A different sort of dieting
This is about the relationship that women have with food and with their bodies, and about the subtle ways we as feminists manage to maintain the unhealthy aspects of that relationship, even though we’ve learnt not to talk about dieting. This is something that I have given a lot of thought to. Turning these thoughts into writing was prompted some time ago in reaction to the way that ‘healthy eating’ was discussed in “10 wise ways women’s to wellness” in issue 2 of muse. It’s been half finished on my computer for some time and only now, after listening to the conversations over dessert at another community potluck, that I’ve found the motivation to finish and submit my writing.
Because of the huge impact that food and body image has had on my life I don’t feel that I can discuss this issue honestly unless I do so in the context of my own experiences. I must locate myself in my body. I wish that I could give an in-depth physical description of my body so as to locate myself within it, however I have not yet learned to view or talk about my body in a way that I feel is ‘healthy’, and I fear I cannot do so without being self-deprecating. It seems relevant to say however, that my body has never been what is deemed ‘attractive’ by our society and since the birth of my son ten months ago, it has moved even further away from it. Having said this, before I became pregnant my body came close enough to the ideal that I at times experienced the false power and sense of approval that this brings, as well as the particular type of objectification and sexual harassment that many women choose to take as a compliment. While I was visibly pregnant I found that this type of attention stopped and was replaced with an entirely different type. Everyone, from friends to complete strangers seemed to think it appropriate to comment on my body, it appeared to become public property. Pregnant women’s bodies are objectified but this objectification is not sexual. Now that I am not pregnant, have put on weight and am usually accompanied by a baby, I appear to have become quite invisible. My adorable baby is public property for everyone to comment on. I am just an accessory to him.
For as long as I can remember I have found my body entirely unsatisfactory, been trying to change it, found it hard to believe anyone else could find it attractive. I did not see this as having a negative body image because this is how I had always seen other women respond to their bodies and on the continuum of self loathing mine seemed pretty minor. I don’t remember when I first began feeling guilty about what I ate, but this was also something that I believed to be normal. The fact that I enjoyed eating and did not particularly enjoy exercising meant that I have existed in a perpetual state of low level guilt probably since around puberty. I have at times bought into various alternative ideas of ‘healthy eating’ from fasting to low carb to dairy free, claiming to be doing so because it was ‘good for me’ while actually hoping or believing that if I could do this for long enough I would lose weight. I always got a sense of virtuousness from the sensation of hunger and felt that I was doing something morally repugnant when I was eating anything other than salad.
It is only in the last few years, through women’s consciousness raising groups that I have taken part in, that I have come to realise and grieve for the pain and unhappiness my body image has caused me. I now consider it to be a birth right to feel beautiful and sexy that has been taken from me. I have made huge efforts to look at and talk about my body differently. I now ask women not to put down their own bodies around me and ask people not to comment on mine. I’m not sure that I will ever be able to separate how I feel about my body from how society talks about women’s bodies, and I feel absolutely furious about this.
Because of the huge amount of thought I have put into trying to improve the relationship I have with my body and with eating I am now mistrustful of what is really going on when I hear people talking about food in most contexts. Within the circles that I move many women have been analysing and deconstructing their body image in a similar way to me. It is something we discuss often. Many of us have got better at pulling other women up on talking about bodies in an unhealthy way. Despite this, I often hear other feminist women taking part in moralistic discussions about food, of a sort that are very similar to those that happen in the mainstream. Many feminists still consider these conversations perfectly acceptable. Often these conversations are about health and what food is healthy and what food is not. We all want to be healthy. It is important to look after yourself and this means watching what you eat. We would never discuss cutting down our sugar intake in order to look good in a bikini for summer but it is perfectly alright to cut down on sugar because it is bad for you in other ways. The lines between healthy eating and weight loss are pretty blurry though, especially since the food that makes you put on weight is usually food that you can justify cutting out for other health reasons. Discussion of weight, when framed in terms of ‘health’ rather than appearance also often slips by unnoticed. We are told constantly that being fat is not healthy and therefore should be avoided, but since the vast majority of women in our society know deeply that fat is bad and a good proportion of those women are convinced that they are fat, this is not only completely unnecessary but deeply damaging.
I have found discussions about eating healthily to be just one of the subtle ways that we manage to reinforce our bad relationships with food without actually talking about fat or weight loss. Most of the people in my life are very politically active people. We have no trouble finding reasons to restrict what we eat. There are lots of political reasons to avoid different foods. We can cut out animal-related food because of the exploitation, we can cut out a zillion brands of foods because they’re produced by evil corporations, we can cut out foods that aren’t organic because of the effect on the environment. Perhaps we have worked hard to transcend the guilt we associate with food that makes us fat, but we still have guilt and sin associated with food, it’s just for political reasons now. This is still about control. This is still eating disordered behaviour. It also happens to be a lot of the same foods we felt guilty about before. Weight loss is just a side effect. (Perhaps we can see it as a pleasant reward for being so virtuous!) All of these restrictions that many of us place on our consumption create a culture in which food is being talked about a lot. Often health-related diets get muddled into the conversation, someone is on a raw food diet, someone else is trying to cut down on carbohydrates. No one notices that this has stopped being political and become about just depriving ourselves of food for the sake of it. We are so used to talking about what we should and shouldn’t eat that it seems perfectly normal.
A language has developed in which food is ascribed moral attributes. Chocolate is ‘naughty’, chips are ‘junk’ food, wheat is ‘evil’, sugar is ‘bad’, raw grated carrot salad is ‘good’. This language permeates our thinking constantly. We cannot pick up food without assessing its’ goodness or badness before taking a bite. Feeling virtuous or guilty. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to just eat! To eat with joy and relish!
In the short term I want to deconstruct this issue further in feminist circles. I would like feminist spaces to be one space where my issues with food and with my body are not reinforced. Dialogue needs to be opened up in order to find healthy language to use when talking about health and food. I would like us to constantly challenge ideas of health, to challenge ideas of ‘good food’ and ‘bad food’. And to constantly remind ourselves that most women in our society can’t think about food without thinking about weight, and as a result any conversation about food has the potential to reinforce negative body image.
As a feminist I have a long term goal that women’s bodies and our sexualities will one day belong to ourselves. That our daughters will grow up believing that they are gorgeous and sexy regardless of their body shape. We will be able to have a relationship with ourselves that is separate to the way we are portrayed in the media and in society. We will be able to enjoy food and decide what food is good for our bodies in a way that is healthy and not projected onto by outside factors. We will be able to get honest health and nutritional information that is not in fact trying to shrink and control us, but trusts women to make decisions about their own bodies.