May 25, 2024
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A number of years ago I entered the “Diet Coke” debate with some colleagues — should an eating disorder therapist drink diet soda? The argument of the anti-diet soda side was that diet drinks are established to support a disordered relationship with food. This relationship includes deprivation and limiting oneself and the idea that the only way to enjoy soda is to know that there would be no “guilt.” Those in favor had a simple argument: it tasted better to them. They said that they had been raised — for better or worse, worse meaning under the influence of a parent’s diet — only drinking diet soda and therefore grew accustomed to the taste and actually disliked a regular can of cola.

Let’s put aside what may be your response, dear reader, on the arguments of sugar, chemicals and brown soda in general. Instead, I’m going to ask you to focus on the question of how we can discern between what is disordered and what is not.

It is important to note that I’m not actually presenting this piece in the hope of convincing everyone to ditch the diet soda. While that would absolutely be a step toward an anti-diet world (quite literally), I know that this issue is layered for many. My actual hope is to help you reflect on decisions and how to assess for a disordered mindset.

If you enjoy the taste of diet soda, then great! Go with what you like. But how do we know when decisions could be negatively impacting our relationships with our bodies, body-esteem, self-image and mental health? A number of years ago I was asked my perspective on beauty routines such as threading/tweezing eyebrows, dyeing hair and makeup. The question was then followed by an immediate second question of, if people are being told that dieting and the pursuit of weight loss is bad, then shouldn’t all these cosmetic practices also be condemned as they promote a specific beauty standard?

The all-or-nothing answer is yes, these practices do promote a particular beauty standard that sends messages to individuals that promote shame. Individuals are essentially taught that if they do not try to erase aging or accentuate one’s eyelashes then the person will be less appealing, which can ultimately lead to lower confidence, obsessive behaviors and the reliance on image to define or accept oneself. And for some, there is an obsession with a particular body type which is diagnosed as body dysmorphic disorder.

But for most, there is an important distinction between these practices and the practice of pursuing change in one’s weight, shape or size by manipulating food and movement: time, level of obsession and functioning.

For so many people, the pursuit of changing one’s shape takes over many aspects of one’s life: social engagement and preparing for events by knowing how to eat/compensate; ruminating and time spent debating, calculating, considering; negative internal dialogue, including a harsh and judgmental narrative limiting one’s worth toward “results” of the disordered behavior. We eat every single day, many times per day. We make decisions about these meals and snacks and when one has an unhealthy relationship with food, these decisions and obsessive thoughts take up so much space and rob the individual of the freedom to simply live.

Decisions about makeup, Botox, hair coloring, etc., can absolutely take up time. And whenever I discuss this subject, nearly all people respond that the time is minimal; they are able to move on fairly quickly and it does not usually threaten their ability to engage in actively living. And yes, there may be extremes in all cases, but when we look at the majority we will find that most people are not preoccupied the same way because of how often we eat, talk about food, judge food and bodies in a level that is much more extreme.

Do I wish we could all recognize the way we try to protect “youthhood” by erasing lines and gray hairs? Yes. Do I wish that as a world we could celebrate aging, honor and respect all body times, and move away from judgments based on appearance? Resounding absolutely!

And I also know that we have a lot of work to do. So let’s start by reflecting on being honest about whether our decisions are disordered or about preference. And then consider how much time you are spending surrounding an appearance-based behavior and consider if you see the connection between how you might view your self-worth and this behavior. I’m not asking you to even change it just yet — start by understanding and being honest with yourself. Then, if there is space, think about how else you might feel worthy or what else you could be using this time for that might support or enhance a value of yours.

I’m not saying it’s easy and I understand the nuance; there are many unknowns I still sit with on the subject of this article. And, I believe that we can all move away — even a tiny step — from the negative patterns we set. So drink diet soda if you like it or maybe you just feel it’s harmless — okay! But take a moment to recognize that you are so much more than any food behavior or mascara and there is so much opportunity for growth and freedom.


Temimah Zucker, LCSW, works in New York and New Jersey with individuals ages 18 and older who are struggling with mental health concerns, and specializes in working with those looking to heal their relationships between their bodies and souls. Zucker is an advocate and public speaker concerning eating disorder awareness and a metro New York consultant at Monte Nido. Zucker is honored to now serve on the board of Atzmi. To learn more or to reach her, visit www.temimah.com.

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