In a couple of days, my sister Holly and I are going to begin Karyn Calabrese’s four-week detox, a raw foods program designed to clean and heal the body from the inside out. Now, getting ready to do this thing has required a lot of preparation, from sprouting wheatgrass and making rejuvelac to getting really excruciatingly honest about what it is that we’re hoping to get out of it, and what we want these days in general when it comes to our health. It might seem a little extreme–two relatively healthy young women, neither of us overweight, embarking on this program that seems radical compared to the ‘default settings’ of how our society eats. If you doubted my motives and my concern about being healthy and assumed it was just an elaborate scheme to lose a few pounds, dressed up in high-fallutin’ talk about “mindfulness” and “balance,” well, you would have been right…up until about a year ago.

If you’ve read just about anything I’ve written, then you know that I find the amount of confusion, pressure, and outright lies regarding food and the body in our culture to be absolutely maddening, and my family can attest to those moments when I really was driven mad by it: those phases in my life where I was relentlessly spewing nutritional advice that, while scientifically sound, was difficult to take seriously in light of my obsessive need to manipulate and change my body.

Getting ready for the detox has been a great opportunity for Holly and me to talk about how we’ve dealt with–and continue to deal with–this pressure and the elusive search for balance and peace of mind. (It’s been a battle for me, but I’d like to think that I’m starting to win.) In my last post on food culture I talked a lot about “opting out” of two dueling worldviews surrounding the body: “it’s ok to eat with abandon” and “you must get thin at any cost.” Something that Holly and I have discovered in our ongoing quest for health is that those practices that actually make you healthier may look like an eating disorder in disguise to the uninitiated, and that it’s very common for people to camouflage self-deprivation and self-destruction with claims about health (such as that subset of “vegans” and “raw foodists” who use the terms as an excuse to simply quit eating all together!). Another thing we’ve discovered is that if something is good enough for someone else, they may not understand why it’s not good enough for you.

Do we look like frenzied elitists because the meaty-cheesy-sugar-flour diet wasn’t good enough for us?  Maybe we do! Or because feeling tired and bloated and generally crappy all the time wasn’t good enough and we’re looking for something better? Perhaps! As we were talking, I discovered that while we were in high school, Holly and I both hated “Love Your Body Week.” That sounds kind of awful and counter-intuitive, but we had some good reasons. It was supposed to promote self-esteem, but really, Love Your Body Week ended up being one big judge-fest because with so many dueling philosophies about what “healthy” is supposed to look like, there wasn’t much room to actually pursue being healthy.

I found the whole of it seriously irritating. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to love my body. Of course I did, and sometimes desperately! But I was also operating under a deep belief that there was a threshold of fitness and slimness that I needed to attain before I could be fully acceptable to myself and to society at large. That was the only body worth loving. Never mind that I already had good grades, good relationships with my friends and family (for the most part), and was talented at art and languages. (Never mind that I didn’t hold any of my friends to this standard– it just applied to me.) Why, this was simply the last piece of the puzzle, right? Didn’t I deserve to look good, too? After all, if I just had the body to go with it, then I’d really be in business! Everybody else wants this too, don’t they? So why shouldn’t I? This was the tape that played in my head for years. And so naturally, at the expense of being able to fully enjoy the things that I already liked (and actually loved) about myself and my life situation, my thinking became fixated on those few minor details, those last five pounds…”if only I could change X about my body…then I’d be happy…” These thoughts didn’t go away when I got to college. They warped, shifted, deepened in some ways.

Of course, this is precisely the kind of thinking that things like “Love Your Body Week” try to alleviate, before it manifests in self-destructive behavior. It irks me that I spent so much time wanting to change my body, unable to get on with the rest of my life. All that mental energy spent counting, spent criticizing…The thought of a whole generation of women (and certainly a few men) so preoccupied with how they look that they are unable to do or create anything really meaningful saddens me immensely, but it’s not a far cry from reality. There is a real need that programs like Love Your Body Week are trying to meet. But in my situation, they ways in which they tried to do this felt more insulting than encouraging.

The biggest problem with Love Your Body Week at our high school, as Holly pointed out to me, was that the guidance counselors in charge of it were overweight. Not morbidly obese, but the girls in our class struggled to take them seriously because we did not want to look like them. Now, I believe that no one deserves to be marginalized on the basis of their body type, but I also believe that each person is responsible for his or her health, to whatever extent they have the knowledge and resources to care for themselves. If you have a hard time getting up the stairs or are carrying around an extra thirty pounds, should you really be leading Love Your Body Week? “Right, so clearly you love your body so much that this is where it’s gotten you. Yeah, can’t wait to be where you are in 25 years. You’re basically just telling us it’s ok to be kind of fat so we’ll eat lunch and so-and-so will stop making herself throw up. I got it. We can talk ‘moderation’ all you want, but your idea of moderation has got you nibbling out of that bowl of peanut M&Ms on your desk all day and Sallie Jo’s has got her eating 1000 calories a day on a good day. Useful.” Not kind thoughts, but it’s what I was thinking.

It’s a very dangerous thing in my view when one extreme makes us feel that it’s all right to accept the other. The “obesity epidemic” and our serious issues with toxic and damaging foods are real problems, but that certainly doesn’t mean it’s ok to systematically refuse to nourish our bodies. The problems with eating disorders and body obsession in our culture are also very real, but that also doesn’t mean it’s ok to eat mindlessly and carelessly, carrying around unhealthy amounts of excess weight. I wanted some reprieve from both of these camps, but I didn’t get it.

Another source of supreme irritation was the euphemistic use of the word “healthy” to mean “not skinny, but not so heavy that s/he has a problem.” Most likely, the concerned adult in question actually meant this in an honest way: “you look as though you have neither an eating disorder nor a compulsive overeating problem,” but it was typically taken to mean, “you’re a little bit pudgy but we don’t want you to feel bad about that because then you might hurt yourself.”  On the flipside, if someone said “she looks too thin,” that was taken to be a compliment, since we all knew that “too thin” for someone from our parents’ generation, waistlines a-thickening, as every media source constantly screamed at us, probably meant “in good shape.” I mean, we all know criticism is a form of self-defense, so any comment must be a reflection of the commenter’s own insecurity about his or her own weight, right? So you’re telling me that if I do eat dessert, then I’m being indulgent and gross (probably because I hate myself), and if I don’t, I’m depriving myself because clearly, I hate myself. Well ain’t that a win-win situation!

Since I was never officially overweight, I often felt that if I expressed any desire to actually become more physically fit, that meant that all I really wanted was to get thinner, and any attempt at actually exercising was just a calorie burning binge. Never mind not being hungry at dinner. Because we all know “I’m not hungry” means “I’m terrified to eat this.” Right? I felt hurt by my peers’ collective insecurity, that it made others take me less seriously. It wasn’t until my frenzy reached it’s peak in college that I finally caught myself doing what others had done: using the vocabulary of “health and fitness” to pretend that my all-consuming urge to stay thin was a natural outgrowth of my desire to actually be healthy. My parents had grounds on which to be concerned, even if their assumptions had been wrong from time to time. I might have been honest about wanting to get fitter at first, but later I began using it as a way of lying to myself about the fact that I really just wanted to look thinner.

The real message I got from Love Your Body Week was ultimately, “you should be satisfied with being out of shape as long as you’re not too overweight. It’s not ok to try to make yourself thin. You’ll go too far.” It just added to the confusion. Did I want to look like an anorexic runway model? No. But I did want to look like the yoga instructors at the YMCA! Still, to express that would mean to endure the wrath of the loving kindness of the guidance counselor who just wants you to eat. And so the message  “if you’re already acceptable to us, then you shouldn’t want to change” just made it that much easier to be in denial about what it was that I really wanted, whether it was something good for me or not.

After reflecting on this for a while, I’ve realized the following things:
-”Loving your body” does not mean that all of a sudden, after years of media messages and external pressure to change how you look, that you suddenly, instantaneously like how you look. But it does mean that regardless of how you may feel about your looks from moment to moment, you understand that you are worthy of love anyways. You understand that you deserve foods that nourish you and exercise that enlivens you. You understand that you are allowed to be happy and satisfied with your body on your own terms, not someone else’s. I may go back and forth a hundred times a day about whether or not I like how I look. But the more fully I understand that I deserve care and balance regardless, the better I look and feel as a result.

-Don’t take advice from people who do not have what you want and need. I wouldn’t take financial and career advice from someone struggling to pay the bills, so what incentive do I have to listen to an unhealthy-looking person giving me body image advice? When it comes to finding health and fitness role-models, I’ve had to ask myself two very important questions: If I were this person’s age, gender, and body type, would I want to have their level of physical fitness and health? Did they achieve and do they maintain this level of health in a way that is sustainable, ethical, and consistent with my values and means?  Basically, do I want to look like them and live that way in order to get there? I’ve quit reading magazines about celebrities with personal chefs, personal trainers, personal stylists, personal makeup artists, personal ass-wipers…you get the picture! These days I’m getting a lot more out of learning from people who developed good habits on their own and who choose nourishing foods over expensive drugs, surgeries, and diets. These people are dancers, nutritionists, athletes, moms and dads, scientists and so on, but they all have what I want: fit, healthy bodies and a natural, sustainable (in both senses of the word) way of maintaining them as just one part of an otherwise balanced and interesting life.

So I’m about to start this detox. Two years ago I would have been desperately clinging to it as a means of somehow becoming complete as a person by losing five pounds and thereby attaining perfection. To actually admit that would probably also have been unbearably painful. Of course, I would be kidding myself if I said I didn’t still want to look like those yoga teachers! But I would also be kidding if I said that’s all that’s important to me, or all that forms my definition of health and success these days. You know that quote “nothing tastes as good as being thin feels?” It’s an awful quote. It really should be “nothing looks as good as being healthy feels.” And I include mental and emotional health in that definition. So my hope for the next four weeks is to do the unthinkable: in a space of complete honesty and non-judgment, actually love my body. What a concept.