What about exercise??
How has your relationship to movement been impacted by diet culture?
It’s a well known fact that diet and wellness culture have screwed up our collective relationship with food and eating, right? Most people engage in socially normalized disordered eating habits (i.e.: diets), and a huge number of folks suffer from eating disorders, body dysmorphia, a preoccupation with their weight, or an obsession with “health.”
Luckily, the visibility of this issue has led to more and more mainstream resources available for pushing back against it, and for healing our fucked up relationship with food and eating.
But what about the damage diet and wellness culture have done to our collective relationship with physical activity, exercise, and movement? I would argue that just as many people struggle with disordered, negative, and harmful patterns in this relationship as they do with food and eating… but it’s hardly ever talked about!
The truth is that we’ve all absorbed just as many false and oppressive messages about exercise as we have about diet. Whether we learned that exercise is mandatory for weight management or loss, that one has to work out a certain amount or with a certain level of difficulty for it to “count,” or that being physically active is for other people but not us, our natural relationship with movement has been irrefutably interrupted and corrupted.
After all, in a culture where we learn to apply moral significance and meaning to bodily factors (like skin color, gender, height, weight, age, and ability), our perception of a person’s value, character, and worth is influenced, both consciously and subconsciously, by the way they look. And in diet culture, we learn that the size and shape of a person’s body is almost exclusively the result of their behaviors when it comes to food and exercise.
Essentially, our oppressive biases and judgments about a person’s character and worth end up applying both to their appearance, and the behaviors we associate with that appearance.
Plus, have you ever noticed how Western culture is obsessed with rugged individualism, personal dominance, productivity, and morality? We learn to associate hard work, discipline, logic, self-control, and self-sacrifice with a certain kind of moral superiority, as if these qualities make a person “special,” or superior, and therefore more deserving and worthy of happiness, respect, love, and belonging.
This deeply informs our moralistic view of exercise, insofar as we tend to put discipline, effort, and self-control on a moral pedestal, and then put people who demonstrate those qualities via fitness on a pedestal as well. Then on the flip side, we learn that “lazy” and “out of control” are the worst things a person can be, and that anyone demonstrating these qualities via their body behaviors is bad, shameful, or inferior, and therefore undeserving and unworthy.
Put another way, we learn to assign false meaning and importance not only to the way our bodies look, but also to the specific ways we nourish, move, and take care of them.
This is how exercise come to take on moral significance and importance in a person’s mind, leading to false beliefs like:
I need to work out in order to deserve dinner.
If I skip the gym, it’s because I’m lazy and bad.
If only I could get in shape, I would be happy and feel good about myself.
None of these stories are objectively true of course, but they feel true to the person who believes them, and they tend to carry a lot of influence over the person’s behaviors and decisions around movement, for better or for worse.
Plus, diet culture and the patriarchy have painted moral significance and importance upon bodies and movement with a very broad (and oppressive) brush, leading to mainstream false beliefs like:
A person’s weight is determined only by what they eat and how they move, therefore a person’s body size can tell you whether they’re lazy or hard-working, disciplined or out of control, etc.
A person’s health is determined in large part by their weight, therefore a person’s body size can tell you whether they’re healthy or unhealthy.
A person who is hard working, disciplined, and self-controlled is morally superior to someone who isn’t. (Combined with the above two beliefs, this would mean that a healthy person is morally superior to an unhealthy person, and a thin person is morally superior to a fat person.)
A person’s value, worthiness, and what they deserve in life are determined by their actions, which is to say, by their moral character. (Combined with the above three beliefs, this would mean that fit, thin, and healthy people have more value to society, are more worthy of love, respect, and belonging, and deserve a good life full of happiness, kindness, connection, and success. It would also mean that unfit, fat, and unhealthy people have less value, are less worthy, and are undeserving of those things.)
All of these biases and beliefs stack up, and combine with lived experiences of trauma and pain to influence how we think about, feel about, choose, and experience physical activity and movement. They can lead to disordered patterns like over-exercising, obsessing over exercise, and exercise addiction, as well as to feelings of dread, panic, shame, or exclusion that make a person avoid moving their body altogether.
Essentially, once we give movement that kind of moral significance and power in our minds, neutrality goes right out the window. If going for a run today will make the difference between you feeling like you deserve to eat or be loved today, then running can no longer be neutral, right? Once it’s morally loaded, and has a shit-ton of power over you, it’s no longer a question of whether or not you should run. Now it’s a question of whether or not you have value in the world, or are worthy of love and respect.
Anyway, I think we need to be talking more about our relationship to physicality and movement, how it’s been corrupted, and how to heal it.
After all, each of us was born with the innate desire to move our bodies, as well as the ability to take pleasure in movement. A positive relationship to movement is our freakin’ birthright!
You deserve to heal your relationship with physicality and movement, just as much as you deserve to heal your relationship to food and eating. Not only that, but healing and reclaiming this relationship is a powerful act of resistance, rebellion, and liberation. It’s a huge eff-you to the systems of oppression that have been trying to control you, manipulate you, and make you feel bad about yourself!
But how do we get back to that? How do we heal the traumas, and strip away the beliefs and biases, that keep us from having an easy, pleasurable, and fulfilling relationship with movement?
For me, the answer is an extension of body neutrality, which we might call exercise neutrality or movement neutrality!
In other words, we can apply the principles of body neutrality to our behaviors as much as we do to our appearance, and in so doing we can free ourselves of the obstacles that block our natural relationship with movement.
As we head into “new year, new you” season, I want to invite you to consider your relationship with movement, and whether it feels as free, easy, and positive as you would hope.
(If not, I can help with that! Just apply here for private coaching.)
Also, let me know what comes up for you around this topic! I plan to release an ebook in January for folks looking to approach exercise from a place of body neutrality, and I’d love to hear any questions or topics you’d like to see covered!