The 30 Day Challenge

Me: Ma, I’m thinking of doing a thirty day no swiggy challenge.

My mother: Why? So you can have panic attacks and cry every day and stress yourself out? Just eat whatever you want and be happy, please.

Trigger Warning: Anxiety, panic, disordered eating, body dysmorphia, fat phobia, suicidal ideation

We’ve all seen the diet industry’s favourite marketing strategy — the 3 day cleanse, the 5 day juice diet, the 10 day something else, the 30 day challenge, the 12 week something, the 100 day other thing.

They’re meant to be hard, but rewarding. The marketing around them promises that a few hard days will lead to a lifetime of self love and a new way of living. It’s so enticing, isn’t it? Just a few days of will power will change everything. Hell yeah, lez go, if that guy on the internet could do it, so can I!

After starting, most people struggle with the usual lifestyle changes. With portion control comes hunger, with cutting out a food group comes cravings. I’ve been there done that, but after a few days your body adjusts. I can attest to that. Most people say fuck it, and go back to doing whatever they were doing. The stress of work and life is hard enough without being able to eat french fries and drink a beer in peace. My problem however beings after those first few days when most people quit.

Anxiety makes me supremely high strung. I get into a toxic perfectionist mode. If I decide to cut carbs then I’m thinking about carbs 24/7. If I decide to cut sugar, all I can think about it sugar. I start hyper focusing on whatever it is that I’ve cut out. I literally have nightmares where I have eaten bread by accident. I’ll squint at nutrition labels or refuse to go out to eat. If I do have to go out, I’ll stuff my face with “good” food at home and go out and say I’m not hungry. I’ll sip my fresh lime soda salt and try not to make eye contact with the plates of food in front of me.

I’ll fight off all the comments about how “one french fry won’t hurt ya” because I know that it will. I know that if I eat that one french fry, I’ll spend the next few days overcompensating by skipping meals. No thanks. Sometimes what happens is that I’ll keep a brave face on in front of everyone else and then go home and be so angry that I’ll order a massive dessert and eat it in tears and go to bed angry at myself and at the world.

These challenges really bring out the worst side of me. I know it’s hard for most people but for me it gets close to life and death. And I’m not exaggerating. If I make a mistake, that perfectionist persona in my head will punish me for days. I’ll get wrapped up in this spiral of guilt and self loathing. Spirals that my anxiety prone brain has a really hard time stopping. What a neurotypical person can snap out of in maybe a few minutes or hours, takes me days.

And those days are awful. My mind is constantly bombarding me with every small mistake I’ve ever made, making me feel worthless for even trying a challenge because clearly I’m too fucked up as a human being to even make it five days, etc. etc. you get the drill. Those anxiety attacks often end up with suicidal ideation. The perfectionist persona makes me feel so worthless that death seems like a better option than continuing to live as the failure that I am.

What started with one french fry, ends up with me planning my death in detail- right down to mentally writing a will and leaving my small assets to various people. Eventually I get tired and fall asleep and the battles ends. But the war continues the next day.

This balance between accepting myself as I am and wanting to be “better” takes up half my day, on any given day. I’ve fluctuated between “I don’t give a flying fuck” to “I need to do this for the sake of my work” and on my worst days I go into full blown fat phobia — “maybe no one loves me because I’m fat”.

I’ve tried every diet other than juice cleanses. I’ve worked with trainers, I’ve worked on my own, I’ve cut carbs, I’ve cut fat, I’ve done keto, I’ve tried paleo, and the only time it worked for 12 weeks straight was the lowest point in my life emotionally. I berated myself every single day. If I even thought about food I would tell myself that I was a fat disgusting piece of shit who didn’t deserve to eat. Fortunately or unfortunately, that was the only time I successfully lost 10 kgs in one go.

Ever since then it’s been hard for me to stick to diet/challenge without sinking myself deep into self loathing. After I started going to therapy in 2017 it got harder and harder to hate myself. I learned to forgive myself. I learned to quiet my anxiety, but with it I quieted my “will power”.

I wish people talked more about how “will power” often comes from a bad place. There are so many jokes and pop culture references to a post break up revenge body. Isn’t all of that fuelled by self hatred? You’re saying to yourself “This person left me because I wasn’t good enough, so now I’ll become good enough”. As if your self worth is dictated by your body fat percentage?

I’m in the business of beautiful people and I’ve met a lot of folks with “perfect” bodies. But that literally doesn’t mean anything. A rare few will admit that they just have good genes and do the bare minimum to maintain their bodies. Actually only one model I know has admitted that to me. Others won’t admit it but they know that they’re not doing anything extraordinary to look the way that they do.

Others have admitted to me that they also secretly hate their bodies. They’ve had cosmetic surgery or they’re on an extreme diet, or have legitimate eating disorders. Some dedicate their whole lives to fitness and they genuinely enjoy it I suppose. Those types, in my experience, are mostly loners. They’re out of place at parties and don’t/can’t really sit down and enjoy a “bad” meal. Like yogis who dedicate their lives to a specific practice, they find their own tribe who are all unlike the rest of us.

Bodies aside, a lot of them are not good people, or are incredibly boring. They may be super hot in the conventional sense but they can’t hold a conversation or can’t talk about much more than which whey protein they like best. The ones who did lose weight still live in the mindset of their “Before” bodies and still struggle with the same body image issues. They have a hard time accepting compliments or believing that people find them attractive. So if you think that getting to your dream body is going to solve all your problems, it probably won’t.

If you’re someone whose life genuinely changed because of weight loss, that’s awesome, I’m really glad for you. You’re a rare exception. You should absolutely advocate all the ways in which it helped you. But I find that those people often talk about physical and mental health more than they talk about appearance.

So what’s the solution? Honestly, who knows. Each person has to find their own path. I can only talk about my journey. So here’s what I went through.

  1. Really truly examine your fatphobia. What’s so wrong with being fat? Is thinness the only way for you to love yourself? What happens once you do get thin? What happens if I do lose the weight and still don’t love myself? What if I never get thin? What’s the real worst case scenario?
  2. Examine your fears and figure out what you’re TRULY afraid of. For me it was a fear of abandonment, or the idea that I had to be perfect to be loved. So then through therapy I found ways to reframe this fear and think about all the people I loved. Weren’t they flawed also? Did I love them less? Did I ever allow a weight fluctuation to get in the way of a friendship? No, so why would anyone do that to me?
  3. Figure out non appearance related benefits to diet/exercise. At the end of the day being in shape really does other wonderful things for me. I sleep better, my moods are more stable, and I feel good when I feel strong. With eating clean my energy levels are higher, I poop better, I have less issues with indigestion and acidity.
  4. Find a system that works well for you. After years and years of trial and error, for me currently, mixing strength training, long walks and short runs 3 times a week really helps me. I like working out at home or in solitude better than going to a gym or being in a class. I also found intermittent fasting to be really beneficial. It allows me to eat what I want without the physical discomfort and skin issues that come with over eating or eating badly.
  5. Go to therapy. Mental and physical health work hand in hand. For a lot of people, focusing on physical health can help their mental health. But I promise you that a coach or trainer can take you only that far. They can’t always address the underlying issues that will come crawling out when you begin training. If you find yourself confronting long lost fears, or falling into a legitimate eating disorder, therapy can help you. If you’re willing to pay a trainer or coach, you can consider paying a mental health professional also.

This journey is never going to start and stop in a matter of days the way those challenges are advertised. Life happens. Work gets chaotic. You lose a loved one. You’re dealing with heart break. You get injured or discover a health condition. Either you stress eat or you can’t eat. You gain weight, you lose the muscle mass you worked so hard on.

Some days will be fantastic. You’ll reach a goal, you’ll hit a target, you’ll feel like your best self. But good days and bad days don’t last forever. It’s all about working on coming back to that middle path and that’s more than enough. I hate to quote all these cliches but the longer I live, the more I realise why they stood the test of time. With fitness and eating right, it really is about the process rather than the result. It really is more about the journey than the destination.

Exercise and eat well for that day. To feel good that day. To enjoy your life that day. The past is gone. The future is uncertain. Celebrate the small wins, allow yourself to enjoy a truly yummy calorie dense meal. Enjoy a long walk for the sake of enjoying a long walk. Lift heavy to feel strong. Take a day off to just lay in bed. Focus on today. Who knows what comes tomorrow.

Actor, Struggler, Agony Aunt