Trigger warning: If frank discussion of eating disorders and disordered eating may be triggering to you, this would be a good time to move along. Your well-being is way too important to ignore.
If you own a television, radio, or computer with internet access, if you read a magazine or newspaper, if you see billboards along the highway or advertising stickers in restaurant bathrooms or receive junk mail, you’ve seen the messages: eating is bad, food is the enemy, and hunger is the weapon your body uses to force you to eat.
Yoplait has a series of commercials where people find that eating a tiny amount of artificially flavored, fat-free yogurt is precisely the same as eating a slice of Boston cream pie or Black Forest cake.
Campbell’s soup touts its diet line by assuring us that it’s ‘naturally satisfying’ to fit into our clothes. The ‘and of course the only way that will happen is if you stop eating’ is deafeningly silent.
Applebee’s has a commercial with three women gushing over how thrilled they are to be starting new diets. One of them exclaims ‘I love cutting back!’ in an almost religious ecstasy. The food they choose? Is based entirely on calorie counts, not flavor or nutritional needs. Just how many calories are in it.
What do all of these images have in common? They normalize pathology. They reinforce the assumption that eating is bad and wrong.
And it’s not just ads for diet foods, either. Even the US government has made at least one statement that attempts to normalize the pathology of eating disorders.
When the news began to leak out that detainees at Guantanamo were being underfed as part of the ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ being practiced there, Steven Bradbury, Chief of the Office of Legal Council under President George W. Bush, made a statement that many commercial diet programs allow voluntary dieters to eat less than 1,000 calories per day, and that is “instructive in evaluating the medical safety of the interrogation technique.” Bradbury did say that no prisoner was given less than 1,000 calories a day, and that most were being given approximately 1,500 calories per day.
Let’s compare how some women choosing to do an extreme commercial diet plan stacks up against what the USDA says a grown man needs to consume to maintain his body in a sedentary state.
According to this chart produced by the USDA, a sedentary man aged anywhere between 21 and 40 years of age requires 2,400 calories per day to maintain his body. If he’s given 1,500 calories per day, that means he’s facing a 900 calorie deficit – and an even bigger one if he’s active or under stress. This is not politics, it’s science as produced by the US government. Whatever your feelings about Guantanomo, the men detained there, or their treatment while in custody (and no, we’re not going to discuss those aspects of the question here, so check your personal opinions on ALL sides about them at the door, please, and don’t get into fisticuffs over it. Stick to what it says about food and eating disorders in our society or I’ll delete your comments.), the fact that diet plans mostly used by women were used to justify underfeeding men and that a lot of people accepted that logic points to a dangerous trend in our society.
And how about this article written by the fabulous Katja of Family Feeding Dynamics just last August? Katja had taken her daughter to a farmer’s market and the children were given worksheets to color and fill out. One of the activities on the sheet asked kids to determine which was the healthiest snack… and informed them that the healthiest snack would be the one with the least calories. So fruit salad with a couple tablespoons of low-fat yogurt was, according to the sheet, the least healthy option. That’s right, fruit with yogurt is made unhealthy by the addition of the yogurt, which contains nutrients not found in the fruit alone. What’s more, an extra 36 calories makes a snack ‘less healthy.’
We’re teaching our children that eating is a scary thing, and that food is bad for them. We’re teaching ourselves that ignoring hunger is a virtue and feeding ourselves is a moral weakness. We try to sell ourselves on the idea that a five-calorie stick of gum will satisfy us when we want a bowl of mint chocolate chip ice cream.
And then there’s television. While The Biggest Loser is by far the most egregious example, there are plenty of shows that are designed to scare us about weight and food. Heavy on A&E, Bulging Brides on WETV, all are devoted to teaching us that eating very little food and exercising for several hours a day are good for you. These are both classic symptoms of anorexia.
There are even popular cookbooks, like the Skinny Bitch ones, that are entirely devoted to teaching us how to fool ourselves into eating less than 200 calories in a meal.
Does all of this lead directly to eating disorders? No. It doesn’t. There’s a lot more to an eating disorder than public pressure about food. In fact, anyone in recovery from an ED can tell you it isn’t really about the food. But that doesn’t mean our global obsession with dieting isn’t doing harm.
You see, it normalizes disordered behavior and pathologizes normal human needs. We need to eat in order to live. Full stop. If we do not eat, we will die. Full stop.
But in the current climate, people are praised for not eating, berated for eating, taught that food is an enemy and given pats on the back for fighting bravely. That means that people suffering from Binge Eating Disorder are scolded and told to diet while people suffering from Anorexia Nervosa – which has among the highest death tolls of any psychiatric condition – are told how great they look and how healthy they must be by passing strangers.
By making thin the only measure of a healthy body and low-calorie the only measure of a healthy meal, we create a situation where anorexia flourishes and people die of meeting cultural standards.
And that, my friends, is unacceptable.