control

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“Bad Foods” – Control, Punishment and Singling out the Fat Folk

Published May 19, 2011 by Fat Heffalump

I’ve been thinking about the number of very public “health experts” that have been advocating total elimination of certain foods or food groups from the diet, either from the diets of children, or from those of fat adults.

There have been plenty over the years, but we’re seeing a rash of them here in Australia at the moment.  The most recent of which was Dr Kerryn Phelps, via her Twitter account.  Dr Samantha Thomas opened up a conversation about it on her blog, The Discourse, over the weekend.

I have also seen it from Michelle Bridges, physical trainer with The Australian Biggest Loser, who talks of guilt over eating “one or two chips”, and decries the consumption of white bread, a sentiment echoed by “non profit organisation” Obesity Prevention Australia.  Not that long ago I heard nutritionist Rosemary Stanton on the radio criticising the companies who make packet cake mixes for having photographs of children on the box, because she believes it sends the message to children that it’s OK to eat cake.  Uh-huh, you read correctly.

There have been others as well.

I want to talk about this method of “healthy eating” that advocates the complete elimination of foods because they are considered “junk”.  Junk food seems to be a fairly fuzzy concept in a lot of these cases, and can mean anything from highly processed foods with lots of added artificial ingredients, to anything containing sugar or fat, anything purchased from take-away vendors (prepared, cooked and/or served for you) to any kind of “bad” foodstuffs of the moment – these days, mostly carbohydrates.

These total elimination methods of supposed healthy eating seem to always be aimed at either children or fat adults.  It is rare to seem them recommended for all of society to practice.

It deeply concerns me to see these kinds of diets advocated for children and fat people, for anyone really.

The first thing that disturbs me is how disordered a behaviour it seems.  The connotations of fear, guilt, sin, bad behaviour, evil etc are all methods I know I employed myself while deeply entrenched in an eating disorder.  The idea that certain foods should never be eaten because they are fattening really bothers me.  Of course there will always be things like allergies and intolerances that will mean someone is unable to eat certain foods, not to mention simple dislikes, but the idea that a foodstuff should never pass someone’s lips because it is bad/junk/unhealthy is worrying, and particularly in children where variety is often an issue, and growing bodies have much broader nutritional needs.

Not to mention that it is simply impractical in our lives today to be hyper vigilant and attempt to completely eliminate the foods considered junk from most people’s eating.  The people like Phelps/Bridges/Stanton et al are proposing that children/fat people never be allowed to eat any of these foods.  That is certainly what is implied at least.

I was thinking about our eating history as a culture (and I’m speaking very generally as a white western person, as that is my personal experience – and most likely that of Phelps/Bridges/Stanton etc) and the social implications of total elimination of these foods.  Are these supposed health experts suggesting that a) children and fat people should never eat and b) that they themselves never eat or feed/have fed their children, any of the following:

  • Birthday cake, wedding cake, Christmas cake, or any other celebratory cake.
  • If they are Christians – no fish and chips on Fridays.
  • No birthday parties for children.  Either home catered or those hosted by fast food restaurants.
  • No cakes, biscuits or sweets made by their Mum, Gran, or any other loving family member (none for lunch boxes, none for special occasions, none for visitors)
  • No teenage parties or hanging out.  No pizza, chips, lollies, soft drinks, burgers etc EVER.
  • No food at the cinema.  No choc tops or popcorn.
  • No chocolate, hot cross buns or marshmallows at Easter.
  • No school dances (soft drink usually, sometimes snacks like chips)
  • No pie or hot-dog at the football/cricket/other sporting event.
  • No convenience food (pre or partially-pre made, or frozen, or take-away) for busy times.

These are just a few that have popped into my mind as I write this.  So if these supposed health experts are advocating that parents of children and fat people eliminate these things from their diet, can they say they’ve practiced what they preached themselves?  Particularly those that pride themselves on being thin, or having thin children?  Did they eliminate those things from their children’s diet?  What about when they were children themselves – did their parents eliminate those things from their diet?  Or are they only proposing that other people, particularly fat people and the parents of fat children, operate under such a strict regime?

But what really bothers me about this approach to “healthy eating” is that it is so steeped in control and punishment.  Particularly when it is solely applied to children and fat adults.  There is a sense of belief that every single morsel consumed by children and fat people should be controlled, sanctioned or approved.  It’s someowhat understandable to want to apply this thinking to children, because it is perceived that left to their own devices, children don’t have the skills to make reasonable eating choices yet.  I would dispute this however, most kids, when TRULY left to their own devices, tend to balance choices out if given plenty of options.  But it is particularly insulting to fat people.  It infantilises us, reduces us to being incompetent in making our own decisions in eating and food.

Fat people are seen as so incapable of making responsible food/eating choices that someone needs to intervene.  That we require policing in our food choices.  It also has an element of punishment.  “You have let yourself get so fat, you don’t deserve treats like everyone else.”  That fat people are bad/naughty/sinful so they don’t deserve anything “good”.

This moralising of fatness and food suggests to me that fat adults do not have the right or indeed capability of making decisions as to what they eat.  It makes our bodies and our lives public – when they are indeed private.  What an adult eats or does with their body is their own business and nobody else’s.

All in all, I think it’s high time that supposed health experts like the aforementioned stopped meddling directly in people’s lives and started focusing on real health issues, like adequate and affordable fresh foods for ALL, not just those of higher incomes, as well as safe and encouraging environments for physical activity for ALL, not just those who have the money or who look thin enough to be seen being active in public without offending bigoted people’s eyes.

Perhaps if they focused on these issues, they might actually make some real difference in public health, instead of simply moralising other people’s bodies.

Who Died and Made You the Judge?

Published February 25, 2011 by Fat Heffalump

I think the Universe is trying to nudge me to talk about something.

Earlier today I saw some snark on Twitter about women supposedly trying to “recapture their teen years” with pink accessories (ie mobile phones and laptops).  A little later in the day, a comment was made by an acquaintance about another friend dressing “inappropriately for her age”.

Sigh… are we still buying into this?  That there is some kind of “rule” on how women should dress, or what their tastes should be?

Look, I understand venue/environment appropriateness.  A bikini isn’t suitable for a corporate environment.  Thongs (flip flops for those of you who think thongs are the undies that go between your butt cheeks) aren’t suitable for a building site.  There are plenty of examples of where clothes aren’t appropriate for a venue/environment.  I get that.  For safety reasons, because there is a level of formality, for hygiene, or cultural sensitivity.  I understand that completely.

What I’m talking about are the fashion police.  Those who say that someone is “too old to dress like that”.  The ones who suggest women over 30 shouldn’t lighten their hair to blonde.  Or women over 50 shouldn’t have long hair.  The folks that suggest that the colour pink should only be worn by girls, not women.

I want to say “Surely by 2011 we should be beyond policing what women wear.”, but I know, there are folks still trying to police what we do with our reproductive organs.

I am not sure how it harms anyone if a woman wears her hair in pigtails.  Does it cause a hurricanes in the Southern Atlantic if a woman has a pink mobile phone case?  Are children kept out of school if a woman over 50 grows her hair past her collar?  Does international banking crash if a woman dyes her hair lime green?  When a woman wears black and orange striped socks to work, does it cause mass employee redundancies?

I have to admit, I am very lucky.  I can shave my head, have visible tattoos and wear bright colours to work in my corporate environment.  My workplace is very supportive of diversity and accepts me as I am, and I also respect things that would not be considered appropriate (I wear sleeves over my latest tattoo because it is of a naked woman.)  But I know other workplaces don’t approve of dressing outside of some kind of arbitrary measure of appropriate.  There is some sense of a “professional image”.

The thing I want to know is how someone’s appearance makes them any less professional?  The colour or length of ones hair doesn’t render one incapable of making professional decisions.  Having a pink iPhone cover doesn’t render one inable to think like an adult.  Wearing colour instead of black does not impact negatively on someone’s productivity.  In fact, I would challenge that it’s quite the opposite.  When someone feels good about themselves, they are far more productive than when they do not.

As for age appropriateness, who gets to decide what is appropriate for someone’s age?  Who was the person who deemed that women over 50 should have short hair?  Who made someone the boss of what colour accessories women should have when they become adults?  Who was the special person who deemed it unacceptable for grown-ups to wear lots of colour, or have a backpack shaped like a monkey, or any other fun/kitsch accessory?

Of course, then comes the body snark too.  Someone’s arms are too fat, their legs too short, their belly too round, their butt too flat and yadda yadda yadda to wear that.

There are times I just want to say “Who died and made you the judge?” when I hear people criticising women (well, anyone really) for their fashion choices.

What I really think it boils down to is more controlling of women in general.  More “women are supposed to” attitudes.  Keeping women concerned about meeting rules about their appearance means that they don’t have time to worry about the big picture, like the attempts to control women’s bodies, their incomes, their health, their sexuality, their education and so on.  So long as there are all these arbitrary rules about how a woman is supposed to look and behave, then there are lots of excuses to discriminate against a woman.  She’s too loud, too outlandish, too childish, too rough, too dramatic, too innapropriate – those things are all there as excuses to sanction the dismissal of and discrimination against women who don’t toe the line, conform, behave.

Some years ago, a colleague gave me a drink coaster for my desk.  It says:

“Well behaved women rarely make history.”

And the artwork on it is three brightly coloured cartoon women (one with pink hair, one with blonde, one with purple), dancing under the stars.

I still have it, sitting on my desk at work, right where I can see it.  It’s a daily reminder to me that by being different, by being me, it’s an act of defiance against a cultural standard of “well behaved”, just to dress and style myself in the way that makes me happy, rather than how women are told they should appear.