Podium: Eating our way to success

Helen

Wilkinson

From a speech by the Demos associate to a conference on nutrition held in London

THE PRESSURES facing young women, their behaviour and attitudes to eating are issues close to my heart. On a personal level, the question of healthy eating is one that I, like many women of my generation, wrestle with on almost a daily basis. In theory, we all know the importance of healthy eating, but it is difficult to put in practice.

Women today are hungry for success. There is "no turning back" from the genderquake - the deep-rooted shifts in power between men and women - which is propelling women into the workforce. Young women today are prepared to make sacrifices to achieve career success. In this sense, it is the male definition of success that they are adopting. It is as if we are becoming addicted to perfection.

Success at work appears to be intimately connected to physical perfection. Naomi Wolf in her best-selling book, The Beauty Myth, pinned the blame for this firmly on the beauty industry and a culture of physical perfection which women from the earliest of ages are afflicted by.

The media - especially the tabloid press - are clearly implicated in generating these pressures. Famous women are frequently denigrated on the grounds of their body shape. Kate Winslet, dubbed Titanic Kate by the media, is one example. Her professional success was actively undermined by the tabloids' pronouncement that she did not physically come up to scratch. Sophie Dahl, the model who momentarily made big beautiful, found herself taken down a peg.

I believe our attitudes to eating are intimately linked to our notions of success and perfection. Kim Chernin, the author of The Hungry Self, agrees. She argues that the epidemic of eating disorders is the symptom of a wider identity crisis among women at the century's end. Young women today have opportunities that their mothers could only dream of, and yet through their problematic relationship to food are in retreat from them or engaged in a complex and often sub-conscious process of self-sabotage.

Women have always had a problematic relationship to food. But never more so than now. Bridget Jones, a self absorbed dysfunctional professional singleton who obsessively writes down her daily cocktail of cigarettes, units of alcohol and calorie intake, is comic relief. But a serious point is being made. Ponder these trends.

While men's drinking is relatively stable, women's consumption is on the increase; among 16-24 year old women, regular smoking increased by 5 per cent between 1994 and 1997; one study of female managers also found that 56 per cent claimed to suffer ill-health because they did not have time to exercise or follow a good diet.

In many ways, women's values and their behaviour are becoming male-oriented. The gender gap in health (currently in women's favour) is closing as women inherit some of the adverse costs of the stressful lifestyles traditionally lived by men.

Our pursuit of success appears to be at the expense of some of the more traditional feminine values - of self-nurture, care and healthy eating.

Healthy eating, a well balanced diet, exercise - these are the first casualties in our quest for success. When the phrase "eating disorder" is used, we think of the extreme cases of anorexia, bulimia and binge eating. But these disorders, worrying as they are, affect a minority, whereas the casual skipping of meals and the failure to eat the right foods at the right time affect far greater numbers. It is the great unrecognised problem, the hidden epidemic of unhealthy eating.

We skip breakfast. We miss the workout in the gym. We eat quick snack foods, rather than nutritional food, in our drive and quest for success and perfection. At the moment, too many of us eat the wrong foods (quick sugar fixes, chocolate and snack foods) and we often eat them at the wrong time. All too often, we glamourise this crazy kind of lifestyle.

The new ladettes are the extreme manifestation of these cultural shifts - women who like to work hard and play hard, to drink heavily, eat badly and party along with the men.

In some ways, this way of life is extremely seductive. I should know. It's a lifestyle that I led during my twenties and early thirties, so driven was I in my own quest for success. But in the end, there is a real danger. Irregular and erratic eating makes us less successful regardless of how hard we work because it erodes our inner power, our self-esteem, our confidence and our well-being. In the guise of pursuing our goal, it takes us further away from it.

The problem of dysfunctional eating is the central lifestyle challenge facing us all.

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