Dieting: A New Rite of Passage

Ed Feature

On September 6 & 7, Dr. Elizabeth Saviteer will be teaching a weekend workshop on an immensely important topic: disordered eating and the tools and techniques helping professionals can use to successfully lead the difficult conversations around this issue.

We are honored to welcome her as a guest instructor, and we would love to see a large and diverse group of coaches, consultants, and educators addressing holistic health and wellbeing from a wide range of perspectives in this workshop.

Reserve your spot, and please let your colleagues know about this training opportunity, too! For a first insight into the topic, Dr. Saviteer has contributed this thought-provoking guest post.

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A changing body, and rites of passage.


About a month ago I was sitting across from a teen client discussing the origins of her eating disorder and the contributing factors. One of the factors she identified, which I’ve heard over and over in women of all ages, was her transition into puberty- her changing body, and her resultant dissatisfaction with her appearance. I began to think of dieting, and our incessant desire for thinness as our new rite of passage into womanhood.

I first became interested in the concept of rites of passage as I was planning my wedding and learning about where certain traditions came from and what they meant to my partner and me. Puberty and the rite of passage into adulthood also has many examples of ritual and celebration. Some are painful, many are simply ceremonial, all acknowledge the difficult and import passage from childhood to adulthood and are meant to welcome the newest member of the community.

In future conversations with my client, we talked about her deeper desire for belonging and acceptance. When she identified this need, I was immediately transported to my early teen self, feeling awkward, shy, and deeply afraid of being left-out. Those insecurities subsided with adulthood, as I found people I could connect with, but our need for belonging and connection persists at the heart of almost everything we do.

Too fast, too slow, never right.

Take a moment to remember when you started going through puberty. Maybe you were lucky enough to have a family or community that celebrated your transition. Maybe, like most of us, the changes were uncomfortable and even shameful. I remember when I was 12 and it seemed that overnight I grew a woman’s hips. I remember one morning looking at my hips and thighs and seeing dark purple lines slashed across my skin. I freaked out. I ran to my mom and asked what they were. My very loving, well-meaning mother looking deeply concerned, told me they were stretch marks and promptly took me to the doctor, who told me I should have my thyroid checked! I laugh now at how a normal and common physical change prompted such concern for my health and safety. The message? These changes in my body were something to be feared and, if at all possible, controlled.

My story is not unusual. Rarely a girl escapes unscathed the horror of puberty. Maybe she develops “too fast” learning to hide her breasts or starve her curves; maybe “too slow,” feeling on the outside of the changes occurring among her friends and never fully feeling like a woman.

United in pain.

It comes as no surprise, in our current culture of fat-phobia, that dieting would fill the void of ritual, uniting us through pain so that we may join the community of adult women who hate their bodies. After all, what can a group of awkward, self-conscious girls talk about and bond over? Not their fears of connection and acceptance, but which part of their body they hate the most, or how they are going to get in shape together this summer.

Just as planning a wedding highlighted for me how the change from singlehood to marriage has been minimized and commercialized, so has working with clients with eating disorders highlighted how our bodies and their transformation have become objectified and commercialized. Our current body ideal is lean, angular and hard. Taken to its extreme it robs us of our basic biological function of menstruation and child bearing. Unfortunately, there are many industries that perpetuate and benefit from our self-loathing: diet foods, diet plans, gyms, cosmetics, and surgeries to name a few, all profit when we don’t accept how we look.

Right now, we are in the midst of a “war on obesity.” We are re-defining our food culture from one of inclusion and community, to fear and division. Our sons and daughters are not immune. They’re being sent home with BMI report cards and hearing that they will be the first generation of Americans to die younger than their progenitors. When teen girls are asked which they are more afraid of- losing a parent or becoming fat, the majority say being fat.

It’s no wonder girls are so terrified of becoming fat- it’s not just about their health or attractiveness- they risk their very place as welcome members of our society. The message is they will not belong if they are fat. On a very primal level (the need to be in community), their survival depends on their intention to lose weight. This is our new initiation.

A hopeful perspective: Celebrating womanhood.

Despite all this, I am actually very hopeful. We are making huge progress as parents, mentors and health providers to model body acceptance. Many mothers I talk to are emphatic about not perpetuating the body-snarking they witnessed their mothers do, to themselves or others. But I think we can go a step further. We can practice and teach gratitude for our womanly shape, and for our grandmothers and generations of women before us whose bodies allowed them to work, survive famine, give birth, breast feed, and nurture their children. We can create our own ceremonies and rituals to mark and celebrate their changing bodies. We can welcome our girls into the soft folds of womanhood.

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