Content Warning: I’m going to talk about food and the body in this piece. If you are suffering or have suffered from disordered eating practices in the past, be aware that I do make slight references to my own restriction and binging.
I love bagels.
I love them toasted and slathered in cream cheese. I love an everything bagel. Want to talk about bagel sandwiches? Yes please.
There was a time in my life where the value I assigned bagels was “unhealthy.” Because of the carbs and the fat, bagels were bad, bad, bad. I deprived myself of this food I love because it was supposedly bad for my body and especially bad for my ability to have a thin body. Because there is only one inevitable end of the cycle of restriction in diet, I also occasionally bought, in secret shame, a bag of bagels and inhaled them, scarfed them, ate myself sick on bagels.
In diet culture, where we deprive ourselves of foods that have been labeled “bad” or “unhealthy,” and force ourselves to either limit eating in general or only eat certain and specific foods, we set up a system where shame and guilt are the feature instead of the flaw. We seesaw between fervor, deciding to only eat the foods allowed by the newest fad diet, and failure, wallowing in our inevitable lack of self-control when the artificial limitations of the diet proved unsustainable. We call ourselves lazy. We internalize the guilt. We vow to get back on track. Cheat days, binging, shame, and guilt are all byproducts – symptoms – of the diet cycle.
When I began to step away from diet culture, I was given the task to shift my mindset away from assigning moral values to food towards neutrality. In a neutral mindset, we eat for a variety of reasons and we eat a variety of foods. We eat food for energy. We eat food for joy and sociality and community. We eat food to fill emotional needs. Food is a dynamic force, so, in short, food is just food.
Rather than approaching food choices in a black and white “good or bad” or “healthy or unhealthy” paradigm, I spent time asking myself what I liked to eat and why. I spent time intentionally removing stigmas attached to the food I eat. Over time, food item by food item, I began to realize that some things I had craved because I was restricting them, I didn’t actually really want if I could have them any time I liked. Some foods I found I liked when I removed the “healthy” label or sense that I was forcing myself to eat something good for me. My diet became more varied and satisfying. Apples and Pop Tarts and pancakes and broccoli and bagels aren’t so different if you treat them all like food. When I began to embrace food neutrality, something miraculous happened.
It wasn’t weight loss. It wasn’t a more stereotypically pleasing body shape. None of my problems went away. My life did not become perfect. This shift didn’t even eliminate the need for me to continue to work on healing my relationship to my food and body.
I found the miracle was that taking away labels that cause shame and guilt allowed me to simply eat food I love. I love a good bagel in the morning. Sometimes I pair it with a veggie omelet or a cheesy scrambled egg. Sometimes I pair my bagel with a PB and strawberry protein shake. Sometimes I just have the bagel. Sometimes I skip the bagel all together. No matter what choice I make, food is just food.
Sometimes a bagel has a therapeutic element to it. When I’m dragging myself to work, I can look forward to the bagel in the morning. Sometimes it’s fuel, when I know I have a long day and need to be sustained in my energy. Sometimes I’m a bit tired of bagels so I just don’t have a bagel that day. None of these situations require my bagel to carry a moral value, but if my bagel is an emblem of anything now, it’s me embracing my agency.
Embracing neutrality led to the realization that I’m the one in control of my eating habits. In diet culture, I was at the mercy of my food. With neutrality, I’m in the driver’s seat. I don’t have to act like I’ll never see a bagel ever again. I don’t have to fantasize about having one. I don’t have to qualify, defend, restrict, or earn my bagels. If I want one, I’ll have one. If I don’t, I won’t. Embracing neutrality let me enjoy the abundance in my life rather than treating it as a scarce resource to be jealously guarded.
Food neutrality led to me embracing the mantra “eyes on my own plate” meaning to me that it doesn’t matter if I have a bagel and everyone else has an egg-white omelet (or vice versa!) because owning our choices means there need not be any shame attached to those choices. Far from worrying about cheating on my diet or losing self-control, I also don’t need validation from others to justify my choices.
Because brains must brain, there are ups and down in that process, but every single day I successfully step away from diet culture is a good day for me. As I continue this journey of healing my relationship with food and my body, the more I observe that there is something about our LDS communities that invite diet culture into our LDS culture and practices.
Diet culture fits our propensity to attach moral value to our behaviors. There’s something alarmingly similar to the idea that if I don’t pray and read my scriptures, I am bad and if I eat this mac and cheese instead of this salad, I am bad. Both imply laziness, weakness, sinfulness, and lack of self-control. Both neglect the lived realities of our lives and needs.
Diet culture fits our perfection-at-all-costs social pressure to conform. It adds shame and guilt where none is needed. Diet culture and religious scrupulosity both take agency away from us.
Knowing how good a food neutral mindset has been for my wellbeing, I wonder what it might look like to approach my faith practices with similar neutrality. If food is just food, can faith practices just be faith practices?
What does participation and practice of faith look like when it’s not motivated by shame, guilt, perfectionism, and scrupulosity?