Beyond the Palmful of Almonds: How to take care when wellness culture sucks

Illustration of Melanie the judgemental worm by Gina Lerman.

Content Warning: Disordered eating

I grew up outside Cincinnati – meat and cheese country. From the moment I could eat soft foods, food was espoused as something tempting to resist. Well meaning aunts and mothers commented on chubby babies and their Cheerio intake (let the babies be). Later, I read glossy magazines that gave diet tips and exercise routines with pictures of the girls from Pretty Little Liars on the cover. In the early aughts and 2010s, it was easy to develop an eating disorder. It was the era of a handful of almonds, a religion of portions the size of your palm, with suburban moms as ardent oracles. Tabloids were catastrophizing Jessica Simpson wearing jeans. There was a Weight Watchers next to the Blockbuster in my town, I would pass it with a cherry Coke and a copy of Cheaper by the Dozen in hand.

Diet culture was the water we were swimming in, as natural to me as loving Lisa Frank stickers and listening to KT Tunstall on my iPod. My first awareness of my body, in terms of diet and exercise, was the desire to be thinner.

In my teenage years, while going through a period of familial stress, I developed orthorexia and binge-eating disorder. My ED was certainly based on my own internalized fatphobia, but it was also an attempt to feel in control during a time where I had little. I restricted my diet extremely, obsessing over only eating “healthy” foods and exercising every day, which led to bouts of binge-eating. In turn, I would understandably binge-eat when I actually allowed myself to eat something substantial, until I felt sick. There was a year before I got my learner’s permit where I ran a six mile loop every day, to get out of the house and assuage the pit of self-loathing towards my body I was trying to keep at bay. Eventually, I broke a toe from my ceaseless fervor of activity. I lost my period for a year (amenorrhea) which can lead to early onset osteoporosis. I had panic attacks when I couldn’t complete my routines. I slept four hours a night to accommodate my exercise with homework and other responsibilities. All the while, I was getting complimented more than ever. I was at my least healthy, and it was being celebrated. Unfortunately, many people share elements of this experience – especially those who were raised as girls.

Today, I work for an un-glossy magazine, I live in Rhode Island, and I don’t find myself as committed to changing my body at any cost as I once was. Most days, I get hungry and eat food without thinking too hard about it. It’s easy to take this for granted, but if I think about the different versions of myself and all of their varying relationships to food and exercise, I am overcome with gratitude for this simple, hard-won fact of my adult life.

At this stage of my recovery from disordered eating, I am just starting to think about regular exercise again, almost a decade after a doctor recommended that I stop working out altogether. The road to where I am now has involved talk-therapy and a lot of self-work to understand my own internalized ideas about weight, health, and body image; but, that doctor’s recommendation was an impactful start to this journey, and I’m glad her message broke through. I have gotten parts of my life back that were so limited while I was a scared, helpless kid looking for control and acceptance through weight loss.

Which brings me to a whole new step in my recovery: How do I approach wellness when many facets of wellness culture are thinly veiled fatphobia? When I was a teenager, I had enough adrenaline running through my body to fight a full-grown bear. Nowadays, my anxiety is much more regulated and I work full-time – by 7pm, I couldn’t even beat the Sleepytime tea bear in a thumb war. How am I supposed to be motivated to work out when I am no longer driven by shame or anxiety, but rather a desire to…(gulp) take care of myself? Furthermore, can the little all-or-nothing worm of cognitive dissonance in my brain (her name is Melanie and she is snot green) resist going too hard in one extreme direction?

Here are some tips for approaching wellness from someone who is committed to exploring wellness that does not focus on changing your physical appearance, but rather, feeling good. I am not perfect and do not always follow through on my own intentions, which is okay. Part of maintaining my own well-being is understanding that I deserve to take care of myself, and I get to start wherever I am.

I avoid weight loss content like a stinky, rotten egg. It is transformational to understand on a fundamental level that you don’t have to do anything. You don’t necessarily have to lose weight to be healthy. You don’t have to maintain a certain weight to be yourself.

Food can be one of the great pleasures of life, but figuring out what to eat, what ingredients to buy, when to make it, can be demoralizing. An interviewer once asked the eternally glamorous Aretha Franklin about the biggest challenges she faces – she coyly replied “trying to figure out what to cook for dinner.” Celebs, they’re just like us. Some days will feel harder than others, and keeping yummy, easy dishes in the mix can help lighten the psychic toll.

When I was a teenager, influencer culture was booming, and with it a market for athleisure. From Fabletics to Victoria Secret Pink, it was all about the coveted matching gym set with fitted leggings and sports bra. I resent the idea that we have to look fashionable while working out. I realized that in order to move my body, I do not need to don an uncomfortable outfit and drive to a gym. I can go for a walk in my work pants. I can dance around in PJ shorts. I can lift heavy things in a dress.

We certainly have folks out here saying all kinds of things. If people in your life continue to make comments about your body and weight – good, bad, or neutral – you have the right to tell them simply “I appreciate that you probably have good intentions, but please do not talk about my body/weight.” If they double down, you have the right to tell them to kick rocks. Even if it’s your Aunt Lisa. She can find something else to talk about, I’m sure of it.