Dear Body, I Hate You
I was nine the first time I felt disgusted with my body. I remember pulling on a pair of shorts and suddenly being acutely aware that my thighs jiggled too much.
That moment was the beginning of a difficult, lifetime long battle against my own body. It has always felt to me that my body is like a rebellious teenager. It is hell-bent on doing whatever it wants regardless of the ways I try to control it. I’ve been on some type of diet for at least the last twenty years. Some have been obsessive, focusing on deprivation (no sugar, no eating after 6, no carbs, nothing over 1100 calories a day) and some have been hidden under the guise of health (juice cleanse, only raw foods, weight watchers) but at their centers, they have all been about punishment, control, and self-hatred.
About three months ago, on the edge of summer, I had one of my worst and hopefully last attacks of intense body hatred. I was trying on summer clothes in a dressing room and the only thing I could see was the size. I had let myself go up a size. Which meant that I was disgusting. I was out of control. I was gluttonous. I had too much thigh, too much stomach, too much arm jiggle, too much cellulite. Not enough self-control. I didn’t work hard enough. I was lazy. I wasn’t worthy of love. I didn’t deserve to go to the beach. How could I force people to look at me in a bikini? I called myself names in the mirror. Pig! Fat! Heifer! I pinched myself hard in my flabbiest parts. Disgusting! Look at you! Shame! Shame! Shame! I told myself that I would never eat again! I did not deserve it. I went home and cried in bed.
I’m Onto You, Diet Culture!
And then, I decided to start paying attention to how diet culture has negatively influenced me and how it burrows deep into the subconscious of our cultural ideals and norms. The thing is that diet culture pushes the importance of weight and appearance over the importance of health. Diet culture tells us that our bodies need to be altered, not to make them stronger, fitter, or healthier, but because they are not the right shape or size. It’s like smog in the air. We don’t notice it or think about it because it is a part of our day to day lives, but it is highly dangerous none the less. I started doing research and paying attention to the advertisements and images of ideal female beauty that I saw promoted. I started to question what the purpose of this diet culture was, and I learned that at the root of diet culture’s ideology is the desire to control women.
If we track the origins of diets and diet culture, we can see that the desire to alter, control, and dominate the female form came into popularity as America entered the 20th century. The Industrial Revolution brought with it a conflicting shift in the roles of women. On the one hand, women entered the workforce as power looms and new textile technology developed in New England. Many of these women came from agrarian lives that centered around family and farm work, and now for the first time, they were able to earn and save their own money. On the other hand, this movement away from the home lead to a push for traditional family values, with the women as the “light of the home” and the “guardian of moral purity in the household”. Historian Barbara Welter coined the term “the cult of domesticity” to describe the ideology in American history between the 1820s and 1860s that fought to keep women at home and in submissive roles to their husbands. In a very short window of time, women entered the workforce, began the women’s suffrage fight, and helped sustain the country through a civil war. As America changed, so too did the roles of women, and undoubtedly, this change made men very nervous.
Divide and Conquer
William Banting developed one of the first popular diets in 1863. The diet spread across the ocean and became wildly popular in America. Suddenly, it seemed that there was a new way to control women: Dieting.
If you are a smart member of the dominant group and the subservient group begins to pose a threat to that status, what do you do? One way to keep a subservient group in line is to create a culture where they regulate one another. Consider the role of the house slaves. Since the offspring of slaves and slave owners tended to have lighter skin, the lighter skin slaves were often moved to the plantation house. There they received better living conditions, food rations, and less physically demanding work while their darker skinned counterparts were left to toil in the fields. This created an arbitrary hierarchy among the slaves and helped slave owners regulate the behavior of their subservient population. This divide can still be seen today in the way light and dark skin black Americans are treated by those inside and outside of their race.
Similarly, diet culture enables the dominant members of the population to maintain their power by dividing the subservient members of the population into arbitrary categories. Men create body ideals for women and women are left to race blindly toward these ideals while cutting down and judging other women in the process. If women are too busy judging one another for a body ideal that men created for them, if they are too preoccupied with grouping one another into their created hierarchy, if they are quick to cut one another down in order to build themselves up, then men can keep their position of power and leave the dirty work to women. Have you ever said to yourself, well at least I’m not that fat? Have you have rolled your eyes at a woman who shows too much skin? Have you ever walked into a room and tried to figure out where you stand in terms of looks? If you have, as I have, then you’ve been working to keep your fellow women in a less powerful position for men.
Diets Have Never Been About Health
You cannot find a moment in the fight for women’s equality in this country that doesn’t have a dietary counterpart. The 19th Amendment is passed in 1920, granting women the right to vote and Lucky Strike champions the “cigarette diet”, urging women to “reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet”. WWII ends in 1945 and women are practically pushed out of their jobs and back into the home full time and the cabbage soup diet comes into vogue, urging women to limit their food intake and sustain themselves off of cabbage soup. Betty Friedan publishes the controversial Feminine Mystique in 1963 while meal replacement shakes like Sego and Carnation Slender act as poor substitutes for real food for women. The groundbreaking Supreme Court ruling on Roe V. Wade grants women the right to elect to have an abortion in 1973 just in time for Slim Fast to hit the scene in 1977.
The list goes on and on, but the bottom line is that diets are not about health. They are control tactics used to categorize, and manipulate women into believing that their worth is connected to an arbitrary size, an arbitrary number, and an arbitrary shape all of which change from one decade to the next based on male predilections of the moment.
It’s Time for a Change
I’ve gained and lost the same 20ish pound over the last two decades of my life, and never has the focus been on health. Once, I lit up a cigarette on the way out of the gym. When a bystander commented, “Doesn’t that defeat the purpose?” I assuredly responded, “The purpose is to be skinny!” I have a few pictures from 2006, that I cherish because I slimmed down to a glorious size 4. I was smoking nearly two packs of cigarettes a day, drinking far too much vodka, spending hours and hours on the elliptical trainer at the gym, and rarely eating anything that wasn’t processed. I had just broken up with my college boyfriend, my brother was in an out of rehabs, my mother had just lost her house, I was dropping in and out of long depressive episodes, and yet, when I pulled on those size 4s I have a vivid memory of the pure joy I felt jumping around the dressing room. When I look at the collection of pictures from that time period, I am proud.
Conversely, there are pictures of me earning my first and then my second master’s degree, pictures of me teaching room-fulls of focused high school students, pictures holding my baby nephews, pictures of the love drunk first trips with my now husband, pictures of weddings celebrating the love of friends and family, exotic international trips, and moments with best friends that I have avoided because I look too fat.
So for my next trick, I will attempt to defy the dangerous and pervasive diet culture that exists in our society. I will do this for myself and I will do this for other women. When I look in the mirror, I will celebrate the sexy jiggle of my thighs and the strong girth of my muscles. I will talk to myself the way I would talk to my best friend, reminding myself that I am trying the best I can and I am doing a pretty damn good job. I will stop thinking I need to “earn” food with exercise. I will stop calling food bad or good based on its calorie content. I will nourish my body with healthy, whole foods that will keep it running well. I will participate in workouts that are a celebration of my strengths and my abilities, like CrossFit, that keep the focus away from what my body looks like and moves it to what my body can do. I will stop believing that worth is a pant size and happiness is just a few pounds away. Above all, I will stop this decades-long war with my body.