As you know, I’m passionate about helping women have a healthy relationship with their body. Through the work I do as a coach, I have the distinct opportunity to encourage women to stop, reflect and consider whether their priorities, values and beliefs around their body and “health” are truly theirs – or simply a reflection of the cultural soup we’re all swimming in (aka the cultural norms of Diet Culture).
I’ve had a few experiences lately that really got me thinking: where else is the culture I’m immersed in impacting my beliefs, values and priorities? What “normal” am I normalizing? What norms are we normalizing as a cultural collective? And are these norms to our betterment or to our detriment?
In this blog I’m sharing six distinct scenarios where I’ve witnessed a cultural priority, value or belief that was normalized. Each one of these have caused me pause, and offered me an opportunity to reflect on my priorities, values and beliefs (either in real time or in retrospect).
They encouraged me to ask myself: does this align? Does this feel right/ just/ fair? And if not, what action can I take to create better alignment/ equality/ justice?
I’m writing this blog with the intent of offering insight and perhaps sparking some curiousity for you around what might be influencing your own priorities, values and beliefs. To shine a light on just how insidious cultural norms can be.
I truly believe that if we as individuals begin to bring our awareness to, and question, the norms we’ve normalized, we can begin to develop truly authentic priorities, values and beliefs.
And further, rather than blindly allowing cultural norms to influence us, we can recognize that we’re influenced by the “cultural soup we’re swimming in” and begin to actively seek out the influences that will help us develop the priorities, values and beliefs we aspire to.
I also want to spark conversation. Because if we wish to affect change and alter the “cultural soup” we need to get comfortable with uncomfortable and have tough conversations. I hope you’ll join me.
The power of normalizing
I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing the positive power of normalizing many times in my life. To witness how the people, places and things I surround myself with have tremendous impact on my own priorities, beliefs and values. The following two stories speak to this positive power.
When I was 21 I completed Ironman (an ultra-distance triathlon where participants swim 3.8k, cycle 180k, and run 42.2k). One of the outcomes of devoting yourself to a sport like Ironman is that it pretty much devours time available for a social life. Which means that the majority of my friends were also training – either for Ironman, triathlon or running. This meant I was surrounded by a group of people that thought training for ultra-distance events was “normal.” As a result, I didn’t view it as an “impossible pursuit,” but a completely possible and tangible goal. I mean, objectively I could see it was a bit “out there,” but I viewed it as achievable, reasonable and normal to pursue wild dreams.
This normalization of ultra-distance absolutely shaped my priorities, values and beliefs.
Because nobody around me questioned the practices required in the pursuit of this goal, it became commonplace to rise at 5am to hit the pool before my university classes – I prioritized making it happen. It was not strange for me to spend the entire weekend riding my bike, running, eating and studying – I valued my time spent on these pursuits and didn’t mind “giving up” time doing the things most of my peers were doing (heading to parties and socializing). And as a I trained to the distances I began to see my own capability – I genuinely challenged and changed my beliefs about my body and its strength, endurance and fitness.
This early immersion in athletics completely shifted the way I viewed myself too. I believed myself to be someone who could do hard things. Someone who would persevere when things got tough. My priorities and values informed my actions and my actions informed my beliefs about who I was: a person who was dedicated and committed. These beliefs about myself have without a doubt transformed my entire life. All because I surrounded myself with people who normalized doing something a bit “out of the norm.”
Late this fall I began “wild swimming,” the colloquial name for swimming in the open water – year round. Most days I head to the beach and go for a dip in the ocean – rain, shine or snow! One might think, how on earth is this related Gillian? But it absolutely is, walk with me.
Up until this fall, going for a winter dip in the ocean has been reserved for January 1st. A ceremonial dipping to wash away the year and start the new year “fresh and clean.” It’s a fun ritual, but why on earth would I do this daily?
The first time I went was a random Monday in November. My friend Dee had been going quite religiously with her friend Leah. Leah had been inspired to go from a documentary she’d watched. On the day I joined them there were 4 dippers total.
Five of us total thought it was totally normal to dip in the ocean on a random Monday in November?!
Ok. Must be a thing.
The more I went, the more I discovered other people also engaging in the practice. Sure, there were the folks who gasped and thought I was nuts, but there were equal numbers (if not more) asking to join me. Or folks telling me I inspired them and because of my posts about it they too were going with their friends.
My point is this: wandering into the ocean in the middle of winter is a bit…strange. Until it isn’t – until it’s normalized. Then it becomes no big deal!
PS. For more on the practice including tips and the various health benefits read this blog.
What happens when what we’ve normalized isn’t to our betterment…but to our detriment?
The next two scenarios look at how I’ve noticed normalizing can impact us, but perhaps not to our benefit.
Before you hang me and lynch me on the benefits of Botox or how I shouldn’t judge others choices – please hear this. I firmly believe that it’s your body is your business… this is not a judgement. Hear me out on the core message on this one.
Several months ago (when we could still gather in groups) I bumped into someone I hadn’t seen in a while at a party. Something was different but I couldn’t identify just what. And then it hit me. Her forehead wasn’t moving. She had not a single expression line. It was clear to me that she’d had some botox.
I’m going to repeat: this is NOT a judgement, but an observation.
I then looked around to the women at the party whom I knew were her friends. It appeared as though most of them also had either naturally taut foreheads or also had some botox.
Note: I completely understand that botox injections are used for a number of medical reasons in addition to aesthetic ones. Again, this isn’t a judgement but an observation.
Here’s my point: within a day or so I found myself examining my own forehead. And looking at the foreheads of other friends and people I saw (in life or on social media). All this observation left me asking, was I the only one left with a wrinkly forehead? Also, when did my forehead get so wrinkly?!
Seemingly without warning my awareness was brought to this difference in my body in comparison to others. And I didn’t like how it was making me feel! Add that to the cultural norms that say we must defy aging. Plus the filters and photoshop that abolish or mask wrinkles from the majority of images we’re bombarded by, and it’s no wonder that this experience left me wondering….should I do something about my wrinkles?
If you’re the lone wrinkly one in a group of smooth skinned friends, where does that lead you?
Even if you’re the least egotistical person out there it’s likely you’ll begin to feel like there’s something wrong with you. By merit of simply spending a lot of your time looking at smooth skin, when you look at your own reflection it’s likely you’ll see the difference. And if you live in an age-fearing culture (as we do), it’s likely you’ll jump to how those wrinkles distract from your beauty and youthfulness. See it enough, normalize it enough and it’s likely to impact your belief about what your skin should look like. Enough that you too might want to do something about it.
In the end I landed back on my own personal belief that anti-aging culture is BS and not something I’m into (again, for me – no judgement on others! Your body, your business). But the whole experience reinforced just how insidious the anti-aging cultural norms are and how quickly and easily our beliefs can be influenced by what is normalized in our surroundings.
In the digital age we are living in, our phones have seemingly become an extension of our bodies. It’s unusual to not have our phone on our person at all times. As such, it’s become a business cultural norm to be responsive, and in many cases reactive to every single bing, beep and ring.
I’m super guilty of this. So much so that some clients have assumed I have an assistant who comments/ responds for me. I’m that responsive.
Truth bomb: there’s no assistant. Just me. Obsessively checking my phone.
I recently began to see how this obsessive connection wasn’t serving me. My kids would call me on it – “you’re always on your phone.” Or “are you actually going to watch the movie?” OR “you’re not listening to me.” OUCH. Kids have a wonderful way of saying it like it is.
The phone was stealing my presence, away from them, away from my life, away from me.
Yes it’s my work, yes I do need to do some of it. But not to the cost of my personal life/ family relationships/ well-being.
But because I’d normalized my lightening fast response times the transition took time (and is still in process). I’d normalized being uber responsive – and I needed to re-establish boundaries and build NEW norms for me and my clients. It’s a practice – one I’m in, but the recognition that I’d normalized something that didn’t align with my priorities, values and beliefs was the turning point.
What happens when we culturally normalize shame and discrimination?
As a coach I have the distinct opportunity to hear people’s stories. Sometimes these stories are heart-warming: growth, achievement and victory. Sometimes these stories are heart-breaking: bias, stigma and discrimination.
The next two stories speak to what happens when we normalize shame and discrimination.
I’m sharing them because it shines a light on the incredible cost of of cultural norms that reinforce stigma. And to help us all see how insidious bias and discrimination is within our cultural norms.
These stories make be triggering for some readers (body shaming and transgender discrimination). Please honour your safety if reading these isn’t going to be helpful. Skip to the final section of the blog on “boiling the frog” and questions to consider.
The women in each of these stories have given me the permission to share. I’m truly humbled and grateful for their trust in me to share their lived experience with reverence and respect.
My client has been in a bigger body her whole life. She has also been bullied and mis-treated her whole life because of her body. She has faced bias and stigma daily – so much so she limits her interaction with people she doesn’t know and trust. As a woman living in a bigger body she has faced the wrath of Diet Culture. A culture that perpetuates the misbelief that her bigger body is not only not the ideal, but is unhealthy, bad and wrong.
She’s spent the majority of her life trying to change her body.
She’s dieted for as long as she can remember and been on program after program. Sometimes she’d have “success” but it was generally short lived. The weight would pile back on, and more. As would the guilt and shame of “failing.” She became victim to Diet Culture and it’s false promises, and harmful tactics and strategies.
After years of following these cycles and feeling shitty about her body, and herself, she’s finally in a place where she’s making peace with her body. She’s finding health on her terms and discovering a kinder, more self-compassionate approach to her pursuit of health. And I can see the metaphorical weight of stigma, bias and shame beginning to lift. But it’s all really new. Which is why this story angers me so deeply.
On New Years eve she was walking into the grocery store when a complete stranger stopped her in the parking lot.
“Maybe the people in your life are too afraid to tell you how gross you look, but I am not. You look terrible. You really need to do something about yourself. It’s disgusting!”
My client was stunned. But after years of being accosted in this way she felt the weight of exhaustion come over her, and simply replied “thank you,” and walked into the store.
Heart-broken, confused and hurt, when she got home she could feel herself spiral into diet mentality – maybe if she could just….
Thankfully she reached out and booked a call with me instead.
We live in a culture where the fear, hatred and disgust for bigger bodies has been normalized.
We also live in a digital culture where it’s become “socially appropriate” to accost someone. To speak our minds – even if we haven’t been asked or invited to do so.
I can make all sorts of assumptions about this woman, and gosh I really want to hate her. But that’s not what I’m here to do. Because this isn’t about one woman – it’s about the cultural norm her words and actions represent. Diet Culture has normalized the demonization of body – specifically bigger bodies. And this woman, much like the rest of us is just swimming in the sea of diet culture. And that means she likely genuinely felt as though what she was offering was “helpful.”
But it’s neither helpful nor acceptable. Normalizing body bias hurts everyone. It takes the focus off what truly matters – health of body, mind and spirit.
While mis-informed, this woman thought that she was doing my client “a favour.” To offer her “insight” that might spur my client into action towards “better health.” But in the process, harmed my clients mental health in an impactful and dis-empowering way.
Diet Culture is the enemy here.
Diet Culture normalizes shame, bias and stigma – making it “ok” to speak without consideration for someone’s lived experience. It is Diet Culture that assumes a bigger body is an unhealthy body. It is Diet Culture that assumes we as humans have a moral imperative to “be healthy” and conform to the cultural standards of what that “looks like.”
Ironically while much of the marketing in and around Diet Culture implies that it’s for the betterment of “our health” it is ultimately deeply damaging to our health and wellbeing.
Ironically the allostatic load (stress on the body) that people in bigger bodies experience is in many cases more damaging than the extra body weight they carry. Read that again.
As a collective we have a lot of work to do when it comes to undoing the damage Diet Culture has, and continues to inflict upon us. But we can’t do the work when we don’t see the problem. So it begins with awareness and education. Which is why we need to hear these stories. We need to understand that this toxic body shame and bias is impacting real people – in a very real way.
This one is even tougher to write. Because as I write this I’m still completely shocked that this happened in the world we live in.
One of my StudioCrew members recently reached out to our group for some support. She was grappling with how to make sense of what had happened to her friend. And frankly just needed some love and kindness to balance the atrocity she had witnessed.
Her friend had registered for a “body positive online health and fitness program” for women. Mere days into the program, her friend called her in tears. Without conversation or notice, her friend was kicked out of the online group and her registration cancelled.
The only response she got was “it’s a program for females only.”
Her friend is transgender and identifies as a woman.
When she pursued it further, the organization didn’t apologize, but instead made excuses as to why this was an acceptable course of action.
But it’s not acceptable. Not even remotely.
It’s discrimination and a human rights violation. And frankly, it’s simply unkind.
There was no empathy, nor an attempt at understanding. There was no desire on the part of the company to consider this woman’s lived experience. No consideration to how she has every right to be a part of this community as someone who identifies as a woman.
Furthermore to claim to be “body positive” and then blatantly disregard and stigmatize her body?
There are so many layers of cultural norms here – and none of them are ok.
There is the cultural norm of what “body positive” has come to mean (namely white, cis-gendered, women embracing their curves). Which is a far cry from its origins as a social justice movement. A movement with the intention of fostering acceptance and respect for all bodies regardless of their race, gender, ability, sexual orientation, or size.
Then there is the cultural norm of discrimination towards those in bodies we may not understand.
And the cultural norm of our collective definition of “woman.”
I wish I could report back that this company took the opportunity to learn and evolve, but they didn’t. They stood in their claim that she was not physiologically female, and thus could not participate.
My hope in sharing this story, is that someone out there might pause and think about what beliefs and values they have about bodies they don’t understand – and take strides to better understand. So they don’t normalize discrimination any longer, but instead normalize curiousity, empathy, understanding and acceptance.
This blog was a lot.
It was a lot to think about. It was a lot to write. And a l suspect it might have been a lot to read. Thank you for sticking with it.
And I know that last bit was pretty real and pretty heavy. But here’s what I know. If we want to affect change in our world we need to have the pretty real, pretty heavy conversations.
Because that’s something else we can normalize. Having tough conversations and going there, when the world tells us (especially women) to stick to the positive (sometimes quite literally in my case).
LEGIT: I’ve actually been told to “stick to the inspiration and health stuff.” Oy.
But that’s just another example of what has previously been normalized. Historically I have stuck to the “inspiration and health stuff.” But as I’ve learned more, as I’ve explored the inequities and intolerance that exists “in health” and beyond, I’ve been called to do more. I’ve begun to speak up when I see injustice. I use my voice of privilege and power to amplify the voices of those who have been marginalized and pulled down by the cultural norms. To do what I can to make a difference. Because I’m not interested in being a performative ally – I’m interested in being a legit ally.
And I hope, especially these last two stories have you really consider what cultural norms you’ve accepted. To get really curious about whether these norms are creating inequities, intolerance and injustice. And then do something about it. Because when more of us stand up, more will stand up.
As a collective, here are some cultural norms I believe we need to normalize instead of body bias, discrimination, stigma and shame:
- understanding, empathy and tolerance
- respect for lived experience
- body diversity
- health at every size
- body respect
- body kindness
- compassion – for self and others.
I am hopeful and confident that with time we will shift the cultural norms to reflect a society that is more equitable, empathetic, kind and just. I imagine a world where everyone is accepted for who they are as they are – no changes required. Free from bias, stigma and discrimination. It might seem like a lofty vision – but massive change starts with small steps but a lot of people working together to affect the change they wish to see in the world.
The boiling frog, a cautionary (and also inspiring) tale.
Have you ever heard of the boiling frog metaphor? My friend told it to me years ago as a cautionary tale when I was embarking upon a new (and potentially stressful/ all-consuming) job.
It goes like this: if you place a frog in boiling water it will immediately jump out and avert danger. If you place the frog in tepid water and gradually increase the temperature until it is boiling the frog will not notice the changes and die.
Apparently scientists have disproven this little metaphor, but it makes the point all the same. We often don’t notice gradual changes. Which means that over time it’s plausible that we’ll accept the changes without much thought or consideration. Conversely, when changes are dramatic or quick this generally alerts us and gives us the opportunity to stop and question whether the change is in alignment with our individual priorities, beliefs and values.
The majority of cultural norms develop slowly, over time. This can work to the collective betterment or to our detriment.
Which way it goes – I genuinely think we get to decide. If we stay mindful of our priorities, beliefs and values and make sure our language and actions are reflective of those priorities, beliefs and values.
Don’t be a frog in tepid water. Pause regularly and take a temperature check on your what you’re normalizing. Are you living in line with your priorities, beliefs and values? Or has the temperature slowly been rising? If it has, grab an ice cube of awareness and cool that pot down!
Questions to consider:
- What are your priorities, beliefs and values? You may find it helpful to look at each within the structure of what I call the 5 pillars of your life: family, community, health, work, personal development.
- Are you clear on them? If not, how can you increase your clarity and bring them into practice?
- How do your language and actions reflect your priorities, beliefs and values?
- What priorities, beliefs and values do you wish to develop?
- How can you surround yourself with people who also have those priorities, beliefs and values?
- What are the people in your life normalizing? What priorities, beliefs and values do they have? Does this align with your priorities, beliefs and values?
- What do you notice when you scroll your social media feed? Scroll with curiousity, and ask yourself, which priorities, beliefs and values are normalized? Does that feel good?
- Where do you see cultural norms that aggravate you? What makes you pissed off? What can you do about it?
- If you see bias, stigma or injustice, can you put yourself in the other person’s shoes? What would it be like to live in their body?
- How can you be a true ally (action taker, amplifier, active supporter) rather than a performative ally (says the “right things” but doesn’t follow through in actions)?
Be the change
If you find yourself feeling disheartened by this blog, disappointed by the potential impact of cultural norms on your life individually and collectively, don’t. Because the influence can go both ways.
We can be influenced, but we can also influence. By being clear on our priorities, values and beliefs and living in alignment with them, we can become a leader and affect change through our influence. This is the power of normalizing – for good.
Ghandi famously said “be the change you wish to see in the world.” With small acts of courage, vulnerability and through dialogue I truly think we can affect change and make a real and lasting difference.
I don’t claim to have the answers. Far from it. I’m in it with you. Learning, growing and evolving. I’m actively doing my best to be an ally. To learn about bias, stigma and injustice. Then do my part to inform and educate others with grace, kindness and understanding. Because we all do the best we can with the information we have available to us.
Righting the wrongs of social injustice and racism isn’t going to happen over night. It’s going to take generations. But it won’t happen at all if we don’t set the intention, increase our awareness, and take action.
Onward. Human. Kind. (be both)