‘Frontiers: Inside the Outsiders’ is Pi Comment’s very own column tackling social issues and trends from the perspective of students. Emily Schone argues that January’s usual bombardment of diet resolutions only normalises the nation’s unhealthy attitude to food; all too often and without warning, prompting vicious eating disorders.
I hate January. I hate the posters on café windows that tell you about their new sugar-free drinks, and those insidious adverts that play during radio breaks. Did you hear? Healthy flour-less pizza bases! Made of freeze-dried broccoli and the tears of the morbidly obese! Now only 300 calories! Tell your kids to watch their sugar intake, Karen – that stuff is worse than ketamine; it’ll make little Timmy a walking ball of lard before his fifth birthday. Track your macros. Cut those carbs. Skip that meal. Join that gym. Need I go on?
This hatred was compounded last week when I walked past a copy of The Telegraph. In my ignorance, I’d always judged The Telegraph to be the type of newspaper with bigger fish to fry than the respective lack of muscle on women’s stomachs. However, there on the front cover was a little, seemingly innocuous line telling me to turn to the page with the 800-calorie fast that promised to change my life. I took the bait. There I stood, in the middle of a WHSmith’s, reading about the week-long, 800 calorie ‘diet’ trialled and endorsed by the author of the article: an intake based on “soup packets, nut bars, seaweed crackers and herbal teas” that left Ms Armstrong 2.5 pounds lighter and considering it a “very helpful reset tool”. Why exactly is it that we feel the need to reset? At what point did our minds become better at regulating our bodies than our bodies themselves?
Food holds such sway over our decisions, confidence, and identities, and yet eating is no different to all other intrinsic human functions. We don’t religiously track our breaths or adhere to a daily number of recommended inhalations. We don’t think: “ah, well, I’ll be taking lots of breaths at the weekend, so I better limit them now and ‘save them up’ in preparation”. We don’t breathe exclusively between the times of twelve o’clock and eight o’clock because we heard about the benefits of intermittent asphyxiation from a colleague. Removed from its usual context, this sort of discourse is amusing at best and deeply unsettling at worst. I think what really struck me about The Telegraph article was how normal it seemed, and how simply and self-affirmingly such dangerous information was conveyed. Let me put it into perspective: children between 24 and 36 months (yes, months) require approximately 1000-1400 calories a day – and yet this article, among many others, tells us that surviving on less food than should be fed to a toddler is a wonderful idea to help shed the pounds.
The world of eating disorders is frequently misunderstood, and one that is fuelled by articles like these and the rampant reset mindset of January. Eating disorders are pernicious and manipulative, and they thrive by remaining undetected for as long as possible. This poisonous diet rhetoric provides the perfect guise. You probably wouldn’t think twice if you overheard someone’s plans to cut out all carbs and ensure their meals consist solely of lean protein and vegetables – nor would you dwell on another person’s liquid cleanse, or insistence on not eating after a certain time, or removal of milk from coffee to ensure minimum calorie consumption and maximum appetite suppression. In fact, I’d bet money on there being articles endorsing all of the above as legitimate constituents of a healthy, balanced lifestyle.
Now, if I changed the scenery to an eating disorder inpatient ward, I’d be willing to assume you wouldn’t be surprised to hear these statements circulating among patients. The articles advocating less-than-toddler-approved caloric intakes don’t shed light on the crippling isolation eating disorders bring with them: the missed meals with friends, the arguments with loved ones, the refusal to leave the safe confines of your own kitchen because are you sure you’ll find that exact brand of fat-free yoghurt if you venture somewhere new? Then there’s the endless appointments, blood tests, hair loss, bruising, nausea, voyeuristic trips to supermarkets, reduction of memories to macronutrients; body-checking in shop windows, measuring, enslavement to apps and trackers and food scales. The Telegraph is catering to an audience it assumes has a perfectly balanced, perfectly healthy relationship with food – and let’s be honest, how many people does this truly apply to nowadays? Content like Armstrong’s is confirmation for those with pre-existing eating disorders that they are doing the ‘right’ thing; it is fodder for those teetering on the line of disordered eating; it normalises behaviours in the eyes of the non-affected public and prevents the warning signs being picked up on.
Things might seem bleak, but there are ways we can arm ourselves against the slew of toxic discourse. Firstly, recognising diet culture for what it is – an industry that has managed to worm its way into public consciousness and present itself as an inevitable and praiseworthy reality of 21st Century living. The U.S. weight loss market alone was estimated to be worth $68.2 billion in 2017, and it’s only going up. Billions of pounds rest on the knowledge that the consumer will buy into this industry – and somehow, I don’t think the mental and physical health of the average joe crosses the minds of those at the top of the pyramid. And so, when you next see a magazine or a Kardashian promoting flat tummy teas, bear this in mind. Question nutritional recommendations and trends. It also pays to be clued up on some of the (many) warning signs surrounding disordered behaviour around food – and not just visible weight loss. The Beat website provides lots of free information that can, when applied and used to spot the first hints of something wrong, quite literally save a person from a lifetime of self-torment. Information is key, and, in a world where our self-image is a virtual goldmine for the money-hungry, it pays to be vigilant.