Break the rules or break yourself. That’s the overarching lesson Pilar Gerasimo has learned during two decades spent covering — and influencing — the health-and-wellness industry. And also through the course of her own life.
“We live in a society that encourages us to live in ways that are both inherently unsustainable and unsatisfying,” says Experience Life’s founding editor and cohost of the podcast The Living Experiment. “What passes for a ‘normal’ lifestyle in our culture reliably produces stress, disease, anxiety, and depression. So I think it’s time we openly challenged those conventions — in the service of better health and a better life.”
It might seem as if rebellion would be a breeze for someone raised on a communal farm by a hippie mom and a sociologist dad, both of whom taught her that normal behavior was overrated. But in grade school, Gerasimo learned the hard way that nonconformity often comes at a cost.
“My sisters and I had homemade lunches and homemade clothes. We didn’t have a television at home. We looked different and acted different from other kids,” she remembers. “We got funny looks and whispers, and on the school bus, nobody wanted to sit next to us.”
The teasing took its toll. “I learned from an early age that being different made me a target for negative attention,” the 52-year-old former Fulbright scholar recalls. “So, for a long time, I tried hard to fit in. But the more I tried to be normal and follow the normal, approved path to success, the more my health and happiness suffered.
“I’ve come to realize that being healthy in our current culture is not some easy-breezy lifestyle choice or a simple matter of willpower, diet, and exercise,” she adds. Gerasimo outlines what she sees as a more promising path toward health and happiness in her new book, The Healthy Deviant: A Rule Breaker’s Guide to Being Healthy in an Unhealthy World.
Experience Life | What is “healthy deviance” and why do we need it?
Pilar Gerasimo | I define “healthy deviance” as the willingness to defy unhealthy norms and conventions in the service of achieving a high level of vitality, resilience, and autonomy.
Going along with what everybody else is doing tends to get you what everybody else is getting, and we live in a culture that produces more unhealthy, unhappy people than it does healthy, happy ones. More than 50 percent of U.S. adults are chronically ill, and according to a study published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings, 97.3 percent of U.S. adults aren’t pulling off even four of the most basic healthy habits required to maintain their health for the long haul.
EL | That’s almost all of us! How did we get here?
PG | There are a lot of intersecting factors that add up to the way we live. One is the influence of so-called authoritative, official organizations. Take the USDA nutrition guidelines, for example. A lot of public money and resources were invested in publicizing nutritional recommendations that served the food industry much better than they served most people.
For many years, the guidelines recommended avoiding most dietary fats and eating multiple servings of low-fat dairy and grains, which included a lot of foods high in refined flours and sugars. As a result, we effectively had millions of people embracing a highly processed, high-glycemic, relatively nutrient-poor, and inflammatory diet.
Meanwhile, we also were telling people that the best way to manage their escalating weight problems was to eat less and exercise more. Again, that turns out to be a pretty unsuccessful plan for most people, particularly those who are suffering from cravings, low energy, and low mood as the result of eating a not-so-great diet.
For many, this has created an awful downward spiral. Eating and living “normally” has produced widespread chronic illness and depression. And often, the conventional health-improvement, weight-loss, and medical prescriptions have made matters worse.
So people try to get healthier, but the diets and workouts don’t work as promised, and the prescription drugs sometimes do more harm than good. After repeated failed attempts, people understandably get frustrated. They lose hope, confidence, and self-esteem.
Eventually, this leads to a phenomenon known as learned helplessness, where you become so hopeless and bummed out that you quit trying.
EL | So how can we break free of that cycle?
PG | I think it begins with building awareness and resilience. First, you need to clearly see what you are up against, and then you need to develop some new-era survival skills. Many involve learning about your body’s most basic needs and respecting the lessons wired into our DNA during millions of years of living in hunter-gatherer societies.
Because conventional diet and exercise prescriptions can be such a setup for failure and shame, I often suggest people instead start with some simple daily practices I call “renegade rituals.” (To learn more, visit “The Way of the Healthy Deviant”.)
One of my favorites is a “morning minutes” practice. It involves taking the first three minutes after you wake up — before you look at your phone or turn on any media — to do some pleasant, low-key thing you enjoy. Maybe you light a candle, or write in a journal, or just go outside and look up at the sky. Take three minutes to come into your waking state gradually.
There are a bunch of neurological reasons this works in your favor, but the most basic factor is that it gives you a chance to connect with yourself before you’re faced with the outside world’s agenda for you. This provides an important daily moment of self-definition. It also builds self-efficacy — the belief that you can do whatever you set out to do.
EL | How has practicing healthy deviance changed your life, work, and relationships?
PG | It has empowered me to make decisions that serve who I really am rather than complying with other people’s expectations of me. Healthy deviance has also made me more willing to stand up for what I believe in, even when it might invite criticism or make others uncomfortable. It has made me feel more inspired to be an agent of change, and more inclined to see the systemic causes of our biggest health, environmental, economic, and social-justice challenges.