Join us for our first virtual book club read, Anti-Diet by Christy Harrison. We’ll just read a chapter a week, and you can read along and join us by making comments or, if you’d like to be included in the post, send me your thoughts by Sunday evening. We’ll post our thoughts each Monday.
Please note that this book discusses eating disorders and disordered eating patterns, which might be triggering. Whenever possible, we will avoid disclosing exact numbers.
Laura: One of my research areas is eating disorders, specifically disordered eating as a biopsychosocial-cultural continuum (instead of, say, simply a mental health disorder, which pathologizes, stigmatizes, and overly simplifies disordered eating). As a result, much of the Introduction and Chapter 1, which focused on the history of eating disorders wan’t new to me. I also didn’t find much to disagree with – her synthesis of the research aligns with my understanding of the current body of literature on the history of thinness as a aesthetic, moral, and radicalized ideal. There were a few things that I thought were important to point out, especially as they support my theory of disordered eating as a continuum. First, Harrison highlights research that has found that “65 percent of American women between the ages of 25 and 45 have some form of disordered eating, and that another 10 percents would meet the criteria for eating disorders” (p. 7). The only thing shocking about that statistic to me is that the number isn’t higher.
Second, and most notable, Harrison highlights the racist nature of a body ideals, specifically the thin ideal. Beginning with Ancient Greek theories about the relationship between consumption and intellectual and moral superiority, ideas and ideals of body appearance and food consumption evolved across time to reify a white, Western European thin and muscular body ideal (for men) as superior to all other body types: “belief in a hierarchy of ethnic groups, with white men at the top, led to a growing demonization of fatness starting in the mid-1800s” (p. 26). Since then, the categorization of fatness as unhealthy, immoral, and evidence of lower intellectual capacity has only grown; these conceptions are directly harmful to people who weigh more than a certain ideal range resulting in professional discrimination, public shaming, and outright structural discrimination in almost every setting (e.g., airplane seats, theater seats). The argument used to rationalize discrimination against is usually posed as one that is concerned about the health of those categorized as overweight (or, alternately, trying to rationalize harmful weight loss recommendations because being fat is a burden on the healthcare system and, therefore, costing Americans money). Yet, research has consistently shown for decades that those categorized as overweight by arbitrary measures like BMI “actually have the lowest mortality risk of any group on the BMI chart” (p. 36).
And, finally, Harrison fueled my ongoing, one-sided vendetta against BMI. BMI is not a predictor of health (well, not as it is used, anyway). It was, at one time, a simple demographic measure of the distribution of body sizes. Later, led by insurance companies and predatory doctors, BMI was used to create arbitrary lines demarcating healthy and unhealthy body sizes. Those in the “unhealthy” categories were then pathologized and labeled as a disease – labelling something as a disease creates opportunity for profits whether it is through weight loss drugs, surgeries. And, just like that, obesity became big business for a huge array of industries from medicine to insurance to hospitals, to the “healthy living” bloggers/vloggers/influencers we have today. Yet, the reality is that anyone categorized as overweight according to their BMI is not more likely to be at risk for the array of diseases they are being told to fear (most recently in the dumpster fire of misinformation, the Biggest Loser).
Using “medical” data to validate discrimination is nothing new, just like fatness is just another way to categorize humans according to race and radicalized aesthetics. At the end of the day, I shouldn’t have to build a case for why the “research” being cited isn’t actually true – discrimination is simply wrong, regardless of the rationale.
Rose: I was pretty sure this book was going to evoke all sorts of things for me and the introduction and first chapter are there already. I have been in a larger body since I was seven years old. I have been acutely aware of my size relative to others and social norms since second grade. Let that sink in. People have been telling me what I should/should not eat, do, and look like since I was very young. I have been through many types of fucked up diets and mental health struggle. All the shaming did was make me “sneak eat” – something that I am still guilty of. My relationship with food and my body has changed a lot in the past dozen years, but I still struggle with a lot of it.
I doubt one book is likely to be able to fix a lifetime of probably disordered thinking and behavior around food and weight. I am also likely to call bullshit on something at some point as we read. Part of this is my experience. I have sat on a panel working on my state’s “obesity/overweight” epidemic for nearly 15 years. Most of the practices we talk about (public health level interventions, not individual interventions) were part of my life and I still ended up in a larger body and clinically “obese” – or now I use the line between “overweight” and “obese” like a jump rope – and I ended up with Type 2 diabetes at age 32. I was breast -fed. I lived in a walkable neighborhood and walked to school and my friend’s homes. I rode my bike everywhere until I was a teen. We ate family meals at the dinner table and cooked everything from scratch. And at age 32 I was “morbidly obese” according to my medical chart. So yeah, I have some issues with a lot of things.
I have gotten to a place where I am “healthy sick” – I am generally quite healthy but I still have diabetes (now treated only with diet and exercise) and I am still overweight/obese. But my heart rate, blood pressure, and the like are probably better than yours [average healthy person]. I reject a lot of the diet culture. But there are a few things I can’t seem to escape:
1) My body is rectangle shaped. The body shape people would call it string bean, but that is hilarious in my head because I am average height. I wear “long and lean” jeans which also makes me cackle. I have virtually no difference between my bra band size and cup needs. I have no discernable waist. I don’t have hips. I am a rectangle. In fact, through college I wore men’s pants because they fit better. But people crawled up my butt about that. Fortunately, jeans are made in a lot of shapes now. But most clothes aren’t. By the time most fitted shirts work around my middle they are enormous in the chest. Also, I have excess skin/fat on my upper arms. Sleeves in women’s clothes don’t fit me ever. Always too tight if I can even get in them. I wear a lot of sleeveless to be comfortable in clothes, but then I leave my societally unsightly upper arm flab exposed. Women’s fitness shorts are typically made with a 3” inseam. That’s not comfortable or attractive if you don’t have thigh gap…and there’s nothing resembling a gap there. All I want is 5” – not the 7-8” “long length” but a modest and comfortable amount for a larger middle age woman.
2) Even without dealing with clothes there are certain realities of my body that make things hard for what I want to do. I am not as interested in chasing a number on the scale as not having to deal with the consequences of my eating and activity. When I run in a tank top (since I get hot easily and the sleeve thing this is much of the year) I need to be careful to lube my upper arms. When I don’t, I chafe. Not just a little. I have ended up with second-degree burns on the underside of my arms when running a 20-miler. It is very uncomfortable. Losing fat or gaining tone in my upper arms would greatly improve my quality of life. Being lighter and stronger would also improve my ability to climb hills on the bike. Since I enjoy long distance (67-160 mile) riding, sometimes within competition, being lighter means more power per kilogram and that means less energy expenditure to get up hills and ride faster. It’s physics.
3) Related, I feel better when I avoid certain foods. It isn’t that they aren’t tasty, although some are tastier in my head than in reality, it is that they make me feel ill. A lot of this is that I have insulin resistance. I don’t process refined carbohydrates or excess sugars very well. And then I feel sick. My body has also never processed cow dairy well. Since childhood, except we didn’t know the source of my extreme constipation was dairy until later. We didn’t know that it was specifically cow dairy until a few years ago. I get to eat cheese and yogurt, as long as it is goat dairy or non-dairy. There are a host of foods I avoid, but it isn’t because they are “good” or “bad” – it is because of how they make me feel.
4) My body image in my head is challenging. And I project it on to other people. I assume, on a daily basis, that people are judging what I eat and how I look. I am really uncomfortable eating around my running and triathlon teammates and coaches. I am uncomfortable eating around co-workers in general. I believe that when I am not included in something it is because people don’t want to be seen with someone who looks like me. It is the thing I continually need to work on in sport psychology and in general. I am now aware of what I am doing and can often interrupt the thought, but it is always there. I used to avoid the scale because I didn’t want to know. Then I only used it periodically to measure “progress.” Now I weigh myself daily, not out of obsession, but out of understanding that my weight fluctuates a lot on a daily basis and 1-2% changes are meaningless daily fluctuations or outside the accuracy of the scale (mine has a small margin, but still).
Laura: One of the things that is, without exception, the most frustrating to me is the stigma that is placed on those with bigger bodies. I shouldn’t have to write a book about this. I shouldn’t have to build a case for why it is not only wrong but also that everything being said about it is grossly incorrect. But I do, and Harrison did. Like Rose said, I’m not sure this is going to solve my own disordered eating habits and mindset about eating – I am beyond thinking that there is hope for me. But, I do hope that by talking about it, making this information a part of the public discourse, we can save the next generation of women from a lifetime of internalized shame, public shaming, and discrimination.
What are your thoughts about Anti-Diet? Was anything you read new to you?