The Doomed Dieter's Tale, by Anna King

Making any transition in life is not a simple process.  It is rarely ever experienced linearly: acknowledgment, commitment, action and, hey presto, we have all arrived at the party.  Diets for many people are riddled with complexity.  It is an industry littered with people who ‘succeed’ for a short period of time, only to bounce back to unhealthy lifestyle choices fairly swiftly.

My Story

After completing my PhD I started out on a ‘diet’ as an opportunity to ‘detox’ and deepen my yoga practice, which had been significantly neglected during an intense period of research.  I made a mental commitment to start the ‘diet’ the following Saturday.  As the weekend loomed, I found myself emotionally listing a number of reasons why I should leave it until a later date.  When reflecting upon my resistance (excuses), I contemplated the complex emotional and psychological pathways that we venture down when faced with change. I decided to use my dieting journey as a way to explore my own relationship with change and resistance.   

The next day I pottered around in the kitchen. I felt the presence of all my healthy options boring holes into my conscience, and I felt myself slipping into the ‘change drama’.  By day three of the ‘detox’ my coffee machine sat alienated and under-appreciated.  Giving up my most prolific addiction had resulted in headaches that had led to thoughts of an emergency lobotomy.  During these few days of preparation, no enlightened revelations about the ‘change drama’ entered the fuzzy reality I now occupied.  I was successfully numbed to the world of magic.  Like a recalcitrant child I resented the herbal alternatives for dulling my senses.  I fantasized about tall Americanos with mint chocolate biscuits. 

I reminded myself why I was doing this detox.  There were many reasons.  Significantly, there was the issue of the ageing process.  The last ten years had steamed by at lighting pace and I could see the watermark of time resting upon my brow.  A severe knee injury had also completely transformed my body.  The ultra flexible, fit apparatus that had served my every whim had swanned into an unrecognisable stranger.  I felt a sense of unease with myself.  Was this image that I see before me really me?   Such disbelief led to further questioning: What is it that makes me, me?  Would being ten years younger, a stone lighter and a super yogi stretchy person make me more me?  Possibly, but perhaps not.  I may feel physically lighter and more attractive, but is this really what it was all about?  And if not, why are we so fixated with achieving these things, and in their pursuit find ourselves constantly frustrated with our efforts, as we grab the nearest stimulant or unhealthy portion for distraction.

Instead of fighting the fuzzy emptiness that was permeating my detox, and reaching for some form of alleviation, I paused and considered how the things that we grab to make us feel alive such as food, alcohol, work, relationships, may be quick fixes to seal a gapping wound of disconnectedness from the things that bring meaning into our lives.  Maybe this is why so many diets ‘fail’.

It soon became clear that I needed to listen to the chatter that accompanies the process we so casually describe as ‘doing’.   The language more often than not associated with statements made by all of us highly inspired ‘doers’ suddenly seemed part of the problem:  ‘I’m starting my detox tomorrow’, ‘I’m beginning a diet’, ‘I’m going to lose weight’… In other words, the never-ending quest to control the future and define it.  While this inherent feature of the human species has enormous potential, giving us the ability to plan and create, it becomes problematic with regards to our health and wellbeing.

Impressive statements about what we are going to ‘achieve’ have an almost Calvinist obsession with doing that is very admirable, but the problem with the emphasis upon doing with regards to our health and wellbeing is that the end result is often based upon an artificially constructed sense of self that is not in the present, but in the near future.  In sight, but not grasped.  The implication being that when I lose two stone, or go to the gym three times a week, I will be able to free my ‘real’ self.  Not only will I feel well, I will be happy.  But, how does this constructed idea of the self relate to you, in the here and now? 

The dichotomy between the ‘self’ we wish to be, and the self in the present, is extremely complex.  As I pondered such thoughts on the dawn of my ‘diet’, it struck me that maybe the lack of integration between the old ‘me’ and the new, or the person I am, and the one I wish to be, may explain why so many ‘doers’ of diets fail.

So, how does a narrative of well-intentioned ‘doing’ suddenly crash into inertia, resistance, apathy or, in some cases, giving up entirely? 

Certainly, I was caught at this moment in time in the resistance phase, and I had almost given up before I even started.

The following afternoon I was once again drawn to the non-doing dilemma and how to integrate the old with the new in a healthy, holistic way.  Oddly, such contemplations suddenly presented a persuasive argument to not start my diet… either a strange irony, or an amusing avoidance!!

So how do we move out of the ‘doomed diet’ dilemma?

A diet is not just about the physical body.  Diets and our bodies exist within a social context that is laced with an array of cultural habits that provide familiarity, but sometimes constrain our power for change.  While diets are of course important, they are doomed if we are unaware of how other aspects of our lives are shaping how we feel about our bodies and ourselves.  Dieting will never change these things. 

Diets are, therefore, not isolated experiences, but expressions of how we feel about ourselves. When we feel good about ourselves the pounds naturally shed, the lettuce growing on the window sill tastes all that much better, and my glass of Chablis on a sunny Saturday evening still has its place in the wonderful patch-worked experience called life.

So how do we navigate through the self-sabotaging drama called ‘change’ toward a healthy sense of self?

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