On my way home from work yesterday, I searched the word “food” in my podcast app. I’d had an unexpected body-image spiral over the weekend, had spent the whole day overthinking what I ate, and could tell I was in need of a pep talk. The results serendipitously fed me FoodPsych, a weekly podcast that explores the human relationship with food and self-image through a body-positive lens. I clicked.
In episode #149, the host, Registered Dietitian Christy Harrison, speaks with guest Amy Parish about the emotional nuance of binge eating. The whole conversation is worth a listen, but I was particularly drawn to their idea that an unhealthy relationship with food stems from a diet culture that imbues certain foods and behaviors with virtue or morality. Eating kale makes you good; eating candy makes you weak — that kind of thing. This isn’t necessarily new: The wellness trends of today and the fad diets of yore are part of the same cultural lexicon whereby rigor supposedly leads to personal betterment. The problem, Harrison and Parish say, is in the rules.
When we morally bifurcate something like eating, which should come naturally and instinctually to us, we create false tension — tension that has ripple effects. For instance, if you end a “healthy” day by binge eating, diet culture might label that a failure of discipline or a slip-up, whereas Harrison and Parish — both experts in the field of disordered eating as well as prior sufferers of disordered eating themselves — would call that a reasonable and psychological response. Or simply put: the body or mind asking for more.
As you might guess, these women are both big proponents of intuitive eating. Intuitive eating is the “nutrition philosophy proposing the negation of externally imposed dietary regimens in favor of following the guidance of the body’s internal cues.” I’m familiar with the concept; I’ve learned it, forgotten about it, and had to relearn it more times than I can count. Diet culture is blindingly powerful. The allure of the social capital to be gained by just looking a little more X can sometimes feel like a drug to me. This time, though, as I listened to these women spell it out for me yet again, it struck me that they were speaking about something even broader than diet culture – or they could have been. Our desire to pin down the “right” way to eat could easily be an analog for our more general desire to pin down the “right” way to live.
This idea has been on my mind a lot lately. I’m a sucker for an advice column and probably spend most of my waking life in pursuit of the “correct” approach to any given problem. This has sent me down the spiral of shoulds and shouldn’ts many times. Even if I know it’s a defeating — if not straight-up inadvisable — way to live, the idea of a correct path is so appealing. Should I eat this cookie? Should I take that job? Should I move in with my boyfriend? Should I save more? Should I go to that party? I ask myself — we all ask ourselves — a barrage of questions every day; it’s nice to feel like there’s a correct answer for each one, if only we think hard enough or gather enough information.
As with food, we find solace in labeling decisions and lifestyles as a good idea or a bad idea, a smart move or a misstep, the right way or a mistake. The truth is though, as long as our safety or agency aren’t in jeopardy, there usually isn’t a right answer. There is simply a set of pros and cons to every possible move — plus a dash of unpredictability. What if we started approaching our decisions through that lens instead of the binary of right and wrong? Might we then move through life a little less fearfully and little more intuitively? You could take that job, but you could also not take it. Both paths probably offer delights and challenges that you can try to imagine as a means to guide you, but which you can’t possibly predict in full. One might teach you an invaluable lesson; the other might introduce you to a person you’ll know forever. It’s a crapshoot.
In the podcast, Harrison and Parish discuss how intuitive eating doesn’t always mean choosing the food your body craves — sometimes it might mean doing otherwise and taking notes. Or accepting the costs of not listening, just because. It’s simply an approach to food that requires you be honest with yourself about what you want and need, and move through your decisions with benefits and consequences in mind. There is not a “right” way to eat that is universal, in this view; there is simply an honest way to eat for yourself.
Intuitive living could echo that same sentiment. You could go to the party and have a fun time or a dull time, or you could stay home and accept different stakes. Which stakes do you prefer right now? Or to use a more dramatic example: You could stay with your high school sweetheart and enjoy a comfortable, enduring connection with a person you grew up with — but miss out on the experience of solitude or dating. Or you could wait to settle down until you’re much older and enjoy getting to know yourself alone — but miss out on having a shared past with a consistent partner. You could never settle down at all! None of these are correct; they’re just options that carry their own little ledgers. It’s up to you to decide which one appeals to you more.
Either choice is so much more freeing than which choice, and it might even be more honest. Your path is just your path. Your more daring turns are as much a part of your story as your safer ones. They all contribute to the mosaic of your formative life experiences. Advice culture may try to tell us there is a right path forward, but the winding novels and memoirs and stories that have documented the human experience suggest otherwise. Perhaps I’d be wiser to embrace that.
Collage by Emily Zirimis; Photo via Getty Images.