The wall of the campus woman’s room is decorated with screen printed patches. One of them reads ‘riots not diets’. Next to it someone’s scrawled a note, ‘riots are dangerous! And diets can be healthy’.
I want to talk about this idea that diets are healthy, because it’s a reaction I hear every year when we celebrate No Diet Day. We give out flyers about body image, about eating disorders, about the fact that so many women think their body is ugly. We criticise the unattainable beauty standards promoted by the media, the stigmatisation of fat people and the destructive relationship so many of us have with food.
We give away free cake to promote the idea that eating is fun and food is your friend. Inevitably, someone comes along and protests that being fat is ‘unhealthy’ and encouraging people to eat cake is somehow immoral.
It all depends on how you define health. I tend to think it’s about quality of life. If we accept this definition, then I don’t think it’s particularly ‘healthy’ to constantly obsess about what we eat. I don’t think it’s ‘healthy’ to feel guilty about food, or to feel like we’re weak and lack self control. Food should be a source of pleasure and sustenance, not guilt.
Of course, knowing all this doesn’t magically solve our complicated relationship with food. Sometimes it just makes things worse. On top of feeling weak for not being thin enough, for not eating ‘healthy’ enough, we feel weak for being so concerned with being thin, when we really ‘ought to know better’. When you’re constantly flooded with messages about the importance of being thin, about the importance of watching every bite we eat, it’s no wonder most of us have a complicated relationship with food. It’s really essential that we don’t judge ourselves, or other people, for that complicated relationship. If we’re going to fight the idea that the shape of our body determines our value as people we have to start by asserting that feeling crap about our body is not our fault. The solution to the problem of women hating their bodies is not to suddenly ‘get over it’ and start accepting ourselves for who we are. It’s just not that simple.
But there are things we can do to encourage positive relationships with our body. The biggest one is to make sure we don’t reinforce other people’s negative relationships with their bodies. That means watching the way we talk about bodies and food. It means not obsessing out loud about the number of calories in each meal, or following every dessert with a statement like, “now I’ll have to eat salad for a week.” It means not putting down other people’s bodies, and it also means trying not to put our bodies down in front of others (I know, this one can be hard). It also means not complimenting people on being thin, or on looking ‘healthy’, when what you really mean is being thin. It can be a hard habit to break, but we are all exposed to enough negative messages about food without having them reinforced by the people around us. So please think really hard about the way what you do and say makes other people feel about their body.
Oh yeah, and happy No Diet Day.