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Opinion – Let’s drop our self-improvement obsession in 2022

Reports predict almost half of UK citizens vow to exercise more, improve their diet, or lose weight at the turn of a new year. But is that an image we should still be chasing?

Food, sparkling wine, Christmas markets and snow; I have loved this time of year ever since I can remember.

But soon after the laid-back lifestyle and the feasts comes 1 January and its long list of to-do lists, goals and promises. It’s my chance to have a fresh start, or — like for 44% of people — to be back on track to being my “fittest self”.

For people with eating disorders, this mindset and these types of resolutions are not a chance to seek new goals. Often, in fact, they do more harm than good.

Francesca Baker, in recovery after decades of anorexia, says she frequently pursues New Year’s resolutions. ‘I just want to get fitter and stronger, but I always know I might lose weight,’ she says.

Unlike a lot of us, Baker says she tends to hold back on food during the festive period, so she can save herself for Christmas dinner. ‘It never actually happens… and then I end up in a calorie deficit, cold and tired.’

Despite the pandemic, 2020 was the first holiday in years where she felt at ease. At home, alone with just her boyfriend, they ate Christmas dinner and drank things she finally felt comfortable with.

Lauren Webb, a healer based in Cornwall who has lived through 15 years with anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorder, has spent Christmases fearing what people would make her eat, or what they would say if she didn’t eat anything, or worst of all, hiding what she wasn’t eating from the ones she loved.

As an anorexic, Webb says not eating was never the issue. ‘I was just so committed, food just didn’t interest me,’ she adds. ‘But I have dated Italians a couple of times, and attended dinner parties where food was just piled up on my plate — that was hard.’

Then, as a bulimic, festive dinners were an emotional cycle of eating too much, feeling guilty, and getting rid of it over and over again. But even though she felt she achieved the same end result as her time as an anorexic – the guilt would always catch up.

‘At that point in my life, I didn’t know you could eat without feeling guilty,’ she says, sighing.

Webb’s eating disorders started from the age of six. One of her earliest memories was deciding she should starve herself. ‘I was tuning into cultural shifts and norms,’ she explains. ‘Growing up in Connecticut, there were a lot of aspects to society that were about appearances and in my mind if I could look good in any type of clothing, then I looked good.’

At Christmas though, eating disorders can particularly flare up when individuals come face to face with feasts, a lot of drink, and a lot of socialising.

Starving is a way for people who are suffering from loneliness or depression to no longer feel that way, says Jeanna Magagna, a child and adolescent psychotherapist.

Magagna, who is also the author of A Psychotherapeutic Understanding of Eating Disorders in Children and Young People: Ways to Release the Imprisoned Self, says people often search for a high from endorphins – the same as from exercise – by not eating. Like when you get into an accident, the body knows it’s dying and goes into survival mode. So you don’t feel any pain.

‘But it’s not about the eating,’ says Magagna. In fact, eating disorders start from when we are still in our mothers’ wombs. If the baby doesn’t have a calm space because it is receiving too much cortisol – it finds it harder to attune to its mother.

Then comes the ‘crucial’ first year after birth, when the baby needs a guardian to ensure it is responsive to their distress so that it can develop a sense of inner security. Sometimes, unfortunately, that hasn’t been possible because of the parents’ own history with parenting or their psychological structure.

Without an emotional basis, and once a person reaches their adolescence, the whole world feels like it will flood with emotions. They start to use their own intellect to cope and may begin controlling things around them, such as their food or their clothes.

Without that support system, the difficult feelings in life become gigantic and overwhelming. From a parents’ divorce, to when someone dies, to when you are abused – even if someone is physically thin, the big feelings force them to see their bodies as bigger.

Margaret Bell has undergone a lot of these moments. After her mother was diagnosed with Lupus, her dad died of cancer, she got divorced and then lost her job, Bell plummeted into depression. Each time she tried to pick herself up again, something else happened and it threw her off the rails. So she used food as a comfort and as a punishment.

In her mind, she didn’t deserve nourishment. ‘I was a major fuck up.’ she says.

Magagna explains that on top of self-security, is the external pressure. If people aren’t secure in themselves, they may cling to external sources in magazines, on social media, or in movies.

Webb says one main reason why she may have been so fascinated by diets as a child is because they are so prevalent in modern society. While we don’t actually see 99% of the world before us, we as humans tend to obsess over what we can. And that’s why body image and diets are a huge part of our culture, she adds.

If you lose weight, you’ve lost it. ‘But if you haven’t changed your emotional patterns, you’ll still have them despite the weight loss,’ Webb continues. ‘We’re not doing anything lasting for ourselves if we don’t change our patterns.’

The 30-year-old says she has never tried setting herself resolutions. Instead, Webb has used every day as a way to engage in personal growth. Meditation, yoga, sound baths, therapy, and even just a shower are several accessible ways to dig deeper and connect to our patterns.

After losing family members and hitting rock bottom, Bell trained as an emotional eating specialist and taught herself how to walk away from disordered eating. She now coaches women to their own food freedom.

‘Leave the resolutions,’ she says. ‘Each day is another piece in the jigsaw, so let’s start looking at what you can each day to keep healthy and strong.’

To change the way we perceive food, Bell reminds us that it is the diet industry that has labelled it ‘good’ and ‘bad’, and that the diet is the saviour – but this couldn’t be further from the truth.

We should dig deeper to see what has triggered us to reach food from an emotional space, and we should look at where the idea of ‘improvement’ has come from.

‘Is the improvement something you really want, is it realistic, and will it harm your health?’ she asks.

When the family is celebrating something with a lot of food, the best way to avoid increased anxiety is to talk to a couple of members of the party beforehand, Magagna says. Reach a settlement, eat something small before the party, or have them explain things to the other guests before they trigger you.

Although, Magagna adds, the best way to start addressing an eating disorder at this time of year is to go to therapy.

‘This can help people develop the emotional “muscle” they need, rather than them avoiding their feelings forever.’

Baker says one thing that has helped her turn around her attitude towards food is the desire to live a ‘full life’ in work, love, and society.

‘There’s no space for anorexia in a happy life,’ Baker says. ‘I hate being cold and weak, and I know I feel better when I eat – food is fuel for life.’