An Exploration of Diet Culture from a Feminist Perspective - Recovery in a World of Disordered Eating

As someone in recovery from an eating disorder, I often forget how this lived experience has shaped my worldview and how this compares to a more general worldview.

I have worked hard over the last few years to re-enter the "normal" world and leave behind the smaller spaces that my eating disorder has tried to put me in. However, what continues to surprise me is the normalized nature of diet culture even in these "real world" spaces. It's become common-place to talk about the latest diet or health trends, exercise regimes, and weight loss. For someone in recovery, all I hear are eating disordered statements that I have spent years trying to unlearn. I do try to understand and respect that everyone's relationship with nutrition, activity, and their body is going to be different. I also try to understand that because of my lived experience, I have arrived at a rather extreme worldview that may be hard for others to understand, but in my my mind no food is ever as unhealthy as the mentality that diet culture encourages.

This is where I think some of the lessons one learns in recovery from an eating disorder are applicable to everyone. Whether or not someone has an eating disorder, our culture itself has a disordered relationship with food and I personally don't believe this does anyone any good (beyond a system that profits from self-hatred).

I think it is important to understand that there is a great deal of money to be made in encouraging diet culture. Millions are made from the exploitation of our insecurities through cosmetics, diet products, boot-camps, surgery, health fads, clothing, etc.. This starts early and continues through every stage of life. It's targeted towards everyone, but women in particular are surrounded by an onslaught of diet culture messages and products.

Weight Watchers recently received backlash over their new campaign targeted at teenagers. Free memberships were offered to youth age 13-17 if they joined with an adult (a mother-daughter bonding experience!) The National Eating Disorder Information Centre (NEDIC) immediately fired back, stating that this was an inappropriate offer as 1 in 5 Canadian teenagers already diet which puts them at risk of an eating disorder and at the very least preys upon a vulnerable time period in young people's lives, encouraging low self-esteem and the potential subsequent consequences (depression, anxiety, substance use, eating disorders, self-harm, etc.) Of course eating disorders are much more complicated than just "dieting-gone-wrong", but dieting can be an environmental trigger that sets off the gun that genetics has already loaded in vulnerable persons. When you're a teenager your body is already changing, your life is changing; it's a challenging period of life. In a capitalistic frame of mind, therein lies the opportunity to make money: if you can make people believe they need something, you can make them buy it.

A 13 year-old should be exploring identity and boundaries and getting pimples, not dieting. My own eating disorder started in my pre-teens. Again, it's more complicated than just diet culture, but even at that age, there were constant messages that I should be dieting, exercising, and losing weight. It wasn't a self-improvement project, it was targeted and encouraged self-hatred, an outlet for anxiety and depression (or other issues in life.)

I realize that not everyone's diet will become an eating disorder and maybe some people will view their diet as a self-improvement project, but I still think that the diet mentality is a negative mindset that only serves to detract from people's happiness and potential. People spend years yo-yo dieting, losing and gaining and losing and gaining again. What concerns me most is the amount of moral value that is placed upon losing weight, that somehow being thin equates to being a better person. In other time periods, being a heavier weight was seen as a sign of affluence; however, in the modern world, being thin tends to be seen as possessing self-control while being of a heavier weight tends to be seen as the lack of it. These conceptions of weight are false and harmful to people.

Self-control is something Western society tends to value greatly. I personally think this valuing of self-control stems from aspects of Christianity, which is not to blame religion, just to note that there are aspects of Christianity in particular that view "baser instincts/impulses" as being more animal, less civilized, and thus not as "morally good." Appetite, be it sexual or plain old hunger is conceptualized as greedy and greed is seen as sinful. There is historical documentation of a condition called anorexia mirabilis (aka inedia prodigiosa or "prodigious fasting") in the Middle Ages almost exclusively related to women and girls. These "starving women" would deny themselves basic nutrition in an effort to prove their devotion to their God. St. Catherine of Siena is probably the most well-known of these cases. This behaviour was often associated with other ascetic practices such as lifelong virginity and other penitentional practices. It is disputed among historians and those in the mental health field as to whether this disorder is distinctive from today's diagnosis of anorexia nervosa or whether it is simply the same condition with slightly different social contexts. I personally tend to be of the latter opinion (although I am quite biased) as I can relate to the idea of pursuing "purity" and extreme asceticism despite being someone who self-identifies as agnostic/athiest. 

Feminist author Susan Bordo notes this historical sense of "body as sin" in her book "Unbearable weight: Feminism, Western culture, and the body". In the book, Bordo explores the often gendered nature of this conceptualization of the human body. She starts with a poem by Delmore Schwartz titled "The Heavy Bear" through which she begins to explore cultural expression of mind-body dualism. In the poem, the body is described as brutish, "a creature of instinct", "ruled by orality."

"The bear who is the body is clumsy, gross, disgusting, a lumbering fool who trips me up in all my efforts to express myself clearly, to communicate love. Stupidly, unconsciously, dominated by appetite, he continually misrepresents my "spirit's motive," my finer, clearer self; like an image-maker from the darkness of Plato's cave, he casts a false image of me before the world, a swollen, stupid caricature of my "inner" being. I would be a sensitive, caring lover, I would tell my love my innermost feelings, but he only "touches her grossly," he only desires crude, physical release. I would face death bravely, but he is terrified, and in his terror, seeking comfort, petting, food to numb him to that knowledge, he is ridiculous, a silly clown performing tricks on a tightrope from which he must inevitably fall. The bear who is my body is heavy, "dragging me with him." "The central ton of every place," he exerts a downward pull toward the earth, and toward death. "Beneath" the tightrope on which he performs his stunts is the awful truth that one day the bear will become mere, lifeless matter, "meat" for worms. And he, ''that inescapable animal," will drag me to that destiny; for it is he, not I, who is in control, pulling me with him into the "scrimmage of appetite," the Hobbesian scramble of instinct and aggression that is, in Schwartz's vision, the human condition. "

In Schwartz's poem there is a great deal of the masculine conceptualized in the imagery of the "heavy bear," but as Bordo goes on to describe, often times in Western society, it is women who are cast as body while men are cast as intellect.

"According to Dinnerstein, as a consequence of our infantile experience of woman as caretaker of our bodies, "the mucky, humbling limitations of the flesh" become the province of the female; on the other side stands ''an innocent and dignified 'he' . . . to represent the part of the person that wants to stand clear of the flesh, to maintain perspective on it: wholly free of the chaotic, carnal atmosphere of infancy, uncontaminated humanness, is reserved for man."

The cost of such projections to women is obvious. For if, whatever the specific historical content of the duality, the body is the negative term, and if woman is the body, then women are that negativity, whatever it may be: distraction from knowledge, seduction away from God, capitulation to sexual desire, violence or aggression, failure of will, even death."

I feel (and I don't think I am alone in feeling) a sense of shame that is built up and encouraged around the body and what it is to have a body, but especially the female body. The idea of woman as temptress, her physical encapsulation as distracting and something to be ashamed of. The female body is sexualized and objectified with her own sexuality not belonging to her, but belonging to her viewer. I find there are aspects of this "feeling" or "experience" of the female body that tie into eating disorders and the traumatic experiences which can often accompany them.

Although I do not have the lived experience, I imagine there is also shame in being in a male body although it might be a very different kind of shame (around baser instincts, feelings, violence and dominance, what it means to "be a man," sexuality, etc.)

And then there's those individuals who experience gender identities beyond the simple binary of male or female.

This is an area I will perhaps explore in a different blog post, the thing I want to highlight here is how the experience of having a body, sexuality, and gender identity tie into this idea of shame around the human body and consequently, the idea of the virtue of making it smaller or suppressing what are considered baser appetites (hunger, libido, etc). In my mind diet culture preys on that idea of virtue, self-control, and shame around the experience of having a body.

It is so ingrained in our culture, but there is nothing inherently virtuous about a certain weight or shape or any food item. We attach morality to these things. The good news is that if the source of things being classified as "good" or "bad" arises from within us and our own biases, we have the power to separate these labels from the things we label. We can choose to change our thinking which is not to say it's easy because it requires swimming against the diet culture current. Still, we can choose to frame our world differently. We can learn to remove labels from things that otherwise don't have labels. I truly believe that doing so, that deciding that there is no food or body shape that is ever as unhealthy as the diet culture mindset, is the healthiest, most freeing thing we can do for ourselves. This applies to everyone, whether you have an eating disorder, disordered eating, or not. Regardless you live in a culture saturated with disordered ideas that only serve to detract from your life.

Something to think about whether you arrive at the same conclusion or your own.

- S. Ritchey

Shaely RitcheyComment