Polona Fonda, of FONDA Strong – the magazine dedicated to sport and strong women – asked me to offer my views on modern dieting habits and body hate among women. This is part 3 of our interview.
9. What are some of the modern eating issues you see? Like orthorexia? Or just being very restrictive with certain foods?
I think I would want to clarify that problems with food, body image and eating arise like lots of other traps people get stuck in – they start as a way to feel better.
Nice feelings that come from eating certain foods help other feelings to temporarily stop. Good feelings can also come from eating clean, being disciplined, achieving changes in body composition or body weight.
The trap is set when the behaviour doesn’t address the thing that’s making the bad feeling in the first place.
So if I feel stuck in a job or relationship, for example, or out of control of my future or identity, I might not feel able to fix these problems, but I might find that I feel temporarily better when I eat really clean and get lean.
My food related behaviour doesn’t solve the problem, and might even cloud my ability to focus on solutions if food becomes the all consuming priority in day-to-day experience. But feeling guilt is never helpful in solving a problem.
Instead, it’s much more useful to recognise that if food behaviour is out of control, it started as a way to feel better. Then the focus can shift onto the things that made that food behaviour necessary in the first place.
10. How would you define a healthy “food attitude” and a healthy body image?
Healthy attitudes about food and body might be slightly different depending on the individual, but overall healthy attitudes are ones that don’t inspire or require destructive, dysfunctional behaviours to maintain long term.
Healthy attitudes allow a person to enjoy their body and take part in enjoyable experiences in life, rather than feel restrictive or limiting in some way. Healthy body image is about appreciating your body and healthy food attitudes are about caring for the body.
For women, achieving these is often about getting beyond outside messages about what a body should or shouldn’t be and learning to be accepting of what their body and what it’s capable of doing.
You asked earlier about the media and society, so I think it’s useful to state that although there are loads of messages out there, we have a choice about which ones to pay attention to and which ones to disregard. It sometimes boils down to increased awareness of the effects certain messages in media, society or from others has on us, and then deciding whether these are worth including in our lives.
We each have a responsibility to manage how we feel, so if a certain magazine or social media post makes me feel ugly, fat or useless, I have to decide how worthwhile it is for me to keep including these things in my daily experience.
While we don’t have total control, we can certainly decide to not indulge in messages that trigger unhealthy body image or negativity about ourselves.
11. Treating depression with sports (sport activity) only, without medicine… is it possible? What’s your professional opinion on that?
Being active certainly helps with mood. It gives a boost of feel good hormones, a sort of glow after exercise that can help people to feel calmer, happier and more energy.
I would want to qualify all of this by saying that there is nothing wrong with medication, and for some people, medication is an essential part of managing mood and getting through depression.
Yet, medication alone doesn’t resolve depression. Depression requires a holistic approach that includes a better range of self care behaviours, such as playing sport or exercising.
12. How does sport or any kind of physical activity affect our mood or the brain?
Sport can fulfil a really good role here in that not only do we get a nice boost of feel-good hormones, but it also helps build a range of mental attitudes and social behaviours that protect against depression.
Through sport we can feel more confidence, both in our abilities and our bodies. We learn about how to cope with mistakes and failures in realistic and useful ways.
We develop resilience, physically and psychologically. Sport offers more opportunities to connect with people and form supportive relationships. And even the mildest of workouts provides a distraction, which is sometimes needed to survive a distressing mood.
13. What I have learned… feelings like anxiety or worrying, or fear and shame, will always be present. The best thing you can do is learn how to cope with them?
Acknowledging and accepting that these emotions are going to always be around somewhere is already a great start.
For those that aren’t there yet, I recommend working on tolerating and surviving worry, fear and shame – rather than making them go away. Accepting them, describing them, going through them are more useful ways to cope and lead to more resilience in terms of your ability to get cope with problems.
It’s a good thing to bear in mind that accepting an emotion or situation is not the same thing as approving. You can hate what it feels like, and still practice surviving it well, with behaviours that are effective and healthy. If you think back over the times when things got worse, I would bet that you’ll notice that you were struggling against pain – fighting rather than accepting – which probably led to you doing things that made the feelings worse.
It’s about beginning to recognise those self sabotaging struggles and deciding what you can do differently in those lowest moments.
If nothing else, just delay. No matter how bad it is, every emotion eventually changes.
14. As you said, change can happen. What’s your message for women going through hardship right now?
Find some kind of support.
It doesn’t have to be therapy, but everyone needs someone to help and understand. If your life is pretty depleted of supportive people, look online.
It can feel frustrating when you have felt unsupported or hit dead ends, but I’d encourage people to remember that they are a valuable person and that their life matters.
Help isn’t always right there in front of us, but if we get hunting, we will find it. There are support groups, helplines, forums which can provide understanding and advice. The other bit of advice is don’t close yourself off from potential solutions. Even if there have been a lot of disappointments and dead ends, remaining open minded and hopeful will allow you to look for things that could help.