"There is difference and there is power. And who holds the power decides the meaning of the difference." --June Jordan

Monday, August 16, 2010

Diet Advice, Social Eating, and Feminism

(Cross-posted at UNBREADED)

You know the standard diet tips that are always showing up everywhere? The ones we've all heard a million times, but the magazines keep printing them, and the thin and bubbly morning news anchors keep filling segments with them? Sometimes, I feel like the media is droning out an endless Lost-style radio signal telling us to take the stairs, use smaller plates, and stop eating hours before bedtime.

While I find the repetition of many of these tips mildly annoying, there's one that I keep seeing that really gets under my skin: the one that advises we avoid eating alone.

The logic behind this tip is that people who consume most of their food in the presence of others apparently let their self-consciousness about appearing gluttonous get in the way of stuffing their faces. And while this advice may work wonders for some people, it's totally lost on me for a couple of reasons:

1) I've realized over the years that I'm what you might call a social eater. For me, food -- especially junk food full of sugar and starch -- is more fun when it's being shared. While I can stay on track with a healthy eating plan with few problems by myself, I often find a way to use getting together with friends as an excuse to stop caring about what I'm putting into my body. Sadly, this has meant that the times in my life when I feel the most fulfilled socially are also the times when I tend to gain the most weight, and rededicating myself to health and weight-loss often means having to isolate myself for a while in order to develop new habits.

Part of the problem is that I feel like I'm less fun (maybe even less me) when I'm ordering a salad instead of fries and drinking water instead of soda. I've never smoked, and I rarely drink, but I imagine the psychological process involved is similar for people who smoke or drink socially. I have this strong feeling that such indulgence is somehow necessary to my good time. Remember that study that came out a few years ago claiming that people with fat friends are more likely to also be fat? It made sense to me, because I think people just like surrounding themselves with like-minded people who enjoy similar things. Katie and I talk a lot about how there are so many people out there who just don't seem to care about food the way we do, and we both agree that it's much harder to relate to these people socially. Similarly, I doubt someone who thinks a party isn't a party without alcohol would get a lot of enjoyment from hanging out with me, but if you're always in the mood to get together and consume a large pizza and a tube of raw cookie dough, I'm your girl.

2) Those who know me well know that I'm a raging feminist who resents how women in our culture live in a regime in which we are constantly judged by our behavior and appearance and encouraged not to take up too much space. And the "friendly" dieting advice telling us not to eat alone actively counsels us to yield to insecurities derived from societal rules about how much and what types of foods women should be eating. In a culture in which we are are constantly taught that men are entitled to rich foods in large amounts and women are not, diet advice that encourages this sort of self-surveillance in women (anyone else read Foucault in college?) serves to further entrench gendered oppression and inequality.

My problem is that my feminist consciousness makes me want desperately to rebel against diet culture, even though I often actively participate in it, and that creates an ambivalence in me about eating that makes me go back and forth between trying to eat really healthfully and wanting to lash out at the diet industry by eating whatever the hell I damn well please, thankyouverymuch. It's not that appetite and/or fatness are inherently feminist, but in our sexist culture, unapologetic appetite and/or fatness in women is inherently political. And throughout my life, I have taken a special pride in being able -- in the presence of others -- to "eat like a man". I don't know that it's ever even really occurred to me to worry that people might think I'm eating too much, but I hate it when other people know I'm watching what I eat, because it feels antifeminist and stereotypically girly.

I'm interested in hearing what others think about this. Do your individual health goals sometimes end up conflicting with your self-image or your personal politics, and if so, how do you deal with it? Which conventional diet/fitness/health tips annoy the crap out of you?

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