In the spirit of full disclosure, I’m going to admit that I’m slightly hungover. Last night, I had a joyous, giggly catch-up with a group of friends: I drank too much wine and then came home for a midnight snack of pizza, garlic bread and Dairy Milk. As I combined my bad food and drink choices with about nine pints of water, the hangover itself isn’t too bad. My worst, most dominant feeling is the shame I feel about what I ate and drank. I am unhealthy, I have no willpower and I have nothing but regret about choosing that particular combination of salt, sugar and fat.
My history of disordered eating means that I will always have a complex emotional relationship with my diet. So I’m concerned to read about new research from Stanford University. Authors Dr Alia Crum and Octavia Zahrt have published a study in Health Psychology that demonstrates our negative feelings about our health have a direct impact upon it. They found that people who believed they were less active than others were up to 71 percent more likely to die before peers who saw themselves as being active – and the perception of health had a bigger impact on this than the subjects actual health, or the amount of physical activity they really engaged in.
We’re used to hearing about the power of positive thinking, and everything from science to The Secret suggests that negative thoughts are damaging and they hold us back. However, this isn’t about mood-boarding your way to a company car – this is news that will have an impact on all of us, especially women. We’re the ones who are constantly told to feel ashamed of our bodies. When a new diet or regime is launched, we’re the ones who are pressured to open our purses and sign up. Obviously men aren’t immune to being manipulated in this way either – but when I think of my “peers”, and the people I feel I should be comparing myself with, I think of Gisele Bundchen, Beyonce, and Kim Kardashian. These are the women the world wants me to be more like – or at least look more like. How can I, a woman who goes to the gym three times a week, in a good week, feel anything but unhealthy when I’m constantly being told that my peers typically work out for about three hours a day?
Food has been described in moral terms for decades, perhaps centuries. If you order a “dirty” burger, will you feel dirty
Chillingly, the study makes a lot of sense in the context of our collective obsession with “wellness”. We can see why the movement is so appealing. Buying the cookbooks and following the Instagram accounts is a way of aligning yourself with healthy people. It is sold to us as a lifestyle and, depending on factors like wealth, class and confidence, you’re either going to feel “good” for signing up and subscribing to it, or “bad” for failing to do it perfectly, and aware that you’ll never be as healthy as the poster girls and boys with their own brand of spiralisers. The concept becomes even more sinister when we think about how this is simply the crest of a trend. Food has been described in moral terms for decades, perhaps centuries. If you order a “dirty” burger, will you feel dirty, and will this feeling shorten your lifespan more efficiently than a surfeit of trans fats? If you’re on a diet plan which describes certain foods as “sins”, is it the packet of biscuits that will wreck your efforts or the feeling of transgression?
Ultimately, if we’re prepared to think positively, we can use the results of the study in a positive way. It’s comforting to have these ideas confirmed, because I suspect that deep down, most of us have known them all along. Feelings aren’t facts. We are socialised to struggle with food and our bodies. We were born with appetites. We had to learn all of the value judgements that surround eating and exercise. We’re all doing our best, and that best is going to fluctuate, depending on how busy and demanding our lives are. The greatest struggle that we all face is acknowledging the difference between our best, and the best of a millionaire supermodel.
I’ve gained some perspective on this after joining a new gym. It’s fairly small, not very fashionable, and sometimes I’m the youngest person there by 20 years. Many of the members carry exercise plans with them, as they’ve been encouraged to attend by their GPs. I adore it. When I’m in that room, I’m around people who have a range of different approaches to health and fitness, and I’m reminded of the point of exercise. It doesn’t matter which one of us is the fittest, or works out for the longest. I always feel brilliant after a workout, and I don’t think it’s just a product of endorphins. It’s because I’ve had the chance to change my perspective, and be among peers who simply want to look after themselves. No one is there because they’ve watched a YouTube video about getting “aspirational abs”. The room is filled with acts of self compassion. It makes me feel as though I’m enough – and I suspect that feeling is better for my health and wellbeing than all of the kale and hot yoga in the world.