Diet Culture and Disordered Thinking
TW for eating disorder discussion
Life is crazy right now, but these thoughts have been stewing in my brain and body and I need to get them out on the page.
Society’s basic approach to eating and having a body, especially for women, is highly disordered. We don’t just have an eating disorder crisis, we have a society full of people teetering on the edge of (or really quite over the edge of) highly disordered relationships to food, eating, bodies, and self.
For as long as I can remember, the women around me talked about how much they hated parts of their bodies and how they were restricting their diets as penance and punishment. They compared themselves to others, positively or negatively. While my parents tried much harder than many in my generation to feed me and my brother fresh food, it was often framed in terms of suffering for a reward, which does not engender any kind of positive relationship to hunger or cravings. Tasty food was “bad” and healthy food, delicious or not, was “good”.
Animals do not worry about bad and good foods. They eat what their physiology dictates when it dictates. We are animals. We are wired to eat what we need when we need it. But girls are taught from the time they can understand the language spoken around them that their bodies are flawed, their need to eat is a sign of weakness, and vanquishing hunger, though any means possible, is a sign of moral strength and fortitude.
This is so beyond fucked up.
The amount of diet culture I had absorbed by the time I was seven and my parents started actively trying to restrict my diet and change my eating habits (they claimed I ate too fast. Food insecurity causes people and animals to eat what they can when they can and a child can’t tell the difference between a lack of food and the threat of food being taken away) was already verging on disordered. Add into that picture living in Southern California where disordered body relationships and eating were the norms, and parents who were worried that I would get fat and ruin my prospects at a happy life/career/relationship and I was well and truly fucked.
In my late teens, I reasserted control over my life by increasingly restrictive diets and eventually anorexia. It wasn’t like one day I was all, “Anorexia is the answer to all my problems!” I had been soaking in a number of toxic cultures, none of which presented trusting and appreciating my body as an option – only restricting and punishing it. The toxic masculine, rape-culture of the 80s. The beauty worship of Southern California. The health obsession of Northern California. Generational trauma. Abusive relationships. There was no chance for me — I had never seen an example of a woman who loved and nourished her body with pride — or if I had, she had been derided for being too masculine or fat or ugly.
I was a fast learner and I learned this lesson young: Your body is not your own. It’s public domain and it’s your job to manipulate it into the most visually pleasing form at any cost. And no, you don’t get to decide what is visually pleasing. It’s crowdsourced and can change from moment to moment. So dig into that self-hate and spend your adult life trying to be something other than you are, no matter how miserable it makes you or how much energy it leeches from your soul.
I know this may sound extreme. Some of it is. But most of it – not so much. Girls are exposed to unhealthy standards for beauty, size, personality, and eating as early as they can observe the people around them and see commercials, browse YouTube, or flip through a beauty magazine. Girls are taught that their bodies are flawed, unreliable vessels that need to be disciplined and monitored with hypervigilance. They are rarely presented with an alternative – that they are their bodies, and that life is a gift that should not be wasted on obsession with the potential judgment of others.
Who among us was taught that our food preferences were okay? Who among us were told that we were beautiful because we ourselves were wonderful, rather than we were slightly more symmetrical or thin or pale than another girl? Who among us was allowed to naturally enjoy eating?
Our culture is deeply disordered. If we told boys that they were worthless unless they looked like a cartoon version of a man, we would be terrible people. If we thought that breathing too much or too little was a sign of weakness and sloth, we would be instantly diagnosable. If our parents taught us that drinking water was to be approached with the same trepidation and guilt that eating when hungry is, we would be in foster care.
We teach kids to mistrust the core of who they are – the body. The body is not our enemy. It is us. The idea of mind over body, of spirit over mind–that is the disconnect. Our mind is not distinct from our body, not psychologically, and not psychologically. It’s all one organism that we fracture into imaginary pieces. We have to stop doing this to ourselves and to our children. We have to stop.
There are many alternatives that have emerged in recent years. Health at Every Size. Intuitive Eating. More holistic and less objectifying approaches to health and happiness. But it’s still an energy-draining struggle in a culture that thrives on industries that teach us to spend most of our time, money, and energy on fixing problems that are socially and economically constructed to be un-fixable.
I’ve come a long way since my late teens and the height of my eating disorder, but I still catch myself in old thought patterns a lot. Some of them are just stubborn bastards that don’t want to die. I’ve loosened up my ideas of beauty and health tremendously. I’ve learned to enjoy food and movement with much more gusto than I ever imagined. But I’ll never completely shake the darkness that could have taken my life.
We will never cure eating disorders if we don’t treat them until they are literally life-threatening. Our culture breeds disconnection. We have to find a better way.
One of the things that got me thinking about this was my Instagram feed. I’ve been following various body-positive anti-discrimination accounts for several years, but have recently added more HAES ED recovery accounts. I see so much of my own experiences in some of the stories these people have shared, and they’ve made me realize I still have work to do. Internal work and external work. One of the great fallacies of diet culture is that it’s all about willpower and strength and self-control. I promise you, every woman in this society has an iron will when it comes to her body. It’s just that the body wants to survive more than she wants to starve it.
I am an educator – it’s my job to help people unpack their assumptions, but this one is extra tricky. Many people are already on the path to awareness, but did I tell you about that time a nutrition student wrote a paper for my class that wrote off Body Positivity because it won’t make you thin? That happened.
Constant starvation, which is what many diets entail, puts the body in hibernation mode – slowed metabolism, respiration, and heartbeat. When we eat, the body stores the food for future starvation. It is very hard not to gain weight if you have put your body through this shit multiple times. Your body wants to survive, even if you don’t. My favorite quote from The Beauty Myth says,
“A culture fixated on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty, but an obsession about female obedience. Dieting is the most potent political sedative in women’s history; a quietly mad population is a tractable one.”
Obsession with controlling our bodies at their own expense is a kind of madness. Starvation is linked with depression and sometimes psychosis. Yet our culture rewards this madness with promises of happiness, love, and success. There are many more disorders linked to how we treat our bodies than anorexia and bulimia. Excessive exercise, excessive restricting of any kind, obsession with “clean” food, all of it can leach the life out of us.
And let’s look at the word “tractable.” If the worst thing someone can say to you is “you’re fat” – that’s pretty fucking tractable. It’s awfully easy to manipulate people who have been conditioned to see other’s reflections of their bodies as their ultimate worth.
If you are struggling with this stuff, keep at it. I somehow managed to make it to middle-aged as a successful, loved, and fulfilled person without being remotely thin. I’m going to keep struggling and eating because that is so much better than ingesting the toxic mess our society and peers have been feeding us.