By Mia Hirsch
Before a night out, it was commonplace for my group text with my best friends to become flooded with restaurant suggestions. Over the years, we experimented with various types of food, indulging in everything from nice steak houses to trendy hole-in-the-walls to grab-and-go take out. As freshmen in high school, we were not too concerned with health, so a routine visit to California Pizza Kitchen (CPK) usually involved big bowls of buttered pasta (kid’s menu for life) or a personal pizza. However, as time went on and the clean eating and fitness trend gained traction, our previously lighthearted and fun dinners grew exceedingly tense.
The health craze created a divide among my friends. Our jovial neighborhood CPK became a battleground in which calorie counts were king. At home, my mother had begun working out with a personal trainer, and soon after, she abruptly switched to a paleo diet per his instruction. As the only cook in our family, she transitioned our entire household to adopt this low-carb, high-protein meal plan, leading to the swift removal of all processed foods and grains from our pantry, refrigerator and even our bedrooms. In a very short span of time, health and fitness changed from an afterthought to the paramount focus of my everyday life.
For me, going paleo and joining millions in pursuit of a healthier lifestyle made a positive impact on my mind and body. However, it was not easy to express this feeling to my friends that struggled to understand my desire to live healthier. They picked up on even the tiniest alterations in my eating habits with their hawk-like hyper-awareness. When waiters came to take our order, a perceptible aura of tension fell over the group; no one wanted to order first for fear of over-ordering. Everyone was curious what substitutions I might make to lighten the calorie load.
Additionally, as my eating habits changed, I felt a drive to experiment with personal fitness. After trying various workouts, I developed a love of pilates and cycling. However, my commitment to attending these classes received even more criticism than my clean eating. Though many girls at school visited the same studios, my daily attendance marked me as “obsessed” with working out while they were just “staying fit.” Tired of all the admonishments, I made an effort to attend workouts at off times to avoid running into anyone I knew. I became friends with many of my pilates instructors that assumed I was in college because I never came to the studio with the high school girls.
After a while, I began to wonder why my methods of self-care made me a target for criticism. People associated my daily workouts and consistent clean eating with obsession and disorder, expressing worried concern for my wellbeing. I was confused. How was my interpretation of health somehow condemned and theirs was accepted? Many times at our tense friend-dinners I ate more than others that picked at pasta while I finished a protein-filled salad. Oftentimes after working out I consumed large meals or smoothies while my friends sipped on water.
I responded defensively to the probing questions of my peers, which often felt more judgemental than concerned. However, I soon realized that the problem was not in their derision itself, but in the cause of it: a deeply ingrained, flawed association with health.
Society teaches us to associate health with a desire for change. Eating clean or portioning food indicates that you must be trying to lose weight. Doing cardio or lifting weights means you probably want to appear leaner, thinner, stronger or more toned. There is no denying the validity of these common assumptions about healthy habits: health can lead to physical change and many people that take up a new workout or diet seek purely visual benefits. However, this is not the only reason to be healthy and many people tend to either miss or discount the other equally significant reasons.
Studies have shown that exercise provides substantial mental health benefits, even suggesting that exercise can treat mild to moderate depression in the same manner as an antidepressant. Additionally, working out can be a great way to relieve anxiety by soothing your muscles and boost your mood by releasing endorphins. Nutritionally, researchers have found that a deficiency in Vitamin B can cause depression and a lack of omega-3 fatty acids can limit cognitive function.
For me, I truly enjoy being healthy because of the way it makes me feel. I notice a significant difference in my energy levels after a day of clean eating versus a day of carbo-loading and bingeing on sweets. I have my cheat days every once in awhile, and that temporary happiness of eating cake, cookies, or ice cream reminds me of the long term joy I feel when I eat healthy. Additionally, after a grueling SoulCycle class, I feel truly accomplished and elated. The mental health benefits of group exercise constantly assure me that the $30 I spend on a workout is money well spent.
In the end, it is important to remember that true friends want to see each other happy. Still, when struggling with body image as many of us do, it can be difficult to distinguish a healthy lifestyle for the sake of joy from one for the sake of image. I know that many girls feel competitive when it comes to nutrition and exercise, but if we focused more on the mental benefits rather than the physical, I do not think that this competition would have as strong of a presence in our everyday lives. For me, the most important thing is to understand that everyone has a different reason for living healthfully, and instead of assuming the worst or criticizing, we should instead seek happiness for ourselves and others.