My earliest memories of my grandmother are of her throwing up dinner. I was about seven years old. I asked my mom if Grandma was sick. “No, she’s okay. Just leave her be.” I know now that this was how my grandma kept her body smaller — it was her way of controlling the world around her in a way I couldn’t understand when I was seven.
Growing up I learned the cardinal rules of being a good American woman. The biggest rule was that if you are fat, you are not good enough. Nothing you did or said could negate the terribleness that is being fat. So I, and every woman I knew, spent a lot of time and energy trying to make our bodies smaller so that we could be worthy of love and belonging.
The beauty of believing this lie was that if you are worried about the size of your thighs, you don’t have the energy to challenge the current status quo. It is a piece of a system that compartmentalized me into little boxes so that I could not ask too many questions.
In Management 3.0, Jurgen Appelo defines a complex system as one that is “not fully knowable, but reasonably predictable.” It takes a lot of work to understand our very complex relationship with food, but it’s pretty likely that you heard some messages when you were young that still affect you on a daily basis. These messages can affect us in ways that aren’t obvious on the surface, that have to do with deep feelings such as our worthiness to take up space. As humans we try to simplify complex systems so we can understand them easily. But simplifying our relationship with food into simple ideas like “you must have a small body to be healthy” or “burn more calories than you take in to lose weight” simply ignores the complexity that comes with our relationship with food.
12 Ways to Happiness – Eat Well
One of Jurgen’s 12 Ways to Happiness, at life and at work, is:
Eat well and make good, healthy foods easily available for everyone. A healthy diet stimulates the mind and body and improves productivity.
I would like to invite you to think beyond calories and conventional wisdom, as tempting as that might be. We know from behaviorist Alfie Kohn that rewards and punishments simply don’t work — so don’t use them to try and make diet changes. Instead recognize that the food we eat is part of a complex system that involves our emotional and physical health. There is no moral imperative to follow any way of eating, and what you eat does not make you a good or bad person. The size of your body (or anyone else’s body) also does not affect your personal worth.
Create work environments that are weight-neutral, with many different food options that fit everyone’s needs. Resist “biggest loser” challenges or other activities that focus on weight loss. Why spend that time and energy focusing on weight loss? Instead you could use that energy toward moving in ways that bring you joy, eating foods that make you feel good, and connecting with your co-workers.
“There is no such thing as ‘perfect health’ — and no such thing as a ‘perfectly healthy’ employee. It’s important to help employers understand that using a one-dimensional definition of health will not bring long-term benefit to anyone, employees and employers alike. Employers should be promoting health-positive environments that encourage everyone toward what brings joy, connection, and meaning into their lives at work and at home. How different that sounds from an environment created by bribes, penalties, and discrimination.”
Eating well might mean enjoying pizza with co-workers while having a great conversation. It can mean sharing a veggie tray or a cookie platter. By listening to our bodies instead of punishing ourselves for our eating choices, we treat our bodies and our eating habits as the complex system that they are. Listening to our bodies also allows us to reduce the influence of the $20 billion weight-loss industry, which adds further complexity to our thoughts and feelings around body diversity.
If this resonates with you, and you want to learn more about body trust and health at every size, here are some resources:
Your ‘Eating Well’ Challenge
Now for your Weekly Happiness Challenge: Eating well at work!
- Day 1: January 30 – Why does self-compassion matter? How does that impact other areas of your life? Suggested reading: “Why body image work hasn’t worked”
- Day 2: January 31 – What is your favorite memory that involves food?
- Day 3: February 3 – Read this article about ‘nutritionism’. What are your thoughts?
- Day 4: February 4 – Share: How do you feel when you’ve been eating well?
- Days 5 & 6: February 5-6 – Have your ideas around eating well changed this week? If so, how?
We’ll be discussion this month’s happiness challenges in the aptly named #happiness Slack channel. You are also free to share your tips for eating well for a happier work and home life in the comments below!