CN: anorexia, disordered thoughts, diets, exercise.
I recently read an article by activist and writer Virgie Tovar called “(Re)Discovering My Love of Food After Dieting” (link), it’s short and emotive and captures the importance of unlearning diet culture and embracing bodies, food and pleasure in radical and liberating way.
I saw much of my own experience and that of my peers in Tover’s journey to find pleasure in food and eating. My research involves food (agriculture), I worked in food justice and the food service industry, I have a foodie instagram. I find baking relaxing and believe in the connective power of food and community. I just don’t enjoy eating. This is not a natural part of my personality (despite my insistence to myself and others for too many years). My thoughts around my own consumption of food are nothing but disordered:
“How many calories is this?”
“When can I leave this dinner to go work out?”
“If I had X yesterday can I have X again today?”
“Is this healthy?”
I have cycled through many eating disorder behaviours but they have all been based on restriction. Whether that meant eliminating an entire food group, only choosing foods I considered “healthy” or under the banner of “clean eating”, fad diets or excessive exercise, denying myself food and pleasure in that food has been ceaseless component of my eating disorder since I was around 12 years old.
This is not say that I have never enjoyed food or eating, I have had moments of enjoyment that are mere seconds or might last a day or two where I can enjoy the experience of eating, but those moments still exist within a rigid set of rules that define what is of “good” and “bad”. What is good or bad has changed and evolved throughout my disorder. These changes have been influenced by personal experience, diet culture, friends, family, and different treatment programs. When I am very sick, what is considered good is a short and sad looking list, when I’m better, it grows along with my capacity to experience other joys of life. Yet, I have not be able to move beyond the boundaries that my disorder has built. This is not health. I may not be as sick as I once was, however, the insidiousness of anorexia still lurks in my thoughts and actions.
Being healthy is great, but it is not a possibility for everyone. Chronic illness, socioeconomic status, environmental factors and genetics all play a role in health. Unfortunately, we tend to moralize health and bodies in ways that are incredibly harmful. Health is associated with thinness, whiteness, being able-bodied, wealthy (comparatively) and cis. Health is seen as something to be achieved through hard work, but it is often not something we can control, and being healthy is so much more than what fits into these narrow binaries.
Fat people are healthy. Disabled people are healthy. People of colour are healthy. Queer and trans people are healthy. How we define health beyond survival is shaped by social relations of power and how we validate knowledge of bodies, health and care. The dominant narrative of what is healthy and what bodies should look like has been shaped by white supremacy. Our medical system has made the advancements it has through horrific levels of dehumanization and cruelty towards black people. This legacy still affects how bodies of colour are treated (and not treated) in the healthcare system.
Health is important and the resources to be as healthy as we can be should be accessible to everyone, however, none of this should translate to one’s health does not defining their worth. Unhealthy people – whether they have made choices that led to health problems or not – are just as valuable as healthy individuals. The idea that health = worth is something we first have to challenge in ourselves and then recognize that our positionality and experience may have benefited us in ways that others have not been excluded from. I am a thin, able-bodied, cis woman. This gives me greater access to resources. This means that I am not charged extra when flying and strangers generally don’t express their “concern” about my health. We must recognize that we live in a fat-phobic society and those of us who are not fat (even if we feel fat!) need to be in solidarity with fats folks who bear the brunt of body shaming.
There is nothing wrong with wanting to be healthy, but it is important to ask ourselves where this motivation comes from and how we define what health is. Does health = thinness? That is not only inaccurate, but can lead to other, perhaps more severe , health issues.
The obsessive drive I feel to be fit into a eurocentric version of healthy, has contribute to serious health effects of anorexia, both mentally and physically. As it has for many others who suffer from anorexia, bulimia and other forms of disordered eating. Healthy is different for everyone and changes as we move through life. Rigidity around health and bodies is not in line with nature. Nature is complex and does not suit the binaries we place on ourselves and each other. In order to be truly healthy, we must accept the complexities of bodies and experiences.
Tover closes her article by saying, “I can’t opt out of this culture, but each time that I choose what I want I know I’m one step closer to the freedom I crave.” I am in the process of unlearning the ideas on health and bodies that have kept me from moving closer freedom and liberation. To learn to feel joy and pleasure when we – especially as people of colour – are told that we are undeserving of this or that denying this pleasure will lead to a greater pay off, is not a simple task. It takes time, commitment and all the gentleness that we denied ourselves for so long.