Lent starts today and I've been talking with some of my clients about handling the following 40 days in a way that still allows them to respect and nourish their body and mind.
Religion aside, lent has typically been associated with dieting, weight loss, and restriction.
In fact food items are ~3 times as popular to claim abstention from as technology items or personal habits, with over 55% of people observing lent by fasting from a favorite food or drink.
I see lent as a time to cut out “bad” food and get your body 'back on track' with weight loss seen as a bonus.
Lent is perfectly positioned in the year for it to become wrapped up with diet culture.
The diet resolutions from January that haven’t been as successful as you hoped.
Maybe you didn’t follow your plan or meet your goals. Maybe your results simply weren’t as miraculous as you hoped they’d be.
You’re left feeling frustrated and guilty.
Summer and the demand for a beach body is looming. You need a fix, and fast.
Last week I was told the story of one particular client who was thrilled with the practice of sacrificing food for lent. She was anorexic at the time. Here was a God-given reason to restrict food!
She could stop eating anything she considered scary or unhealthy for 40 days and be applauded for her devoutness. For years, lent had become a time when she could justify her disordered eating as holy, an incredibly dangerous thing for a young person in the grips of an incredibly dangerous disease.
But fusing lent and diet culture can be harmful even if you don’t have an eating disorder.
Connecting lent and diet culture normalises fat phobia and food restriction. You sacrifice the chocolate / biscuits / cake, sweets or whatever because you feel out of control when it's around. You feel guilty after having it. So applying more control helps right?
You deny yourselves for forty days and then you finally get to indulge.
The restriction has ramped up the craving and urgency for what has been denied. You've probably been dreaming about that first bite. This makes it so much harder to consume the portion size you normally would when you’re “allowed” to have it.
If you do overeat or binge, you go back to feeling guilty and out of control.
After this, many will look back to diet culture for atonement, but diet culture isn’t from God and there is nothing redemptive about it.
Instead of providing salvation, diet culture traps you in an endless cycle. You continue to chase the false sense of control you experienced while restricting, and again and again bring yourself back to feelings of shame.
Furthermore, treating certain foods as if they are sinful reinforces harmful understandings of food.
Whether it’s sugar or carbs, quinoa or kale, no food is inherently sinful and no food is inherently holy.
But when food is given a moral value,it becomes how you eat, determines your moral character.
This inextricably links eating with shame and guilt. Which can lead you back to the cycle above or it can encourage other forms of disordered eating, such as orthorexia.
Orthorexia is the obsession with healthy eating, to the point of harming your mental and/or physical health.
If you believe your dietary choices determine your moral character, obsession with what you eat is a natural destination.
But it can lead to anxiety, restriction, and even malnutrition.
Now I'm not particularly religious but I do feel that just as consumerism can corrupt the true meaning of Christmas, diet culture distracts from the real reason Christians may practice Lent.
As was kindly explained to me last night, the practice of lent is meant take you closer to God, but diet culture points you to the ways of the world.
My understanding (and do correct me if I am wrong) is that lent encourages you to self reflect.
Diet culture however, focuses your attention on external appearances and how well they align with the world’s beauty standards.
What you might find really helpful is spending some time listening to your body. Become more attuned to its needs.
So rather than feel obliged to go without food which will only disconnect you further from yourself, why not 'fast' from unnecessary spending, gift unwanted items or develop your own spiritual practice (that may involve meditation, writing or playing less games on your phone)?