“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me.” Ever since this rhyme appeared in The Christian Recorder in 1862, it’s been used to teach children to ignore the name-calling and other taunts that bullies use to embarrass their victims.
But what if words can be indeed harmful—particularly when it comes to fat-shaming, a crime that many Americans commit against themselves, often on a daily basis?
“Do I look fat?” “Do you think I’m fat?” “This dress makes me look so fat!” “If only I could lose five pounds…”
Sound familiar? Rupa Mehta, the ever-smiling guru behind The Nalini Method, the popular Manhattan workout class that fuses barre, aerobics, yoga, Pilates, and strength and resistance training, is so used to hearing this negative self-talk from her clients that she’s come up with a diagnosis for those who engage in it: They’re “emotionally overweight.”
“Emotional weight can be just as detrimental as an unhealthy amount of physical weight,” says Mehta, a Millennial who’s also the founder of NaliniKIDS, a New York non-profit dedicated to “strengthening the bodies, minds, and hearts” of thousands of the city’s school children. “The kind of weight loss that I know would benefit my clients, my middle-school students, and others looking to live their greatest lives requires something besides physical diet and exercise.”
For starters, we as a society need to rethink our concept of weight, Mehta says. She cites the dictionary definition of the word—“a body’s relative mass or the quantity of matter contained by it; or, the heaviness of a person or a thing”—then pauses for effect, before adding: “Notice that pounds is not even mentioned!
“Weight is not about the scale—that’s our society’s interpretation,” she continues. “With an obsessive focus on physical weight and a disregard for a person’s entire well-being, even the most popular fitness books, products and services do a disservice to a captive audience looking not only to be healthier physically but also to feel great and be confident in their lives.”
Talking with Mehta made me think about my good friend, Candice Maskell. Though Candice is a beautiful and successful woman—she’s a marketer in the entertainment industry—for as long as she can remember, she’s been stressed out by the number she sees on the scale. Whenever I’d stay with her in Los Angeles, I’d usually find her embarking on some new diet (Atkins, vegan, Paleo…), and not a day went by that she didn’t mention the word “pounds” and how many she needed to lose, and express how “guilty” she was because she’d eaten too many carbs or how “bloated” she thought she looked. By Mehta’s definition, Candice was emotionally overweight.
“How we talk to ourselves impacts everything we do,” says Vanessa Pawlowski, a Beverly Hills, California, psychologist who specializes in treating patients with eating disorders and negative body image. “When people try to push themselves too hard to lose weight, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. You feel bad about yourself, so you say negative things about your body—‘fat,’ ‘ugly’—or about your character: ‘weak,’ ‘lazy, ‘not good enough.’ This may become a big enough block for you to stay where you are with your eating and/or exercise habits.”
Which is why Mehta is on a mission to get people to reexamine their vocabularies. “Words matter,” she says. “We must learn to appreciate the weight of words. Just like we should be aware of what we eat, we should also be aware of the exact words we digest into our spirits. One word has the power to weigh more than a single scoop of ice cream.”
“Words matter. We must learn to appreciate the weight of words.”
Central to Mehta’s teachings is an exercise she calls “finding your one word.” Discover that singular, life-affirming term that’ll “guide your moral compass, your actions, your inner peace, and your resolve,” she says, and it’ll put you on the road to losing the emotional weight.
Mehta’s one word is “connect,” a term that helped her make the difficult decision to turn down a sizable monetary offer from the fitness franchise Equinox to bring her Nalini Method classes to their clubs. Instead, she opted to focus on developing NaliniKIDS and “connecting” with New York City school children.
Her one word also helps her whenever she finds herself mired in a personal funk. “I have a tendency to turn inward and lock people out,” Mehta says. “To pull myself out of it, I have to reconnect, whether it’s by calling my mom or getting together with a friend.”
Meanwhile, Mehta’s mother’s word is “balance,” something she’s constantly seeking in her own life, whether it’s a balance between American and Indian culture (the family immigrated to the U.S. when Mehta was a child) or teaching her kids traditional and modern values.
Mehta says she’s seen first-hand the effect that the one-word exercise has had on her pre-teen students. After choosing the word “breathe,” the student used it to inform her life decisions past and present: She’s resolved never to smoke (her mother died of lung cancer), and, as a future yoga teacher, she returns to her word whenever she finds herself in a tricky situation. “She tells herself, ‘Just breathe,’ and she makes it through,” Mehta says.
As it turns out, my friend Candice has also discovered her own “one word,” and these days it’s helping her to repair her sense of confidence as well as her relationship to her body. Recently, while taking a yoga-teacher training course, “I learned about ‘ahimsa,’ which translates to ‘do not injure’,” she says. “I realized I was doing a lot of self-harm by constantly calling myself fat, so I’m really working on that. Whenever I feel the ‘f’ word coming up in my throat, I think, Ahimsa.” Perhaps not coincidentally, Candice has even managed to lose a few pounds in the process.
“Mantras or single words like ‘connect’ and ‘balance’ give you ways to remind yourself not to get lost in the negativity that can quickly take over your thoughts,” says Pawlowski. “Mehta is showing people that they are not their negative self-talk, and repeating their one word is a significant first step to getting back in touch with who they really want to be.”
Concludes Mehta: “Starting a word detox, losing emotional weight, and connecting to your ‘one’ is the healthiest and best gift you can give yourself and the world.”