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The Pathology of Normal | Manolo for the Big Girl

The Pathology of Normal

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.

28 Responses to “The Pathology of Normal”

  1. Cat February 6, 2011 at 4:19 pm #

    The thing that I find interesting – and would love to see some research done on it – is the trend since the 60s (when women like Twiggy were considered “sexy”) has been that the US (and much of the “developed” world) has seemed to get heavier (or have an ‘epidemic of obesity’).

    Could it be that the “thinness obsession” is actually CAUSING the very epidemic it is supposedly fighting?

    When the “ideal” is impossible to reach, unless you have been born with the “right genetics” – the normal person (not just women) stops trying. When the majority of “professional” jobs (where the MONEY is – lets face it “manual labor” is not sexy) are sedentary, and that means we have to add EXTRA work to our lives just to get enough exercise to keep us to that “ideal” – a lot of people would simply rather live their lives instead of work 2 jobs (because exercising enough to “keep healthy” is a job in and of itself).

    Maybe if we taught our kids to EAT HEALTHY and LIVE HEALTHY instead of obsessing over how much they weigh (or we weigh for that matter), maybe the trend towards the “epidemic of obesity” might actually reverse itself in a generation.

    Especially if they are taught that eating healthy and living healthy are focused on REAL health – not a “health diet” based on caloric intake alone.

  2. Wendy February 6, 2011 at 4:56 pm #

    Hear, hear! The craziness around the matter of food and weight and “thin=healthy” make me very glad I’m not young and susceptible, and that I don’t have any kids (either sex, because the messages are reaching boys and men, too) who could fall victim to it. Sometimes I think we’ve gone beyond that whole fallacious “thin = beautiful = good = worthy” nonsense, and then I see some commercial like the ones you cited and I despair.

  3. Carrie February 6, 2011 at 5:59 pm #

    Thank you so much for this post. It came at a really good time for me. I’ve been feeling pretty low about myself and my totally lack of desire to diet. I like food. I like eating. I don’t want to diet. I try to eat healthy, but I like flavor. Fruit and yogurt as unhealthy? Nuts!

    It is nice to get a reality check sometimes.

  4. dr nic February 6, 2011 at 7:49 pm #

    This obsession with calories and calorie counting is the main reason I can never do something like weight watchers. I find it far to close to the same behaviors that people with eating disorders have. I’ll admit I am trying to lose weight, but I’m using a more balanced approach where there is no such thing as a bad food. To quote Alton Brown (my favorite TV chef): “There are no bad foods, only bad food habits.”

  5. Lisa February 6, 2011 at 8:16 pm #

    All that you said is true and yet, you completely ignore the other end of the spectrum.

    I THOUGHT I was eating healthy. I thought I was obese because of my genes, not because of my eating habits. After all, I ate organic and local, I ate at good restaurants that served real food. I didn’t order appetizers. I didn’t drink much soda nor fast food and desert was not an everyday thing. Clearly, it can’t be what I was doing, it was what I was, right?

    Then I get a picture of my oldest niece who wasn’t yet 7. She was already obese. I turn and look at my son, fearing that same future for him. Diets have failed, exercise failed. So I turned to surgery in hopes that it would work and my boy wouldn’t fall into this trap.

    The first two months were rough. I won’t deny that. But it got better as I learned what I could eat and I healed. I went from a size 22 at 275 lbs to a size 4 at 148 lbs. I wear a medium… occasionally a small.

    The thing I will tell you is I simply didn’t realize the extent to which I was deluding myself (and no, I am not trying to paint all over weight individuals with this brush.. it applies only to me). I must have consumed 3000+ calories a day. I sat on my butt. I was exhausted all the time. I could get little accomplished. I was constantly getting colds.

    I look back and marvel at how much food I ate. I also look back and marvel at how bad I looked and how much I had denied this for years. I wasn’t just fat. I was truly obese.

    I was hungry all the time. I could have eaten 20 minutes ago and still be wanting more. Nothing was enough. I’m not hungry now except when I should be.

    Is it pathological to worship the size 00? Yes. But it is just as pathological to say that its okay, healthy even to be 275 lbs. Heck, as much as industry tells us its bad to be fat, they try to find lots of ways for us to avoid realizing it. In 1996, I wore a size 22 jean but weighed 223 lbs. In 2009, I wore a size 22 jean but weighed 275 lbs. The size charts have moved up to ‘protect’ us from the knowledge of how much we weigh. Yes, I can get into a size 4, heck, I have a pair of size 2 jeans that are too big in some places. But I know rationally that that size 2 would have been a size 8 20 years ago.

  6. Jennifer February 6, 2011 at 8:42 pm #

    I also had surgery a year ago. I was UNHEALTHY. I would not have chosen surgery if I had not gotten so sick. However, surgery was not a quick fix. I’m almost six feet tall. In one year I have gone from 407 pounds to 260. I’m still obese but I am HEALTHIER. My focus has changed from “fast diets” to health. I do not make perfect choices all the time but I am doing my best. I have went from a size 30/32 to a size 20. A 20 is still huge in our culture. But to me, I feel like a supermodel! I still get the stares and whispers and rude comments but I have learned to gauge my reaction by how I am feeling health wise. I do not let other people’s opinions hinder me. I tell my nieces that they are beautiful but I also tell them they are smart, talented, kind, generous and all the other adjectives that we have in our vocabulary. I want them to grow up knowing that they are precious and perfect no matter what size they wear. And I am arming them with knowledge of healthy food choices. I do believe that there is a genetic obesity issues that is not discussed openly. It makes me sad.

  7. Katja Rowell February 6, 2011 at 9:24 pm #

    thanks for the shout-out! I also go CRAZY when nutrition information aimed at kids uses the language of addiction around food. i.e, a colorful posters for kids about snacks talks about when you “can’t stop” or “can’t control yourself” or a “snack attack!” or getting “hooked” on sugary or high fat foods. Again, normalizing pathology, and introducing that language, those ideas, which are themselves so harmful around food. “I can’t, I shouldn’t, I’m not in control, it’s bad, I’m bad…”

  8. dillene February 6, 2011 at 11:00 pm #

    Lisa, I ask you to be less judgmental about weight. Fat =/= bad; unhealthy =/= bad. Those things are morally neutral. They could equal being uncomfortable, having limited mobility, or other medical issues (though we know that’s not a given, is it?). However, those conditions do not lend themselves to good/bad, okay/not okay judgments.

  9. Thea February 6, 2011 at 11:58 pm #

    The surgery alternative scares me in all except cases of extreme necessity. There is so much info NOT getting out to the general public about weigh loss surgery, like the fact that many people who have weight loss surgery can no longer absorb oral medications, or the serious health implications that happen more than 6 months after surgery so they aren’t considered ‘surgery related’ except that the same issues are happening in many women who have had weight loss surgery. Studies are just starting to be published on these issues.

    There are cases where weight loss surgery is medically recommended, but for many people there are many other less drastic options for creating a healthy body and a healthy life.

  10. harri p. February 7, 2011 at 11:23 am #

    All weight loss surgeries aren’t the same. As far as I know, people with the lap band, as opposed to the bypass, can still absorb medications just fine, for example.

    That said, I would like to comment on two things:

    You eat healthfully, not healthily. Why is it OK for schools to nag us about food choices, yet use crummy grammar to do so?

    The second thing is the latest obsession with “clean” eating. It’s an outgrowth of “detox” diets. It’s crazy.

  11. Jessica February 7, 2011 at 11:43 am #

    I agree that we are pathological in many ways about food and body image, and I fell into that trap for a long time (and I’m sure I’m still there in many ways). Like Lisa, I thought I was taking good care of myself and eating healthful, tasty foods — but I was also putting on (a lot of) weight and felt very uncomfortable in my body. Finally, I started paying attention to the number of calories I was taking in and realized that while the foods themselves may have been good for me, the quantities that I was eating them in weren’t.

    I haven’t really changed what I eat, just how much I take in and how often I excercess, and I feel so much better. I’ve lost some weight, yes, but I’ll always be a big girl — I have a tall, broad frame, and am prone to lushness. However, now I can also jump out of bed at 5am on a Monday with a spring in my step, whereas before I felt like I was constantly dragging myself around.

    For me, and I’m only talking about myself here, learning to monitor my calorie intake was the best thing I ever did. I don’t eat at starvation levels (I average between 1800 and 2200 a day), I never feel deprived, and if I crave something, I eat it, just in smaller quantities. I’d guess my portions are about half the size they used to be, so I was probably eating 3500-4000 calories a day before.

    Just as I think there’s a lot of harm done by media encouraging us to be skinny and eat 1000 calories a day, I think that the opposite can also be harmful and lead to a false feeling of health where it may not exist. I convinced myself for years that I was fine because I was eating whole grains and fish; I ignored all the signs my body was giving me because I honestly thought it was normal to feel sluggish and lethargic all the time — I was eating healthful foods, so my body must be healthy, right?

    I really do not mean this as an attack on anyone here, just trying to share my experience and talk (clumsily) about the reasons I think this issue is very complicated.

    Also, a friend of mine insisted I try the cake-flavored Yoplait, and I was amazed to discover that the red velvet flavor actually tastes like red velvet cake. It is by no means a substitute for the real thing, but I was impressed that they managed to exactly replicate the flavor.

  12. Jezebella February 7, 2011 at 11:44 am #

    Testimonials about how awesome it is to lose weight and how awful it was to be fat really have no place on a fat-acceptance blog, in my opinion.

    I brought some donuts for the weekend staff at my job this weekend, and a woman looked at me and said, “Is that a box of sin?” No, I said, “It is a box of delicious.” SIN? REALLY? I wanted to say? It’s not genocide, it’s a freakin’ donut. The whole “bad/good” cultural notion that eating is bad and not-eating is “good” is absolutely insane.

  13. Lisa February 7, 2011 at 12:26 pm #

    Not eating is not okay; its self destructive but so is eating yourself to death.

    Worshipping a size 00 is pathological in the same way making dress sizes larger is to hide our true size.

    Being obese was miserable. I felt bad physically. I was limited in what I could do. I was embarrassed about how I looked. I don’t want that for my son.

  14. Lisa February 7, 2011 at 12:29 pm #

    Jezebella,

    Accepting my fat made me sick and fatter.

    Fixing my behavior has made me healthier.

    I’m not going to look down my nose or want to put a scarlett F on you for eating 3-4000 calories a day. Neither am I going to pretend that its healthy to be 200+ lbs or that its just your bones.

    I told myself all those same excuses for years. I was lying to myself.

    It is just as pathological to pretend that 250 is healthy as it is to worship a size 00 coathanger.

  15. Jessica February 7, 2011 at 12:32 pm #

    I did not intend my post as a testimonial about how awful it was to be fat; I’m still fat (according to BMI, pants size, random dude on the street, whatever standard of measure you’d like to use), as I said in the post, and I don’t see that changing. My post was about how awful it was to be unhealthy and deluding myself about that because I was immersed in a fat-acceptance mentality that insisted that eating as much as I wanted was healthful.

    Is there no room for “being fat is great if that’s where your body lands when you’re eating proper amounts of healthful food but not so great if you really are overfeeding yourself and feel like crap”?

  16. Jezebella February 7, 2011 at 1:52 pm #

    And yet Lisa is assuming that all 250-lb women eat 4000 calories a day, and that we’re all unhealthy, and that all we have to do is eat less to lose weight. And every single study – every responsible medical human study – shows that she’s not right. SHE may have lost weight by changing her diet, but you are both assuming that every fat person you look at is eating too much. And you are wrong, and you are judgmental, and I wish I didn’t have to deal with this kind of discourse on a blog that is about being super-fantastic at any size.

  17. Jezebella February 7, 2011 at 1:58 pm #

    You know how Twistie put a trigger-warning on her post? Testimonials about weight-loss are triggering to survivors of/sufferers from eating disorders. I can literally feel my blood pressure go up when someone starts doing it, starts preaching at me, making assumptions about my lifestyle, just doing all of the anti-fat bingo crap that triggers incredibly bad feelings in people who are trying, desperately, to leave behind the Diet Mentality, the food-is-bad, thin-is-good mentality.

    Here’s the “Fat Hate Bingo” card:
    http://hoydenabouttown.com/20070615.658/fat-hate-bingo/

    Think about how many of those squares you two have hit in this brief thread. Just as some gay folks have internalized homophobia to deal with, I think a lot of fat folks (and formerly fat folks) have internalized fat-phobia.

  18. Jessica February 7, 2011 at 2:22 pm #

    I’m sorry if you feel that I was being judgmental; I thought I was fairly clear in stating that I was only writing about my experience, and I made no claims about the relationship between weight and health for anyone other than myself. I obviously disagree with Lisa’s statement that 250lbs cannot equal health; there is no one-size-fits-all approach to health. Please do not conflate my posts with hers; we may have similar experiences, but I do not share all of her attitudes.

    I also never said that every fat person I see is eating too much, nor do I believe that to be true. All bodies are different, and for a multitude of reasons, some are pre-disposition to be bigger, mine among them.

    I am simply stating that, for *me*, there was also a danger in clinging too tightly to the belief that I was genetically pre-dispositioned to be the weight that I was when I was eating much more. I fell into bad health (again, by objective standards: cardiovascular endurance, blood pressure, pulse rate) without examining my own behavior too closely because I thought that carefully monitoring my food intake was anti-fat-acceptance.

    There is a middle ground, and that’s all I am trying to say. I can think my size 18 body is amazing, just I can think someone else’s size 28 body is amazing. I can think the pasta I made last night is the best thing I ever put in my mouth, while also realizing that I am not hating myself if I decide it is best for my health to only eat one or two cups of the four that I might have eaten two years ago. I am giving myself permission to think that my fat body is fabulous while also acknowledging that it is more healthy now and I feel better because I am more careful about how much food I put into it. I don’t understand why I have to choose one or the other to post on this blog or be part of the fat-acceptance movement.

  19. La Petite Acadienne February 7, 2011 at 2:32 pm #

    Is there no room for “being fat is great if that’s where your body lands when you’re eating proper amounts of healthful food but not so great if you really are overfeeding yourself and feel like crap”?

    I think that’s a good point, and yes, there should be room for that. No matter what our size, we should all be focusing on being properly nourished and on getting enough activity to keep our hearts healthy.

  20. Thea February 7, 2011 at 6:14 pm #

    @Lisa, I guess the question is how will you teach your son to avoid the same situation? Are you planning to provide him with an education about about healthy eating, appropriate portion size and food choices and exercise or will you recommend he go for surgery if he puts on weight?

    Because it sounds like you fixed your behavior thru surgery, not moderation. While that is necessary for some people, it doesn’t seem like the first option for a lifestyle choice to pass along to one’s children.

  21. Miss Plumcake February 7, 2011 at 6:18 pm #

    Okay gang, I’m thisclose to shutting down comments. Watch it.

  22. Lisa February 7, 2011 at 8:33 pm #

    Thea,

    As I am sure many here will tell you, diet and exercise are typically not enough to help someone lose weight once they’ve gained a certain amount. At that point, your body chemistry changes and your hormones change making over eating the normal state. You are correct when you say that I used surgery to lose this weight, it was not a moral win but nor was it a moral loss. It simply was the best medical solution for me. The portion of my stomach that was producing all those hormones is now shut off.

    As for my son, I think the important key is to avoid gaining extra weight in the first place and to more closely monitor your body. We also know so much more about how sugar and carbohydrates work now than we did 30 years ago. I am now able to do the kinds of things like biking and swimming that I wasn’t before; he will grow up used to being physically active which I was not.

  23. wildflower February 7, 2011 at 10:37 pm #

    Portion of your stomach that was producing hormones?

    Lisa, I’m happy for you, that you are happy and feeling better than you were before, truly! And you want to bring up your son happy and healthy! Yay for you!

    But no-one appreciates unrequested medical advice, especially if the advice in question is so far away from mainstream medical knowledge.

  24. Jennie February 8, 2011 at 12:02 am #

    There are as many reasons as there are people as to why one person weighs more than another. The automatic assumption is overeating or incorrect eating. Sometimes it is heritary body shape. Sometimes it is enviromental. A lot of it (in my very humble opinion and personal experience) is apathy, inactivity, depression, etc…. And a perchance to over consume liquid calories. If you are not in her shoes, it is not your place to pass judgement. Better to be her friend. Maybe that’s all she really needs to give a damn again.

  25. TeleriB February 8, 2011 at 11:21 am #

    My experience:
    Sedentary in-betweenie, strong family history of early-onset cancer. I wanted to get strong so that, if/when it gets to be my turn to have no appetite due to treatments, I’ll have lots of reserve for my body to burn so hopefully I won’t die before the treatments work.

    Started Curves, 30 min 3-4 times a week. Lost a few pounds. Stopped losing any pounds.

    Left Curves because it was too easy, went to the university gym, got a trainer so I didn’t hurt myself. 3 1-hour sessions of weight training per week; eventually added some cardio.

    I was doing awesome! Increasing my weights every week, surprising my trainer that such a fat chick could lift so much. No weight change. There was the initial “Oh but muscle weighs more than fat” thing, but it persisted. For months.

    Now, I wasn’t unhappy. Can’t say it wouldn’t have been a nice side effect, and all the Kool-Aid told me if I ate right and exercised, I would be thinner. But I was stronger, and I loved going to the gym, and that was cool. But, the Kool-Aid: so I did ask the trainer how come I’d increased my activity level but not seen the weight go.

    We resolved to track my calories. We tried a 2000 calorie a day diet, and I had to *work* to eat that much. 1800 felt just about right. 1500 and I started to lose weight – and was hungry all the time and thinking about food constantly. It was my first real diet, and I think I said, “Screw this noise,” within a few weeks.

    That was my personal wake-up call that the “You’re just a lazy fat overeater who needs to put down the doughnut and get off the sofa and then you’ll be fine” line of thinking was… flawed, to say the least. I was not an overeater, and my weight stayed about the same regardless of my activity level.

    Do I still want the benefits of exercise? You betcha. The early-onset cancer thing hasn’t changed. I still want protein-packed muscle mass to spare if or when that hits. And hey – maybe some of these extra calories stored as fat will come in useful, too.

  26. Sarah February 8, 2011 at 12:58 pm #

    I think that Twistie has it right when she talks about the rhetoric surrounding weight loss measures. For all the attention paid to visual media (overly airbrushed images of very tall, very thin, very young, very made up models) I think we need to pay more to the words. Honestly, for me, the pictures don’t sting so much but the words…well, they send me into a self-confidence tail spin that is hard to describe. Add to that the confusing scientific research that is poorly reported in the papers and it’s no wonder people have a hard time making good choices.

    And there is no question about it: losing weight it very hard. Keeping weight off is very hard. Feeling good about one’s body is hard, too.

  27. Thea February 8, 2011 at 1:35 pm #

    Hey Lisa,
    I appreciate your response, I didn’t mean be inflammatory. Weight is a complex issue that involves genetics, emotions, heredity, our upbringing and how we were taught to think about food AND exercise. I really hope that the medical community is starting to ‘get’ that and stop with the ‘calories in/calories expended’ simplistic view of our bodies and weight.

    It sounds like we all agree that there isn’t one simple quick fix – diet, or surgery or exercise – cause hey, if it was simple, we’d all be – I was NOT going to type thin! We’d all be at the weight we thought most comfortable and beautiful and not spend so much time, money and sweat to achieve what we’re told is easy

  28. mel February 8, 2011 at 6:52 pm #

    What it all comes down to for me is that an industry about “pretty” created an image of how THEY defined beauty. They instilled a pathology in our culture and into us. And THEN… THEN those rat tailed bastards started selling us billions of dollars of bullshit to make us fit the image of “pretty” that THEY created.

    At the end of this tunnel of self hatred for not meeting someone else’s standards is a fella with a giant effing sack of our money. Now I ask you… WTF??