Thursday, November 21, 2013

Food Shaming and Why This Shit Needs to Stop

[TW for disordered eating, food shaming]

For those of you who don't know what food shaming is, my definition is it's when someone judges you for the food you are eating and comments on it in an attempt to make you feel ashamed of your choices. When faced with the subject of food, a lot of people do something we feminists call "concern trolling," which is when you shame someone for something under the guise of actual, genuine concern for their well-being. This happens with food all. The. Time. People decide that it's OK to tell others (particularly women) what not to eat because it will make them unhealthy, when what they're really trying to say is that they shouldn't eat that because it might (GASP!) make them fat (which, if you know anything about anything, fat =/= unhealthy). Bottom line, what someone eats, how much they eat, when they eat it, how often, etc., is nobody's fucking business except the person whose mouth the food is going into.

Food shaming ties directly into the dieting industry, which targets women specifically and relies on women feeling bad about themselves, their bodies, and their food choices in order to survive; it's more than obvious from the advertisements that we see on a regular basis. For example, there is the recent pushing of the Special K Challenge that challenges women to replace two meals a day with Special K products, asks women to think about what they will gain when they lose (weight, obviously), and whose incredibly problematic and dangerously unhealthy nature Jezebel covered in a fantastic article. There is the onslaught of ads for Jenny Craig, Weight Watchers, Nutrisystem, etc., that actively shame women both for their food choices and for (possibly) being fat. There are phone apps that encourage people to count calories and essentially take stock of everything they eat, which is a documented symptom of certain eating disorders. This is not to say that all people who count calories have an eating disorder, but promoting counting calories as an everyday activity can very easily lead people to develop one, especially when you consider the continuous assault of messages that are telling us to stay thin, no matter what the cost.

This is an issue that is particularly upsetting for me because I have dealt with disordered eating as a direct result of food shaming. (This is actually the first time I'm talking about this so candidly.)

When I was a kid, I absorbed the messages that the media was telling me. I was supposed to be small, delicate, proper. I was supposed to count calories and watch my weight, lest I take up too much space. If I had the choice between a steak and a salad, I was always to choose the salad, no matter how much I wanted the steak. Despite the fact that the average human being needs to consume 2000 calories to survive, calories were the enemy and the goal was to consume as few of them as possible. This was "for my own good" and "for my health." I also absorbed the indirect messages that my mother was sending me through her constant dieting and self-shaming. I listened to my dad tell me stories of when she used to diet until she was nearly a skeleton. I watched her weight fluctuate between the holidays and the summertime. I watched her mentally punish herself for eating things she liked. I watched her deny herself foods that I knew she loved and sacrifice simple treats all for the sake of a thinner figure. Right this very moment, she is on yet another diet and she's already talking about her weight loss plan for when she puts on a few "extra" pounds during the holiday season. I want to be clear: I don't blame her for doing these things, because this is the result of those same media messages as well as the messages she learned from her mother, who likely learned those messages from the same places.

As a result of these messages, I learned that eating was not something you did to survive. It was not a necessity to continue living. Eating was something you succumbed to when you were at your weakest. As a result of these messages, I developed a fear of eating in front of other people because I was afraid of what they might think of me. I don't know that what I had was an eating disorder, but it was definitely disordered eating (if that makes sense). To put this in perspective, right now I weigh 125 pounds, give or take. In high school, at the same height, I weighed only 98 pounds because I was so afraid of people thinking I was a slob for eating that I simply stopped eating in public and restricted my food in private. I skipped lunch nearly every day and ate very minimally at home. It took me many years to become comfortable with just the idea of eating to survive, and many years after that before I became comfortable with the idea of eating what I wanted without judging myself or caring what other people thought.

Then, just tonight, at a point in my life where I'm finally comfortable with my body (and its arbitrary, socially constructed "flaws") and no longer shame myself simply for eating or for having a snack when I feel like it--where a simple bag of potato chips no longer sends me into a spiral of guilt and panic--my dad made a comment about a snack that I decided I wanted, and for a split second I went right back to that "I must never eat again" mindset.

It's awful. And it's exactly why this shit needs to stop. Because my story is not the only story out there.

Not even close.