Every January brings its predictable wave of diet commercials for intrepid resolutioners. A woman stands inside of one leg of her “before” jeans, holding the waistband out with one arm to show off the other pant leg like a massive denim sail. It’s all thanks to frozen dinners! If they can do it, so can you!
I find it exhaustingly annoying.
It’s not even the gimmicky aspect of it, that transparent attempt to use inspirational weight-loss stories to sell unnecessary diet products. It’s that the success of the multi-billion dollar diet industry is built upon accepting the theory that a slimmer waistline is tantamount to a better life. The theory is that losing weight will lead to improved beauty and health, which are two intangible things that are almost universally desired. (Who doesn’t want to be healthier and more attractive?) The problem is that the theory is held as a certain truth, when it’s actually a shared public delusion.
Every year, the commercials serve as a reminder of the American values of health and beauty, and I can’t help but feel that a lot of people’s needs are left behind by these values. I feel a lot more than annoyance when I see that woman standing in one pant leg. I feel panicky. I feel that knot in my stomach as I remember two of my friends from high school and the eating disorders they battled. I hope for an irrational moment that my friends won’t see any of the ads this year. But the diet commercials are everywhere: unavoidable, ubiquitous. I know they’ll see the ads, and I have to know that they’ll be able to manage their own mental illnesses despite the constant barrage of images depicting dieting as the cure to unhappiness.
The obsession with physical fitness as a New Year’s resolution is as real in practice as it is in advertising — just try snagging a vacant elliptical at the Central Campus Recreational Building during January. I’m not saying that making changes to live a healthier lifestyle is a bad thing. Of course, eating healthfully and getting exercise can improve your health, mood and body image. But I do fear that too much of our New Year’s attention is devoted to physical health, often at the expense of mental health.
It isn’t only eating disorders that worry me in the midst of diet resolutions. While high hopes of fitness are on the rise, so too is mental illness. Seasonal affective disorder, often nicknamed “winter depression,” becomes more debilitating as daylight hours dwindle. A new year will bring new challenges that will be mentally and emotionally taxing, but the focus of the resolution industry is not on preparing our minds for these challenges. Roughly a quarter of Americans are estimated to suffer from a diagnosable mental illness, and yet the conversation about improving our lives every January never seems to speak to this population. We see commercials for the local gym and not the local therapist. We read success stories of weight management and not about managing anxiety disorders. We are taught to strive for toned physiques while nothing is said about the brain that pilots the toned body.
After cholesterol medications, antidepressants are the most prescribed drugs in America, but there is still a stigma associated with taking them. Mental illnesses are viewed differently than other diseases, where taking meds can seem like a personal deficiency rather than a way of taking control of one’s health. A new year offers us a new opportunity to rethink the definition of what it means to be healthy, maybe this time with room for healthy minds. This year, we can resolve to give our brains some TLC, and to foster an environment where our peers can, too. A visit to Counseling and Psychological Services in the Union might do as much good as a visit to the CCRB. Let’s talk about therapists like we talk about personal trainers. Let’s talk about antidepressants like we talk about antibiotics. Let’s talk about it, because the resolution industry won’t.
Let’s make 2015 the year we resolve to improve our mental health.
Sydney Hartle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.