Last week was a bad week for sanity on Facebook. Several people took it upon themselves to inform us of their diet plans or shifting measurements. This was my response:
Hello everybody. This is a PSA about dieting culture and talking about it on here.
Several people have started diet plan threads on here recently. It’s absolutely none of my business what other people choose to eat and/or do with their lives. I find the concept of trigger warnings fairly problematic – you can’t trigger warn for life, and we live in a world where dieting culture is shoved down our throats as if attempting to manipulate details of our physicality is a replacement for having actual political agency or personal autonomy (which of course to some extent it is). So I’m not suggesting it’s inherently wrong to discuss your calorie restriction plans on here in case you trigger someone (although you might like to bear it in mind if you’re planning to talk numbers). But still, if you are planning to do some kind of fad diet, I’d like to tactfully suggest you make an opt-in filter to discuss it in detail. Some of those with a current eating disorder, some whose EDs are largely in abeyance but triggerable, and some like me who turned a history of ED into an academic preoccupation and know an uncomfortable amount about dieting in culture, the physiological effects of self-starvation of short or long duration and have Opinions about the prevelance of diet talk and its functions in culture and psychology would probably all thank you. As, I would imagine, would people who don’t have a history of ED but find it all a bit depressing. I am all for people discussing and analysing aspects of dieting and food in culture – this is not a request for all mentions of food, dieting, eating to be hidden – just that if you need to log your calorie intake, food plans or weight loss you might want to make sure those reading it are of like mind. Thank you and goodnight.
Why the rage, which I’m sure is apparent even beneath the hopefully measured tones? As suggested, we live in a world where the supposed necessity of weight loss is shoved in our faces many times on a daily basis. There used to be godawful signs outside Boots proclaiming ‘be you…only better!’ as if weight loss was some sort of universal good to which we should all be aspiring (and as if calorie restriction doesn’t have a bunch of negative side effects – check out the Minnesota Experiment.) I regard myself as basically untriggerable, although I sometimes find teenage girls and/or practising anorexics in the potentially final stages troubling, and I have this half-compassion-half-horror-half-saviour-YOU-ARE-MY-PEOPLE impulse which I expect is probably just a magnified version of how many people feel about the obviously anorexic combined with a passionate identification I really ought to keep an eye on. The prevalence of dieting culture as some sort of culturally coded universal female bonding activity is enraging and political, but it’s not triggering as such; its cultural prevalence and systematic endorsement is infuriating, but it’s infuriating on the kind of background level that everyday sexism is, the kind you need to block out to survive.
So what is it that gets me? Partly, I am largely (if not entirely, hence status) lucky enough to move in circles of politically minded, enlightened, empathetic, *thoughtful* people who rightly regard the whole thing as culturally problematic bullshit and might even (were they academic types and thus inclined) go all Foucault and Discipline and Punish on yo’ass. (Yes, I’m quite aware of the undertones there, thank you). If people talk about dieting culture and related matters on social media around me, it’s often in interrogated terms (albeit often alongside tormented, because awareness doesn’t necessarily negate impact). This week’s posts got me simply because of how…normalised it was. Like bonding over ways to fuck your body up was okay, and expected, and right. Like sharing weight loss stories and inch measurements wasn’t questionable in terms of taste or tact or triggers or functionality, but standard. Like it’s okay that those of all genders, but especially women, are expected to take the necessity of this shit for granted. Which, to be honest, in the wider world we ARE, but I tend to look to my friends and my social media circles as being somewhat more culturally aware than that.
(Don’t even get me started on the shortness of the shrift I give people who persistently attempt to bond with me over body hatred, even if framed in ‘you’re so lovely and slim, however do you do it?’ terms. You get one shot and one polite rebuff, and then it’s straight into ‘I was anorexic for a decade and cannibalised my own liver. I’ve weighed 19kg. Please don’t let’s pretend you know more about weight loss than I do,’ territory.
It infuriates me. Can you tell?
However. A lot of the time, in public or less-well-known company at least, I let this stuff slide. Not because I don’t think it’s damaging and toxic and really deserves to have a fucking spoke jammed so hard into its wheels it disintegrates all over the road made slippery with vomit and tears, but because I’m well aware that I have, well, all the thin privilege. I’m very definitely not anorexic any more, and still noticeably small. In UK sizing, I’m mostly an 8, or at least a 6 on the bottom because tiny hips and sometimes 10 on the top because I unexpectedly have tits these days. The swimming every day and walking or cycling everywhere helps, of course, and are probably the source of whatever visible musculature I have, but it’s mostly a metabolic thing. My family are all petite, with the exception of my tall thin brother; I eat probably over 2000k a day (although I don’t count anymore, so don’t hold me to it) including all sorts of sugar and fat based items, and I seem to just…stay quite small on the scale of people. I’m not particularly thin, I’m just built little. I have absolutely no objective perspective on my body, of which more later, but I say that because I’ve *been* thin, and you can’t see my ribs anymore unless I’m stretching, and I have thighs that don’t quite touch in the middle but are mostly wider than my knees. (Don’t laugh, this is significant.) I’ve gone up a size over the last few years, perhaps, as I’ve got progressively more relaxed about eating, but if I’m honest it’s mostly meant that now I have cleavage, which I’m totally down with.
And I feel terrible, because I know that I’m therefore insulated from roughly 80% of what some of the people posting about fad diets and so on are subject to. People yelling things at me on the street are usually supposedly flattering rather than insulting. Doctors tell me to gain weight rather than losing it (although I tend to raise pitying eyebrows at them when they do). Medical problems aren’t – mostly – blamed on my weight (why bother when you have a decade of eating problems to blame instead?). I can buy clothes easily; bikini-clad women in posters are within spitting distance of my shape, if somewhat less padded; I eat pretty much what I feel like; it’s easy and comfortable for me to exercise and I enjoy doing it; I’m not subject to the continuous drip-feed of fat-shaming in the media. I can go out wearing little but body paint without worrying people are going to yell insults at me on the street.
This isn’t to say that I always feel 100% happy with my body. As aforementioned, I just have no objective perspective on it whatsoever. I basically outsource my self-image these days – I know that whenever I look at myself in the mirror I am going to see a swollen, misshapen, grotesque thing, and it’s finally been drilled into me by friends and lovers and partners and strangers that that’s probably a minority viewpoint, so my emotional reaction is mostly to shrug my shoulders and get on with it. Like…I can’t be fucked to worry about looking hideous, rather than feeling I don’t look hideous. And y’know, a lot of me really isn’t perfect by anyone’s criteria – I have scholiosis and laudosis (sp??) so my spine is weirdly curved and my hips are uneven and my tummy sticks out and my shoulders are rounded down. My partners and close friends are sometimes subject to wails and flailing, but they’re lovely, and mostly used to it by now.
The point is, all this shit is internal – it happens in my head. Only very rarely – because I don’t spend a huge amount of time around ballet dancers or teenage girls or anorexic inpatients – am I significantly larger than those around me. Most of the time, I’m noticeably smaller. Which comes with its own issues, in terms of being treated with respect and as an equal, but they’re not the point here. I was once, two years ago, asked by some teenage girls in the swimming pool shower why I was so fat. It disturbed me, but not just because it was voicing my own insecurities; also because it was so unusual. What had I done that day? Was everyone suddenly seeing me how I saw myself? HAD I BEEN MAGICALLY HIDING MY TRUE SELF UP TO THAT POINT? It was…odd. How I would cope if my physical self-hatred was being continually culturally reinforced I don’t know, but the answer is probably ‘less well than I do now.’
So, who am I to condemn people who perceive themselves subject to relentless body shaming for reaching for any means of proffered redemption? I am hardly subject to the same pressures, after all, and so much of the time I keep my mouth shut.
But. I am *also* a veteran of a decade’s disordered eating, and specialise academically on its cultural construction. I am in a fairly good place to point out how traumatic and potentially damaging unthinking reiteration of the cultural messages fat is bad, weight loss is good, these are universal and unquestionable values, you are not good enough, manipulating your food intake is fine and potentially successful. (It’s not like the vast majority of all dieters regain their lost weight within 5 years or anything.) And just sometimes, the balance tips, and fighting wins out over tolerance. I don’t always get it right, but I’m not always sorry, either.