the filth of ‘clean’ eating

The other day, I was stacking shelves where I work and was shocked at the conversation I overheard between two young girls popping in for a post-workout snack which went something like this: “I want to buy something healthy – what about these gluten-free dairy-free brownies? Or the vegan wheat-free flapjacks?” “Oh but look at the price” “Oh yeah *groan* it’s so hard to eat healthy – it’s all so expensive”. The girls left the shop with only a small pot of melon slices each – apparently it was the only ‘healthy’ food on offer that they could afford. I was left rather confused and disgusted, having been confronted with the inescapable force of the food trend that everyday shows itself to be more and more problematic, that being the ‘clean’ eating phenomenon that seems to have stealthily taken over attitudes towards food in recent years.

The link between poor mental health and ‘clean’ eating is undeniable, particularly when in is exacerbated by the pressure and strains of social media. The subject has been well documented by health organizations, the eating disorder charity Beat recording a rise in the number of calls to its hotline over the past few years linked to anxiety overly restrictive food rules.bloog1 Documentaries such as the BBC’S Clean Eating’s Dirty Secrets and Clean Eating – The Dirty Truth have exposed the fragility of many of the claims being made and the impact they have on those exposed to them. Eating disorders are serious mental conditions that can have devastating consequences – anorexia having the highest mortality rate of any mental illness – and affect all age groups, ethnicities and genders. Recently, the phenomena of orthorexia, defined in the Oxford Dictionary as “an obsession with eating foods that one considers healthy”, has come to popular attention, though it cannot currently be clinically diagnosed. Social media platforms such as Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook alongside other sharing platforms like Youtube act like a petri dish, facilitating the growth of myriad restrictive and absolutist diet trends that often overlap and contradict one another, flying in the face of well-researched evidence on what a truly healthy diet for body and mind might actually look like.

To make matters worse, food becomes a moral issue with a hugely negative impact on the mental health of vulnerable young people. What one eats comes to be placed in to two categories, namely foods that are ‘good’ and those that are ‘bad’. This black and white thinking generates a lot of anxiety for people who feel that they are failing if they do not meet these exacting standards. As mentioned earlier, the emergence of orthorexia nervosa points to a serious problem with our attitude towards food, orthorexia also translated as a “fixation on riteous eating”. This could not be more telling, food not only being a way to fuel our bodies on a daily basis but a means to improve our moral character, to become a “righteous” individual by proxy. Eating the ‘wrong’ food triggers self-loathing and acute anxiety, the message behind the moralism being that we are intrinsically unworthy and it is only through eating the ‘right’ way that we can somehow vindicate ourselves.

It is ironic, then, this obsession with restrictive diets often proves to be unhealthy, not only mentally but physically. Much of the ‘clean’ eating movement is based on pseudoscience concocted by individuals financially invested in this lucrative lie. Restrictive food rules are dressed up as science and packaged seductively, be it in a beautiful and slim food vlogger, an expensive new cookbook or a new range of pricey products in the supermarket. Often, these companies make dubious claims about what their products can do, some saying that they reverse disease, aid weight loss or garuntee an overall ‘healthy glow’. Many, if not most, of these corporations rely on a kernel of truth which they exaggerate and capitalize upon. A significant number of these ‘clean’ celebrities do not have the appropriate medical qualifications to be touting such advice, taking advantage on the vulnerability and ignorance of their customers to turn a profit. In a piece featured in The Guardian, Bee Wilson insightfully points out how

clean eating confirms how vulnerable and lost millions of us feel about diet – which really means how lost we feel about our own bodies. We are so unmoored that we will put our faith in any master who promises us that we, too, can become pure and good.

The promise of wellness is, however, a mirage.

Crucially, this trend is also having a sinister effect on society as a whole, particularly in regards to class and elitism, food offering yet another way to divide and segregate.bloog2 These so-called ‘health’ foods are marketed at inordinately high prices in full awareness that their affluent target market are willing to pay extra to opt into the ‘clean’ eating club. Food is an accessory, a statement of class, completely inaccessible to those who cannot afford to participate. Only the wealthy can afford to pay £3.99 for Deliciously Ella’s Original Granola when Tesco’s own is under half the price, or £2 for Rude Health’s organic oat milk when cows milk costs just £1.50 for more than triple the amount.

The clean, healthy eating movement is essentially a vanity project for the middle class, food being just one more way to distinguish the haves from the have-nots.

This movement is the perfect money-spinner, as where diets or eating trends used to be temporary, this trend is permanent and necessitates a complete and sustained lifestyle overhaul. Despite what the advertising industry would like you to believe, it is entirely possible to lead a healthy lifestyle without emptying your savings account. 

Similarly, this same movement is contributing to the divorce of food from its social and historical context; once deeply embedded in a collective culture, certain foods turn into trivialized fads in the western world. Matcha green tea -an integral part of the ancient Japanese tea ceremony  – has been adopted and can now be consumed as a latte, ice-cream or even a ‘chocolate matcha butter cup’. Quinoa, once an obscure crop from South America to many in the west has become as basic a grain as pasta. Foods that are integral to a culture heritage are taken and commercialized as the next ‘it’ food, only to be dropped and forgotten to make way for the next trend. Food is often imbued with cultural significance so the idea that a middle-class young food vlogger in Shoreditch has just ‘discovered’ the versatility and health benefits of sorghum when it has been growing in Africa for centuries and is the fifth most popular crop in the world is not only arrogant but demeaning too.

The myths of the ‘clean’ eating movement – essentially ‘fake news’ – could be debunked with proper education about the reality of what constitutes a healthy diet. No, eating only alkaline foods will not reverse cancer. No, you do not need to blow your next paycheck on the most expensive products in the supermarket to be well. No, cutting out gluten when you are not coeliac or even intolerant will not necessarily make you feel ‘energised’, neither will it make you a better person. With proper education, many of the ‘truths’ of the industry would be exposed as lies. Yet this would not solve the other equally if not more important issue of the sense of moral superiority associated with ‘clean’ eating.

Until we stop feeling the need to make ourselves feel better at the expense of others and by appealing to the standards set by the advertising industry, this distinctly unhealthy trend and accompanying mindset is here to stay.

 

 

 

 

 

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pink is a powerful colour

It was only after a friend pointed out that my wardrobe was slowly beginning to look like a collection of cast-offs from from Clueless that I really considered how much I love the colour pink. Dusky, pale and delicate, I can safely say that I am going through my pink phase now as an adult, having missed out on one as a so-called ‘tomboy’ child. Though it is arguably a much misunderstood colour, I would like to come to its defence against popular opinion to maintain that the colour pink is an empowering symbol of the feminine that I, as a female, am proud to show off. IMG_3225 (2)In abstract, pink has far more positive connotations than one might originally think; psychologically speaking, for instance, it is associated with tenderness, love and compassion, hugely important and valuable characteristics for anyone to possess. We are doing ourselves a disservice by disassociating these qualities with masculinity, carelessly conceiving of gender in binary categories with little thought to the effect on the mental health of those exposed, young children being particularly vulnerable to such black-and-white thinking.

Admittedly, pink can indeed be representative of an unhealthy version of femininity, particularly in regards to the way that products and lifestyles are marketed to young people. It is no coincidence that pink gender-oriented products are intended for girls and often endorse a problematic interpretation of what it means to be feminine, the emphasis placed on passivity and unassertiveness, even fragility by implication. The industry is dominated by of princesses, unicorns and plastic babies, only furthering the promotion of the values listed above. In recent years, there has been much coverage of the issue of prescribing lifestyles and behaviours on the basis of biological sex, often to the detriment of mental health and self-image. Arguably, however, it is not pink that is the problem, but society’s perception of the nature of femininity, it being entirely possible to reclaim this misunderstood colour to be a symbol of empowerment and strength rather than humility and submissiveness.

Pink is the colour of Japan’s world famous cherry blossom or ‘sakura’ which draws visitors from all over the world to admire its beauty and transience. Pink is the colour that flooded my cheeks after my recovery from life-threatening anorexia, a signifier of my regained strength and health. Indeed, pink is the colour that the thousands of women chose to wear as hats at the 2017 Women’s March in Washington, the largest single day rally in the history of the US that united women across boundaries of gender, race, sexuality and religion. In the past, even, pink was a colour intended for boys as it was the more ‘vibrant’ shade said to denote strength and vigour.

womens march 2017

What symbols represent is relative and often determined by one’s cultural reference point, hence there a flexibility to them that allows for diversity of meaning. Contrary to Western ideas about the benevolent sun and the “jealous” moon, for example, the Bacongo of Angola believe, according to Jogn S. Mbiti, ”the moon is the place of coolness and happiness where good men go after death; and the sun is the place of punishment for the wicked”.  Naturally, symbols often have a flipside, much like the colour pink as a symbol of femininity; yes, as a female I can be empathetic, I can be tender, I can be caring but I can also be vibrant, full of strength, love and self-belief.

It’s possible, then, that pink is so divisive a colour because it is a symbol of the conflicted and complex way women are viewed in society. Socially, pink has become representative of the feminine whether you like it or not, making the issue about how this symbol is to be interpreted. Yes, it can have a crippling and detrimental impact on the way women see themselves and their purpose in life when it is aligned with crippling and detrimental views about the role of women. In like manner, it becomes empowering then it is interpreted as encompassing all of the positive aspects of femininity.

on self-denial

I can’t buy those flowers just for me – I don’t deserve them“; “I’m a failure – I don’t deserve his support“; “I’m tired but I don’t deserve to rest – I have work to do“. The way I see it, many people today partake in a ‘deserving culture’ where any positive thing in your life must come from graft, even from necessity, to justify its place there. We seem to project our ideas about right and wrong onto non-moral features of the world, which come to embody our vulnerability, our profound insecurity and leave us with a negative view of the self and our personal worth.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the case of women, who are praised for actively denying themselves things that bring them pleasure or joy, as this allegedly speaks of their strength of character. For decades, we have been living in a diet culture where the expectation is for women to cut out certain foods that might derail their progress in weight loss or fitness, the result being that the food you chooses to eat becomes an issue of personal virtue. It’s not difficult to see this if one is only to look at the way that so-called ‘bad’ foods are labelled and marketed, companies using words such as ‘indulgent’, ‘naughty’ and ‘sinful’ to attract guilt-ridden customers. The implication here is that people – particularly women – should generally be abstaining from such treats as they are one manifestation of a kind of moral weakness, that they might only be consumed as part of a ‘cheat day’ or if they go on to spend three hours at the gym. In a similar way, those that work excessively and leave little time for themselves or their personal life become the object of admiration, of approval, as the phenomenon of “busy bragging” clearly suggests. It is thought that these people have their priorities ‘right’, that choosing to eat a donut on the way home or have a couple of hours to yourself at the weekend is somehow a failing, a moral shortcoming. As far as I can see, this affects most people that I know and extends to all areas of life, money being only one other example. My personal philosophy is that I should save every penny, only spending anything when absolutely necessary or for the benefit of someone else, an attitude shared by many I know that is only conducive to guilt and self-punishment.

On the surface, it seems as though this lifestyle promotes hard-work, self-restraint and abstemiousness – undoubtedly a positive thing – though it’s not difficult to perceive how this might feed into an unhealthy outlook on life as well as the perception of your self-worth. If we are constantly telling people that they must deny themselves that which gives them pleasure, that which brings them joy – however fleeting or superficial – we instill them with the idea that they must deserve these things to justify having them, the implication being that they are intrinsically undeserving or unworthy.

This phenomenon is nothing new, however, discernible in many philosophies and religions of the past which have certainly had an impact on the attitudes of people today. Inscribed at the Ancient Greek Oracle of Delphi, however, is the phrase Meden Agan or ‘Nothing in excess’. Rather than punishing ourselves for feeling or desiring certain things, we ought to embrace these desires and cut ourselves a bit of slack, as long as we retain the right balance or equilibrium. This is when self-affirmation becomes so important in bolstering the way one feels about oneself, it being essential that this self-denial does not come to dominate the way we see ourselves. Rather than making ourselves feel lesser or not good enough, we ought to treat ourselves with the respect and dignity that we would give to others, requiring both thought and action. Eat that donut if it’s what you fancy, as long as you have an otherwise balanced diet. Actively try to carve out a few hours jut for yourself within the week, whatever you can, as some respite from a hectic work life. Get enough sleep. Drink enough water. Sometimes, be selfish. Such an attitude is imperative to maintain a healthy and sustainable work/life balance as well as mental and physical health. Make an effort to incorporate small things into your life that oppose the mentality that you are undeserving and do things, however small, that bring you joy.

self-care

As a follow up to my last post, I would like to give some tips for taking care of yourself that I have found and continue to find helpful as someone who is by no means out of the woods yet. I just hope that others might find the same comfort and solace that I have, to whatever small degree that may be.

  • Self-affirmation

As difficult as this one is, it is important to try to convince yourself of your worth, of the fact that you deserve, that you matter. This takes a lot of practice and should even be done when the belief may not be there: be patient.

  • Forgive yourself

Remember that change cannot happen overnight, so show yourself compassion and forgiveness.

  • Make time for yourself

At this time, you are the priority. Listen to your feelings and remember to push yourself, but be forgiving if it’s too much at once, going out and socializing  being a good example.

  • Do things purely for the pleasure of doing them

Buy small things for yourself not because you need them, but because they bring you joy. Watch movies that you like. Listen to positive music. You deserve to enjoy all of these things.

  • Take care of the basics

This one simple but easy to overlook: get enough sleep, food and drink. Take care to nourish your body and remember that you deserve to have all of these things.

Though it may not feel like it, tell yourself that things will get better, as that may be all you can do until you’re in a better place. As I myself have trouble following my own advice, I understand how difficult self-care can be but recognize that it takes a lot of time and effort before a difference is felt. So, persevere.

on the trivialization of mental health issues

The next topic comes from my own inability to understand society’s obsession with perverting the image of the mentally ill, a topic close to my own heart who has been hospitalized for a severe eating disorder. Some illnesses, such as schizophrenia, are demonized while others, such as depression and anorexia, are glamorized. If one were to receive one’s entire education on mental illness from films, tv programmes and sensationalist news articles, one would get the impression that those with schizophrenia or multiple personality disorder were inherently dangerous, or that anorexia, anxiety or depression were trivial fashion trends, for example. From the impression I get from the public treatment of mental health, it seems as though society likes to create an image, an archetype, depending on one’s diagnosis. As previously mentioned, those with schizophrenia are ‘dangerous’ whereas those with anorexia are vain young girls ‘dying to be thin’, that those with depression are ‘mysterious’ and ‘troubled’ (particularly in regards to beautiful women who suffer), or ‘over-sensitive’ and a ‘burden’. In 2009 the BBC revealed that a poll by YouGov indicated that over one in three people perceive those with schizophrenia to be ‘violent’. In 2010, Urban Outfitters released a t-shirt with the slogan ‘Eat Less’ emblazoned on the front, only to later feature another top by the fashion brand DEPRESSION with the company name scrawled all over it.

Clearly, then, there are certain tropes, certain ways in which society stigmatizes mental health issues that are not just erroneous, but downright harmful. The film released this year on Netflix about anorexia, named To The Bone, has rightly borne the brunt of much criticism as it not only fails to portray this dangerous mental illness faithfully but also distorts it and romanticizes what it is like to suffer from this debilitating illness. Firstly, it misrepresents many of the symptoms that sufferers commonly exhibit, such as the scene where she eats and spits an entire meal while out with the film’s love interest, Luke. For a sufferer, this behaviour is common and excruciating, as not only is it shameful but also something that one tries to avoid at all for calories left of the food that remains in the mouth. These behaviours are not something to laugh about, as they both do, but rather to be treated with compassion and dignity. The casting of Lily Collins also only perpetuates the obsession with the beautiful, troubled woman, something indeed that only leads to further public misunderstanding and the fetichizing of such an illness, perhaps responsible for the pro-ana movement that causes so much damage to young, vulnerable people. Most crucially, however, it does not adequately reflect the complexity of such an illness. When I was in hospital, there was no one person whose issues could be simply chalked down to a traumatic childhood or a dissatisfaction with one’s body image; in fact, anorexia often came hand in hand with other mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder, OCD, anxiety and depression.

To The Bone, however, is only one of countless examples of the way in which mental illness is trivialized by the mainstream media which is ultimately damaging to those who are sufferers in their complex diversity. Terms such as to be ‘triggered’ or ‘depressed’, for someone to be ‘OCD’ about something only reflect how lightly mental illness is treated by those who have no experience of it. All I can hope for is that people might better educate themselves as to the true nature of these conditions and the inevitable consequences of such irresponsibility, itself not too much to ask. Indeed, it is not those with severe mental health issues who are a danger to society but rather, as the activist and writer Emma Goldman famously put it, “the most violent element in society is ignorance”.