Fear, Food, & Feminism
Many eating disorders, mine included, begin with an obsession with health or nutrition. In recent years, a condition known as orthorexia, has become widely recognized in the medical community. People with orthorexia often adhere to strict food rules, cut out entire food groups, eat within certain time windows, or become increasingly obsessed with the idea of “clean” foods. It’s worth mentioning that “clean” foods are not real—they are a fallacy and this fact is widely agreed upon by registered dietitians, doctors, and health experts.
Jaclyn London, MS, RD, CDN, says that clean eating has “morphed from a sense of awareness about food into a diet-driven caste system. Not only does the phrase establish a hierarchical model for eating well, it's yet another medium for food-shaming.” In a world of extremes, “clean eating” has gained a sort of cult-following, the primary problem being that "clean" is a subjective term that everyone interprets differently.
A Time article published in July 2018 reported that about half of all Americans are trying to lose weight, but that women account for a larger percentage of dieters than men. The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey found that 56.4% of women were dieting compared to 41.7% of men, across all age, racial, and income brackets. While both men and women diet, our motives often differ. Men are more apt to diet due to health concerns (diabetes, heart disease, et cetera) while women are more apt to diet to change their appearance or fix some perceived flaw. Body obsession, body dysmorphia, and eating disorders are more common among women; an estimated 10 million women and 1 million men are fighting a life and death battle with an eating disorder, right now.
This is not to say that men don't also suffer, and their experiences are by no means invalidated by the simple fact of their relative rarity. Eating disorders, specifically anorexia, are the most lethal psychiatric disorders, carrying four times the death risk of major depression.
My personal journey through an eating disorder was mired in fear—fear of specific foods, fear of my own hunger, fear of how my body looked, fear of how others perceived me and my body, fear of the unknown, even fear of failure. I now see a very clear parallel between the patriarchy, food, and female bodies. It is not that men do not feel pressure to look a certain way, to be manly, or to fill certain roles. Men are not the enemy of feminism. The patriarchy is the enemy of women and men, it just happens to benefit men. This is an important distinction that needs to be clear if we are to understand the deeply seeded stigma surrounding all bodies: because the patriarchy privileges men, it is more acceptable for men to inhabit larger bodies. The patriarchy teaches us that it is not acceptable for women to ever inhabit larger bodies-even pregnant women are applauded for remaining slim or losing baby weight quickly. If you don’t believe me, you’re not paying attention.
As Roxanne Gay said in an interview with Vox, "There are a lot of consequences to living in a body, and to living in a woman’s body. I think you spend your entire life on display, whether you want to be or not. I’m very interested in exploring that, and how we live with that."
It is impossible and implausible to say, “I fully and completely love myself BUT" I hate how my stomach paunches, or I hate how wide my hips are, or I hate my back fat, or my neck, my nose, et cetera. We cannot love ourselves completely while hating our parts. Nothing has ever made less sense to me. I’ve heard men and women across platforms large and small condone disordered eating, Botox, surgeries, and expensive diet regimens all in the name of boosted confidence and enhanced self-love. What we fail to realize is that any external “improvement” has little to do with our internal selves. Begin with deep, profound self-love and the rest will follow.
A very real problem with my last statement is that the patriarchy does not teach deep, profound self-love, it teaches us to be dissatisfied with ourselves, so we spend money on expensive, excessive surgeries, diets, cleanses, and coaches that cannot "fix" us. The patriarchy is insidious because we often don't realize it's even there and cannot therefore recognize it's effects on us or it's influence in our damaging behaviors. Women are especially good at spending money and time on improving ourselves. Unfortunately, it is often not us that needs fixing, but the system that continually tells us we are broken.
Countless women have told me that they do not consider themselves feminists, for no real reason other than they find the term controversial. Or rather, that the current structure (patriarchy) is threatened by equality (feminism) and so categorizes feminism (equality) as unflattering, dangerous, or "extreme." Many more women sit at tables and decry the carbohydrate content, fat content, or sugar content in any and all foods. If anything is worth fearing, it is not food and it is certainly not feminists. The scariest thing in the world may be succumbing to the patriarchy and its antiquated, unrealistic ideals of body size or shape, and about a woman's role in the household, the workplace, in life. To resist the millions of messages telling women (and men) how we should look is a hefty feat, but one that is necessary in order to attain real, deep, profound self-love. To love oneself boldly and unabashedly is the most beautiful act of feminism I can think of.
There are ways to make this easier. Growing up, I subscribed to Seventeen, Elle, and Marie Claire. The tiny fashion models were intriguing to me, if only because I did not, could not, look like them. Now, I don't subscribe to any magazines. I follow body positive and feminist social media accounts (some of my favorites are Jessi Kneeland, runwhole.nutrition, dieticianna, Deborah Frances-White). I surround myself with strong, confident, gracious women (and men) who not only believe in me but believe in themselves. It took me many years to discover that my internal dialogue is influenced by my external world. One cannot be strong if the other is weak. Similarly, food cannot be feared if it is to sustain us. Men cannot remain privileged if equality is ever to be reached. Fear cannot determine our actions if we are ever to truly succeed.