IF YOU WANT TO TALK ABOUT PHYSICAL HEALTH, WE’RE PROBABLY GOING TO TALK ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH FIRST
In March, I attended a “health and wellness” retreat for women held in a lodge that rests at the bottom of the Okemo mountains, surrounded by a forest and a few sleepy towns. As someone who is known for their immersion in body politics and mental health, I was invited to participate in their program in exchange for feedback.
While I was in the back of a shuttle, driving up the icy, winding road to the lodge the night before the retreat started, the realization started to sink in that their primary focus was centered around treating binge-eating disorders and that there was definitely a chance that this could go horribly wrong. As I grabbed my bag out of the trunk, I inhaled and forcibly exhaled while shaking out my shoulders, in preparation for entering the building that hosted I program I knew very little about. My breath was hyper-visible in the freezing air while I silently berated myself — What the fuck did I sign myself up for?
Bright and early the following morning and still uncertain of everything, I settled into a cushioned wooden chair next to a fireplace for the first workshop of the week. I listened to the Clinical Director describe the 40-year-old institution’s history and their specialized focus. There was an immediate emphasis on how they pride themselves on always being sure that the latest science and innovation inform their programs. The director went on to detail that the co-owner holds multiple degrees, including a Bachelors in Psychology, a Masters in Nutrition, and a Ph.D. in Nutritional Biochemistry & Metabolism.
These sentiments rang with antagonistic familiarity in my ears.
They brought to mind the myriad of times that I’ve heard medical professionals use similar rhetoric to bolster their relevance, only to follow up their proclamations with the same outdated fatphobic and shame-based recommendations that have plagued our “health care” system for centuries.
The science that proves that shame, bias, and stigma are catastrophically harmful in the long run (and that we are incorrect in how we assign “blame” to weight) has existed for quite some time.
Researchers documenting these findings have talked about the countless times they’ve shown pages and pages of evidence that contradicts old theories around weight and health in front of doctors and, almost without fail, the findings are disdainfully skimmed and quickly dismissed in the name of tradition.
I slumped slightly in my chair and resigned myself to a week of (at best) marginally progressive medical indoctrination; if I were lucky, perhaps I would hear a few updated findings, but I was still prepared to participate in workshops whose messaging would likely cling to what is socially respectable in our fatphobic culture.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
The following week was overflowing with classes that held true to the promise of being foundationally inclusive of the “new” (to the rest of the world) and hyper-relevant science that has proven that guilt, shame, forced exercise, restriction, and harsh judgment are the antithesis of the solution when it comes to healing our relationship with our bodies and food — or, in words people would most commonly associate with those two things, our physical health.
I spent the next five days rapidly taking notes while listening to professionals trained in neuropsychology, behavioral interventions, weight neutral dietetics, and exercise science. The curriculum on how to heal our relationship with food and movement was not based on what I expect to hear when others talk about diet and exercise. Even the group therapy sessions left me in “Aha!” tears more often than not. I came to critique but instead left with an overflowing binder, filled with information on mindfulness, shame resilience, self-compassion, body trust, and dozens of tools to improve my mental health.
These are the modalities that our ever-evolving scientific research has proven to be the most effective when it comes to full body healing, and THESE were the things that I watched participants (and myself) resonate with over and over again.
I watched the others around me and witnessed miracles while there. I saw light bulb after light bulb appear above each participant’s head as they learned that there was an alternative to shame, guilt, and restriction/diet based living. I was blown away and humbled by the deep, internal healing that took place within the women who joined me there over the span of only seven days. They had come to this retreat, dedicated to learning how to “finally lose weight and keep it off this time,” but instead found a place full of healing that was so intimate, powerful, and communal that when I left, we were undoubtedly a more empowered group than when we came. We were also a family.
I left Vermont with even more conviction that, while we are never obligated to work on or address our relationship with food or movement, we can choose to look at these components of our life, rather than the robotic recommendation of following a diet plan.
I had known this for years thanks to my personal recovery journey and my work history in the behavioral health system… but to hear it over and over again from those whose life work is dedicated to staying in the forefront of the ever-expanding world of health? Well, there wasn’t a place left for doubt to hide.
This belief has only strengthened as I continue to work in tandem with the small (but rapidly growing) group of doctors, nutritionists, dieticians, therapists, and other professionals who are also assisting folx in finding balance in their lives in similar ways. Not through obsessing about checking off boxes that prove our dedication to “wellness culture” through physical performance, but rather through the invisible work that happens inside of us as we untangle confusing experiences while reinstating the connection between our brain and bodies.
That connection was once ours but has since been systematically suppressed by an industry that shames us into submission, sells us “surefire” products that ultimately don’t work, and couldn’t give a shit less about our actual wellbeing.
It’s natural to want a “surefire” promise after growing up around articles with titles like “Five Fastest Ways to Lose Ten Pounds.” And when you release yourself from those hollow guarantees after realizing what a scam it’s always been, it can feel tempting to gravitate towards articles called “Five Quickest Ways to Love Your Body.” But the reality is that the deep and lasting healing often happens when you step into the unknown grey areas, and there are no surefire promises when you walk into the grey.
However, I have seen through my own experience, from those who surround me, and through those I work with one-on-one, that taking that first step and walking into an ambiguous area of uncertainty — replacing the routine rigidity of following someone else’s external instructions with the arduous act of unearthing our intuition — while uncomfortable (and more often than not terrifying), yields unimaginably remarkable results.
It feels difficult to explain — and it’s even more difficult to do — but it is in these currently unexplored and internal spaces that I’ve seen beautiful things happen.
“Health” as a topic has become something of a cultural glue — a subject that connects us through our obsession with bodies, a commodity that, while diverse, is something we all have.
For most people, talking about “health” will more often than not quickly veer into discussions about “fitness” levels, blood tests, and almost certainly, weight. Health, in our society, has been portrayed as purely “physical” in its origin and this simple conversation infiltrates not only our medical care systems but chats with friends, family, and even strangers who strike up conversations with you on the bus.
This one-dimensional approach is no longer relevant in my world.
I believe ultimately in holistic wellness — a complicated, critical, and multifaceted version of “health.” It’s like a puzzle that interlocks, with each piece working collectively, all to find the unique balance desired by the person in question.
Every person deserves to make completely autonomous choices when it comes to their body, brain, and everything in between. What works for me, may not work for you, and this is more than okay. No one is ever obligated to do or “work on” something that they don’t want to. Please know that this is crucial to every conversation around bodies.
So when I speak of this concept, it may be backed by current research, but I ultimately am still just speaking for myself; my mental wellness is the core of my personal health.
After spending years trying to “fix” my body physically through whatever the world told me to do, I ended up feeling broken, disconnected and unable to function. And so, as I put my focus on my mental health and the dozens of components that go along with it, I’m not only healing the past trauma caused by diet culture but also learning how to listen to my body and what it needs for the first time. To me, this is both priceless and paramount.
So if you want to talk to me about health, it’s essential that you know that there’s a good chance that it’s going to benefit us all if we talk about mental health first.