Tag Archives: mental health

This Lent, I’m Fasting From Diet Culture

Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday and the start of the 40 days of Lent. Discussions of fasting and “giving things up” can make Lent a triggering time for those who have struggled with, or are supporting a loved with, an eating disorder/disordered eating. Fasting or restricting a person’s intake can lead to a lot of physical and mental health concerns, and therefore, should never be seen as a necessary practice.

How one observes Lent is a very personal decision but ultimately, the point is to focus more closely on God. And we cannot focus on God without loving our neighbor. Fasting is not required to love your neighbor, and in fact, it quite often detracts from it.

Think about it. You are in the cafeteria. Your friend is eating meat on a Friday. You say, “yo, its Friday!” and they put down their hamburger. What have you accomplished? The world isn’t any better than it was two minutes ago.

Now, let’s say you are in the cafeteria fasting from diet culture. You refuse to laugh at jokes about other people’s bodies. You make an effort to really listen to the person talking instead of worrying about your next appointment. Sure, you did not solve world peace, but you are slowly dismantling an oppressive system that labels only certain types of bodies are holy, moral, and worthy.

So, this year, I’m fasting from diet culture (at least I am trying to, that’s the other thing- God’s love is so vast that we can mess up, dust ourselves off, and try again).

  1. I will fast from media that tries to sell me diets, even if they are packaged in the name of “wellness.”
  2. I will fast from making judgments about myself or others based on their body size, including about their morality, their athletic ability, their struggles, their health, etc.
  3. I will fast from referring to certain foods as “good” or “bad,” realizing that doing so can also have racist and classist implications.
  4. If I do not find a purpose for doing a certain exercise beyond calorie burn or weight loss, I will refrain from that exercise.
  5. I will not laugh at jokes that poke fun at certain body types.
  6. I will honor my hunger, or if I am recovering from an eating disorder and cannot yet trust my body to give me hunger signals, I will put my trust in someone who can help me.
  7. I will fast from telling myself I do not deserve help, while at the same time, working to assist others obtain help if they are having difficulty.
  8. I will pay closer attention to the needs of those around me. Rather than restricting my own intake, I will think of ways I can give my own time, money, resources, ideas, etc.
  9. I will do more talking in spaces where voices like mine have been marginalized, and more listening in spaces where voices like mine have been dominant. 
  10. I will try to gentle with myself and others, while recognizing that being gentle does not preclude setting boundaries with people who say or do things that hurt me.
  11. I will try to be patient with others, remembering they may be struggling with something I cannot see.
  12. I will fast from listening to people who tell me that I am doing Lent the wrong way. This is between God and myself. It is not a contest.
  13. I will add my own voice and perspective to these since the person that wrote them does not know everything about everything, and is a work in progress too.

Great thing here is that once Lent is done, its great to continue these things. Lent need not be about giving something up and then rushing to do it again at Easter. It can be moving toward a long-term change that will ultimately benefit your relationship with yourself, your loved ones, and God.

I wish everyone a blessed Lent!

Learning from Simone Biles: What About Those Who Are Not Famous Olympians?

Simone Biles has accomplished and survived so much in her 24 years. She is the first US female gymnast to win four gold medals in a single Olympics. She was placed in the foster care system as a child before being adopted by her grandparents. She is a survivor of sexual abuse. In addition to this, as a black woman, she has also had to deal with the racism that pervades the sport of gymnastics. Over the past few days, I have thought so much about how happy I am that today’s young people and my future children have Simone Biles as a role model. I have also worried that we will not utilize this moment as the learning experience it should be.

We are aware of many of the details of Biles’ struggles because of her fame. It is also easy for us to lend our support with the click of a button on Facebook, or a heart emoji on Instagram. Offering support to Biles may also be more comfortable to us because of all of her triumphs. When speaking about mental and physical health, our society often perpetuates what is called the “myth of overcoming.” Michelle Lelwica explains in her book, Shameful Bodies: Religion and the Culture of Physical Improvement, that when people with mental or physical struggles are visible in popular culture it is because they “overcame” them in some way: the person who excels at sports, the person who writes books, the person who defies the odds. Of course, I am in no way saying we should not be celebrating such scenarios, but we also need to remember the struggles of “the ordinary people,” the children growing up in foster care who are not winning Olympic medals, the people struggling with mental illness who are not top athletes or scholars, the sexual assault survivors who have not written books or gone on television shows.

To really honor Simone Biles’ bravery, we have to act, not just offer sympathy on Facebook. That action has to start in our own communities. Athletes not competing at high levels (anyone who moves their body intentionally for the purpose of enjoyment or competition is an athlete) should also be encouraged to put their mental and physical health first, and the care of doctors, dieticians, and physical therapists should be available to them. We must work to de-stigmatize the decision of students to stay back a year, or to take a semester off to protect themselves. As Biles posted on her Instagram recently, “the outpouring of love and support I’ve received has made me realize I’m more than my accomplishment and my gymnastics which I’ve never truly believed before.” It is heartbreaking she never saw this before. Ideally, this is something she should have been told before she ever won her first medal. It is even more heartbreaking that some people will never make such a realization, pushing themselves to the point of exhaustion, injury, or even death; or feeling worthless when pushing through pain is no longer possible (the body is not infinite).

One thing I have learned as a college professor is that my students all have stories, and those stories are not always neatly visible on their faces, on their bodies, or in their writing assignments. Students who “look healthy” may be struggling with a life-threatening condition. Students you see in class smiling everyday may be working to heal from the trauma of sexual assault. They may be the primary caregiver for a sick parent. While I am aware that racism, sexism, ableism, and homophobia exist, as a white cisgender woman, it can be all too easy to forget just how much these impact individual people in their daily lives: the fear and terror the young black men feels after the murder of George Floyd, the horror of the young Muslim woman pressured by friends not to wear a veil on the subway to protect her safety, the transgender student with nowhere to go for holidays because their family home is not safe space.

I have often been shocked at some of the stories of pain that have been disclosed to me in my short time as an educator, and I always feel blessed when a student trusts me enough to share. I also know that there are stories that I do not know, and stories that perhaps no one will ever know.

Some students get straight As while in treatment for mental and physical illness, others cannot. Some people may experience horrible racism or sexism and “stick it out,” others may leave their particular team, or school, or workplace because it is a toxic environment for them. Some people may become champion athletes after an illness or injury, others will not. The latter are not “weaker,” nor are the former “stronger.” There are a variety of factors that contribute to how a person handles trauma, including but socioeconomic status, race, gender, sexual orientation, level of familial support, etc. What we need to work on as a society is creating a world where there are not barriers limiting a person’s ability to make the choice that protects their well-being (and also knowing that choice may not be the same for all people).

So, I guess with all of this, my point really is simple. You do not know a person’s full story. Be kind. Do not judge. And every person, regardless of their level of fame or talent, is more than their accomplishments.