Thanks, But No Thanks: How to Deal with Food-Shaming Fitness Messaging

Thanksgiving is my favorite non-Christmas holiday. It beats out the 4th of July in a photo finish because of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and because it’s hard to eat mashed potatoes by the pool. (#challengeaccepted).

I get swept up in the sentimental, Americana folk art dreams of Thanksgiving that wrap me in warm gratitude for my family, friends, and starchy sides. I cling to visions of candlelit, red wine-infused gatherings where we all take turns sharing one thing we’re grateful for. Thanksgiving is my holiday, the only day of the year where I don an actual apron handed down from my beloved late grandmother to cook for my family.

I realize that my affinity for Thanksgiving, the most problematic fave, and its high-strung cousin Christmas may strike some as a bit, well, overblown. And certainly, when the actual day gets here it always ends up more like Bob’s Burgers than Norman Rockwell. The chaotic reality of the holiday season often clashes sharply with the idyllic harmony we wish to enjoy. And for me, there’s no greater destroyer of comfort and joy than in fitness marketing that shames people into exercising.

holiday-fitness-exercise-ad-shaming
An ad from my home gym with my editing

Social media is rampant with advice on how to punish yourself for eating: No-Gain Campaigns, “You Ate It, Now Negate It” calorie burn conversion charts, leftover exchange programs, “Turkey Burn-Off” workouts, and cryptic-sounding holiday survival plans. These strategies for dealing with the enemy sound like they belong in a war room: avoid calorie bombs, shore up your defenses, say no to food-offering terrorists, and otherwise shred, torch, blast, fire, or destroy any trace of butter that crosses the DMZ of your tongue with intense physical activity.

There’s nothing wrong with maintaining your fitness practice despite seasonal disruptions, taking a walk after a heavy meal or enticing your family into a playing flag football with you. Exercise is part of a holistically healthy lifestyle every day of the year, and whether or not you make adjustments on holidays is a personal decision. But when gyms and fitness professionals insist that exercise is only an absolution from indulgence, they’re doing you a huge disservice. Calorie burn is one of many reasons why you might want to exercise during the holiday season, and, if we’re being really honest, it’s a pretty unconvincing one. I’m much more likely to want to try a new exercise class if I get some free guest passes to share with my family visiting from out of town than because I feel bad about eating my favorite once-a-year treat.

So, what if your breakup with diet culture is still in the “It’s Complicated” phase and all this garbage messaging is making you question your commitment to that sweet You Do You lifestyle? Come in and know me better, friend, because shame has no place at my holiday table! Here are some tips to help you deal with shame-based memes and fitness marketing and enjoy your holidays as much as you want:

1. “Unfollow” is your REAL Facebook friend

A curated newsfeed is a supportive newsfeed. I report diet ads as spam and anyone who posts a shame-based meme or article gets a swift and unrelenting “Unfollow” from me. There are no second chances in my newsfeed. You can always keep a list of the people you want to follow again in March when the New Year’s Resolution fervor wears off.

2. Have a response ready

Dealing with personal politics can be tricky among friends, family, and co-workers. You may not appreciate being included on diet talk, but you also may not know what to say. If your gym or fitness professional posts shame-based marketing online or in a facility (on a poster, print ad, or digital sign), you can speak up and let them know you don’t appreciate that kind of messaging. There are several ways you can make your position clear on this issue depending on your relationship, communication style, and tolerance for feather-ruffling. Samples:

“Hey, So and So! Thanks for letting me know about the Black Friday fitness class you’re teaching. It sounds like a blast! Do you think we could reach other members by talking about more reasons to come to class than burning calories?”

“Burning calories is great and all, but I like to come to boot camp before a big holiday because shopping for presents and dealing with houseguests is so stressful! I just need a little Me Time.”

“I’m skipping the gym today because I want to spend time with my family.”

“I decided that I won’t exercise as punishment for eating anymore. Thanks for including me in your planking challenge, but I’ll pass.”

“I’m doing a new challenge this season. It’s called the ‘No Diet Talk’ Challenge. Every day, I spend at least 30 minutes a day keeping my eyes on my own plate and not talking to anyone about my food choices.”

“Food isn’t good or bad. It just is. What part is your kid playing in the school holiday spectacular?”

3. Tune out

Some people just can’t take a hint. You may have one or a few people in your life who insist on bringing you in to their shame-fest, or refuse to believe that anyone could truly not care about calories two or three days per year. In that case, it’s okay to just walk away or ignore the message. You don’t owe anyone an explanation or the emotional labor responding to questions you don’t want to answer. Silence can be very productive.

Wherever you are on the holiday restrict-indulge spectrum, you deserve self-care. You deserve access to a variety of health choices without the baggage of shame or coercion, and you have a responsibility to make space for others to do the same. Put this in practice during the holiday season by supporting yourself and those you care about by not sharing shame-based memes, speaking up against it when you’re able, and being generous with the phrase “You are enough.” Cheers!

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Kate Browne is a writer, speaker, and self-care advocate. She is the founder of Taking Up Space, an online body positive fitness and self-care project. She is also the owner of Before and More, a creative strategy agency for health and wellness businesses and self-care professionals. For more information about Kate and all the cool and world-changing projects she’s involved in, visit katebrowne.net.

Love and Other Monsters: Raising the Bar on Self-Worth

Think love doesn’t matter when it comes to your body image?

heart-shaped love tree in a field with red flowers

Imagine if the next wedding you went to sounded like this:

Friends, family, co-workers, obligatory guests, and casual acquaintances—

We are gathered here today to witness the contractual commitment of two people who grudgingly admitted that their mutual tolerance for each other was marginally preferable to living alone. As they combine domestic responsibilities, we nod in agreement that this is a valid choice, and wish them a minimal amount of success in their new joint venture.

Think about your reaction if a real estate agent introduced a piece of property this way:

Here we have a house. The asking price reflects the median amount of money required for a residential building in this area. The features are adequate, and it contains all the walls, windows, and doors necessary to distinguish it from a livestock barn. You will be sheltered from the elements if you live in this house, and I recommend doing so because winter is coming.

The Problematic Problem of Self-Love

I’ve come across several articles recently that suggest that this is the best we can hope for when it comes to loving our bodies. Self-love, I’m told, is flawed at best and harmful at worst because individual solutions to systemic oppression does not lead to liberation, and mental illness can make the struggle to simply provide basic self-care as survival next to impossible.

And I don’t disagree with either stance.

I also support with the idea, argued by both of the authors above in different ways, that the kind of self-love espoused by consumer body positivity and mainstream media is NOT its definition, an end goal to aspire to, or the ultimate measure of “love your body” success.

I used to think that ACCEPTANCE was the best we could hope for when it comes to body confidence. I assumed that self-love was too lofty and too mysterious and too individual to be able to say that it’s a good way to approach health and wellness decisions.

Self-acceptance may be a good place to start especially if “love” feels too intimate or impossible, but is it enough?

I don’t think so.

If we want to get academic about it, love as an action can range from being defined as “to feel a deep romantic or sexual attachment to” or “to like very much.” Is that too much to ask of ourselves, that we like our bodies enough to care for them?

animated gif of women with different body types as superheroes flying away

Self-love is a way to think about health and wellness (broadly defined) that supports the kind of life you want to It’s time to raise our expectations of what it means to relate to our bodies in a loving way.

To be clear, I’m not talking about self-care practices when you’re dealing with an active mental illness like depression, anxiety, or an eating disorder. I’m talking about the general malaise many women have come to expect when thinking about body image and body confidence—the ho hum, “I guess I can learn to love my thighs,” shrug—as better because it doesn’t mean you hate yourself. I reject the idea of self-love as resigned tolerance.

Loving You Is Easy ‘Cause You’re Beautiful

Go find your favorite meditation on love. Maybe it’s 1 Corinthians 13:4-8 or a poem by Rumi or a pop song. Put yourself in it just for a second. How would your life be different if you loved yourself like that? What choices would you make in all areas of your life that honor the love you have to share with the world?

Carole King’s song “Beautiful” is my favorite meditation on love right now.

You’ve got to get up every morning

With a smile on your face

And show the world all the love in your heart

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y77HwJzOv0o

 

Because that’s what it’s all about, right? Self-love is an expression of your spirit, and that spirit is good and righteous and worthy of space. Let’s say YES to wholehearted and joyful living that starts with basic respect and care for our bodies and the bodies of others.

Self-love makes it possible to do things like ask for what you need, set boundaries, take your medication consistently, wear your seatbelt, exercise, ask for a hug when you need one, get a message, smile more often, choose clothes that fit well (and get them tailored if they don’t), do meaningful work, eat food without judgment, sit comfortably in public spaces, get out of your comfort zone, and just plain enjoy being alive.

Because as my spiritual advisor Pitbull says, “Every day above ground is a great day, remember that.”

With love,
Kate

 

Want to work with me to level up your body image? My Self Love Squad is committed to the nitty gritty of practicing body confidence as a way to show up wholeheartedly, and we have fun doing it. Find out more about how you can join us at katebrowne.net/squad

What to Do When You’re Feeling Funky-in-a-bad-way

I have a secret to share with you. Even the proudest, boldest, no-fucks-givenest person you know has times when their body image does not serve them.* Those bummer feelings may last for just a moment or persist for a few years, but it’s more common than Instagram would have you believe.

I’m an expert on positive body image, and I’m okay saying that I’m having one of those low tide times right now. So far, it’s lasted about a weekend–two days longer than I care for these feelings to last. When I feel icky about myself, feelings of jealousy spike HARD. I have heart-wrenching, tear-welling feelings of jealousy for everyone who can run faster, lift stronger, or wear bold patterns better than I do. Which, of course, seems like pretty much everyone I know. I’m left feeling lower than low.

animated image of a child with blue hair and red glasses standing on a playground set underneath a stormy sky

The good news is that because I’ve been working on my body image for YEARS, I have a lot of tools I can use to bolster myself in these times. Read on for three ideas that can help you when you’re visiting Funkytown:

1. Nothing

That’s right. You heard me. Do nothing. Barring any situation in which you require the assistance of a mental health professional,** one valid option for dealing with negative feelings is to sit with them and know they will eventually pass. It’s a big part of my strategy this time around. I know this is a temporary feeling because I’ve been here before and made it through, and I’ll be here again. It’s often hard to sit with feelings, so don’t worry if this seems too daunting and that you’re desperate for some kind of action that will make you feel better. If you’d like to try it out though, here are some ideas for how to sit with feelings.

2. Breathe

Take a deep breath. Again. Aaaaaand again. Maybe one more time. I find that a few focused breaths can break a cycle of negative thoughts, which can lead to different and better actions. For example, if I start to feel jealous (and accompanying shame, self-doubt, and sadness) when someone posts a pic of a new PR, a few deep breaths can help me gain some perspective like, “That person worked hard for their PR, and I’m wasting a lot of energy feeling jealous.” Hitting “Like” or sending a congratulatory comment is a much better course of action than, say, beating myself up about not sticking to my running training plan. And letting someone know I’m happy for them has never made me feel any worse about myself.

3. Social media blackout

Oh, the siren song of the timeline to fuel your already heated feelings. I get it. There’s something about doing something you know will hurt you in the end that just really gets to the core of this cycle. It’s like scratching a mosquito bite until it bleeds–causes even more pain, delays healing, but it feels so good. But please, log off. Delete the apps from your phone if you have to. Just stay away. Nothing positive can come from trolling your own timeline looking for reasons to be mad at yourself. “But…but…” you say, “I just need something to distract me from my thoughts!” Okay, you got me. Here’s an extra idea:

BONUS!

4. Watch Pharrell’s “Happy” music video

There are lots of songs and movies and videos that make me smile no matter how I feel, but I recommend the music video for “Happy” for body image blues because it shows lots of different types of bodies moving joyfully. If you don’t like the song (which I happen to love, but to each their own), put it on mute or play another song over it and just watch the video. You might even be tempted to be-bop along…

For extra laughs, check out Weird Al’s parody “Tacky” with some of my favorite comedians: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zq7Eki5EZ8o ***

I hope this helped give you some ideas for what to do to start re-claiming your awesome. I’m rooting for you!

animated image of Patrick the Starfish wearing a green hat and holding a penent and a foam finger

*I try to avoid the phrase “bad body image” because I want to avoid binaries like good/bad when possible. Body image is always more complex than that.

**What I’m talking about in this post are typical, run-of-the-mill feelings that impact self-esteem. If you are having thoughts of self-harm or suicide, please seek out a qualified mental health professional. For more information, visit the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline page: https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/talk-to-someone-now/

***I finally saw Weird Al in concert last year, and he recreated the video IN THE THEATER. It was one of the best live performances I’ve ever seen.

 

 

How to Navigate Body Image Issues During the Holidays

The uptick in New Year’s diet & fitness marketing, weird holiday food deprivation memes, and jokes about elastic-waist pants at holiday dinners has me feeling some kind of way. Settle in, this is going to be a doozy.

The weeks between Halloween and New Year’s are a bizarre, paradoxical time for diet and fitness. We temporarily suspend the restrictions of our everyday routines, but we can only do so by adding some self-flagellation. If we just upended everything entirely, we wouldn’t put strange performances on our talk about holiday dinners. Otherwise, “I am going to eat so many mashed potatoes!” would connote pure joy (as it does for me. mmm…). Instead, we put a twinge of fake regret on it so everyone knows we don’t do this all the time and we really know that eating all the mashed potatoes we want, even on a special day, is Very Bad Behavior.

Likewise, with exercise. “After the chaos of the holidays winds down, I’m getting back to the gym!” The performance subtext is, “I’m not making exercise a priority right now which is know is Very Bad Behavior, so I’m letting you know that I have a plan to get it together.”

There are legitimate, often beautiful and happy reasons for indulging a little more and sticking to routine a little less around the holidays. For me, it’s the disruption in my routine of traveling to see family, and eating many kolacky cookies made from my late grandmother’s recipe on Christmas Eve.

I once read some holiday diet advice (from a commercial diet program that rhymes with Freight Fratchers) that said sure, favorite holiday foods come around once a year. So what? Bring your own diet food to the party. The treats should be easier to avoid if you remember that you only have to deal with the temptation once a year. Imagine yourself walking away from the dessert table and it will become a reality. And, also, don’t skip your workout just to spend time with family you don’t see often–if they love you, they’ll understand that you need to take care of yourself. I believed this advice for a long time. Then my grandmother died, and I really wish I could have told her how much I liked what turned out to be her last batch of kolackys.

Okay, that took a turn for the morbid, but you get it, right? Most of the Holiday Sins we beat ourselves up about only happen once a year! Here’s my advice for having your moderation fruitcake and eating it too:

1) You are probably well-conditioned in the social ritual of diet and exercise confession. If you find yourself saying something like, “I am going to have to run, like, 10 miles after eating all those truffles,” STOP. Don’t do that. Eat the damn truffles. Enjoy them. Live a little. If you feel compelled to say something, thank Aunt Jean for making them. If someone says this to you, don’t nod in agreement. Try saying, “Everything in moderation!” with a genuine smile. And then maybe pop that truffle you were going to eat in your mouth for effect.

2) Get a little perspective. If you’re doing this moderation thing right, it’s only 5-10ish meals over the course of several weeks that might be sites of overindulgence. It’s going to be okay.

2b) If you find that your diet and exercise habits have gone completely out the window because of stress or the holidays trigger disordered behavior, see a therapist or a nutritionist. This is not a job for an amateur.

3) Practice flexibility. You may not have time for your full workout, but can you do a short circuit instead? Rummage through your family’s old VHS collection while you’re in town. Any Tae Bo or Sweatin’ to the Oldies in there?

4) You don’t have to eat all the things. Let’s say you’re going to go to a Friendsgiving celebration. You have gone to many Friendsgiving celebrations this month, but you know Jax is making their world-famous green bean casserole. You only get to eat this green bean casserole once a year. It’s a big deal. Have some. Have more than some, and skip the just okay pie. Or have nothing but green bean casserole (because Jax makes a ton of it so sharing isn’t an issue) and start living your Best Life. If you have a hard time moderating this way, refer to advice point 2b.

5) Own your indulgences and comforts. And if you can’t own it, maybe make a different choice. I love, absolutely love, Starbucks iced caramel brulee holiday lattes. They are expensive and too sweet for me but I have a strong sense memory of getting them on days when I wrote my PhD comps exclusively at Starbucks in November and December the last two years. If I just really liked them, I could own that, enjoy every crunchy piece of sugar on whipped cream, and go on with my life. But it’s become a bit of a compulsion, so I try to catch myself and decide if it’s worth it. (Protip: you can order whipped cream and caramel brulee topping with unsweet iced coffee for no.extra.charge *wink*) If the early-onset darkness makes you want to curl up on the couch instead of take your evening walk, that’s fine. Take a winter break from evening walks. But if you feel your self-esteem dip or you don’t feel right in your body or you miss talking to the friend you walk with, get out the lined pants and the goofy headlamp once in a while and hit the pavement.

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I know people often have complicated, not always positive feelings about the holidays, and that’s why it makes me even more upset to hear so many people getting riled up about food and exercise. There’s so much more at stake emotionally than whether or not to have a second mini quiche at the office holiday party. Put your energy in places where it matters–connecting with people you care about, practicing moderation as self-care, or just enjoying a little time off from the everyday.