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2020 is finally over! We thought it would never happen. We don’t know if we’ve ever approached a new year with such relief and trepidation, but despite the excitement to put 2020 behind us, it doesn’t seem that our culture is quite done with toxic narratives about self improvement. Jameela Jamil, founder of the body-positivity movement i weigh on instagram, posted the following message on after Christmas:
“Do not fall for the ‘new year new you’ tactics of diet, detox and fasting companies. Stay vigilant. Block. Mute. Delete. Repeat.”
As someone living with an eating disorder, I mentally prepare myself every year for this onslaught of marketing and messaging dedicated to diet, weight loss, and lifestyle change. Any hopes I had that 2021 might yield different results were quickly crushed even before the year began as, like Jamil predicted, I had to block and report several companies on social media platforms for unhelpful messaging. But for a lot of people, when they see these messages they don’t necessarily see how inappropriate or unhealthy it is – instead they just feel bad about themselves. And no one should start the new year feeling bad about themselves!
If 2020 has taught us anything, it is that there is tremendous value in kindness, both towards others and towards yourself. Below I have gathered some of what I deem to be the most toxic new years narratives for a person’s mental health, and addressed why this is unhelpful for us! Let’s be kind to ourselves and our bodies in 2021.
“New year, new you!”
Let’s start with the big one. ‘New year, new you!’ is one of the most overused marketing slogans in January. It’s becoming such a catch phrase for anything from starting a new job to getting a haircut, that we sometimes forget it is a collection of words thought up to encourage us to spend our money.
This language is toxic because it presents a particular model of time that is inaccurate. It suggests to us that since the year has ended you are either entitled or obligated to “begin” a process (best sped up by the purchasing of certain items, of course). The truth is, of course, that the new year doesn’t bring any seismic change in our day to day existence – this year 2021 started in the middle of the week! It wasn’t even a new week yet! All this phrase does is put pressure on us to force ourselves to feel “new.”
But you don’t need to be new. You’re great just as you are. If you want to make changes in your life, you get to decide when it is appropriate to make them. It’s a complete fallacy that as soon as the clock strikes midnight a timer is set and now all your life changes must begin. You decide when you want to change your life. Not a marketing slogan.
“#stopfaddiets” messaging from diet companies.
One of the most toxic things to happen in the last ten years is that diet companies have realised they can rebrand themselves as “not that diet culture.” Pretty much as soon as Christmas day was over, my social media was full of new, “woke” diet companies who were presenting themselves as the solutions to a diet culture problem.
For a long time, diet advertising in the new year was built on a model of explicit guilt: “Get rid of those mince pies,” or “shed that Christmas weight.” Nowadays, it’s much more subtle. Diet companies brand themselves as entire lifestyle changes, promising to guide you through a revolutionary program of exercise and food that will completely reinvent you. They won’t just make you thin, they’ll make you happy!
Sounds great, doesn’t it? Sounds hopeful, sounds easy! That’s why it’s so toxic. The truth is that fad diets are only one part of the damage caused by diet culture. Diet culture, and these companies too, rely entirely on the cruel assumption that you are not good enough as you are. That there is something implicitly wrong with your lifestyle or body that you are helpless to correct, and therefore must pay for.
These companies pretend that they offer something different, a lifestyle change, some magical component that will fill 2021 with perfectly photographic meals and runs in the sunshine. But at the end of the day, they are the same as any other business. They are looking to make money, and they are making money by telling you your body is not good enough as it is.
But what if it is good enough? What if this is the year when we say no to diet companies and the fortune they make from manipulating people’s emotions around their bodies? What if in 2021 we are kind to the bodies we find ourselves in?
“Cleansing bad lockdown habits from 2020”
This was a slogan I saw in the past few weeks that, I’ll be honest, really got my hackles up. Let me explain why. At first glance, it doesn’t seem so bad, does it? We all know that we’ve picked up a few … unusual habits in lockdown living. I know that I have definitely spent more time in tracksuit trousers than I have at any other point in my life. I also have ordered more takeaway than I initially ever thought possible. We all have got into more odd habitual patterns during the pandemic than we may have anticipated.
The thing that I find toxic about this message is that it assumes “out of the ordinary” is automatically bad or shameful. For instance, yes, a year ago I may have scorned myself for wearing comfortable trousers around the clock, but now I wonder why I ever thought that type of shaming was appropriate. After all, when is it ever right to tell someone their choice of clothing somehow makes them morally bad?
You might be thinking: “but what about those habits I know aren’t good for me? What about the fact I started smoking again which I tried so hard to quit, or I’ve completely given up exercise even though I love it?” To that I say that I understand. We have all done things in lockdown which felt good but were perhaps not in our long term best interest. These might be things that you would like to avoid in the future. However, where I object, where I feel that this slogan is going, is the suggestion that you deserve to feel bad about yourself for doing those things.
We are living in a pandemic, something none of us have any experience of. What you did to get through long days in mentally exhausting times is not shameful. It is not “bad.” It is just what you did. You might have what you consider “bad” lockdown habits. You might want to change them in 2021. That is fine, and completely your choice. But you should not be shamed for them, and shame is no motivator for true change.
“How to lose weight and keep it off.”
An oldie but a goody, isn’t it? I swear I see it every year, everywhere, and every year I have to resist the urge to read or examine whatever article or ad it is because a little part of me still goes: “But maybe THIS one….”
This narrative isn’t just toxic, it’s downright untrue. I’m not suggesting that it is impossible to make lasting lifestyle changes, of course it is. If you take up marathon running one year, you are going to notice a change in every aspect of your life (not all of them implicitly joyous – take a second to google marathon runners chafing nipples). The lie is in the “keep it off,” part.
The toxicity behind this message runs deep into our perception of bodies. Somehow, over years of marketing and diet culture and terrible attitudes towards holistic body and mind health, as a society we have come to the ridiculous conclusion that the turmoils of life should have nothing to do with the size/shape of your body.
It’s strange, isn’t it? We seem to think that a person could go through mammoth upheaval, that they could be a nurse on the frontline of a global pandemic, watching their patients die and relatives having to say goodbye through a screen, but they absolutely must be able to maintain exactly the same body that they did at the start of it. We look at our bodies in the mirror, after twelve months of global, local and personal tragedy, and feel disappointed and ashamed that we are somehow not meeting a mythical standard of perfection. I wonder what we need to happen in our lives for us to realise that we experience tragedy as a whole being; body, mind and soul. Of course you’re the way you are right now. Look at what you’ve had to deal with. And what’s wrong with that?
The truth is that the weight never stays off, not forever, and why would it? Our lives are not in stasis, we are always growing, changing, learning – our bodies are doing that with us. We are not just brains in jars – when we mourn and struggle and change our bodies do the same along with us. We need to start normalising bodies that gain and lose weight according to the lives they live.
“Make yourself proud in 2021”
There is nothing inherently wrong with these words. They’re nice, friendly, encouraging words and there is nothing wrong with them. However, context is everything and when the context suggests that in order to be proud of yourself you need to meet some kind of consumer standard, or change something about yourself, that is when it becomes toxic, especially this year.
Starting a new year has been hard, following 2020. No one I know is heading into the new year totally pumped, mainly because we’ve headed straight into a national lockdown and the numbers of COVID cases filling hospitals is staggering. Many of us feel emotionally and physically drained, vulnerable, and perhaps even dissatisfied with how the year ended and how it is starting. Putting this narrative – “make yourself proud in 2021” – onto people right now in order to sell workout gear, diet plans or push gym memberships is manipulative.
There’s also an implicit put down inside these words that makes me sad. The put down is “Make yourself proud in 2021 because we all know you didn’t in 2020.” It makes me sad because the truth is that a lot of people had very hard 2020’s, where they had to make personal and professional decisions that they didn’t like or want. This slogan is offering for those feelings to go away, but it can’t provide that. Buying a new fitbit will not stop everything going on with the pandemic.
What might be kinder would be to ask: What did you do to make yourself proud in 2020? Because we all did things we should be proud of. We all managed a pandemic, we all looked after those we loved. We learned to work from home, we became home school teachers, expert sourdough bakers and zoom specialists. We did ourselves proud already. Let’s celebrate that.
“You don’t need replacing every year like another iphone. Don’t throw yourself away like another piece of plastic trash. Love the old you. Improve, evolve, do better but head towards yourself not away.” – Jameela Jamil.
It’s no surprise that so many of us feel the urge to try and change ourselves at this time of year. It’s all around us, in advertising, on television, in our friends’ social media feeds as they try new diets and new habits. It’s also inside all of us, as we struggle against the virus and its impact, and wish, so badly, that things could be different. However it will do us no good to push our frustrations with the way the world is onto ourselves, putting horrible pressure on our bodies and minds to provide the kind of satisfactory change that really will only happen when the pandemic is well and truly behind us. So often we think we have to change ourselves, but what we really want is control over an impossible situation.
Maya Angelou said “If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.” The pandemic is something that we cannot change, so we have to change our attitude around it. What if, instead of chasing change in 2021, desperately trying to meet unhealthy body standards and making ourselves feel bad for the year we have had, we chased self-acceptance? What if we reflected on what 2020 has taught us rather than ridiculing our past selves and used those lessons to guide our future? What if we tried to set goals that were flexible rather than restrictive, and forgiving rather than condemning?
I wonder what our year might be like if 2021 was the year where instead of saying “new year, new me!” we said, “New Year. Thank God I’m still me. Thank God I’m still here.”
About the Author: Emma Hinds
Emma is a writer living and working in Manchester. She is a mental health advocate and has been blogging about mental health for the last ten years. Emma has a history of eating disorders and is currently living with a diagnosis of OCD and chronic depression. She has been working specifically with young people struggling with their mental health for the last four years and is now supporting the Lily Jo Project’s On Track follow up schools programs. You can see Emma’s work and follow her mental health blog here. You can also follow her on socials here: twitter@EmmaLouisePH and instagram@elphreads.