Everyone, even those who don’t formally celebrate Christmas, will most likely find themselves snaffling a bargain box of best-before mince pies or having a few extra drinks during the festive period. You’ve reached the end of another year – have one more slice of pie! You have a fortnight off work and the whole family round – so crack open the Quality Street! Evolutionarily, we crave high-sugar and high-fat foods, hence why the Christmas dinner table, Boxing Day buffet and days of free-flowing mulled wine keep us coming back for more than we ‘need’ for fuel alone. The absolute worst-case scenario is that we overeat and feel a bit bloated for a week or so, but that is where the story ends.
Yet influencers, diet product peddlers and gyms present us with an entirely different narrative and we, the vulnerably hungover and overfed, lap it up like brandy cream dregs from Grandma’s best china jug.
Discounted gym memberships, supplements and fitness accessories abound once January is upon us, tapping into the tradition of New Year’s resolutions. We jump at the chance for self-betterment, an excuse to start afresh and leave behind old habits. For many of us, an unhealthy lifestyle is that old habit. Enthusiasm to eat more healthily and to take up a new physical activity is both life-affirming and life-preserving. Surely, this is an overwhelmingly positive thing.
What is not positive, however, is the insidious marketing that manipulates our attitudes to our bodies by means of post-Christmas guilt. The rhetoric of self-blame, linked to a little over-indulgence at what should be a joyous time of the year, is much more toxic than ‘detox.’ And although Veganuary is motivated by the wellbeing of animals and our planet, rather than the money-making opportunity of thousands of people being desperate to shred, shed pounds and slim down, I am sure I am not the only one who has considered making it a Trojan horse for my weight-loss attempts.
I have watched enough myth-debunking YouTube videos, read enough blogs and articles that deign to counteract diet culture, to understand at a rational level that we can and should trust our bodies to recalibrate itself after Christmas. We each have an optimum weight at which our bodies fight to stay – our set point – and a few weeks of the pigs in blankets diet will not succeed in throwing this mechanism off course. All that is required is of us is a return to normal, balanced eating once the holidays are over.
Gymshark, PureGym and Weight Watchers fail to explain this to us, as to do so would undermine their business models, constructed around the message that we, as we are, are inadequate. In the words of Britney (more or less): they’re toxic, we’re slipping under. And we will continue to fall for their guilt-tripping slogans, because flourishing corporations with a fortune behind them have more clout than a few body-positive Instagrammers, unfortunately. After all, they would not have made their money if it weren’t for successful seduction tactics: we truly believe it when they tell us that we need to shape up, tone up, shrink ourselves down.
And by anticipating the advent of this toxic message come January we run the risk of falling foul of our subconscious. Again, I will state the obvious: evolutionary biology is omnipotent. If you know a period of penury is approaching, you will, even if not deliberately, find yourself ‘stocking up’ on the nutrients of which you soon intend to deprive yourself. The psychological and physiological strain of fasting, regardless of the degree to which you enforce it, outweighs whatever you stand to gain (or, more appropriately, here, lose) from denying your body and mind the nutrition it requires.
From experience, I know that the mere thought of not being able to eat what I want once the decorations are down is enough to drive me to extreme binges while I have the self-bestowed permission to indulge. Such is the reality of yo-yo dieting. I know that it is far better to eat little and often, indulge without bingeing and stave off the extreme New Year regimes.
Yet the unrepentant guilt-mongering of the post-Christmas period hits me particularly hard. I am a weight-restored, physiologically-sound eating disorder sufferer, but one whose relationship with the gym, diet products and food restriction is far from healthy.
Absolving oneself of responsibility to obey the orders of internet culture is, therefore, a gargantuan task. I have, nevertheless, learned – the hard way – that detox teas and fat-burning coffees are useless, not eating for 24 hours at a time is pointless (because it will always backfire) and excessive cardio is nothing short of ridiculous. Refuge in online recovery communities can seem appealing, but it is increasingly hard to escape a society where special diets and resistance bands reign supreme – even among those who were once eating disorder sufferers themselves. Recovery journeys morph into fitness journeys, obsessive cross-training evolves into dedicated muscle-building and devoted butt-sculpting and my hope that self-acceptance is to be found outside of the gym begins to waiver. I question the legitimacy of my recovery because I am trying to resist, rather than submit to, the allure of the watt bike.Let’s all eat up and chill out this Christmas and New Year, only working out and cutting down if the decisions to do so are made free from external or self-imposed pressure.