Wednesday, March 30, 2011

FFB: Food and Feminism and What I Learned

(Desserts at Nova Albion.)

This is yet another post I'm doing with Fashionable Feminist Bloggers community; roundup post is here.

I want to talk about things I learned about dieting. Body positivity and fat activism have been perceived as feminist issues, and they are. Yet, I often feel dissatisfied with such discussions, partly because of the persistent "everyone is beautiful" nonsense, but partly because they rarely go past the effects of advertising on body image. Sure, yes, advertising does things. But the root of the problem is much more pernicious: since 1950s, we knew what food deprivation does to people (thank you, Minnesota Starvation Study): it, also known as dieting, causes the following symptoms: "[the patients] became nervous, anxious, apathetic, withdrawn, impatient, self-critical with distorted body images and even feeling overweight, moody, emotional and depressed. A few even mutilated themselves, one chopping off three fingers in stress. They lost their ambition and feelings of adequacy, and their cultural and academic interests narrowed. They neglected their appearance, became loners and their social and family relationships suffered. They lost their senses of humor, love and compassion. Instead, they became obsessed with food, thinking, talking and reading about it constantly; developed weird eating rituals; began hoarding things; consumed vast amounts of coffee and tea; and chewed gum incessantly (as many as 40 packages a day)."

Considering that it is primarily women who are encouraged to diet, it seems pretty clear that the agenda behind it is not about health. It's just one more way of exercising control.

And speaking of exercising: time and time again celebrity trainers keep telling us how to get a "dancer's body". Because dancers are tiny. You want to be tiny, don't you? No, don't lift those weights -- you might bulk up! And, god forbid, with increasing strength you might actually stop caring about being thin and start caring about being strong. You won't spend your days calculating how many calories were in that salad dressing in your lunch salad but might instead eat a healthy diet that will allow your body to be strong instead of frail. And if you don't care about being thin, well! What will you do instead?

Emphasis on dieting, of course, does another terrible thing to women's bodies: calorie restrictions cause loss of muscle mass, so every time you lose weight, you lose muscle, and when you stop dieting and gain back the weight, you will gain more because there's less muscle. Loss of muscle mass is one of the very few ways of altering set point of a person's weight, and dieting next time around will be harder and less effective, but still you'll lose more muscle mass. So dieting is not only a way of control, it's a way of perpetual control, designed to keep you in that wheel forever, away from things that matter. To keep you physically weaker. To keep you hating yourself because your body cannot live on 800 calories a day.

I was lucky in that I never dieted: recently I made some changes to the way I eat (more vegetables, more protein, less starch), but I was mindful to not make any changes I couldn't sustain forever. Moreover, weight lifting being is my preferred activity. And for me, being strong is an acceptable alternative to being thin.

It is remarkable how talking about this to other women elucidates the overall patterns: the confluence of marketing pushes, of the diet industry, of the patriarchal media machine that wants us weak and insecure and obsessed with carbs. And how getting stronger changes our perspective: time and time again, I hear about women picking up exercise. Sometimes they lose weight, sometimes they don't, but making yourself stronger, giving yourself higher endurance always changes the way you perceive your body -- from esthetic to functional. And food too changes from enemy to sustenance. And most importantly, ditching the culturally-mandated obsession really does free up a lot of time.


Dawn said...

Well said! Thank you.

poet said...

Interesting article! I didn't know about the starvation experiment but the results should really become more widely known - this is what dieting for weight loss does to people! I don't think there's a conscious agenda of wanting to control women via the psychological side effects of dieting (only via the constant occupation that dieting becomes), but that is certainly what happens, and it definitely has to stop.

I have never dieted for weight loss, only for allergy/food intolerance relief, but on doctor's orders I've had to cut all sugar from my food intake for a while already, and along with unintentional weight loss, I also noticed some of what's described as the effects of under-eating - insecurity, loss of interest and ambition... Now I'm wondering if my diet caused it. I guess I need to eat even more protein!

Franca said...

Yes! Exercise is a good in itself because it makes you aware of your body. Exercise is what matters for health, not weight.

Anonymous said...

I agree with what you wrote. I don't think dieting is a healthy form of control. Strength--now that's a good goal. Being strong is much better than being thin.

Fish Monkey said...

Thank you for your comments, everyone.