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For the majority of my life I subscribed to the motto “new year, new me.” I wrote lists of things I wanted to change, set specific goals, and delineated how I wanted to achieve them. Although career goals and extracurricular hobbies made it to the list, I felt inspired by people around me to adopt intentions related to fitness and diet. I sprinkled in others that felt a little less superficial, but ultimately it read most extensively of things I wanted to change about myself, particularly related to appearance.
When I was in the throes of an eating disorder, my resolutions were most noticeably some iteration of “lose weight.” Looking around I saw a society that echoed what I felt. Social media advertisements promoted weight loss programs, newsfeeds seemed to play a constant reel of before and after photos, and gyms aggressively promoted new membership packages. The pressure was not only felt online. Friends experimented with different diets, each promising a change in physical appearance of some kind. January felt like a month of dodging “I shoulds” and “I shouldn’ts.
When I reflect upon years past I am struck by the fact that, year after year, my resolutions were essentially to be anyone other than me. Fast forward years later and new year goals are less about changing the way I look and more about embracing what I once wished goodbye.
As a Psychologist specializing in eating disorders and body image dissatisfaction, I am acutely aware of how much appearance-focused resolutions pervade society. This year in particular there was an increase in clients exclaiming “new year, new me.” Many reported wanting to lose weight, be in better physical shape and eat healthier after surviving a year that completely dismantled any structure they once had around food and exercise. They shared a felt pressure from society to exit the COVID-19 pandemic looking better than how they entered.
Although there is value in living a healthy lifestyle, my lived experience reminds me that it can also become a slippery slope towards disordered eating. Here are some tools that might be helpful in navigating the “new year, new me” mindset:
We place a lot of emphasis on how we look and much less on how our bodies feel. After a lifetime of thinking one way, it takes a while to learn how to appraise our bodies differently. This can be a frustratingly gradual process but one worthwhile and ultimately empowering. When I began my recovery journey I learned to ask myself “How does my body show up for me?” and “How does it help me move through this world?”. This took the focus away from appearance and towards function and utility, while also cultivating compassion in place of criticism.
Physical appearance only accounts for a portion of who we are. Part of my work with clients is helping them recognize other facets they value and to help them feel accomplished for more than losing weight. Developing resolutions that are independent of appearance can be a useful first step in learning to appreciate yourself for more than how you look.
The more often we face images promoting the thin ideal, the more likely we are to internalize that other shapes are inferior. Several years ago I led a support group for adolescents with body image concerns. They unanimously cited social media as the source for disliking their bodies and felt trapped by the pressure to be thin. As they replaced influencers advocating diet and weight loss with those celebrating health at every size, the relationship with their own body evolved. Social media can be a supportive resource when used thoughtfully.
Just because people say something is important does not mean that it must also be important for you. Consider why you feel compelled to commit to a particular resolution. Although external motivators might incentivize you to value a certain objective, you are ultimately less likely to feel successful at reaching that goal because it is not intrinsically motivated. Living in a society that has historically valued slender bodies over larger ones does not mean we as individuals must hold belief with such esteem.
Recent studies show that media consumption nearly doubled in the COVID-19 pandemic and this increased demand was met with a surge of advertisements and new content. This makes sense — we are siloed at home and technology is now the vehicle for connection and literal window to the outside world. According to a recent study, social media became the second-most popular digital outlet this past year. Furthermore, research shows a statistically significant increase in the frequency of social media use and correlated increases in drive for thinness and body image dissatisfaction. Rather than resolving to change your body try committing to change your relationship with online platforms.
The onset of a new year does not need to be synonymous with a new you. As someone with an appreciation for personal growth, I recognize that this is a difficult concept to digest. It might feel like a radical stance to adopt, but 2021 can be a time of coming home to yourself as opposed to traveling away from what matters. This year I resolve to feel at home in my body as is and to embrace the woman I am rather than who I think I should be.
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