The Fallacy of “Perfect Eating”
Take a moment, if you will, to revisit the mid-2000s with me: there are trucker hats and velour sweatsuits galore; there is the birth of YouTube (which no one really remembers) and Lost gaining a cult following; there is Carrie Underwood winning American Idol and Tom Cruise bouncing on Oprah’s couch; and there is a smattering of hot female celebs photographed with the book Skinny Bitch in hand.
When I think of the ways we talk about food (and the mid-2000s), sometimes my mind goes back to Skinny Bitch.
Skinny Bitch was (ostensibly) the most straight-shooting iteration of pop food wisdom America had yet received. In it, authors (/models) Rory Freedman and Kim Barnouin became renowned for imparting weight loss “truths” with tough love and no sugarcoating. According to them, sugar (speak of the devil) is “the devil,” meat is “dead and rotting,” dairy is a “disaster,” alcohol consumption spurs “bloating fat pig syndrome,” and refined carbs are as “nutritionally beneficial as toilet paper.”
When I think of Skinny Bitch— or any other dietary regimen that relies on similar word-wielding—I think of the power of language to catapult more and more body-conscious folks of America into an increasingly militant realm of shame-driven, appearance-focused, and fearful restraint from a growing list of foods.
This kind of restraint—one more informed by scare tactics and insecurity than a solid understanding of actual physiological mechanisms in the body—is not exactly healthy. And it’s especially not healthy for those who struggle daily with the very real, relentless, at-your-heels and in-your-head pressure to attain (and maintain) bodily perfection— health-wise, appearance-wise, or both.
Of course, not many of us would readily admit to having this objective. Perfection, when uttered out loud, sounds a bit ridiculous. But perfection of the body is actually the goal that a lot of this language presupposes, and I want to explore why that is.
A lot of distorted thinking about food can find its origin in dieting rhetoric, which epitomizes the use of exaggerated language to engender fear-based devotion to a certain kind of regimen. This phenomenon became all the more apparent to me when I provided writing instruction for a course in which students learned how to deconstruct dieting rhetoric by comparing it to actual physiological processes of the body. The students discovered for themselves that, more often than not, the dieting claims didn’t hold up.
Skinny Bitch and most diet books exaggerate their claims by relying heavily on the use of figurative language— that is, any word or expression that deviates from its literal meaning in order to achieve a certain effect. To say that a person is “heartbroken,” for example, does not mean that a person literally has a broken heart; it is rather a phrase that illustrates the intense and visceral and core-like pain of experiencing, say, loss of a loved one. Figurative language is often employed to have a powerful and emotive effect. For this reason, I’ve had my students find examples of figurative language in their favorite song lyrics. This exercise also demonstrates to them how ubiquitous figurative language is. It’s everywhere.
So when it comes to food and figurative language, as I explored in my last post, it is no surprise that many of us are taken in by these illustrations, or at least amused by them. I mean, how can you not be amused by a comparison of refined carbs to toilet paper?
But as silly as this phrase is, there is also power in it. If you’re someone who is already eager to shave every superfluous ounce off your body— a desire that is itself influenced by certain ways of speaking— would you go on eating refined carbs again or eating them “guilt free”?
Or what about the idea of meat as “rotting” in the body? I know that 21-year-old Cammy, when she curiously skimmed this book years ago (working at a bookstore where it couldn’t stay on the shelf), was too conditioned to be fearful of putting anything “impure” in her body to take a sober-minded moment to interrogate that language. I didn’t consider the fact that “rot” is just an ugly word for the decomposition of organic matter via bacteria, nor did I consider how our bodies are constantly decomposing all kinds of organic matter when we simply put any kind of food in our bodies.
Of course, to think more critically about language in these instances is not to deny that certain foods can be less nourishing or outright harmful to our bodies than others are; it is rather to have greater clarity about how foods interact with our bodies. And clarity is the first thing we need when it comes to forging sustainable, healthy lifestyles and weighing (so to speak) the pros and cons of the overwhelming variety of dietary regimens that can often conflict with one another—from raw food-ology to Paleo to veganism to low-carb diets to low-fat diets.
And as we navigate these lifestyle choices, it’s the capacity of even the most unassuming phrases to be transformative— to alter our thoughts, behaviors, and habits— that gives us all the more reason to put pressure on that very language, especially when its reflection of reality is questionable.
In a survey recently, I asked about the words we use—or hear others use—to describe “unhealthy” versus “healthy” foods (e.g., “whole” food vs. “junk” food). I received some interesting examples— from the illustrative and humorous language of “fat pills” for donuts or “carb bombs” for bagels, to the more common words of “junk” and “garbage” and “impure,” to the refreshingly basic, true-to-nature descriptions like “sugary,” salty,” “high in protein,” “rich in ____,” etc. (I will look at the benefits of using the latter kind of language in my next post :)).
But it’s worth asking the question: to what extent does some of this language reflect reality? To what extent, for example, is ice cream—or pasta—or a non-organic carrot—“garbage” for my body?
Well, first, we know that food is not literally garbage. But the word “garbage” connotes certain characteristics— smelly, gross, useless, and even potentially harmful (need I re-visit the “shards of glass” example?). Perhaps the figurative qualities of garbage, according to a food purist, could find their analogues in the following ways: dairy is smelly, hydrogenated oils are gross, empty calories are useless, and pesticides, artificial flavors, and preservatives are harmful.
It’s understandable, to an extent, that we’ve resorted to this kind of language to blacklist such foods and ingredients. But figurative language meets, as it always does, its limitations in that it does not directly correspond to reality (you’ve probably heard a phrase along the lines of, “that’s where the metaphor falls apart”). Figurative language is comprised of images and symbols and hyperbole (radical exaggeration) that can help us better understand reality—but only when we’re willing to do the work involved in unpacking it.
The problem is that not many of us have the time or incentive to “unpack” such language. When it comes to health and weight loss talk, sometimes we seem more inclined swallow the language whole rather than ruminate on it to better understand where it’s coming from. It is easier to default to the soundbites of health wisdom posted on social media by “health people.” As one person wrote in response to last month’s survey, “I’m just thinking I really shouldn’t eat like that, because, well, the health people say so.”
But when we are willing to do the “heavy-lifting” of critical thinking for ourselves when it comes to this language, we might better understand that there are rarely one-time transactions that cause severe destruction to the body. Eating something “bad” is not a one-and-done deal. The body is amazingly resilient; it is actually made to be resilient. This is why we do not usually feel the full fatal force of, say, hydrogenated oils, or too much sugar, or residual pesticides in one sitting. The benefits or harms of any food or beverage have cumulative effects in our body. It’s for this very reason that even the more extreme, conspiracy-theorizing food purists, while they blame the food and drug industry for being in cahoots to kill us, are unable to directly pin the FDA for their crimes. Why? Because the negative effects of these things happen over time. Because of this, no proof of direct causation can (usually) be shored up to handcuff these perpetrators.
But the body’s resilience is no reason to take advantage of it; it’s all the more reason to take care of it. Resiliency has its limits; and when it reaches its limits in the body, that’s bad news.
Consider the body’s mechanisms of detoxification— and the mere fact that the body is even equipped with detoxing methods in the first place. While the word detoxification has been used and abused and reduced to a marketing buzzword, the actual detoxification processes in our body are intricate and incredible. The environmental toxins alone that our bodies are exposed to each day are dealt with so rigorously and diligently on the cellular level. It’s like our bodies expect to be lambasted with wear and tear each day. And this is no surprise. Think of all the things we ask our bodies to do simply in the course of a day— or even an hour or a minute. Our bodies are working hard even if we are just lying still.
The harder the body works, though, the more we have to take care of it so that it can work hard. But this is not a reason to live in fear of certain foods— or to live under the assumption that, if we avoid putting certain foods in our body, we can achieve some kind of physiologic Edenic state. Our bodies, as incredible as they are, are imperfect. They are finite. You may have heard the idea that the body starts dying at age 25 because of our cells’ decreasing ability to regenerate. While this is certainly debatable, what is not debatable is that our bodies are mortal. Is this reason to lapse into fatalism and throw all caution to the wind? Certainly not; we don’t want to accelerate this very process of degeneration. But I don’t want to obsess about halting or reversing it, either, to the extent that doing so is all I’m living for; the stress of this uphill battle would probably undermine my very objective of wellness in the first place.
But when I realize that I can’t make my body or my food or my environment completely perfect or whole—and that the “keep x and y out of your body, and it will be pure” type of thinking is fallacious— I am able to think more clear-headedly about how to live with balance, and I am able to take the black and whites of health rhetoric, and words like never and always, with a grain of salt (or maybe more than that, like a bowl of ice cream).
A couple of questions, though, still remain (at least for me): what if speaking in this way really motivates a person to lose weight (if that is what is needed) or to simply habituate healthier choices? Isn’t that good? What if I need to, say, refer to pizza as “garbage” or “junk food,” because this is the most effective motivation for me to make healthier choices?
The second question is the application one: how now should I approach and think about foods, especially if I do care about the goal of holistic health and wellness?
I’d like to more thoroughly address these questions in my next post… so stay tuned. 🙂 In the meantime, I’ve shared a video below from our friend, the time traveling dietician, that pretty humorously sums up the nature of some health fads…
*NOTE: While my hope is that these entries open up a productive dialogue for any and all, some of them may be especially relatable for those who have struggled with—or love someone who struggles with—orthorexia, anorexia, EDNOS (eating disorder not otherwise specified), or simply any patterns of anxious or obsessive thoughts surrounding food and body image. But to also acknowledge those in a different realm of food challenges (or perhaps overlapping): if you are someone who deals with a food allergy or addiction, autoimmune disease, and/or medically mandated dietary restrictions, some of these sentiments may not be as applicable or resonant—at least, not in the same way. Either way, I’d love to know why that is or isn’t the case, so feel free to make use of the comments section below or message me!