Nothing reveals the ubiquity of diet culture so starkly than trying to recover from an eating disorder. Instructed by my dietician to regain a "normal" pattern of eating, I looked desperately around me for benchmarks. Instead, everywhere I looked, I was confronted with behaviour that I had come to associate with disorder. From my morning newspaper and my Instagram feed, to conversations overheard in supermarkets and among my colleagues and friends, everyone seemed to be worrying about their weight. Looking forward to a return to normality, I instead emerged from hospital to find the signs of my eating disorder writ large on the world.
In my first job back in the “real world”, I found myself, in some dark twist of fate, in an office obsessed with health and fitness. Gym chat was more commonplace than small-talk about the weather, and I couldn’t enter the communal kitchen without hearing what new diets people were trying, how many calories were in their M&S “Balanced for you” ready meals and what horrific gym class they were attending that day to cleanse themselves of the sins of last night’s Indian takeaway.
At the desk to my left was a man subsisting entirely on Huel: meal replacement shakes supposedly containing all the nutrients necessary for a perfectly balanced diet (everything but the joy of course – but joy won’t get you a six-pack or allow you to work through your lunch break). Others attended gym classes like it was a religion (with all the guilt of a good Catholic), or drank herbal teas promising to eliminate belly fat. While some were unable to eat a piece of cake brought in for someone’s birthday without ruminating on how “naughty” they were for eating it, and what rigorous exercise they would now have to put themselves through to make up for it. In my whole eight months there, I don’t think I ever saw anyone eat a sandwich.
I don’t mean to seem judgemental. I truly believe that everyone should be left alone to eat whatever makes them happy. However, coming from an environment in which food was so fraught with fear, anxiety and shame, I was surprised and saddened to see so much of that familiar anxiety and control reflected in my new surroundings.
Distancing myself from the calorie-counting that became all-consuming during my illness also proved difficult. Once, as I was checking out of an online food order, Ocado kindly suggested I swap my yoghurt for a lower fat version and save some calories, while Citymapper regularly provides me with an illustrated representation of the food I would burn off if I chose to walk to my destination rather than get the bus. I cannot buy a sandwich from Pret, eat at most chain restaurants or cook from an online recipe without being confronted with the numbers I am trying to unlearn. I finally recognise their tedium and toxicity, but it seems the world won’t let me forget.
We live in anxious times. In the war against obesity, meals must come with warnings and colour-coded labels. With environmental pressures mounting, food comes laden with moral and political significance, not to mention large helpings of guilt. Increasingly, we eat not in tune with our bodies but according to externalised rules. As a consequence of my own extreme practice of this, I am still learning how to get back in touch with my hunger and fullness signals. As I look around me at a world obsessed with quantifying food, however, I wonder if this is a problem unique to those recovering from anorexia.
Of course, there is nothing new about this obsessive pursuit of thinness, or the pressure placed on women, in particular, to shrink their bodies and minds to fit into an unrealistic beauty ideal. However, in this age of Instagram, diet culture has been magnified to terrifying proportions. Photoshopping, which used to be a problem of glossy magazines, is now a mass commodity, reflected not just in the booming plastic surgery industry, but available to all with photo filters and apps like Facetune.
Absurd products, like appetite-suppressant lollipops and detox teas, proliferate, and come sponsored by celebrities with enormous followings. A whole new industry has emerged, in which Fitspos and foodies with huge cult followings provide exemplary models of “healthier” lives. Thanks, in part, to these influencers, our supermarkets profit from a whole new food group. We live in an age of “courgetti”, “boodles” and sweet potato toast: poor substitutes of the real thing but gloriously carb-free. You can even buy low-calorie ice-cream promising “guilt-free indulgence” (as if there’s something morally incriminating about opting for the real thing).
If that wasn’t enough, technology increasingly offers up more opportunities to quantify our health goals: we can track our steps, sleep cycles and heart rates on a FitBit, or track the calories in every mouthful with MyFitnessPal. Diet culture, it seems, has never been so lucrative.
I do not mean to undermine the very real public health challenge posed by rising rates of obesity, nor deny the reality that many of us should be eating more healthily than we do. However, I seriously question many of the measures offered as a solution to these problems. At the day hospital I attended, we would joke that the only people who actually weigh out the advised portion sizes on the front of cereal packets are those with anorexia. From experience, I can attest that 30g of Shreddies is not a nourishing breakfast. In reality, many of the well-meaning public health regulations and messaging around weight loss serve to perpetuate damaged relationships with food, imposing moral judgements onto food and bodies that do more harm than good.
As any seasoned dieter will know, restriction inevitably results in overindulgence and food preoccupation. Is it surprising that in an age of diet culture in extremis, we are more obsessed with food than ever?
I also propose we apply serious scrutiny to the healthy ideals to which we strive. The obsessive zeal with which so many track, quantify and regiment their food intake seems very far from healthy, in any true sense of the word. As someone whose bones will likely always bear the marks of anorexia, the irony of this strikes very close to home.
Diet culture is so mind-numbingly boring. That I am now awakened to this is one of the few good things to have come out of my illness. How much collective brain power, I wonder, is wasted counting calories? How much misspent anxiety and guilt is projected onto food, when eating is a basic need, as natural as breathing?
Although eating disorders are about much more than food and weight, they are chronic conditions, and I will probably always have to be careful. Given my history and genetic predisposition, I will never be able to trust myself to go on a diet. This, too, I consider a blessing. To have been thrown over the abyss means, I hope, that I will never again teeter on the edge. Anorexia has taken a great deal from me, but it has given me perspective.
So as we head into a new decade, and enter the season of fresh starts and rekindled gym memberships, my new year’s resolutions this year are a little different. In 2020, I would like to fall in love with food again. I want to listen to my body, and to eat without fear, guilt or shame. This year, I don’t want to count a single calorie, or track a single step. For me, these are big goals, but unlike my resolutions of previous years, if I achieve them, I think I just might be able to stick to them.
Tasha Kleeman is a freelance journalist
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