Keeping Your Wits

I wanted to write some brief thoughts that have been on my mind over the past weekend while I was visiting my friend in Texas. It has to do with the ubiquity of diet-talk and women’s shame in their own bodies, as well as the onslaught of messages (from friends, strangers, and the ever-maligned media) that make it seem like it is normal–in fact, a duty–to be dieting and watching our weight. And if we aren’t ashamed, we still possess notions of an ideal “me,” some physical manifestation of health and beauty that we are supposed to “kick our butts” into attaining, retaining, or retrieving.

In just one single day this weekend, I experienced:

(1) a vigorous morning walk which, in my own mind (accustomed as it is to my own abuses), was at least partly meant to “make up” for some kind of indulgence the night before–other good reasons for taking it aside;

(2) a very, very dear friend who means nothing but the best for the people in her life, making half-jokes about the names of diets to invent and then follow with her sisters;

(3) shopping at the airport newsstand for something else besides the novel I’ve been reading non-stop to distract me during my 4-hour layover, and encountering dieting and exercise advice to achieve a “hotter you,” photos of the “best and worst” beach bodies, and headlines about how Kim Kardashian was ashamed of her pregnant body;

(4) a flight into NYC during which I spoke with an extremely nice, well educated, poised, funny and strong single mother, who simultaneously informed me of all the things she can’t be eating on her 500-calorie-a-day diet, on which she drops half a pound a day.

Having lived with an eating disorder for upwards of six years, and having grown much more educated and attuned to negative, detrimental ways of thinking about nourishment, exercise, and body image, it still shocks me when I have days like this. There was a time when this barrage of judgment and unhealthy advice would have thrown me into a very anxious state. Even now, as far as I have come in understanding my relationship between mind, food and body, this kind of onslaught can cause anxiety. Many people who are trying to recover from an eating disorder have probably experienced the feeling that all surrounding conditions about food and lifestyle must be perfectly positive, in order to safeguard themselves from attitudes that might trigger old patterns of thinking. I used to be that way, and I would be lying if I tried to say that I am sometimes not sensitive that way. But I also have realized that, unfortunately, because of the way our culture has developed, it is pretty impossible to avoid all talk of dieting, “feeling fat,” extreme juicing lifestyles, excessive exercise, and the mantra of “body perfection” that sets the standard for how so many people (young, old and in between) decide what to eat, how to move, and even how to cope.

The expression “keeping your wits about you” feels especially fitting here. It can be an enormous challenge to learn how to brush the conversations, comments, headlines, photos and advice columns aside–especially when they may come from a source you trust. Somehow, you have to learn how to trust your own wisdom, and the head on your shoulders. It helps to recognize that the fixations with dieting are just that: fixations. I get very nervous when I hear about people being on a diet, or wanting to go on one, even if the comment is made flippantly. I know all too well from experience that even the most grounded, seemingly self-confidant feminist woman can develop a serious eating disorder from restricting calories for that purpose, under the mantra “I’m getting fit.” And I worry, now that my friends have started to marry and even think about having kids of their own, that these kinds of anxieties and values will get passed down to their sons or daughters. The world around us is more a trigger to us than we know. I wish that we could keep our wits about us, and assert self-love, and try hard to recognize the fears and criticisms we can pass to others without even meaning to.

Kate @

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