Mixed Media Deathmatch: “Disordered Eating” vs. “Obesity Epidemic”

By | April 25, 2008

There’s an interesting article up on the Today show website this afternoon, discussing a Self magazine poll of women and their eating habits. It draws a distinction between “disordered eating” and proper eating disorders, such as anorexia or bulimia, and reports that 65% of women in the US have disordered eating patterns.

Even more frightening, the SELF survey reveals that an additional 10 percent of women suffer from outright eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia, meaning that a total of 75 percent of all American women — three out of four — eat, think and behave abnormally around food.

The cognitive dissonance of this particular media message of “You should be worried about disordered eating!” alongside the more constant background drone of “You should be worried about the Obesity EpidemicTM!” is, well, perplexing. How do we lose weight, if not by dieting? What does dieting ultimately do to us, if not create an unnatural obsession with what we eat?

The article also delineates a Handy List of worrisome, “You Might Be A Disordered Eater If…” warning signs:

* A very strong fear of gaining 5 pounds
* Following strict food rules
* Dieting for more than three-quarters of your life
* Use of diet pills or laxatives
* Fasting or juice cleanses to lose weight
* Overexercising
* Cutting entire food groups from your diet, except for religious reasons
* Eating the same “safe” foods every day
* Extreme calorie restriction
* Thinking about food more than 50 percent of the time
* Obsessive calorie counting
* Intentionally skipping meals to lose weight
* Bingeing or vomiting
* Smoking for weight loss
* Lying about how much you’ve eaten
* Weighing yourself daily, if it becomes obsessive.
* Consistently overeating when you’re not hungry
* Eating a lot of no- or low-calorie foods
* Having concerns about your eating or weight that interfere with your life (e.g., you won’t see the doctor)
* Considering foods to be good or bad
* Visiting pro-anorexia or pro-bulimia Web sites
* Adopting a vegetarian diet solely for weight loss

This is probably the most fascinating part of the article for me personally. Y’all, I’ve been a fat activist in varying forms since 1997. I am an intuitive eater. I fancy myself as having a healthy emotional relationship with both my body and with food, one that gets healthier every day that passes between me today and the many years I spent eating “disorderedly” as a child and teenager. And yet I can nod and say yes to many of these, sometimes as remnants of my past food and body issues (for example, a fear of gaining weight, when I am most content maintaining my current size), and sometimes as positive spins on the negative connotation (for example, I am inclined to argue that thinking about food more than 50% of the time is fine, if your food thoughts are happy, anticipatory, appreciative ones).

On a broader basis, I can apply most of this list to every woman I know. Including my coworkers. Including my mother. Including fat-positive people.

We live in a culture which (women especially, though others are not immune) teaches us from the earliest ages to eat according to the guidelines above. We learn it from the TV, from magazines, from our families, from our friends, in books, in grocery stores, at bars, at church, at work. I was recently shopping at a Torrid, and while ringing up my purchases, the cashier asked her coworker anxiously, “Are chicken quesadillas fattening?”

(I was sort of agog at the question. I mean, what the hell does “fattening” mean, for one thing: more fattening than a carrot? less fattening than a twelve-pound cheesecake? And secondly: well, DUH. Girlfriend, anything smothered in cheese is hardly going to qualify as a low-calorie food, unless, of course, the cheese is some awful low-fat Pretender to the Cheese Throne.)

There is no “outside” of this culture of food angst and body hatred. We all have to live in it, those of us who unwittingly embrace it and those of us who consciously stand against it, together. Ultimately, it fails at its primary goal anyway: it doesn’t make us less fat. Eating disorders and disordered eating patterns are becoming more and more common, but obesity [sic] rates keep going up. We (meaning everyone, not simply fat people) are not suffering to be thin. We are suffering to be unhappy, unhealthy, physically and emotionally. We are suffering to be always just a little bit fatter than we want to be, to always be just off the mark. There is no end to it. There is no finish line. There is no perfect.

There’s just you, and me, and the bodies we live in, and the food we eat. It should be a simple equation. It isn’t. The article linked above pins down disordered eating patterns into tidy little identities: calorie prisoners, secret eaters, career dieters, purgers, food addicts, extreme exercisers – bite-sized descriptors of our fucked-up-ness. It refers to “the disorder next door”. Disordered eating is pandemic in the United States. And we have dieting and our national obsession with weight to blame.

“Dieting is a national pastime for women,” says Margo Maine, Ph.D., an eating disorders specialist in West Hartford, Connecticut. “As a society, we don’t see the problem.”

Nope. We’re all too distracted by the fear of getting fat.

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