The Face of Diet Culture: The 10 Year Challenge

The 10 year challenge shines a light on how much we as individuals have changed but how much has the face of diet culture changed in the last 10 years? In 2009, the same year that I left home to go to fashion school in London, starving yourself skinny was still cool. The severity of health implications related to the thin ideal came to a spearhead in 2006 when fashion model Luisel Ramos collapsed and died whilst participating in a fashion show. She died from heart failure related to malnutrition and ultimately anorexia. 6 months later her sister, Eliana Ramos who was also a model died due to complications related to malnutrition and anorexia nervosa. The same year, Ana Carolina Reston, a Brazilian fashion model also died due to complications from Anorexia Nervosa. The size 0 debate was started and the fashion world came under the spotlight – and this wasn’t a case of any press is good press. Many government and health bodies made the call for a minimum BMI requirement to be implemented for all models participating in fashion week events. In research links were drawn between the portrayal of excessively thin bodies as desirable, and the social pressures this placed on women to conform [2]. Size 0 was sold to us and we bought it with dire consequences: thin was in.

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During my 2 years at fashion school I remember hearing club kids talking about how many drugs they were doing and how long they’d managed to not eat for, with the aid of said drugs. Cheekbones and collar bones were in, even if that meant looking gaunt.With the rise of mephedrone at the time whilst it was legal, this wasn’t a difficult feat to be achieved. There were numerous times people weren’t in the studio from dealing with the aftermath of having taken mephedrone (Meow meow/Mcat) [3]. In fact, gaunt was good and not eating was cool. Some tutors would joke about how the cheesy carb fest the canteen was bad for your waistline. Thin was in at whatever cost, health was out.

Needless to say, in this environment I relapsed into my eating disorder and I relapsed hard. At my lowest weight, whilst I was an outpatient at an Eating Disorder Service I received the most praise for my appearance I have ever received to date: “you’re so beautiful”, “how do you do it?”, and on Facebook photos, “OMG gorgeous

This trend is evident beyond the realms of my fashion school anecdotes and misadventures with anorexia; a lot of people are reminiscing about similar changes in their 10 year challenge posts. It turns out that a lot of people in 2009 were skinny and in retrospect, feeling weak, unhappy and generally like a bag of shit. That’s how forcing your body to weigh much less than it is wants to be feels, like an absolute huge bag of shit. Fatphobia was high, and even healthy weight individuals were deemed as “curvy” or “plus size” – I mean honestly, just fuck right off.

These social pressures and appraisal did nothing to help me towards recovery and subsequently a few years later I left the fashion world pretty much over night. Size 0 sucked and the fashion world soon realised how much it sucked for business due to the public health, government and public backlash to promoting such severe thinness ideals. Surely this was a good thing? We were moving away from aiming for waists comparable to the average 7-year-old.

Heroin chic of the 90s had gone and pro-ana sites, blogs and forums were easily found and plentiful online. Entire communities gathered amongst the anonymity of the online world. Safe havens to encourage the pursuit of thin, and the glorification of such ideals became known as thinspiration, or thinspo for short. Fast forward a decade and strong is the new skinny; thinspo has been replaced with fitspo. Instead of collar bones and rib cages we now idolize sculpted bodies, low body fat percentages and big muscles. On the surface it seems health driven but when you get down to it, maintaining such low body fat percentages and building such quantities of muscle mass is just as difficult an ideal to work towards: it is also big business. It costs to get those muscles, cue the introduction of “clean eating” instead of dieting, phrases like “it’s not a diet, it’s a lifestyle choice” and the rise of the social media influencers. Now people are paying crazy amounts of money to try to achieve a particular aesthetic. When you dig deep, it’s not all that much different, but instead with the introduction of classism – not eating is essentially free whereas superfoods and trendy gym classes are in the KERCHING!  regions, cue M.I.A. “I just want your money” (song title ‘paper planes’).

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The rise of visual social media platforms and smartphones making everyone a photographer, instagram has been a mass playground and propagator for fitspo, clean eating and ultimately a shit ton of social comparisons based on these visuals. Does my smoothie bowl look Michelin start enough? Are my abs clean-cut enough? How about in this pose? Additionally there are apps to add abs and change your photos to be who you want to be – so god knows how much of this stuff we see online isn’t even real, and here’s the catch, we compare ourselves anyway; it’s natural. Of course, we’re always going to come up short in such comparisons. Just as we always came up short to the photoshopped thinness of models in magazines and on billboards.

There have been associations made between exposure and engagement with healthy eating communities on Instagram and orthorexia tendencies [4]. Orthorexia is an obsession with eating clean foods, without impurities. It manifests as an obsessive preoccupation with eating perfectly and results in the cutting out of food groups deemed not pure enough [1]. In the rise of clean eating and the idea of purity invading in on our eating practices it’s a wonder of whether we are eating something because we like it and it tastes nice, or whether it’s trendy, seen as the new cult super food or looks good on Insta? The social pressures amongst these online communities is high, and food shaming is definitely rife like a plague amongst these online circles. Just as with starvation practices, this takes us away from listening to our bodies and their needs because external forces are dictating what, how much and when we eat.

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Although we might not be starving ourselves, models might not be collapsing and dying at fashion shows and smoking cigarettes instead of eating lunch the question lies in really contemplating just how much has really changed? How much of this change is a mask of the same old issues? The same motivations, feeding into the same desires and issues around controlling our bodies, minds and emotions? When we are so focused on our bodies and controlling them down to every minute detail, we do not have the energy to focus on bigger things. Being super lean and strong is not empowering if you’re obsessed with what you can and cannot eat. Fitspo is not empowering if it makes you feel like shit. Being enslaved to your reflection and how you look is not empowering. It might feel as such sometimes but if it’s taking away from your life in any way then it’s time to reconsider how we relate to fitspo and slogans such as “strong is the new skinny”.

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The irony of a lack of focus on holistic health in the health and wellness industries is laughable at best and shameful at worst. Are we really progressing away from hyper-vigilience around what we put in our mouths and the impacts this ha son our body shape in the pursuit of health, or is this a new era of diet, health and wellness fuck uppery? My advice for seeing between the lines? Be critical, be analytic and if an image is prescribing an aesthetic ideal get the fuck outta there quick sharp. Being pained by attaining a certain look is not progress, but instead the falsification of progress. For real change we need to call this shit out and disempower the hold they have over us as individuals, communities, men, women, and especially for our children. We need to learn to know better.


Sources:
[1] Beat (2017) Orthorexia. Available at: https://www.beateatingdisorders.org.uk/types/orthorexia .
[2] Costa-Font, J. & Jofre-Bonet, M. (2011) Anorexia, Body Image and Peer Effects: Evidence from a Sample of European Women. London: London School of Economics and Political Science.
[3] Rebekah Brennan, Marie Claire Van Hout, (2012) “Miaow miaow: a review of the new psychoactive drug mephedrone”, Drugs and Alcohol Today, Vol. 12 Issue: 4, pp.241-253, https://doi.org/10.1108/17459261211286654
[4] Turner, P.G. & Lefevre, C.E. Eat Weight Disord (2017) 22: 277. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40519-017-0364-2

 

A Place for Processed Foods

There’s a lot of hype, or should I say anti-hype around the idea of ‘processed foods’. Frequently the term “processed foods” appear on lists of “bad foods” and “foods to cut out” in a number of “diet programmes”. I realise I’m using a lot of quotation marks here but it’s necessary.

A lot of these “diet programmes” requiring participants to cut out “processed foods” are often vague about what is classified as a processed food and what isn’t. This leaves the restrictions of the diet wide open for interpretation. I’m not a fan of these programmes, Whole 30 for example, is a whole load of bullshit neatly packaged to sell people more rules around eating that are unnecessary, restrictive and let be straight here, based on complete bullshit science – if you can even associate the Whole 30 with any sort of science at all.

In general though, there’s a trend towards whole food in general. Whole meaning, better, organic preferably, plant based, raw maybe, and likely to be found at hiked up prices in places like WholeFoods. (Sorry WholeFoods, I kind of like you and kind of detest you all at once). The problem is with this trend is that it perpetuates food snobbery and food elitism. It not only labels all other foods as lesser, to the extreme of basically calling anything else devil like poison. It’s an easy ploy to buy into with the current health status of the western world keeling over with lifestyle associated diseases more so than has ever really faced human history.

It’s scaremongering and food propaganda, harnessing fears of foods, to sell products and programmes that will cure all consequences of eating from the devil’s path. I wish I was exaggerating. The thing is, a lot of processed foods have a very good place in our food industries. I’m not talking about money here, I’m talking about widening the availability of a wide variety of food choices to more and more people worldwide. The food industry, although it has a lot to answer for, has made having a decent meal in the evening not require someone cooking all afternoon for the family. The food industry has made it possible to preserve foods at higher nutritional qualities with less nutrient and quality degradation in various forms from frozen to dehydrated powders.

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These products don’t exist because people are lazy. They don’t exist to tempt us into a life of crippling illness. They serve a lot of people, some who may not have the skills to cook from scratch, those who have a stringent budget where buying processed might offer more affordable options, or those with few cooking facilities in their homes. Not everyone has a freezer, or even an oven. Many are now living with hob plates, maybe a microwave and a kettle. Sadly, this isn’t a vast minority anymore – Yo! London landlords, this isn’t OK for £600+ a month!.

Then there are people who have the skills to cook, have the knowledge of what a meal consists of, has a fridge freezer and an oven but for some reason or other are not able to cook as they’d ideally like to all the time. I fall into this category. Living with a chronic mental illness means that sometimes I’m fine prepping veg, buying fresh and cooking up a few meals in preparation for the days ahead. It also means that sometimes, this is an insurmountable task so I will either rely on convenient options, or not eat then make up for it in an all out ice cream and chocolate frenzy.

Many may disagree that convenience “processed food” is a healthy option. It isn’t always but there is a lot available now in the form of ready meals. These get pricey though. To keep eating a relatively balanced diet in a pretty regular pattern is as important as a regular sleeping schedule for management of my illness. If that slides I’m basically putting my foot a bit more to the metal towards a breakdown, a crisis or an extended period of really not functioning.

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Why is this relevant? Tonight for dinner I had some frozen veggie sausages, cheap smash and some frozen peas and sweetcorn. The smash is from the days when we had no money. The best before dated to April 2015. I figured a sealed pack of powder that will smash up into a kind of mash couldn’t do too much harm. I seem fine so far. This meal meant that I ate something filling and more wholesome than ignoring eating all together. However, without such processed foods – everything was processed from the gravy granules, the mash powder, the frozen veg and factory made sausages, this meal wouldn’t have existed. I would have likely just done without until I couldn’t do without any more. You see, for many people in many situations throughout society, processed foods are a lifesaver. They can often be a better option. So demonising “processed foods”, getting on the nutrition high horse and engaging with food elitism isn’t necessary – and often the arguments for such a stance are inaccurate, based on cherry picked science, sometimes written by people claiming to have credentials that upon digging deeper actually mean very little, and scaremongering us into paying £3 for an avocado and £4 for a 100g bar of chocolate.

It makes you wonder who the real devils are in all of this?

Signs Your Healthy Eating Regime isn’t as Healthy as You Think

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We are all constantly bombarded with messages that we as a nation
are unhealthy. We’re getting more overweight and obese. We’re not
exercising enough. We drink too much and eat too much of the wrong
foods.

You’re Always Hungry:
One sure fire way of knowing that your new dietary lifestyle isn’t
sustainable is by how hungry it leaves you feeling. Your body makes
hunger signals in response to needing energy and nourishment.
Identifying real hunger from emotional hunger or boredom hunger,
or habitual hunger can be tricky – and if you now live in a permanent
state of hunger most of the time with a growl in your stomach then
chances are something is a miss.

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Your Diet Is Stressful:
If you find yourself crying because of a food, then something isn’t right.
If you’re stressing because nothing available to eat is fitting with your
new dietary lifestyle then maybe it’s too restrictive. Food is a form of
enjoyment that is very natural to us. Sometimes making big changes
can be slightly stressful as you adjust, say if you’re transferring from an
omnivore to a vegetarian diet. However, if it feels overwhelming or too
restrictive then maybe a longer transition time might help to gradually
ease into your preferred dietarylifestyle.

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Eating Becomes About Emotions:  We’ve all comfort eaten for some
reason or another. The problem really emerges when eating replaces
emotions, whether that’s overeating as a way to deal with emotions,
or under eating. Neither scenario is entirely avoidable but as a default
then this starts spelling trouble with your relationship with food.
Dieting as a way to ‘undo any damage’ caused by emotional eating will
only fuel the disharmony with your relationship with food. There’s a
whole range of advice, books and therapies available to help with
healthy expression of emotions.

 

Fat Becomes a Feeling: Fat isn’t a feeling. You don’t ‘feel fat’ emotionally
speaking. If that becomes a default rhetoric you use when you’re feeling
a bit crap then, without sounding like a psych stereotype, do some digging
about what you’re really feeling. Maybe you’re upset, or angry or annoyed.
It can be anything which solidifies the argument that fat isn’t a feeling.

 

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Guilt and Shame Appear:
We often eat for emotional reasons. A classic break up scene is crying at a
film with a tub of ice cream. It’s a natural reward so if you’re feeling a bit
down or have had a stressful day then a glass of wine, or some chocolate
may be on the agenda. That’s totally cool; no one ever died of a heart attack
because they ate 1 or 2 chocolate bars when they were hacked off on occasion.
Guilt and shame are such strong emotions and they really have no place in
your life when it comes to food. Feeling so emotionally worn down
because you ate something doesn’t have a place in a healthy relationship with
food. None what so ever. If someone else tried shaming you for your food
choices and it keeps happening, it might be time to stick up for yourself and
ask them to not do that as nicely as you can. Maybe a “I’d rather you didn’t
Karen” instead of “FUCK YOU KAREN!” when you’ve reached the end of your
tether might be needed.

Identifying Healthy Media Outlets

How to identify healthy media messages that can help harbour self acceptance and compassion.

Having written about identifying unhelpful media for helping on your journey to ditch diet culture, and protect yourself from a shit storm of dieting onslaught I think it would also be helpful to identify some pointers for identifying health positive media. It’s not all doom and gloom; there is a growing amount of people championing self acceptance, a holistic attitude to health and body positivity.

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If you’re considering swapping your magazine subscription, or clearing up your social media feeds then here’s a list of how to identify health positive media that will help and encourage you to be healthy and well without a one size fits all model.

  • They encourage self acceptance:

    Media that helps and encourages us to love ourselves can only be good. When we say “they love themselves” about someone it can be an insult for arrogance, but loving yourself doesn’t need to equate to arrogance. In order to love ourselves we need to first accept ourselves – so if your magazine or social media feed is encouraging you on a journey of self acceptance then it’s a winner. Keep that live.
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  • Encourages a healthy balanced lifestyle 

    By encouraging balance in our lives, for as unsensational as that is to sell, a harmony can be reached with ourselves, our bodies and our health. Some things you may do in your life may be technically unhealthy, however, often there are worse thing you could d be doing so, is the odd cigarette really the worst thing in the world? Or is a bit of cake really going to make you unhealthy?Balance isn’t about eating high sugar high fat food all the time. It also isn’t eating a restrictive diet of just mange-tout on Mondays, or carb free Fridays. I just made that up, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it existed somewhere. It’s about eating healthy food and having some balance in your life so that cake isn’t stressful, you’re not panicking at a buffet and you’re not eating the whole pack of biscuits with the TV each night because you’re swearing you’ll never eat them again. By allowing all foods, regardless of nutrition content allows for a more balanced and healthy outlook and relationship with food.
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  • Advises being inclusive of all food groups

    A lot of diets cut out food groups. No grains, no carbs, no sugars… the list keeps on going. Some diets include only eating one food group, fruit for example on a restrictive fruitarian diet. Unfortunately, yes that exists.Nutritionally, excluding any food group can lead to being malnourished, physically and emotionally. Sometimes we need a piece of chocolate for comfort, or a hot drink can be soothing. Discarding any food group only furthers a disharmony in your relationship between yourself, your body and your food.

    So yes, if you like cake then cake has a place in your diet just as all the other stuff like grains, carbs, veg, protein.
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  • Gives the power to you over your priorities

    With our health, it is largely in our hands when it comes to eating. However, a lot of media will try to tell you what you ought to be eating or not eating. They’ll try to encourage that your priority should be weight loss, or abs, or building muscle. That isn’t for everyone and in fact, a media outlet that gives the power to you to define your own goals and your own priorities is empowering – and you wanna keep that live too.Why let some editor in an office living a completely different life to you define what your values and priorities with you health ought to be? We’re all different and we all have different lives – what is important for one person may be the bottom of the list for another. Therefore, media that helps you identify what you want by asking questions to prompt considering it can be helpful, but if they’re guiding you in the direction of their own priorities then shut that shit up!
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  • Comes from a place of non-judgmentalness

    When we’re learning to be self-compassionate the last thing we need is judgements from others infiltrating the good vibes. It can be extremely difficult to develop self-compassion and shut the nagging self-deprecating voice in our heads up. Therefore, it is important to surround ourselves with media and messages that come from a place of non-judgementalness. This stance in approaching not only ourselves, but others as well, can really harbour compassion not only for ourselves but for others.It’s a great lesson to learn to not be judgmental but being surrounded by judgmental media can only lengthen and challenge our journey towards being non-judgemental. It can be hard to identify judgement words, but basically emotionally loaded ways of describing can help sum them up. Lazy or stupid for example are quite harsh judgement words, and when they’re used to describe someone or ourselves can be quite damaging.
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