental illness, but mental illness is never going to discriminate against you. You might have a negative attitude towards those with a mental health problem, but they are still going to come into your life. It is going to affect your colleagues, employees, friends or family, whether you like it or not. Whether you think it is something that happens in your life or not.

More scarily perhaps, is that one day it might be you. You could be the top dog in a major company who does not take particularly take an interest in disability in the workplace. You might be a bit irritated that your PA, Janice, has to take two hours off on a Wednesday afternoon because she has a one hour appointment with her community psychiatric nurse, plus has to travel to and from the clinic. You will forget Janice stayed at work for an extra hour on three days last week. You will forget Janice doesn’t take lunch breaks, and always emails back at weekends. You will forget that since Janice started her role, she has made your day-to-day life easier, and taken on many extra roles that you never expected her to take.

You will be reluctant to hire the best applicant for your new events manager because she disclosed that she has physical health problems that will mean she has to take some time off work once per month to travel to a hospital out of the local area. You will think that you need someone who does not have these needs, and that they are not suitable for your company, just like the principal that once said to my support worker that students with severe mental health problems are not going to achieve A-Levels, so why support them in trying to do so?

And then fast forward, it is 2027. You have been getting very stressed at work. Janice left, and her replacement is struggling. Your wife has been working away a lot, your kids have left home, and it is like you never see neither them or your wife any more; she admitted a few months back that she is not happy in your marriage. Your mother has Alzheimer’s (which is a mental illness too, but for some reason that doesn’t count) and she is deteriorating. Last time you saw her she did not know who you were. You have begun thinking a lot about your childhood growing up, and how she used to be. You keep remembering things you had forgotten; maybe your childhood was not as rosy as you had convinced yourself. You remember your father being very violent to your mother, and having to witness that. Bit by bit it is coming back to you, like a tap that no matter how hard you tighten it, it just will not stop dripping.

You feel low. You know you do. You say low, because you do not want to say depressed. Men do not get depressed, not strong men like you. Not top of the company men. Not men who earn £100, 00o per annum. Not men who are well educated, and whose parents were too. You tell yourself you will ‘snap out of it’ soon. Maybe you just need to work harder. Only weak people take a step back, take a break. But it is getting worse, and you end up going to see your GP. I mean, he will just say you are fine.

Well, apparently not. Apparently you have signs of depression, but mental illness is not something you will ever experience, right? He must be wrong.

.

No, I do not wake up at 6am.

I do not get up at 6am. I do not start my day off with a coffee followed by a yoga session. I do not eat overnight oats made with almond milk and topped with chia seeds.

I lay in for as long as I can, and stay up as late as I can. I plan to try yoga, and never do. I’ve got chia seeds in my cupboard and I have absolutely no idea what to do with them. I am not an early bird. I waste a lot of time doing not a lot. I work better at night.

And that is ok, and it has taken me a long time to feel ok about it.

There appears to be an installed belief that certain things make you a better person. For so long I have wished I was a morning person. That person who wakes up and exercises before breakfast, has managed a gym session before work. That fills their time efficiently.

I am not that person. I need food as soon as I get up. I prefer going to the gym late afternoon. I procrastinate. I do not drink coffee and if I want a packet of crisps, I am having a packet of crisps. The chia seeds are probably going to remain in the cupboard.

Spending so long wanting to be different, wanting to be what I feel I should be, has done nothing but make me worse. It has done nothing but make me feel bad, guilty and wrong.

I am awful for not doing work for ages, and then doing a heap of work at once. And I say ‘awful’ because people do not see it as the best way to be – but now I am asking why is it not? I get my work done. I produce good work. Just because I work differently to what you do, or differently to what is apparently ‘ideal’, does not make my way wrong.

No I do not eat chia seeds. I eat far too much peanut butter. I have crisps with my lunch everyday and I do not measure out everything I eat. I eat the way I always have. I eat what I want, when I want, making sure I get everything that I need. I am at a healthy weight, I exercise regularly. I do a lot of the things we are told not to do. I eat sugar. I eat ‘junk’ food. I skip the gym because sometimes skipping the gym is good for my soul. I always eat after 8pm. I am sat typing this at 00:19 in the morning.

Finally I am at peace with this. Right now, this works for me. I am sorry if you think this is bad. I am sorry that my way of working is not of the standard you expect. I am sorry that we live in a world that makes people think they are better than someone else because of the way they live their life.

But I am here telling you it is ok to be the way you are, if it is working for you. And it is also ok to be working on things. I want to start yoga. I want to meditate when I wake up, and when I go to bed. I want to start lifting heavier weights at the gym. I am a work in progress and that is ok.