The first time I remember crying over the way I consume food, I was about 10 or 11 years old. I left my yearly physical in a fit of tears, after my doctor told me that I was way over the “normal” BMI for someone my age. I ran home bawling in tears and self-hatred. In reaction to the news, I downed a pint of Oreo ice cream and a container of powdered donuts. I told myself I enjoyed every bite but I also remember it feeling like a punishment. Though I wouldn’t have described it as such back then, I was definitely a binge eater, and I definitely had an eating disorder.
If you talk to a lot of women, stories like this one are not out of the regular. Based on conversations alone, most women I know have dealt with some sort of complication with food and the way they consume it since they were children. I’ve had friends who spent junior high trying to subsist on a diet of plain popcorn. I’ve underwent diets with friends that saw us diligently recording our meals, and allowing ourselves to manically indulge (re:binge) on so-called “cheat days”. Again, none of this is new. Living as a woman in a patriarchal world in which your worth is often measured by your beauty—and beauty is defined by thinness—means that from an early age you’re taught to think about food in a very controlling way. Whether for nourishment or pleasure, food becomes something that could easily destroy you if you let it. And so, twelve year old girls go on Weight Watchers and get refuse to go the pool, lest somebody tell them that once they lose their baby fat they’ll beautiful.
For some people, the era of fad diets is one of the past. Oprah might be the face of Weight Watchers but the modern feminist knows that diets are just a tool of the patriarchy. The modern feminist knows that to spend an excessive The modern feminist subscribes to something else: wellness. Unlike the fad diets of the past, wellness is a lifestyle that is focused on overall health and wholeness. Now, if you restrict yourself to two meals a day and count a smoothie as a satisfying meal, it’s not about losing weight or anything messy like that. Now if you restrict yourself, it’s about shaping your body and its systems in order to reach the best version of yourself: full of energy, successful, and strong. Although the narrative may be different, the process and the goals are still the same.
In a recent op-ed for The New York Times titled “Smash the Wellness Industry” writer Jessica Knoll discusses her experiences with restrictive eating and how her recent discovery of “intuitive eating” has changed the way she interacts with food and her consumption of it. She describes her experience with wellness as “a poisonous relationship between a body I was indoctrinated to hate and food I had been taught to fear.” Knoll names diets like Whole30 which is premised on only eating “whole” foods for 30 days in order to determine foods that are harmful to you. It involves giving up things like gluten and alcohol (typical) as well as legumes and grains (not so much). Starving oneself (intermittent fasting, anyone?) is now acceptable in the name of wellness.
In his essay “On Food” Mark Grief talks about the ways in which, as homo sapiens, our relationship with food has changed now that many of us do not face scarcity. He touches on a variety of subjects, but what I strongly remember is how he talked about the relationship between food and health. What I generally got from the essay is that in our obsession for immortality, we turn to food as a way of controlling our lifespan. This attitude is one that I think plays a strong role in the wellness narrative. With more and more people being diagnosed with cancer at increasingly younger ages, it makes sense that people find comfort in the idea that you’ll be ok as long as you stop eating tomatoes. Furthermore, wellness encourages the idea that if your diet is wholesome and clean, your life will be as well. In his essay, Grief claims that we have come to “privatize food care as a category of inner, personal life.” How we eat has become a defining element of how we live.
Of course, having beautiful, wholesome lives is extremely appealing, and if it’s as simple as only drinking juice for breakfast, what could be the harm? For Knoll, and for me as well, the issue is that “at its core, “wellness” is about weight loss.” And while losing weight is not necessarily a negative thing, most women’s desire to lose weight is founded on the idea that thinness is the ideal, and that women who are fat or “fat-bodied” or whatever you want to call it, fail to care about themselves or their quality of life. As someone who constantly deals with guilt over my choice to order onion rings and avoid the gym, I can attest to how quickly one can fall into harmful habits (like finding satisfaction in missing meals) when living in a world where wellness is king.
As an idea, wellness is great, and being conscious about how we treat ourselves should never be a negative thing. But I would love to get to the day when thinking about what I eat and how I eat is the least important thing I have to think about. A hyper-tech future sounds frightening, but if that meant food became a passing thought instead of a ruling force, I think I might be okay with that. Or maybe that’s still dangerous thinking. Honestly, who cares?