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

 

Belly and Me Volunteering for Beat Eating Disorder Charity UK

Once upon a time I would regularly stand sideways in the mirror to scrutinise my body. Standing on the end of the bath I would use the huge wall sized mirrors to view myself from every angle possible. I would pick at bits that I particularly hated about myself to really ruminate and focus on, and trust me there were many.

In all of this extensive scrutiny my belly was the main focal point of my relentless barrage of self hatred. From taking selfies on dodgy cameras in the 2000s, to checking every reflection opportunity regardless of how skewed it may have been: the TV screen, changing rooms under dodgy lighting, and window reflections. I wouldn’t call it vanity although I understand that it may sound that way. It was never to admire myself, or to check my make up but instead to check how fat I was, and how much of a failure I was for not having lost any weight.

I used to stand in first position (ballet) and check my belly, my waist and shoulders from the back and side. Eventually I started measuring my waist multiple times a day because in my mind the weighing scales just didn’t show “progress” quite as well. I was in the depth of my eating disorder. Regardless of which eating disorder I was engaged with the same insecurities prevailed; the same poses regardless of how much weight I lost, didn’t lose or gained.

I will never get those hours back. For a long time, part of recovering from an eating disorder is removing triggers from the home: bread, cereal, weighing scales, mirrors, or whatever it is that you struggle with in particular. I only just recently graduated to getting a full length mirror again. I found it helpful in the process of learning to not obsess over my reflection and body shape or size to not have one. With just a head sized bathroom cabinet mirror to check for toothpaste, mascara smudges and whether I could push it another day without washing my hair. I’d consider these the basics. Now I have a full length mirror that I briefly check my overall outfit in sometimes. No belly checks. No shoulder blade analyses. No standing in first position and taking measurements.

I may have gained weight and realising just how much no one gives a fuck is brilliantly liberating. Sometimes now when I’m watching TV, or sat on the bed idle I actually like to rest my hands on my belly. Sometimes it pokes out from under my top in front of my friends and I’m not embarrassed anymore; it’s my belly and I’m healthy. It doesn’t mean anything more or less than that. It doesn’t need to be toned or trimmed or flattened. Sometimes it’s quite comforting to poke and prod my belly whilst sat around. I have no idea why or what exactly caused this seismic shift in mentality, but I’m quite affectionate of my belly and if I see it jiggling in a video it doesn’t upset me like it used to.

 

See here, I am having the time of my life running through ridiculously deep autumn leaves. My belly is jiggling. Yes I noticed it. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t but look at that smile; that is more important to me.

Using my body to feel good and strong is more important to me. Wearing clothes that are comfortable and I feel nice in is important to me but the size label in them isn’t. I am proud of my recovery from my eating disorder. It was one of the hardest battles of my life and an experience I will never forget. This experience fuels my passion for nutrition, health and empowering others to make peace with their bodies and food. Soon, my belly and me are going to start training to be a Beat online mentor.

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There’s serendipity in this. Maybe all those hours I spent body checking, weighing and measuring myself wasn’t a ginormous waste of time. Something good can come from this in relation to my purpose on this earth; from that experience I have gained a passion, a purpose and a drive to help others. I feel that this is finally going to start happening in real terms with this volunteering opportunity and I’m really proud of that, perhaps more proud of that than my little belly.

 

Dumping “Body Image” in Return for “Body Love”

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Diet culture is everywhere. It is pretty difficult to avoid, especially when dental adverts are colluding success rates with weight loss rates, and big influencers like Kim Kardashian are partnering with companies like Flat Tummy Co. to promote appetite suppressing products to their hoards of followers. It is difficult to believe that being in a body that doesn’t fit the beauty ideal of slim, toned and strong is OK. It’s hard to believe that you too are an acceptable body or that you can run a marathon.

Bryony Gordon and Jayda Seza ran the marathon this year in their underwear to show that runner’s bodies come in many different shapes and sizes. Being a different size to the bountifully pushed ideal does not mean you can’t enjoy physical activity, that you can’t be strong and most of all that you can’t be healthy. There are so many brilliant body positivity activists now showcasing that you can be “bigger” and healthy. There is a wave of activists fighting back against the body fascism and fat phobia in the name of “health”.

Since recovering from my eating disorder admittedly with a helping push from my meds increasing my weight in a way that was out of my control, I learned to relinquish any form of “control” over my body. I knew this time around on Quetiapine that it worked for me, but for it to keep on working for me I had to stay on it. Without it I relapse, plain and simple. A toss-up occurred between keeping a sense of control over my “recovered” weight and remaining mentally unwell, or relinquishing such control and giving the Quetiapine a real chance to work in the longer term. This was a very scary time for me. I have spent a decade of my life at war with my body, trying to control it and living in the safety confines of my eating disorder. Suddenly, recovery took a whole new turn – I wasn’t only maintaining a “healthy” weight, I was letting this medication cause havoc with my appetite and metabolism. If I had any hope of maintaining some stability with my moods though, this was it. Having tried most other medications suitable for my illness that this was the one that worked if I let it – and by let it I mean staying on it regardless of the weight gain. I made the only decision I could if I wanted to really start building any sort of future for myself. I stayed on the medication.

I learned a lot during this time. I learned that being well in a bigger body was definitely the right decision. My fitness journey into running, climbing and falling in love with movement, in addition to my studies in anatomy and physiology have caused a complete dimensional shift, and ultimately an entirely different view for me, on what body image is.

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Although I am no longer a skinny, my stomach has an extra padding of fat as opposed to the almost concave structure of previous years, and my thighs touch for the first time in my life. I have boobs, which are great although still slight, and it is easier to catch myself at an angle wherein which I have a double chin on show. I can shake my arms, and they wibble a little, and I have speckled cellulite over my thighs and bum when I tense. Speaking of which, I still have absolutely no bum. I need a larger size of clothes than I ever have previously yet still, no bum, and you know what? I am the most comfortable I have ever been with my body.

Yes, it looks a certain way in pictures and mirrors – but really, my body is not a picture. My body was not made solely to look a certain way. My body was made to function, to breathe, contract, relax, move, jump, run and skip for joy. My body lets me enjoy the senses of living be they the smell of fresh bread or dog shit on my shoe. My body brings me enjoyment in food, and digests it pretty well as energy in order to continue functioning as the amazing, complex piece of biological machinery that I am. Not only do I function, but my body allows for me to have a mind and a conscience. My body allows for emotions, and it fights diseases so I can still keep on enjoying experiences and living healthily. My body is not a picture. My body is so much more than that.

The sum of all this? I value my body more for what it can do, where it can take me, and the experiences it can give me. I’m no longer so hung up or concerned with looking a particular way, but more in doing particular things. Sure sometimes I have a momentary dip in confidence, sometimes I catch myself iterating diet culture messages of too much, need to lose weight, pain is gain and all that tom fuckery – but my choice in responding is to try to check in with myself when I notice these thoughts cropping up. I remind myself I am more than my mirror image and always will be.

I want to climb walls, and climb them better. I want to gain strength and resilience, and run all these races that I’ve signed up for. I want to dance, and move, and shake and enjoy what my body makes achievable for me every single day. I want to celebrate my strengths, and work on enjoying my body in more ways than I can possibly imagine. I can eat wonderful foods thanks to my body. I can conquer feats I never before thought would be possible for me like The London Marathon. I can have sex and enjoy all the sensations that brings. I can get myself around every day, and my legs do a fucking fantastic job of getting me around London on my bike. My arms do a great job at allowing me to do all the things I enjoy:  writing, reading, playing the ukulele really badly, climbing, eating, drinking, and in a hap hazardous way they contribute to my atrocious list of dance moves that I like to bust out when the party’s right. My eyes, they let me see all these beautiful sights that make me thankful to see everything I can: nature, skylines, sunrises and tropical storms. I can smell the warmth of the rain, and the freshness of cut grass and fresh coffee. The complexity of these joys cannot be captured in a photo or a mirror. Life is richer than that and so am I, and so are you.

My awkward smile may hint at the joys I have been experiencing, and my over excited crazy photos may capture a moment, but how my body looks, fuck that. It’s not important. I am healthy. I am capable, and I am taking advantage of those biological wonders that nature has blessed me with. So it no longer matters that I don’t fit into my skinny jeans, and it no longer matters that my arms aren’t spindly spaghetti features. My face is no longer structured by emaciation and malnourishment, and my waist is no longer so tiny it’s to die for, quite literally. My body is giving me life, and it is up to me to capture and cherish that fact.

So for as far as my body image goes, it’s not about image; it’s about sensations, feelings, experiences and love. Instead I will say that my body image is largely irrelevant but my body love is engaging with a pattern of exponential growth.

So there it is. I fucking love my body – and I bet yours is pretty darn fabulous too regardless of how it looks.

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