Social Conditioning & Why It Matters

Social Conditioning & Why It Matters

This is my favourite topic. I love it because so much of what we do and how we see ourselves comes from it. Social conditioning. What the hell is that?


Social conditioning is the set of instructions each of us learned to fit in with society. Our family members, school teachers, and peer groups were all part of our socialization process. 


It’s something that shifts generationally as well. So, if you were raised in the 50s you’ll experience different conditioning than those born in the 80s. You really don’t even have to go that far to see the shift because every decade brings changes to society and with that, our outlook on raising children, the way we dress, the careers we choose – it’s all connected.


I was born in 1976 and that means by the time I was old enough to be aware of my social conditioning it was the early 80s. Madonna was breaking into the music world with lyrics about sexual freedom, head to toe in fishnet with gigantic hair, and an attitude that women have never been allowed to have. The messages I got from adults in my world was that she was too loud, too aggressive, too bossy, too dominant – you get the point. I was already learning that men and women were not the same in society’s eyes and behaving outside of these standards was not a positive thing.


I also remember family dinners with my extended family, where the women were in the kitchen cooking and cleaning while the men watched football. I think this is probably the most universal experience. The oldest female cousin (ME) was expected to babysit the rest while the oldest male cousins were expected to play outside. I was learning that my job was to be a nurturer and to serve the family.


Music videos like ZZ Top’s LEGS was on every countdown show and it illustrated the point that women are to be sexy, long, lean, with long hair, lots of makeup, short skirts – and men were not only allowed to ogle them but it was expected to be permitted if women were going to dress that way. I was learning that women are a consumable product.


I watched movies that showed the popular girls are sexy, trendy, and thin and the unpopular girls that repulsed boys were the opposite. I was learning I had to fit a mould to be likeable.


So, basically, unless I was nurturing, quiet, polite, kind, a martyr, sexy, thin, and consumable, I was less than. What a shit message to give a generation of women!


What I’m describing isn’t even rare. Every single woman in my generation had this same exposure. Our parents reinforced it without realizing it and we, in turn, had these expectations in place at least when not conscious, of our own kids. Some become aware of it and work hard to give their kids different messages but others don’t put any thought into it and therefore –  no effort either.


The reason this matters is that this social conditioning dictates how we function in every aspect of our lives. The number one reason women who come to Musclebound Mama to change their body composition is they (in their words) let themselves go while taking care of their family. Most of their kids are in their teens and they are still giving and giving and giving at the expense of their own wellbeing.


When a client falls off plan it’s often because a spouse took initiative to make dinner for a change and it didn’t occur to them to ask what their dieting partner could eat. So, instead of advocating for herself and saying “wow, this is so sweet – thank you so much but can I show you what my plan looks like so next time I can enjoy this amazing meal and stay on plan, too?” – she eats the food, loses her stride, then spirals into a cycle of shame because she felt powerless to the conditioning that says “you must be grateful and not have any expectations of anyone – you are the nurturer not them – just smile and say thank you”. Imagine this spouse was allergic to what her spouse made – would she be expected to eat it? Would she eat it anyway to appease that spouse and not take up too much space? Think about that.


In fact, most of the challenges clients come to us with are based entirely on social conditioning. In order to make decisions that align with our goals and values, we have to feel aligned. There are 3 basic human psychological needs we focus on here and you’ll hear me talk about this a lot. Autonomy, competence, and connection. If one or more of these needs are not being met, we are less likely to make decisions that align with our goals and values. That means we are probably going to be prepared to more readily abandon our plan or ourselves when tension rises. So, when the kids need to be in 4 places in one day and you’re all hungry and your kids want McDonald’s, you are probably going to bail on your plan and dive headfirst into a big mac combo that you might not even like! We put our needs last. 


We know that in order to bring our anxiety or stress level down we need to make self-care a priority – but, if we’re raised to put ourselves last – how likely is it that we’re going to say to our family “you’re on your own for dinner, I need a break” and head out for a meal in peace and quiet? 


Something else society has taught us that hurts women who come to us for change is the expectation that they, too, should be disgusted with their excess weight. We’ve been socially conditioned to be consumable and that means being what we’re taught every man wants. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you how erroneous this is since it’s clearly a blanket statement – but don’t forget that our boys have been socially conditioned, too. Their conditioning in the ’80s was to womanize and seek only the sexiest of women. Being attracted to overweight women was called being a “chubby chaser” and it was seen as bizarre. What the hell is that about? 


And look, I’m not saying men have it easy. Our boys have been conditioned to be firm and strong, muscular, not emotional, not to cry, don’t talk about feelings – don’t even HAVE feelings! The result is men who are emotionally stunted and can’t communicate their needs – which fills prisons with men who behaved violently rather than communicate. I could go on about this forever but will spare you the dialogue and direct you to my favourite documentaries on this topic. The Mask You Live In & Missrepresntation are must-sees for everyone in my opinion. I’ve watched them numerous times and take away new information each time I watch. They’ve not only changed the way I parent but also, the way I approach coaching with clients – which before I went off on this tangent was my point!


The most incredible moment for me in coaching is when a woman has a breakthrough. It’s not a scale success or inches lost – it’s when they make a connection between the way they see themselves and the way they were TOLD to see themselves growing up. There is such power in knowing that you see yourself the way you do because you were programmed to. We don’t choose to see ourselves as less than, or worthless, or flawed. We absorb these messages as we grow up even with well-meaning adults in our lives. These messages stick with us and become automatic thoughts in low moments.


So, if you think about the worst things you believe about yourself, I want you to be curious about where that might have come from. My guess is that you didn’t imagine it up – it was either given to you directly or by repeated exposure to societal expectations of what we are supposed to be. 


Take Carrie Fisher for example. Her gold bikini was the envy of every woman and the fantasy of every man. In an interview she was asked:


“So what most surprising thing you that you’d forgotten you’d experienced, but you’d had written about in your journal?”

FISHER: That I was so insecure.


If the most quote-unquote perfect woman on earth could feel insecure what does that say?! 


The real power comes from knowing that all the expectations you have of your appearance and how you behave are based on social conditioning – and you are under no obligation to fit a certain size or behave a certain way. 


When we can look at our moments of presumed failure and get curious about where that message of failure came from – we can give it back. We can say “no – I don’t have to live up to this standard”. When we eat off-plan over a weekend, rather than diving headfirst into the spiral of “what have I done, I’m such a failure, I’ve just ruined all of my hard work, I’m going to be fat forever” – we can say “even if that was true – so what?”  Seriously – what is even wrong with being a size 12 rather than a 2? When you take societal expectations out of the equation – nothing. I mean – you do NOT have to be on a diet. Ever!


And look, I get that I’m a nutrition coach and I’m telling you not to feel like you need to lose weight – and that’s bad for business – but its the truth. If you need to lose weight because your health requires it – do it. If you struggle with your relationship with food and you feel controlled by food – I’m your girl. But please don’t for one minute think there is anything wrong with your body just because it’s not a size 2. That is NOT a message you gave yourself – society failed you. You have not failed.


Social programming will always be what it is but being aware of it is the key here. Be curious about the societal messages you see and hear in a day and remember, the definition of social conditioning is this: It’s the set of instructions each of us learned to fit in with society. — Then think – do you even want to fit in anyway? If it means feeling like you’re not enough – I hope you don’t.


These are the show notes from The Musclebound Mama – Eat the Fucking Cake Podcast – Episode 3