Last week on Instagram I shared a little something that was on my mind about comparison.
I was surprised by the messages I received and the amount of conversation this post triggered. But really, I shouldn't have been surprised at all. Comparison is a hot topic -- and while it's always been a vice for people throughout time (especially us women) -- it's particularly relevant in today's instant, over-share culture, where we can hardly turn on our phones without looking at an image of somebody else's "perfect life".
As a body positive, intuitive eating dietitian, I promote confidence and health at every body size. I help clients settle into an individual eating pattern that allows them to feel their best, while enjoying nourishing & satisfying food. Comparison makes this process difficult, and it's something we often address in nutrition coaching sessions. Specifically there are two types of comparison that hinder progress on the journey to becoming a healthy eater: body plate comparison.
According to Merriam Webster, to compare is to examine the character or quality of, especially to discover similarities or differences. Comparing your body to someone else's will lead you to discover similarities and differences, because we are all different, yet we're all human. Likewise, comparing what you eat to what someone else eats will show you that you eat differently than other people. Noticing our differences isn't an issue, but the assumptions we make from them can harm us.
For example, noticing that someone else's body is smaller or more muscular than yours does not mean that they are healthier or happier than you. Yet we commonly make these assumptions without knowing a single thing about that person's thought life, physical health, or genetic makeup, and without knowing the things that person does each day to maintain their body. Sometimes we look to Instagram or our friend's plate at dinner and take note of the foods other people eat or don't eat; if the way they eat doesn't match up with how we eat, we make assumptions and associations, associating the food they eat with their level of success, body shape, health, and happiness. But there are SO SO many factors that play into a person's health, and while food makes up a tiny portion of that, we never know the full picture of a person's life from the outside.
Further, just because some food is right for your friend or family member doesn't mean it's right for you. If you skip breakfast, work out on an empty stomach and are ravenous by lunch time, a salad is most likely NOT the right choice for you. But maybe your friend eats a big breakfast, doesn't work out and craves salad, and maybe salad is the right choice for them. There are countless reasons why you might need to eat differently than your friend including personal preference, food availability, allergies, energy demands, sickness, injury, etc.. If we're ever going to be comfortable and confident in our own skin and with our own eating, we have to recognize the individual nature of human beings and the unique food likes and needs of each person; we have to stop comparing and assuming.
But how do we stop doing this in a culture that breeds unhealthy comparison? I don't pretend to have it completely figured out. In fact, the only reason I can speak to this at all is because I've struggled with it myself. But, from my experience and the wisdom of better people, I've learned a few tactics for conquering body and plate comparison, and the harmful assumptions that come along with them.
Set Social Media Boundaries
The first tactic against comparison is to filter what's allowed into your mind. Social media is wonderful for so many reasons, but I think we all know it can also be a source of envy leading to discontentment. Set boundaries on the blogs you read, the people you follow and the amount of time you spend on social media looking at other peoples "best selves". Unfollow people that make you feel like your body is less than or that you are good or bad for eating a certain way. Instead, follow people from varying professions and with different body types, expertise and passions. If it concerns food and health, look for body positive, non-diet messages.
Finally, just because a certain post or blog is positive or good doesn't mean you have to read it/do it. Not all good things are good for you. If you spend all your time on social media, even if it is to read positive messages, you are bound to start comparing your walk with everyone else's, AND you're most likely missing out on doing those things in life that give you real meaning. Turning off notifications for Instagram, Facebook, etc. on your phone is one practical way to keep social media from sucking up all of your time.
Practice Gratitude & Grounding
Hack away at the root of discontentment by practicing gratitude for what you have. Write down 3 things each morning that you're thankful for. Bonus points for expressing gratitude for things your body can do. Next, pay attention to the emotional highs and lows you feel each day. We want to be people unshaken by what we see, steady and grounded. Envision "holding your seat", no matter the situation, don't jump way out of your chair in the high moments or fall to the ground in the low moments, just stay seated, grounded. When something happens in your own life or in someone else's that threatens to trip you up, remind yourself that you can only control your own reactions; It's the steady persistence in running your own race that leads to success.
Know Your Values & Your Calling
On the subject of running your own race, it's important that you know who you are and what you're called to do. This way, no matter what somebody else is doing or what success they're achieving, you can come back to your values and refocus on your calling. I've often heard it said that your calling is where your gifts and passions align. But I'd take it farther, your calling and where you focus your time and energy is where your values, gifts and passions align. And let me just clarify, the pursuit of a "perfect" body is not a calling, it's a distraction.
Are you unsure of what it is that makes you unique or what you're called to do. Don't worry; Start with what you value. Write down those things that you hope people will say of you when your life is over, maybe these are things that you admire in other people. Rank them from most important to least important. Begin to filter your thoughts and actions, aligning them with your values. For instance, if you say you value family first, but spend all your free time thinking about food, or scrolling through social media, comparing yourself to other people, do your actions and thoughts really align with that value?
Discover Your Individual Healthy Eating Pattern
Stop judging your eating based off of what other people are eating and instead work on discovering what foods you enjoy, what foods satisfy you and what foods make you feel your best. Instead of asking yourself, "what would So and So eat?", start asking "what am I hungry for and what do I need?". When you throw out the food rules and truly experience the freedom that comes with intuitive eating, you won't need to compare your eating to someone else's, you'll know what's best for you is what's best for you.