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Lent has many benefits, with or without religion

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All or nothing: Our attitude towards food is confused because of the way we talk about being ‘good’ and being ‘bad’. Stock photo

All or nothing: Our attitude towards food is confused because of the way we talk about being ‘good’ and being ‘bad’. Stock photo

All or nothing: Our attitude towards food is confused because of the way we talk about being ‘good’ and being ‘bad’. Stock photo

Lent is great, really. Just when you'd forgotten what your New Year's resolutions were, along comes Lent and allows you to kick-start your personal overhaul. And Lent is only 40 days, as opposed to that impossibly long 365-day goal that is a full year, so that makes it so much easier to meet your goals.

Forty days of no chocolate, or no biscuits or booze is manageable. Why you might even hoard the chocolate and biscuits and booze for an Easter splurge, like you did when you were a child. With the traditional break for St Patrick's Day, of course. Lent is great, really; a wonderful time for a feel-good personal overhaul.

The religious aspect to Shrove Tuesday and the subsequent period of Lent barely got a mention last week, but it was hard to avoid talk of Lenten self-denial as some sort of delightful detox diet.

Of course, if you had darkened the door of a Roman Catholic church on Ash Wednesday, you'd have heard all about it, but this year, more than any before, there was a notable lack of ash-smeared foreheads about.

In fact, to take the Dail as a symbol of the mood of the country, there were few TDs in Leinster House last Wednesday bearing the sign of the cross on their brows in ashes. And it was a busy day there, you might recall.

Last Wednesday afternoon, when Barry Cowen came to the steps of Leinster House to talk Irish Water, only Senator Lorraine Clifford, out of his four assembled FF colleagues, visibly wore the ash.

In the Dail last Wednesday evening, as he announced the recognition of Travellers as an ethnic minority, the Taoiseach had a forehead clean of ash, as did the Tanaiste sitting close by. Even if they had them earlier, there was no sign of them for this significant and much-covered occasion, and the fact that this was OK is telling.

It would not have been OK not so long ago for the Taoiseach to be seen without his ashes. But, perhaps, not wearing his faith on his forehead is the sign of a modern Taoiseach, interested in real inclusivity. Perhaps the wearing of the ash, if you're the country's leader, is now regarded as an alienating act and, you know, that makes sense.

What doesn't make sense, though, is how we continue to cling to some aspects of Lent while detaching ourselves from the religious practices that herald its arrival. In fact, Lent might just be the greatest example of the a-la-carte manner in which the Irish approach Roman Catholicism.

Lent: a great time for a diet.

And Lent is the only time when we can go on about self-denial in a guilt-free way. It's a blessing, really.

The rest of the year, we have contradictory behaviours when it comes to food, dieting, body image, our conduct around alcohol. The rest of the year, the only thing we talk about without self-censorship is the scourge that is obesity. Everyone's in agreement that it's a terrible thing and we need to do something about it. This while we know that parents are afflicted with a certain blindness about their children's weight, not to mention their own.

We shake our heads and tut-tut that the obesity is only awful, but we take that to mean massively overweight and carp about dress sizes getting smaller when we have to buy a bigger-sized jeans after every single Christmas. Obesity is what happens to other people. Slightly overweight is celebrating your curves and to call it anything else is to be body-shaming.

Our relationship with weight loss is entirely warped. It's fine if it's on the telly, but not fine at home, within your family and within earshot of your kids who might be warped by it. So we talk about dieting in roundabout ways instead.

We talk about being "good" all week, which means we must be "bad" sometimes too. The modern "cheat days" are a cute way of saying that we have a tendency to gorge on fast food and sweets. To some minds, 'cheat days' could also be considered bingeing. But it's OK, because the binger is being "good" the rest of the time.

The mixed messages are hard to keep up with. There's clean eating and superfooding, fasting days, and extreme fitness as a way of buying credits to overeat.

We are a world obsessed with our bodies and what we put in to them and yet, if we were asked, most of us would agree that exposing our sons and daughters to notions of fat and thin, attractive and ugly, dieting or not dieting, is a bad idea.

We'd all agree that our daughters shouldn't hear us diss our bodies or lament our love handles, but who are we fooling? They're picking it just by being around us.

They hear us talk about being good and must, as a consequence, realise that we're "bad" sometimes. They see and hear us as we use and discuss alcohol as a reward for a tough day or a salve to our stress.

We try to protect the younger generation, of course, from the anxieties that mean that most women, at least, have poor body image and an indulge-and-deny relationship with food.

Only last week, Melanie Chisholm, formerly known as Sporty Spice, talked about how she starved herself thin in the Spice Girls but will not now discuss diets in front of her daughter. It makes sense, but Mel C's eight-year-old will likely pick up the conflicting messages from the outside world.

We hope to protect our children by hiding the weighing scales and not discussing our diets in front of them, but they live in the world as much as we do. They get the messages, and they also see how we strive to hide them, which is just as confusing.

When it comes to New Year and Lent, however, all bets are off. These most wonderful times of the year, we get to let it all out. On these occasions, we reveal freely the things we believe need fixing in our lives and most of the time, these are food - and weight - and booze-related.

So while you might not have spotted many people sporting the ashes last week, you will have heard plenty about what they were giving up for Lent. We may have jettisoned the religious significance, but we love how it gives us permission to not only practise self-denial, but to talk about it freely. Discussion of diets or how we've had a drink every night since the end of dry January doesn't hurt little ears if it's wrapped up in Lent. It's a marvellous time, really, and we'd be lost without it.

Sunday Independent