Five women discuss society’s obsession with what women eat, how it affects them, and why it’s so dangerous.
Many women look to celebrities for a sense of what their body should like look and what their relationship with food should be. However, this doesn’t leave room for the different types of bodies, metabolisms, and needs that a “real” lady has. This is an online conversation between five women about how our obsession with other women is affecting us, why it’s become such a problem, and what we can do to make it better.
Who are you and what is your current relationship with food and exercise?
Julie Gerstein: I’m Julie, I’m the style editor at BuzzFeed. I’m a vegan, and I WISH I exercised more, but I just don’t. I know I feel better when I do, but I just don’t really ever want to. Instead, I do what I think a lot of people do, which is constantly obsess about what I’m eating, and how I should be eating better, and how I hate the way I look, or wish I had a different body type. I have had bouts of super-bad body image, super-disordered eating, but I also really love eating and derive a lot of pleasure from food, so that sort of balances out my desire to look differently. Instead I sort of sit in the crux of, like, middling self-loathing all the time.
Anne Helen Petersen: I’m Anne Helen and I’m a features writer here at BuzzFeed. I’m a self-confessed exercise addict: I run or lift six days a week and feel cranky and unsettled if I don’t. I’m a type-A person in general, and over the years I’ve become super mindful of the ways in which that type-A perfectionism has influenced my attitude toward my body. I love exercise in part because it allows me to eat/drink what I like, but I also truly do like the way it makes me feel. I’m currently quasi-training for a marathon, and I’ve thought a lot about the complex reasons motivating me, both physically and emotionally.
Peggy Wang: I’m Peggy, I’m the DIY editor. I also used to play in a band, which required having to get up in front of actual people and perform in front of them. During that time, I definitely had more issues with dieting and nutrition, just because I felt gross all the time, like touring was sapping all of the youthful verve out of me; all the while, my worst fear was that people would look at me and wonder why I thought I could pull off cutoffs or crop tops. I would get tagged in photos by fans on Facebook and be totally horrified by how I looked. It was also difficult not to compare myself to other women who were playing in bands. I think I’ve gotten over a lot of those issues since then, but caring about diet and dieting still kind of lingers on.
As far as exercise goes, I’ve never gotten to the point of enjoying it. It still feels like a chore that I should be doing — not want to be doing. Maybe I’ve felt “endorphins,” like, twice in my life. I love reading about diet and nutrition and trying new healthy food fads. Right now, I’m gluten-free and I have an auto-immune skin disorder and it’s actually clearing up? So I am motivated to stick with it.
Mackenzie Kruvant: I’m Mackenzie and I’m a staff writer. I’m a longtime pescatarian who dabbles in gluten-free eating. I exercise five days a week (Pilates, weight lifting, and cardio), sometimes with a trainer and sometimes on my own. I suffer from body dysmorphic disorder. I’m under the care of a nutritionist who has been helping me change my diet, as well as an endocrinologist to help with a hormonal disorder that has made it hard to regulate my weight. It’s all been very helpful but I don’t think I’ll ever get over the fact that I can’t eat an entire box of pasta in one sitting. (Sometimes I try anyway, but let’s keep that between you and me.)
Arianna Rebolini: I’m Arianna and I’m also a staff writer. I am a recovered bulimic, which I started struggling with 14 years ago. As part of my treatment, I went through a four-month outpatient program that focused on developing healthy eating habits, and for the most part it has stuck. I can get obsessive about what I eat and try to avoid dieting as a result, but I am a regular runner and consider myself healthier now than I’ve ever been.
And what was your relationship like with food while you were growing up?
AR: I remember in middle school, all of the girls who were “dieting” wouldn’t get the hot lunches but would each eat a cookie. And so it was this backward idea of dieting without necessarily looking like you were eating a smaller quantity of something that is probably, nutritionally, worse for you. And I used to do that at my worst in high school, skip meals but then grab a chocolate bar or sugar-free candies. It made no sense.
JG: I definitely had an eating disorder at one point in middle school. I wouldn’t eat breakfast, and then I would have an apple and an apple juice for lunch. I don’t even know what I was trying to accomplish, but I do know that some of the things that I was dissatisfied with about my body then, I am still dissatisfied with now — in that I’m NEVER going to be 6 feet tall. Never. It’s so dumb, but this is the body I have. I always think of this Nora Ephron quote: “Oh, how I regret not having worn a bikini for the entire year I was 26. If anyone young is reading this, go, right this minute, put on a bikini, and don’t take it off until you’re 34.”
AHP: We all had to take health class but we didn’t learn A THING because all of us thought that skipping breakfast and eating Skittles for lunch was the way to stay thin, which A) didn’t work and B) made us dumb, because we were 14 years old and didn’t have any actual fuel to think. If I were teaching health class today, I’d do a special part where I’d say, “As teens, you shouldn’t feel like you have to diet, but let me be very clear: Not eating doesn’t make you skinny.” On repeat. Very persuasively.
PW: I ate tons of junk food, but I think it was more of an immigrant-parents thing? Like, we’re in America now, stop trying to make me eat your stupid sticky rice and pork flakes. I definitely remember being skinny-shamed by this mean girl who was the daughter of one of my parents’ friends. This was the ’80s so I definitely felt more inadequate in the sense that I would never have blond hair, blue eyes, big boobs — the Baywatch effect. I didn’t want to diet, I wanted a boob job! I always had this “grass is always greener” thing, though, which manifested itself into disordered eating when I was older. The trends definitely shifted toward being skinny, and it felt like in order to be stylish and wear cute clothes, you had to be a certain thinness. It was during a time when I felt unhappy and unsatisfied with my life and I wanted something I could control and be good at. I felt average and my life was average, and I thought that by not looking average, via clothes and weight, I could somehow transcend that.
As an adult, do you feel pressure to either eat healthily or unhealthily? Do you feel resistance from those around you when you do the opposite?
JG: I definitely feel pressure to eat healthily because I know I feel better when I eat better. I do think that certain groups of people will pressure you to eat one way or the other. For instance, when I am out with girlfriends, I think we mutually pressure each other to eat more unhealthily. We often give each other permission to eat worse.
PW: I feel more pressure from myself to eat healthily, but I feel more pressure from my peers to eat unhealthily, especially working at BuzzFeed, where I think there is definitely a “cupcakes and pizza” culture. Meme foods, I like to call them, haha. The whole act of preparing my coffee at work and reaching for the Splenda makes me feel self-conscious. A lot of it depends on the people that you’re around, but I personally am not that excited when someone suggests going to the fried chicken or grilled cheese restaurant, and I feel a bit stigmatized by that.
AR: I’d say I also feel a mix of both, but the pressure I feel to eat healthily is strongly influenced by a pressure to be thin, which is more indirect than the pressure I feel to eat unhealthily. There’s a tendency to sort of tease girls who are eating foods that signal “diet” (salads, smoothies, whatever), and I think it comes from this misguided desire to liberate them: “You don’t have to lose weight! You look great!” When, like, maybe the girl loves salad, or maybe she can’t eat gluten, or maybe, yes, she’s trying to lose weight, and is that necessarily terrible?
AHP: We’re sending such contradictory messages about weight loss, but it seems like it’s ONLY OK (and necessary!) to diet if you’re obese. But some people just want to change their eating habits, or high cholesterol runs in their family, or they’re 20 pounds overweight. In essence, we’re judging people’s motivation: It’s OK to diet if you’re “fat,” but if you’re close to the ideal and trying to achieve it, you’re shallow.
PW: It seems directly proportional how acceptable it is to eat healthily or even diet to what someone’s weight is, which is a kind of implicit judgement of someone’s body type. That whole “You don’t have to lose weight!” thing is just so awkward to me, like the most awkward kind of compliment that’s not even a compliment. It makes me feel weirdly naked, like you’ve sussed out my body and my body type and feel like it’s OK to judge what I’m eating. Maybe I’m just overly sensitive.
MK: I totally agree. People seem to think that curvy girls could “always lose a few pounds,” when being curvy is a body type, not a weight. I also have a friend who is overweight and she’s perfectly happy with her body. She very much identified with the video from Louie about fat girls. She feels that everyone expects her to hate her body and expects her to diet, but she doesn’t want to.
AHP: It’s like we CANNOT FATHOM someone being totally OK with not conforming to an ideal.
AR: Right, and then, of course, there’s the unspoken rule that women should totally free themselves from boring salads and eat all of the cake and pizza and cookies, but only if they’re thin. Because if not: gross. It’s lovable when Zooey Deschanel is stress-eating on New Girl because she’s still conventionally beautiful while she’s doing it.
That brings us to the concept of “cool girl” eating. Anne Helen you wrote an essay recently about Jennifer Lawrence and the history of being a cool girl. She constantly talks about how she eats junk food and never exercises. But she’s skinnier and more fit every time we see her walk a red carpet. Do you think that eating unhealthy food is a cool girl thing?
AHP: I think so. It’s not that I think that Jennifer Lawrence is consciously saying to herself, “Oh, you know what will make me more cool, saying that I eat pizza and never exercise!” Instead, it’s that that attitude toward eating — eating whatever you want, eating “like a dude,” not being obsessed with exercise — has come to signify a “coolness.” Uptight girls worry about what they eat and go to pilates every day; “cool” girls don’t give a shit. If you have a lot of food “requests” (“Can I have the dressing on the side?”) it translates as “high maintenance,” which is constructed as totally unattractive in American culture.
AR: Right, like that You Did Not Eat That Instagram, which is running on what is basically a militant “cool girl” agenda — the assumption that the women posting these pictures of food couldn’t possibly have eaten them (because they’re thin? I guess?), and then underneath it the implication that they are inherently uncool or out of the club because they aren’t eating cookies and burgers and ice cream.
PW: I don’t think it’s just a cool girl thing, I think it’s also a funny girl thing. Like flaunting how lazy you are, how you just want to eat pizza and nap all the time — there’s irony and entertainment in that, but only if you’re not overweight. Our celebrity culture dictates that we care about what people like J. Law eats, and it’s her job to give funny and entertaining answers. I’m trying to think about how this relates to real life, and the social context of eating. It reminds me of a “cool” girl I knew who I noticed would always order or buy something super decadent, take a bite, and then give it away, usually to one of our guy friends around who would be like, “Whoa, awesome, free maple bacon doughnut!” I couldn’t help but feel like it was some kind of implicit male-female bonding act, whether intentional or not. As someone who was usually slummin’ it with my salads and fruit plates, I was always acutely aware of feeling super lame when I didn’t partake in unhealthy food bonding. It’s especially lame if you’re a girl because it means that you aren’t an anomaly — that special unicorn of a person who can eat whatever and not gain a pound. The perception is that for men, many of them CAN eat anything they want and not gain a pound.
Why do you think that people have such a visceral reaction to the healthy eating and special diet lifestyle? Like veganism or gluten-free for example.
JG: Food is a super-personal thing, and the way that we interact with it is a super-personal thing. The construct of healthy eating, especially in this country, where there’s seemingly such a division between healthy and not healthy, between the puritanical and the excessive, is super contentious precisely because so many people have taken food on as a part of their identifies. What people eat, how they eat it, how much of it, is seen as a value judgement, even when it’s meant to be purely an individual choice.
PW: We consider people who diet to be boring and shallow. There’s this perception that if you sit around counting calories in your head or whatever, there’s not enough brain space to think deep thoughts. If people are on a diet for non-weight-related reasons, that’s more respectable, but I still think there is a veiled sense of, “OK, why is this person REALLY gluten-free?”
MK: Eating clean and special diets have become such a “rich person” thing that I think a lot of people feel that those who do it are talking down to the public (see people’s reactions to Gwyneth Paltrow). I think that the only thing that is important for “dieting” is doing what is right for your body. And that is different for everyone. While someone may be able to eat gluten at every meal, a different person might benefit from a lower gluten diet.
JG: Yeah, I do think there’s a certain amount of privilege to having a special diet. For sure. That’s a good point. Especially when diets require that you order certain foods, or make expensive meals. It sends the message that health is only for wealthy people.
AHP: We have to remember that “eating healthy,” just broadly speaking, is a privilege — fresh vegetables are a privilege! Having grown up in a rural area where seemingly everyone, regardless of class, had a vegetable garden and raised/hunted their own meat/game, it was a real reality check to learn that many people living in urban areas don’t have access to fresh affordable fruits and vegetables. There are a ton of initiatives that are trying to rectify the situation, but having A) the time to exercise and B) the capital has created a divide.
Do you think that things like fitspo (images of active, strong, and fit women that are said to promote proper exercise and diet) and thinspo (pictures of very skinny women that promote a pro-ana lifestyle) are creating a divide between those who feel a connection to the “fit lifestyle” and those who don’t?
AR: I think it’s probable that people who don’t necessarily connect to or care about a “fit lifestyle” don’t even realize that fitspo is a thing, which does make it sort of isolated.
AHP: After some conversations with fat activists last year, I’ve become much more attuned to the ways that fitspo uses certain language to cloak the fact that it’s really still about regulating body image. So many fitspo posts have sayings about “strength” and “work through the pain,” which is really just code for “empowerment” (because your body looks the way society says it should) and “make yourself hurt to reach an ideal.” Alternately, women have learned that it’s no longer OK to say things like “I want to be skinny!” (and that thinspo is socially unacceptable), so fitspo takes its place but still works toward a similar ideal: It may not be as thin, but it’s still a very specific image of the female body that is not attainable for all or even most women.
PW: Along with fitspo, there’s also this very insidious Tumblr/Instagram aesthetic of girls wearing cutoffs or bikinis with perfect beachy hair, and like some text overlay about how the stars are infinite or some shit. It feels very much like a post-thinspo era, like, Oh, cool, now I can post this secretly inspirational photo to my Pinterest board without seeming like I have an eating disorder. You get the occasional media story about girls obsessing openly about the thigh gap or whatever, but I’m pretty sure that’s actually a very tiny tip of the iceberg.
MK: I think that fitspo perpetuates both fat shaming and skinny shaming. Whenever I think of fitspo I think of this photo. It says that girls who are skinny watch and girls who are hot squat. It’s just more of telling people how to handle their own body and what is “beautiful.” However, I do think that if it’s getting more women to lift, then that is the one benefit of it. Many girls are scared of “bulking up” so they shy away from a type of exercise that could not only make them healthier physically but could really do wonders mentally. My confidence levels have benefited from lifting because for the first time I feel that my worth is not in my thinness but instead in my strength.
AHP: I think it also highlights just how quickly our body standards/ideals change — 15, 20 years ago, it was ALL ABOUT the heroin-chic super-skinny Kate Moss look. Now it’s all Pilates arms: You should look toned, but not TOO ripped, because then you’re scary Madonna. Such an impossible line to tread.
PW: People are simultaneously disgusted and fascinated by eating disorders, and seem to want to infer that all skinny women must have one. Because then we are able to pity them instead of envy them. It’s like that ongoing joke at fashion week: “Haha, look at all that food nobody ate.” It’s just internalized negativity that is being projected onto other women.
One of the newer weight obsessions seems to be a race to lose baby weight. Celebrities are applauded for the ability to go back to their “pre-baby” body within weeks of giving birth. Do you think that this is damaging to women on a psychological level?
MK: Losing baby weight quickly is easily the most insane type of body shaming that we take part in. When you have a child, your body puts on weight for a reason, and the idea that our body should go back to pre-baby weight within two months blows my mind. Every body is different and some women gain very little extra weight while pregnant, so I can’t speak to that, but the pressure to do that if you don’t have the type of body that will do it naturally is an extra anxiety that women don’t need.
JG: To me, this is super sick, because it has so little respect for the actual work that a body does in creating, housing, and protecting a life. The radical feminist in me just has so many feelings about what it’s actually saying about how we evaluate women’s bodies — when you think about the rhetoric around women’s pregnancies and the sanctity of life, and then how quickly we want women to return to their pre-pregnancy status, it just seems totally offensive to me. Women are supposed to carry babies and then as quickly as they’ve done that job, pretend like it never happened? WHAT?
AHP: In general I am a huge defender of our interest/fascination with celebrities, but there’s also something really insidious about the ways the gossip mags promote a sort of self-surveillance for all women. See, for example, the coverage of Kim Kardashian and Kate Middleton’s pregnancies — Kardashian’s body was framed as “out of control”; she always looked uncomfortable and in pain and wearing things that were too small for her…while Middleton’s pregnancy was demure and, for lack of a better word, classy — and what sort of message does that send to readers? So if you have a “full body” pregnancy like Kim, it’s easy to see how women with similar pregnancies would feel bad about their (beautiful! natural!) bodies as well.
Now comes the hard question, and it’s possible we’ll never be able to truly answer it. But what do you think that we, as women, should be doing to help everyone have a healthier relationship with food?
JG: We need to stop commenting on what other people are eating. We need to stop making these things aspects of how we evaluate and address one another. It is NOT OK to comment on these things and it’s not OK to perpetuate the idea that what someone else puts in their mouth or does with their body is anyone else’s business. It’s not.
AR: Yes to everything Julie said. I mean, can we just let each other LIVE? Are you enjoying what you eat? Does it feel good in your body, and do you feel good because of it? It’s such a personal experience — likewise exercising — and we’re better off keeping it that way.
PW: In a perfect world we wouldn’t care what other people are eating, but in a perfect world, we wouldn’t have eating issues. I think media and pop culture give off a false illusion that it’s not the norm for us to have eating issues, whereas I think the opposite is true. I would feel a lot less alone if there were more honesty and transparency.
AHP: Understanding how media culture works and influences us is CENTRAL. I’m never going complete escape the way that society makes me feel about my body and food, but if I can see the strategies for what they are — if they’re visible to me — I’m so much better at dismissing them.
MK: It’s easier said than done, but I think that people should eat for the body that they have, and no one should worry about other people. I think that we need to stop looking at what celebrities are doing. We need to stop including what they eat when interviewed or discussing which diet they’re using. It’s not very easy to do — as they are what is valued in society — however, being fit is part of their job. They are given a trainer to lose or gain weight for a film. They are paid to always be “camera-ready.” That is how they are valued. We, on the other hand, should value one another for the things that make us unique. It’s time to be our own cheerleaders.