THE FIRST TIME I WENT ON A DIET, I was eight years old. At the end of this two-week effort, I ploughed through far more food than my body really wanted, in what I now understand was my rst binge. I was thus initiated into the world of the yo-yo dieter — an initiation that took me more than 20 years to emerge from, as I plunged into the swamp of eating issues and body obsession borne of this early launch into the seductive world of diet culture.
This first dieting effort was a project that I shared with my childhood best friend. She and I decided, “just for fun”, to try out the “game” of dieting. For us, it wasn’t weight-related, but more like a project. Like making a papier-mâché volcano for a school science assignment, we were playing at the game we saw often played by the adult women around us: dieting.
In the midst of our innocence, we had so much fun creating our diet plan. Ever the dedicated student, I vividly remember the ring-binder folder I used with Daffy-Duck on the cover, in which, at the end of each day, I conscientiously marked ticks in the columns against each glass of water I drank, each meal I ate, and each minute of exercise I completed. Of course, both my friend and I were utterly oblivious to the monstrous preoccupation we were inviting into our lives.
Perhaps worst of all, we planned in advance – because it was just a game – that at the end of our diet challenge, if we were successful in adhering to our plan, we would save up our combined pocket money and buy a bucket of hokey-pokey ice-cream to share and devour in one sitting. Bliss! This plan was our naïve way of congratulating ourselves for our discipline, since the magazines assured us that discipline is the most revered characteristic of any good dieter.
A few years later our innocent game of dieting took hold of me and carried me directly to the lair of anorexia. Following my plunge into severely restrictive eating, I then spent most of my young adult life living with the shame and frightening confusion of bulimia and compulsive overeating patterns, trying desperately to nd my way back to a body, and a life, that felt like home.
The body image conundrum
Why are so many people in our society in so much pain about what we eat and how 50 much we weigh? Why on earth do we put so much time and energy into this whole business of monitoring the size of our body? What are we really looking for in the idea of perfecting our body or of losing weight? Why are so many of the women I meet plagued by an underlying sense that if they were just a little thinner, life would be more joyful? Even the women I know whose bodies tick all the apparent criteria of the “ideal” woman’s figure regularly face this self-criticism daily, often hourly, sometimes minute-by-minute.
Surely it’s not that those of us preoccupied with this issue are just vacuous creatures who have nothing better to think about than what we ate yesterday or how strong our yoga practice will be tomorrow. Or whether we’re losing weight or gaining it. Or how many calories are in an apple.
If nutritional knowledge is the key to this dilemma, then why are people in droves – intelligent, generous, kind-hearted humans – able to tell you precisely which nutrients are in your salad, or how many calories are in a chocolate bar, all the while continuing to obsess over the size of their body, even if they’re already at a healthy weight? Surely this is not simply an issue of biological imperative. Or willpower.
Yet this awareness that it’s not “normal” to obsess over food and weight, doesn’t assuage the anxiety of living with this preoccupation. Because, if this obsessive approach to the body is not biologically normal, then we are led directly to the idea that there is some kind of abnormality of mind that makes a person obsess about their body. Some Western psychological approaches would have us believe that when a woman becomes obsessed with food or the size of her body, she is fundamentally unwell in crucial ways that need to be xed. A psychological investigation of this “abnormal” preoccupation with the body often leads a woman to the conclusion that she is neurotic, broken, disordered.
That’s just great, isn’t it? According to these two sides of the same coin of possibilities, either we’re unconsciously pursuing biological impulses to be attractive enough to nd a mate. Or we’re psychologically unstable and the problem is some deeply inherent issue within our own psyche.
Like many women, I have known for years that the pursuit of the “perfect” body is in direct and violent opposition to my heartfelt belief that women should have the right to celebrate their bodies. Yet even though my conscious mind believes that the dominant culture of idealised bodies is absurd, this rational argument has made me neither exempt from, nor immune to, the powers of seduction and lure of the ideal life that the cult of the “perfect” body promises.
Isn’t there another possibility? Isn’t it possible that there’s something else we are really longing for when we think we just want to be thinner? Isn’t it possible that those of us preoccupied with the body are sane and that there is something else causing this obsession? Isn’t it possible that there is a way of living a life free of this body obsession?
These are questions that I knew I needed answers to, if I was to live my life in any kind of meaningful way.
The Body Love Yoga workshops I’ve been facilitating since 2012 on this subject, along with years of conversations with other women, have revealed that I am far from alone in these dilemmas. It turns out that countless others are searching for the answer along with me.
How healing happens
It seems to me that we are each longing for permission to inhabit our own lives and bodies with con dence and enthusiasm. Instead of waiting until we tick all the boxes of our health regime, lose a few kilos, or gain cultural praise in any number of other ways, to feel validated to enjoy our lives and our bodies.
Over the years, even the most healing aspect of my life – my yoga practice, which has been with me since I was 12 – became part of my effort to detoxify and “purify” my body. It wasn’t until recent years that the whisperings of yoga’s healing possibilities became an inner beckoning, and later, a clear calling back to my own truth. Eventually, I found teachers who could ignite in me a way of practicing yoga not from a place of xing what was broken, but of celebrating and nurturing what is innately whole, and focusing on experiencing my yoga practice from the inside out. Through this process, I discovered the freedom of living in my own skin with reverence and a primary focus on healing rather than transforming my body. Finally, through embodying love on my yoga mat, I have come home to myself and ended the war with my own form. Which, as it turns out, is all I ever wanted from the pursuit of changing my body anyway.
For more about the author, see www.sarahball.com.au