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

 

Flushed: Inside Bulimia

 

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*Trigger Warning* – If you are experiencing or have experienced an eating disorder this post may be triggering for you.

To the buzz of 7am she hits ‘snooze’. 7.10am. Snooze. 7.20am. Snooze. Each day is dreaded and deferred for as long as can be; it is a school day. Another day of skulking along in the shadows of school walls, of silently answering the register and trying to climb the stairs to classes without collapsing into the dizzy embrace of starvation. Running her hands over her body she smoothes over her stomach, ‘how fat am I today?’ feeling the angular jut of her hip bones, ‘are they more than yesterday?’ Conveniently she doesn’t have time for anything more than her morning coffee, the warmth of which gives her a hazy buzz of faint energy to push her on the school bus where she sits by the window trapped behind her own panes of glass that suffocate her with self-hatred, anger and despair.

The noise of chaos has wound to at the full throttled pace at which it will be all day, “Fat bitch. Don’t eat. You don’t deserve to eat. You’re a fat pig. You’re a fucking ugly mess. Exercise. Burn the calories. You can survive off the fat you’re carrying you greedy bitch” and on it goes, tallying calories upon calories, adding, subtracting and goal setting.

If she could just avoid all food completely, if she could just get past those dinner time hours she would be fine, if she could just lose 40lb, she would be calmer, happier, and loved maybe? Instead of heaving into the porcelain whirlpool each and every night, homework would be done, extra study like she used to maybe. She could pull that grade up that’s been slipping so stealthily through her grasped hands. She’s not a D Grade student; predicted A’s the doubt is setting in with teachers. Her future is slipping into disappointed prospects and being flushed away just like every other part of herself, her life, her everything.

In class she answers ‘yes miss’, ‘yes sir’ so barely there, a shell of her former self. No longer is she told ‘quieten down please girls’, ‘stop the chatting’ or ‘I’m separating you three’– now, ‘I can’t hear you’, ‘can you speak up?’ ‘Oh there she is’ on resignation that speaking up is no longer an option.

Lunch is a compulsory routine in the gym alone whilst the echoes of everyone else having fun and hanging out bounce between the corridors and through open windows from the field. Being with people is exhausting. Cracks are showing. “I’m really tired too” – they retort to her passing sighs, “no, you don’t understand” fatigued, she’s unable to muster the strength to say anything; this is a whole new type of tiredness. Speaking, thinking, just existing is a task so soul destroying that she wishes for nothing more than to disappear. Unable to concentrate in class, her head meets the desk discretely and she drifts off unable to stay awake until finally that last bell of the day rings.

The kettle simmers and the taste of her hot chocolate is so soothing, the sugar rush so gratifying: shakes subside and weakness eases. Ready for bed she naps. She hears of her friends talking about hanging out after school, those days are gone. The thought of being around people for any longer than absolutely necessary rises an intolerable frustration. Loneliness is much easier; there’s no pretending to be OK, forcing smiles or hiding behind breaking defences.

Frantically grasping at and pulling boxes of cereal from the cupboard, pouring bowl after bowl she eats so fast she cannot even taste or chew before she even realises that she is in the kitchen. Frenzied with hunger and despair she has mastered the art of eating cereal and toasting slice after slice, smothering it a centimetre thick in butter and marmalade. In between toasting she lathers up pieces of bread and whilst raiding the outside freezer taking solace in knowing no one will notice. Grabbing frozen bread rolls that are too many to be counted, grabbing at frozen meals she piles a heap of chips in the oven whilst defrosting the bread in the microwave, stuffing it all in whether it is fully defrosted or not, whilst another defrosts into a soggy mass of starch in the microwave. Peeking into the food caddy, are there any leftovers from their dinner last night? How about the bin?

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She slows down, bent over nearly double, unable to stand fully for the pain of her distended stomach. Pounding the stairs fearing that she might explode in agony she heaves on 3 time after time, again and again. Saliva, snot and tears stream down her face and arm, her red raw knuckles and puddle of urine on the floor from heaving so hard are the mess she finds herself in every day. This is her secret life, this is what she is becoming, and this is her world of lies, shame and hidden torment. She hates it, but hates to be without it more. It is an addiction.

8f0e7d8485e36888d3d9faf48f0cd15eAlways home alone, there is comfort to be found here from the tip toeing around afraid of making a wrong move and listening to the screams, tears and punching of walls. Bingeing is a whirlwind of turmoil that she so desperately wants to stop but by comparison the retching is peaceful for her, a tranquil haven from reality. It is never enough until she hits exhaustion, until she is collapsing on the floor from violent heaving, and resting in the haze of the aftermath.

Climbing into bed entirely unaware if her parents even came home that night she writes a diet plan for the next month. Her goal weights are beyond emaciation yet she remains a ‘healthy weight’. Diet plans, diet pills and fad diets consume every other waking moment. Tomorrow she vows to not eat. Tomorrow is a new start. Tomorrow will be different, until it pans out exactly the same and with each grinding day, the obsessions entrench, the self-hatred deepens and the original conflict hides beneath another surface, another layer, another mask to wear.

– If you want more information or are affected by this story, something-fishy.org and B-eat are good organisations for help, support and more information.