“We are hard-wired to connect with others, it’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives, and without it, there is suffering.” ~Brené Brown
I was inducted into diet culture in my early teens and then into the health and fitness industry in my early thirties, when my “fitness journey” had finally really taken off, and I ultimately became a personal trainer and nutrition and wellness coach.
Once we’ve given enough years of our life to diet culture, many of us begin to recognize the ways that it’s harming us and all the things it’s stealing from us.
Peace of mind. Self-worth and self-trust. Mental, emotional, and physical health and well-being.
The ability to just eat and enjoy food without fear.
But we don’t notice all the ways “health and fitness” are promoted in our culture and how they do the same thing. And there are so many other things it steals from us that we often don’t think about or notice.
One of the biggest examples of this for me, and the women I work with, was connection.
Connection with myself and connection with others.
I didn’t start losing my ability to connect because of my induction into diet culture. That started earlier as a result of growing up with an abusive, alcoholic father.
But those industries preyed on it, fueled it, flamed it, and then ran away with it for decades.
Feeling connected is a core human need. According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, love and belonging are right up there after things like food, water, and safety.
We are hardwired to connect.
Recent research has suggested that the brain processes the pain of feeling disconnected or rejected the same way it processes physical pain. Nearly every aspect of our health and well-being relies on connection.
And while it may seem like we’re constantly connected, especially now through things like social media or video calls, it’s not actually the case.
Loneliness has been on the rise, worldwide.
Chatting about what food we should or shouldn’t eat; commiserating over how much we hate our bodies, how much weight we gained, the latest diet attempt we just failed; bragging about how we did in the gym, how much weight we lost, how many steps we took, or how “clean” we’re eating—this isn’t connection. It’s not connecting with others, and it’s definitely not connecting with ourselves.
In fact, those things keep us from being able to connect with ourselves because we’re so focused on controlling external “shoulds.”
We may form friendships around those things, but they aren’t based on genuine connections.
Curating the picture-perfect Instagram feed, gathering around mutually hated or demonized “others,” and sharing memes or videos of the latest TikTok trend are also not the same as real, genuine human connections.
It’s all just filling space with mindless, external distractions.
It’s not truly allowing ourselves to be raw, real, and vulnerable. To be seen, heard, and valued for who we uniquely are as individuals—not just the perfectly curated image we present to the world but the messy, raw, and real parts we try so hard to hide.
The parts we fear make us most undeserving of love and belonging.
I certainly hid behind many of those things. I used them as a cover, as a tool to hide behind. A mask. A role I played, behind which I could feel (somewhat) safely tucked away and protected.
My “passion for health and fitness” allowed me to play the badass.
(In reality, I was scared all the time.)
It allowed me to play the inspirational “success” story.
(In reality, I was terrified of putting an ounce of weight back on because I desperately craved the praise and validation I was receiving. And it was destroying my mental, emotional, and physical health and well-being).
The strong, fearless, confident “fitness freak” that could do anything she put her mind to.
(Which, in reality, hid the fact that I was so scared and emotionally fragile and felt so broken that I needed the physical strength I could build through exercise just to get through the day.)
I was good at these roles. I loved these roles, at least in the early years.
Just be what people expected. Be what I’d seen get celebrated in others. Easy, right? Sure, until it isn’t.
The longer I wore the mask, the more it started to hurt.
The harder I worked to keep up those appearances, to maintain that external image of perfection through my body and what I was eating, the more damage it was doing.
Externally, I was doing everything “right.”
In reality? I ended up a binge eater, bulimic, clinically depressed, and living with generalized anxiety disorder and panic attacks. For many reasons, not the least of which because I was completely disconnected—from myself, my body, and from others.
I was so focused on trying to be something I thought I was supposed to be, so I’d be liked, admired, impressive, that I lost who I was and what I needed.
I lost what truly mattered to me and in life.
I lost the ability to trust myself, to trust others, to let them in and truly see me.
In fact, I was terrified of being really seen.
Because I didn’t like myself and I didn’t believe anyone else would either if they knew the real me.
So I hid behind what my body looked like. My external strength. The image I built.
Holy cow, it got exhausting. And soul-crushing.
You simply cannot simultaneously spend your life worried about what other people think about you (or your body), trying to micro-manage and control the image you project, and also be truly connected to yourself and others in any meaningful way.
Because in order to keep up those appearances, you have to actively work to hide parts of yourself—large parts of yourself that you’re terrified will be seen if you dare take off the mask.
If you’re actively hiding parts of yourself, you’re not able to truly feel seen, heard, and valued… because you are hidden away. Locked in some dark, dusty corner of your inner world, and in my case, stuffed down with food.
After a while, I didn’t even remember who Iwas. My identity became so wrapped up in who I thought I was (a worthless failure who was completely undeserving of love or acceptance) and who I was trying to be (the perfect, badass inspiration) to hide it, that Iwas lost.
And completely disconnected. From myself and others.
What I wanted or needed didn’t matter because my entire existence was being driven by fear and the disconnection that causes.
Fear of rejection and abandonment if I stopped playing the role.
Fear of weight gain and not looking “good enough.” Fear of not being good enough. Fear of what the binge eating was doing to my health. Fear of what would happen if I stopped micro-managing every morsel of food I ate and just trusted myself with food.
And every time I turned around, there were diet, “health and wellness” cultures swooping in and stoking those fears.
Eventually, I recognized that I couldn’t keep it up. I couldn’t keep playing the role. I was too tired, and it had completely broken me. I couldn’t keep caring about trying to be impressive or accepted. I had to start caring about being healthy and at peace with myself.
In order to do that, I needed to find my way back to myself. I needed to shut out the garbage that was keeping me disconnected and learn how to connect.
First with myself, because how could I ever truly connect with others if I didn’t even know who I was when I wasn’t playing the role?
And how could I heal all that weight and food stuff if I stayed in the fear and obsession that kept me so disconnected from myself?
So I started working on being present with myself, not an easy feat when you don’t much like yourself. But required, nonetheless.
I started getting curious and practiced connecting with my body, my thoughts, my emotions, my needs… my inner world.
Who was I, really?
What really mattered to me in life?
Forget what I thought I should eat or do… what did I need?
Was I really put here to spend my life hating myself, obsessing over these things that are destroying me, distrusting myself, and fearing real, meaningful connection with others?
What if I could find a way to unconditionally accept myself and my body? How would that change the way I treated it and showed up in the world?
What did I want to eat? Forget what I was “supposed to” eat; what did I want? How were the foods I was eating making me feel? How did I want to feel in my body?
Forget what it was supposed to look like or weigh; how did I want it to feel to live in? How were my thoughts and conditioned patterns with food and exercise impacting that? Were they helping or harming? How could I learn to change them if they weren’t?
And I started practicing being more intentional with my thoughts, beliefs, and actions. Intentionally making choices that were loving and kind, that helped me feel better, in general and about myself. Anything that wasn’t helping me live or feel better, and more connected with myself, could have no place in my world anymore.
Once I started feeling deeply connected with myself and my body, I slowly started working on learning to connect with others.
That’s still something I find difficult and am learning to do, but I’m still practicing. In baby steps.
Because what I learned when I started reconnecting with myself was how much living with an alcoholic father impacted me as an adult.
It taught me that not only is the world scary, but people are. They’re scary and unpredictable. It also created abandonment issues, and it’s where the fear of not being good enough, and the feeling that I needed to play a role to be loved or accepted, had actually begun. No wonder I had so much trouble connecting.
I share this story because I’ve come to realize that most of us have an underlying fear around not being good enough that started in childhood for one reason or another. And those predatory industries sneak into every corner of our world, capitalizing on our fear with broken promises that do nothing but make things worse.
The weight and food obsessions are a diversion.
A socially acceptable, surface-level distraction that keeps us so externally focused and consumed that we spend most of our adult lives not even knowing that we’re disconnected—or that we’re living in fear and we’re just trying to “fix it” by making ourselves feel more socially acceptable.
All while disconnecting us more and more. From ourselves and others.
Because we’re hiding behind diversions and masks.
Well, my mask is finally off.
Under it, I have belly rolls. I have wrinkles. I have gray hair. I dye it because I prefer dark hair, but sometimes I put it off and rock a solid skunk stripe of gray down the middle of my head.
Like all bodies, mine changes.
None of that means I let myself go. It means I let myself just be.
I’ve overcome a lot of things in my life, but still struggle with some others.
I screw up a lot, even fail sometimes. Often, actually.
I’m exceptionally good at some things and full-on suck at even more.
I can’t do everything myself. Sometimes I need help and support. I’m still not very good at asking for it, but I’m working on it.
All of that simply means that like you, I’m human. And I cannot connect with myself or anyone else if I’m trying so hard to be impressive that I’m not being real.