CN: Eating disorders, anorexia
It’s early on a Sunday morning and, as is my habit, I am scrolling through my Instagram feed. Amongst the meticulously arranged breakfast bowls and perfectly-lit summer salads is what appears to be a celebration! It is a bright and joyful snap of a table overflowing with cakes, biscuits and milkshakes. The caption underneath it simply says, ‘don’t judge us’.
Why would I judge you?
Judge you for enjoying yourself? Judge you for eating whatever the hell you want? I’m sure that most of us wouldn’t judge our friends if they existed solely on a diet of deep-fried cornflakes!
We often talk about food as if it has moral value. How often have you heard chocolate described as a ‘guilty pleasure’, or foregoing a treat described as ‘virtuous’? Words such as ‘good’, ‘bad’, ‘clean’, ‘dirty’ and ‘naughty’ feed a culture in which self-denial equates to saintliness and indulgence is sin.
However, a semi-religious attitude to food is not a new phenomenon. In an interview in The Atlantic, religion scholar Alan Leinowitz explores the fact that people thought sugar was bad in the late 1700s: purely because it was sweet and delicious, people assumed it must be sinful. Hundreds of years later, and we worship at the holy altar of diet more than ever. Who said we live in a secular society?
“Cleanliness may be next to godliness, but it remains to be seen whether any amount of kale will get you to heaven.”
The rise of the ‘clean eating’ movement has only served to perpetuate this worrying trend, with its covert denunciation of any food it considers ‘dirty’. Celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow have become society’s secular saints with their commitment to ‘detoxing’ and ‘purification’. Cleanliness may be next to godliness, but it remains to be seen whether any amount of kale will get you to heaven.
Healthy eating, of course, varies from person to person and situation to situation. Sometimes healthy eating means eating something that helps you relax just before an exam. It could also be eating that slice of birthday cake because, hey, it’s a ritual!
The way we talk about food, and how we experience others talking about food, has a direct impact on how we feel about the process of eating, and in turn, how we feel about ourselves. I am in recovery from the anorexia that plagued my teenage years and, although I do not believe that society creates eating disorders, it certainly lends fertile ground for their sustenance. Incidences of disordered eating, a much more prevalent issue, are definitely intensified by this language: feeling guilty while eating is one step away from banishing, with intense fear, the offending food. Fearing food eliminates the aspect of choice, and it is the ability to choose that makes eating healthy and, just as importantly, enjoyable.
Our words and actions have the power to forge communities of hospitable, encouraging and safe places to eat healthily: our own kind of healthy, that is. We can create spaces that enable people to eat without fear, guilt, embarrassment or shame. Here are my top tips for creating these spaces.
- Substitute moralistic or value-based language. Instead of calling foods ‘bad’, try calling them ‘treats’. This kind of language acknowledges that, although you may not want to eat these foods every day, there is absolutely NOTHING wrong with you or anybody else eating them once in a while.
- Bring your hunger into the open. Talk about it when you’re hungry or full or not quite sure. This helps to societally normalise the physicality of eating; after all, we all gotta eat!
- Oppose a one-size-fits all dietetic culture. Champion the idea that the definition of healthy eating is different for everyone.
- Be an ally for people with eating disorders. Get clued up about the similarities and differences between different eating disorders and oppose ignorance wherever you encounter it. Learn how to support friends with eating disorders or disordered eating. There is lots of information on b-eat.
- Look after yourself. Challenge any harsh thoughts about your diet, remembering that what you eat has no impact on your worth as a person. As the adage says, ‘be your own kind of beautiful’, but more importantly, be your own kind of healthy.