I just recently heard the term “normative discontent”, coined in the 1980s by researchers who found widespread negative body image, particularly among women, in the United States. I really love it – I think it describes the issue perfectly, and also makes it so obvious how easily we fall prey to cultural norms…even if they make us miserable. Essentially, it’s become really normal and socially acceptable to hate your body to the point that if you don’t, you are the minority. Sad, right? While this may be more common among women, men come under the same extreme societal pressure to look a certain way or fit the “masculine” body type.
It’s also become super normal to feel guilty about food, and that’s directly related to body image. We feel guilty BECAUSE of this normative discontent over our bodies, and we are constantly striving to shame ourselves into being more “disciplined” with food.
The common response to body hate is to change our bodies. The common response to food guilt is to avoid that food. I mean, it feels like common sense. If looking a certain way makes you feel bad or eating a certain food makes you feel guilty, it seems the wise decision would be to avoid the food to avoid the negative emotion and lose weight. But in reality, avoiding this certain guilt-inducing food is what is actually causing the guilt once you do eat it. Thinking there is something wrong with your body is what keeps you in an all-or-nothing mentality.
A sign that you are making, or have made, peace with food is that you have the same emotional response to every food. You aren’t beating yourself up for eating cake and patting yourself on the back for eating carrots. That’s huge. Food is just food. You are still you – content, happy and body positive – no matter what foods you choose. It’s not a source of pride or ego or a source of shame or guilt. The benefit is that you are then in a position to make choices that honor YOU, rather than choices that honor a diet, the all-or-nothing mentality or food rules (that only make you miserable and increase disordered eating).
The way to get there is to eat the food. Instead of avoiding foods that make you feel guilty, you’ve gotta eat them. How do you stop feeling guilty about eating? You eat more. You don’t have certain foods you avoid or certain ingredients you can’t have…you eat all the food. In order to make peace with food, you’ve gotta know it’s the belief that the food is bad which is causing physical and psychological symptoms and disordered eating habits, not the food itself. I 100% believe that. No, 110% believe that.
You don’t have to eat all the food today. Maybe you just start with one food a week that scares you, and eat it daily. Practice positive affirmations when those feelings of fear creep up. Over time and by degrees, you will notice your feelings of guilt become less and less intense until you no longer are making decisions based on body manipulation, guilt, deprivation or restriction. Instead you find yourself empowered (rather than disempowered by a diet or a culture obsessed with weight and body shape) to make decisions that honor you, your body, your food preferences and your lifestyle. That’s a much more content and positive approach than being motivated by guilt and fear.
If you are hesitant to try that, I would like to introduce you to a concept called Food Habituation. Habituation is repeated exposure to a stimulus which leads to a decrease in response. When individuals are presented with the same food daily (weekly did not prove the same benefit), they are less likely to overeat it (we see calorie consumption from that food actually decreases). Often individuals assume that avoiding a problematic food will solve their problem, as discussed previously. However, unconditional permission to eat a wide variety of foods actually decreases disordered eating and increases trust. Food becomes less alluring the more often you let yourself eat it.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be normal, especially if it means being discontent and obsessed about how I look and what I eat. We can be better than that. We have to be better than that. Let’s be abnormal. Let’s be people who don’t take and share our own “fitspiration” photos. Who don’t take perfect pictures of all their food. Who don’t continue to spread body and food discontent. People who live empowered lives and are so busy being totally and completely content with themselves and food that they don’t even have the time to support those images and messages and diets and food rules. Will you join me in being abnormally content?
Emily Fonnesbeck RD, CD