If the onslaught of New Year’s diet marketing is taking a toll on your body image, here are some tips for coping.
As the holidays wind down, the wellness industry is prepping for its busiest months: “New Year, New You” season. You know, the time of year when health and wellness brands cash in by convincing you that some aspect of your body (if not the whole damn thing) needs desperate attention.
This aggressive invitation to fix yourself is all over the internet, on social media, in TV ads, and on billboards. Everywhere you turn, brands and influencers are out there promoting detoxes, cleanses, get-fit-quick workout plans, and elimination diets. The messaging often implies that you “overindulged” in the past few months, and you must want to start fresh this year. They’re pushing empowerment, but the subtext reeks of judgment and shame.
While it’s true that some people do earnestly want to make resolutions tied to their health or weight, not everyone does. Plus, all of this exercise, diet, and detox talk can be especially triggering due to the relationship you might have with your body or your health, or even just the state of your mental health. “People who have certain types of psychological tendencies can struggle with this more,” says Jessica Stern, a clinical psychologist at NYU Langone Health. That includes, she says, people with a history of eating disorders (including disorders focused on exercise) and people with anxiety, particularly folks who tend to wrestle with issues of control or with very rigid or “all or nothing” thinking.
It’s even more egregious that we’re still bombarded with these messages while in the midst of an ongoing pandemic, where merely surviving and keeping it more or less together should be viewed as a massive accomplishment.
So, if any of this is resonating with you, here are a few tips for making it to March unscathed.
Unfollow or unsubscribe from anything that makes you feel bad about yourself
If you’re going to do a detox this month, let it be a cleanse of your social media feeds. That influencer who posts “What I Eat in a Day” videos that always make you feel bad? Gone. The lifestyle brand publishing problematic articles like “13 Moves That Target Your [Insert Derisive Name for a Body Part You Didn’t Know You Needed to Be Ashamed Of]”? Unfollowed. Your coworker posting three times a day about her new weight-loss pyramid scheme? Muted. You don’t even need to wait until it pops up in your feed; if there’s anyone who did these things last year or just frequently makes you feel like shit, get ahead of that and mute them now.
“I think you have to realize that if it’s not doing you any good then it’s not worth following,” says Christine Byrne, an anti-diet registered dietitian and nutrition journalist.
And if someone is telling you that you need to pay lots of money to live your best life, please be skeptical. “Don’t fall for all of the ploys to buy things in order to achieve your goals,” reminds Stern.
Surround yourself with thoughtful, inclusive content about bodies
There is plenty of media to consume and people to follow that is actually empowering and will never tell you that peanut butter is off-limits or that your butt shouldn’t look the way it does. “Following social media accounts from people who don’t give in to the pressure to look a certain way or be a certain way can be really helpful,” says Byrne. “Following people in bigger bodies and in differently abled bodies and just people who look differently than you can really help expand your idea of what is normal, what happy looks like, and what healthy looks like. Because those things don’t have a look.” A few great Instagram follows to get you started include @thenutritiontea, @mynameisjessamyn, @yrfatfriend, and @dearbodybymeg.
You can also subscribe to podcasts and newsletters that help you to identify, question, and dismantle diet culture in your everyday life. For starters, Byrne’s “Quit Your Diet Newsletter” is filled with empathetic advice on very relatable topics. The Food Heaven podcast, co-hosted by BFFs and registered dietitians Wendy Lopez and Jessica Jones, breaks down complex topics on food, weight, and body image in a super accessible way. Christy Harrison, registered dietitian and certified eating disorders specialist, has a book, podcast, and newsletter that are all fantastic anti-diet resources. And the Maintenance Phase podcast should basically be required listening for anyone with a body: “If you need a New Year’s resolution, start listening to Maintenance Phase, because it has gotten through to people that I never expected it to,” adds Byrne.
Come up with a canned response to get out of triggering conversations
As tempting as it is to just yell “Unsubscribe!” at someone spewing diet culture nonsense in your general direction, that doesn’t tend to go over super well. “A great response is always centering yourself so that other people don’t feel attacked, because you can’t control what someone else does,” says Byrne. “That’s not your responsibility or your business.”
So, what can you do when your mother-in-law suggests you download that new diet app she saw on Facebook, or your friend asks if you’ll join her running group (even though you have never and will never enjoy running)? Read the situation and relationship as generously as possible, and respond or remove yourself accordingly.
“It depends on your comfort level with the people that you’re talking to, but one great canned response is: ‘I have realized that those kinds of things don’t work for me, so I’d rather not talk about them this year,’” suggests Byrne. If it’s someone you’re really close with, you may want to take the opportunity to set a boundary, like: “I really value our friendship, but I find [fill in the blank here] to be really triggering, so I’d appreciate it if we just don’t talk about that.”
While it can be tempting to go on a tirade about diet culture in the moment, a gentler tactic could be pointing them in the direction of a podcast or article that resonated with you about this topic, which might diffuse the situation without making anyone defensive.
Bulk up your support system and coping strategies
Working through your own health and body struggles while “New Year, New You” season rages on can feel especially isolating, so don’t hesitate to call on whatever tools have been helpful for you in the past. That might include a therapist, a dietitian, or a supportive community.
If this is a new experience for you and you find that you’re struggling more with resolution-related pressures than you have before, it might be helpful to talk to a therapist about that. It’s worth noting that most of us have been struggling with immense uncertainty over the past two years, so the urge to take control in any area of our lives can be even more salient than usual. As a result, this kind of faux-empowerment, do-it-for-you, you-deserve-this messaging can be especially tempting and triggering for many of us right now.
“Some people — especially people with anxious tendencies or eating disorders — can get too focused on control. If you’re finding that balance tricky, that’s a great time to seek professional help,” says Stern.
Spend some time thinking about the values you actually care about
These “New Year, New You” messages are so ubiquitous that it can be hard to disentangle them from what you actually think about your body/your health/your state of being, and what — if anything — you’d want to work on this year.
“The ‘New Year, New You’ schtick is just a more amplified version of exactly the same messaging that diet companies and most wellness companies are giving us all year,” says Byrne, the anti-diet dietitian. “The way that they market it makes it seem like you’re the one who wants to do these things, but actually it’s them who’s putting it on you to feel like you need to do these things.”
When you’re surrounded by the message that everyone is buying a Peloton or doing a Whole30, it can be really easy to assume that you should be doing and caring about those things, too. But maybe you aren’t and you don’t. And that’s fine!
One way to counteract all the New Year’s resolution pressure is to tune into your more abstract values, says Stern. That might include things like spending time with family and friends, being in nature, or just generally feeling happy and healthy. This isn’t to say that all of your resolutions always need to be tied directly to your values, but they can provide a helpful compass when you’re faced with so many external messages about what you should be doing to “better yourself.”
Take a moment to uncouple those values from any appearance-related goals. Okay, this may take more than a moment, but the point is to recognize that while wellness companies often imply that you won’t really be living your best life until you look a certain way, that’s just … not true. “You can achieve happiness and health in any body, no matter how you eat, no matter how you look,” says Byrne.
Casey Gueren is an award-winning health journalist and author of the book It’s Probably Nothing: The Stress-Less Guide to Dealing with Health Anxiety, Wellness Fads, and Overhyped Headlines.