Is "Pursuing a Healthy Lifestyle" Just Code for Going on a Diet?
Food, pleasure, and denial in a disordered culture
A note: If you’re not into reading about diets / food / fat, this might be a post you skip.
It’s a new year, which means a new round of diet advertisements, dieting attempts, and, thank god, feminist pushback against diet culture. The wonderful Kate Manne has a piece in the Times this week about the amorality of diet culture, and thanks to both feminists and fat activists, we’re hearing more and more analysis of how diet culture fuels disordered eating and plays into a very feminized kind of perfection-striving. The whole point of diet culture (and a lot of beauty culture) is to promise women that if they just spend enough money and sacrifice enough pleasure, they can maintain their pursuit of an aspirational self. The trick, though, is that there’s always another pound to lose and another thing to buy — the whole thing with female perfection is that it doesn’t exist and can never be fully realized. It’s perpetual aspiration.
This pushback is unabashedly good. But as feminist discourse on food and body and weight and beauty shape-shifts and enters the mainstream, I do wonder if some of us are losing the plot. Yes, it is crucial to unpack all of the ways in which women are told to make ourselves smaller, emotionally, professionally, culturally, and physically. Yes, we should understand that many aspects of what’s called “wellness” are aspects of diet culture rebranded. But it does actually matter what we eat — to ourselves, to our bodies, to our souls, to our cultures, and to our planet. We are gifted one body in this life, and taking care of it means not abusing it with deprivation diets, and also understanding how it works, what fuels it, and what makes it feel better in the long term. And how we eat is not simply a matter of personal choice. It’s highly political — not our food choices themselves, but the universe in which those choices get made: What we have access to, how it’s produced, how much it costs.
The feminist rejection of diet culture can, at times, shift to a rejection of the whole concept of health itself, or at least of the idea that it’s probably a good thing to pursue health. Kate touches on this in her piece when she writes that “you don’t owe it to anyone to be healthy in general,” a nod to two distinct but sometimes overlapping arguments: that an emphasis on health can be ableist and fat-phobic; and that even if we concede that there is a well-established relationship between body size and health (something many feminists and fat activists don’t concede, for the record), then so what? Here’s how one writer put it:
The idea behind the traditional reasoning that shames fat individuals is that health should always be our goal. This means that all those who are not healthy, or who do not manifest any effort towards gaining or maintaining health, are seen as undeserving of basic respect. This not only happens to fat individuals: people who drink, smoke, use drugs, are also victim of societal bias. However, not only some unhealthy tendencies tend to be more acceptable than others in our society (drinking alcohol at social events is normal, for example), but the question of visibility also plays a major role. A drug user might be able to hide his habit, at least to some extent. But if you are fat, there is no way of concealing it, and many will see your body as the visible mark of your supposedly unhealthy eating habits and perceived lack of exercise . Moreover, those who cannot aspire to good health (because of chronic health issues, disabilities, etc) remain cut off from the discourse, and perceived as “others” who are somewhat defective, and treated with pity in the “best-case scenario”, or even considered undeserving to live, in the worst.
But this is a pretty big logical fallacy. Trying to set up a world in which people are encouraged and able to pursue good health does not in fact “means that all those who are not healthy, or who do not manifest any effort towards gaining or maintaining health, are seen as undeserving of basic respect.” We can work to create a culture in which health is understood as a fluid state and not a static one; we can talk about health as, foundationally, the state of feeling good in a body that is getting what it needs; we can do all of this without any referendum on individual worthiness. After all, if we are lucky, we will all live through periods and to ages where we are not in “good health.”
I’ve spent a lot of time considering questions of feminism and happiness (I even wrote a book about it). Over the years, I’ve tried to make the case that feminists should pursue not just equality with men, but happiness — not lives that are identical to how men have lived, but reimagined lives that put women’s experiences, histories, desires, and needs at the center of policy, politics, culture, and economics. In doing this work, I’ve read a lot about (and thought again and again about) what it means to live a happy life. What’s clear to me is that a happy life is not one that is free of adversity or challenge, but rather one in which a person intentionally seeks those things out by way of pursuing novelty, being curious about the world, taking risks, learning new things, and making oneself profoundly uncomfortable in the quest for knowledge and experience. A happy life is also one that is marked by pleasurable experiences and that involves a good bit of pleasure-seeking, but hedonic pleasures alone are insufficient for human happiness. We are more complicated beings than just that, and we need both the pleasure that comes from an immediately gratifying physical experience and the pleasure that comes from surmounting a challenge or reaping the benefits of a long investment of time and energy. A happy life is not actually one that is joyful and pleasurable in each and every moment, and “pleasure” is a more complicated concept than simply “this feels good right now.”
I think of food and health the same way. Taking pleasure in food is, for many us, crucial for a good life. But what it means to take pleasure in food is a complicated concept. At its simplest, it means enjoying the way food tastes. But it also means enjoying the process of eating food (together with others, perhaps), and the way food makes you feel hours or days after you eat it. It means taking the time to be present enough in your body to notice. That’s a hard thing that I suspect most of us don’t do (and that I don’t do a lot of the time), but taking some periods to really pay attention to how what you eat impacts not just your digestion but your emotions, your energy, and the way you generally feel from top to tail is one of the more informative things you can do in your life, and helps to recalibrate what taking pleasure in food and eating well can mean for you. For me, a regular yoga practice focused on connecting with my body coupled with periods of removing and then reintroducing certain foods (for me, usually dairy, alcohol, and wheat) helps me to deepen my understanding of how food impacts my body. For you, it might be a body scan, or a run, or a journal — some process to really touch in and connect what you’re putting in your body to how your body feels.
And notice I said how your body feels, not how your body looks. Taking pleasure in food — taking pleasure in life — is pretty hard to do when your inner monologue is punctuated with self-policing, self-loathing, and self-punishment. Forget comparison; shame is the thief of joy, and shame is also the quickest way to miss out on connecting with others over food, savoring food, and eating what you need. But rejecting the notion that it’s valuable to pursue health, and defining “pleasure” in the simplest and most immediate of terms, also inhibits happiness and wellbeing in the longer term (and often in the shorter one).
It’s easy feminist advice to say “riots not diets, don’t worry about what you eat.” But we should be quite worried about how we, collectively, eat. Because how we eat is shaped by money, power, and politics. And if you believe that we all deserve to live happy lives, then feeling good for as much of those lives as possible is a worthy goal.