Photo by Debra Lopez
There’s an insidious epidemic in our midst. It’s in boardrooms, coffee shops, parks, classrooms, fitness classes, spas, and living rooms on every continent. It’s the cause of depression, low self-esteem, and feelings of isolation at record levels—and women are especially susceptible.
I've seen it happen before, but it hit me with renewed force at a recent charity event. I was in a room full of established, insightful, smart, beautiful women, so the common theme was especially surprising.
At every table, the conversations were not focused on accomplishments, celebrations, and ideas, but on self-deprecation, insecurity, frustration, and shame. Reaching for another cucumber sandwich, one woman said, “There are so many carbs here, I'll have to eat only protein for the rest of the weekend to balance this out.”
The problem isn’t the food. The problem is that we’ve been taught that how we look is more important than who we are.
Another woman was eyeballing the cookies and said, “I shouldn’t have another one. I will have to work out even longer just to burn it off.” In my ear, a friend was telling me how much weight she'd lost on her new diet.
I sat there wondering how we let it get like this. At what point in history did women start to shame themselves for eating, enjoying food, for just plain living? Food shame is at an all-time high, and it has the destructive effect of making us feel inadequate.
I've spent the last few years pursuing self-love and trying to accept myself for who I am. The more I seem to love myself, the less I feel I need to change.
I don’t want to participate in conversations like this anymore. Why are we shaming ourselves for being human? Why do we make ourselves feel bad for eating what we really want? Food is energy. It is nourishment. So why are we labeling our food with negative emotions?
The problem isn’t the food. The problem is that we’ve been taught that how we look is more important than who we are or even what we do.
Women especially seem to have an obsession, a preoccupation, with talking about food, diets, and rules around what we can, should, and shouldn't have. The natural vernacular is “I need to change myself in order to be OK.”
American women have reached the point that we feel like we aren't making progress unless we're actively trying to lose weight. We lose our sense of purpose if we aren't trying to change ourselves physically. We judge our worth by how we look. But self-love is about not wasting time on negative thoughts. Self-love is about knowing that you are good enough exactly as you are.
Many of us feel broken, so we we try to fix an internal problem with an external solution. That's impossible. We can only fix the problem of disliking ourselves by working on the problem itself—not the symptoms. The solution is internal.
In my private life-coaching practice, I work with many women who have issues with their body and food. I always ask, “What was your mother’s relationship to food and her body?” and without fail, my clients tell me they grew up with an unhealthy model for relating to food and to their bodies.
They all had mothers who were always on diets or saying, “I can’t eat that. That will make me fat. This will go straight to my thighs.” Their mothers might've complained that daddy can eat whatever he wants while mommy has to skip the dessert. These mothers accidentally passed down to their daughters the belief that they are only as valuable as they are pretty.
Your worth is not dependent on the number you see on the scale.
Of course our mothers would also tell us we are beautiful and that we can do or be anything, but their actions contradicted these statements. Parents not being happy with their bodies sends a message to children that they need to always be on a diet in order to feel good about themselves.
Women today are less happy than women in the 1970s (who had fewer opportunities and less freedom), and an estimated 95 percent of women are unhappy with a part of their lives.
Women are teaching women that we are not OK until we change ourselves physically.
Without realizing it, fathers contribute to the issues as well. When I was 12, my father called me "Thunder Thighs." I grew up thinking I was flawed because I had big legs. I have a coaching client whose father made similar comments about her body when she gained weight during puberty. Today, she is afraid to date because she is terrified to imagine what men might say about her body.
Fathers, please stop making comments about your daughters' bodies. Just love them as they are.
Mothers, please stop talking about what you can and can’t eat. Food is nourishment and love.
We are teaching our children that their worth is only dependent on their looks. Our mothers and fathers learned this behavior from their mothers and fathers, but we can break the chain.
We’ve been conditioned to focus on what is wrong with our bodies and ourselves. We think we are flawed because we look different. We try to fit into an impossible mold. Stop trying. Be who you really are.
Stop putting down your partner when they gain a few pounds.
Stop judging yourself if you gain a little weight. You are human, and your worth is not dependent on the number you see on the scale.
Women who confide in other women, please stop feeling bad for eating food. Please stop judging yourself for the way you look.
And to you, dear reader, please stop mentally picking yourself apart. Look in the mirror and celebrate your uniqueness. You are beautiful and enough, just as you are.
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April Yvette Thompson