To the Food Police in My Life

Samiksha

 

Samiksha Manjani is a Student Staff member at UMBC’s Women’s Center. She is a Political Science and Sociology double-major graduating in May 2019.  

 

 

Eating around other people has become the bane of my existence. I don’t remember the last time I’ve eaten in peace without the “food police” (family, friends, strangers, etc) hitting me with a microaggression about my food choices. Receiving these microaggressions day in and day out has made the simple task of eating daunting and anxiety-ridden.

Here are just SOME of the scenarios that I have been in:

Whenever I order a salad: “What, are you on a diet?”

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Family members when they see me eating only a salad.

Whenever I order anything other than a salad: “Do you really need that?”

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What these situations demonstrate is that it doesn’t actually matter what I’m eating when I get these microaggressions. In fact, it demonstrates that food policing has nothing to do with the food itself. Food policing is really about policing women’s bodies, sizeism, and buying into the economics of diet culture.

Policing Women’s Bodies: The Feminine Ideal

Our patriarchal society begins policing women’s bodies in early childhood. Women are taught from an early age that our appearances define our sense of worth in society, and that thinness directly correlates to value. Furthermore, because we live in a heterosexist world, we’re taught that the judges of our appearances are essentially men. Thus, we’re indoctrinated early on to strive towards a beauty standard that is both largely rooted in the male gaze and is entirely unattainable. This message is constantly reinforced by the institutions in our lives: from schools, the media, and even from our own families sometimes. We’re constantly told that we should pay attention to our appearances and maintain the right body size. But what exactly encompasses this beauty standard regarding body size?

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Historically, the American beauty standard favored plumper bodiesPrior to the mid-20th century, robust bodies were considered to be the feminine ideal. Larger body size was considered indicative of fertility and wealth. Famous beauty icons even into the 20th century, like Marilyn Monroe, were heavy set. Advertisements at the time sold products meant to help women gain weight, not lose weight (seems almost impossible to imagine, I know). Full stomachs, thick thighs, and fat (in the “right” places) were considered healthy & desirable.

Since the mid-20th century, we’ve seen a shift in the beauty ideal from larger bodies to thinner bodies. By the 1960s, the feminine ideal was slender and wispy. In just 10 years, the ideal body size shifted immensely from women with bodies like Marilyn Monroe to bodies like Twiggy. This trend of willowy and thin bodies (like that of Kate Moss) continued to be the feminine ideal throughout the 90s.

Today, the ideal body size still favors thin bodies. American society idealizes an hourglass figure with measurements of about 36-26-36 inch measurements (bust-waist-hips). As you can see, the waist measurement is significantly smaller than the chest and hip measurements.

The current beauty standard presents American women with a conundrum (in the way unrealistic beauty standards always do). As the measurements listed above and current beauty icons such as the Kardashians demonstrate, the ideal body is simultaneously curvy and thin at the same time. While heavy-set busts and hips are considered ideal, so are small waists, thin arms and slender legs. The ideal weight for American women is around 128 pounds, yet the average weight for American women aged 20+ is 168.5 pounds.

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The Kardashians

Sizeism

This beauty standard has real-life consequences for American women. This is because we have associated body size with women’s sense of worth in American society; such that those who are closer to the beauty standard, have higher social value in our society. Therefore, women who have or are close to this ideal body size are considered more worthy. We associate positive values with women who meet the ideal body size.

This phenomenon is called thin privilege. Thin privilege means that individuals who move through the world in a thin body are granted certain advantages and immunities over people who are not thin. What’s important to remember is that it doesn’t matter whether you actually “feel thin” or not to have thin privilege. If other people perceive you as thin, then you maintain an advantage.

On the other hand, women who do not meet this ideal body size and are larger often deal with sizeism. Sizeism is the prejudice or discrimination on the grounds of a person’s size (aka: “body shaming,” “fat shaming”). Sizeism is rooted in fatphobia, which is the fear and dislike of obese people and/or obesity.

Sizeism can have severe consequences: one consequence is fat discrimination such as verbal and physical aggression, increased scrutiny of eating habits and extreme pressure to go on dangerous diets, increased health insurance premiums, being provided inferior medical care or being denied certain medical procedures, and/or being judged as “lazy,” “stupid,” and/or “weak.”

Fundamental to our sizeist culture is the notion that being overweight or obese is the result of diminished morality; being heavy is seen as the embodiment of gluttony, sloth, etc. Additionally, because of the deep-rooted belief in self-reliance in American culture, body size is regarded as completely under the control of the individual. Therefore, being heavy or obese is considered to be caused by destructive individual behavior. Ironically, however, we often engage in destructive individual behavior because of the constant and toxic societal pressure to be unattainably thin (e.g. skipping meals). 

Here is an advertisement that a shampoo company ran which I think perfectly exemplifies the attainability of the ideal body:

Your breasts may be too big, too saggy, too pert, too flat, too full, too far apart, too close together, too A cup, too lopsided, too jiggly, too pale, too padded, too pointy, too pendulous or just two mosquito bites. But with Dep styling products, at least you can have your hair the way you want it. Make the most of what you’ve got.”

As this ad demonstrates, no matter how you look, even if you’re the closest to the ideal body size, it’s still not enough. Despite this, we still strive incredibly as a society to meet a body size that for many of us is simply not possible. Why?

Diet Culture

pasted image 0 (12)One of the main driving forces of this unrealistic female body ideal is the diet industry. The diet industry is worth $66.3 billion; selling everything and anything from diet pills to meal plans to member-based fitness clubs.

The diet industry’s primary target? Women. The diet industry, for all the good it may or may not do, profits off of women feeling insecure about their bodies.

Many of the products being peddled can contain harmful ingredients. These products are often advertised by famous artists and celebrity influencers. For-example, many celebrities have endorsed the newest trend in diet products: diet teas. Many diet teas contain senna, which has been approved by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration as a laxative. Although senna can be helpful to combat occasional constipation, the FDA has warned that prolonged use (like in a diet tea) could cause liver, kidney, and colon problems. Despite this, many celebrity influencers still promote diet teas. 

The pervasiveness of diet culture makes it nearly impossible to “just ignore it.” As a result, eradicating it is bound to be a long and difficult process. Truthfully, it would probably require an overhaul of the entire system, but through certain steps, we can begin to diminish its effects.

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pasted image 0 (13)One way is to actively support and be a proponent of body diversity. The body diversity or body positive movement is the acceptance of all human body types. It is rooted in the belief that all human beings should have a positive body image, and be accepting of their own bodies as well as the bodies of others. It also understands that body size is not the same thing as health.

You’ve probably heard the phrase “bikini bodies.” You may have also at some point fretted over the idea of wearing a bathing suit to the pool or beach (lord knows I have).  The diet industry would have you believe that, in order to have a good bikini body, you must go on a diet in order to be the right size in the right areas. With a body positivity lens, we would say that ALL bodies are bikini bodies if there’s a bikini on your body!

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Continuing to raise awareness and celebrate body diversity is essential to disrupting the diet industry. There are so many people already doing this amazing work:  

  • Sonalee Rashatwar, a social worker and an activist sex therapist based in Philadelphia, works with clients to raise self-esteem regarding body image.
  • Tess Holiday is a plus-sized model who continues to challenge the fashion industry on body size.
  • Jessamyn Stanley is a yoga instructor based in Durham, North Carolina who uses yoga to encourage body positivity in her students.
  • Last, but not least, Imogen Fox gives us a very raw, often vulnerable, and eye-opening glimpse of what it means to be body positive as a disabled person, challenging our perceptions of disabilities.

Not only should individuals adopt a body positivity outlook, companies should also do so through cause marketing. Cause marketing refers to marketing strategies that promote a social cause instead of a product. This can be especially potent when the cause is relevant for the brand and has meaning for the brand’s customers. Perfect examples of cause marketing include Dove’s Real Beauty Campaign or American Eagle’s Inclusive Aerie Real lingerie line. When cause marketing is successful, companies are able to expand their customer-base and increase sales. Since American Eagle adopted its Aerie Real campaign, it has continuously reported growths in their profits.

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In fact, we can see how refusing to adopt a body positivity lens can hurt a company. Victoria’s Secret is an extremely famous lingerie brand and has been known for its famous Victoria’s Secret Fashion show. However, it is also known for its severely limited sizing range. The company has overtly declined to be inclusive; most recently, its execs declared that they aren’t willing to hire Trans or Plus-Size Models in their VS Fashion Show because, in their own words, “the show is a fantasy. ” (*rolls eyes*).

In the last few years, Victoria’s Secret has consistently reported that its sales have been in decline. Understandably so, considering that new brands supporting body diversity are popping up: lingerie brands like Savage X Fenty, Torrid, Universal Standard, and more. Additionally, when beauty conglomerates like Dove openly adopt a body diversity message and increase their already high sales, there really is no way for Victoria’s Secret to keep up. As these companies demonstrate, adopting a body positivity campaign can only help increase profits and visibility.

Adopting a body diversity outlook could only help us, not hurt us. If my food popo adopted a body positive mindset, they’d understand that I know what’s best for me, my body, and my health. They’d also understand that my body size is not the same as my health. Ultimately, sizeism and unattainable beauty standards only exist to point out the obvious: we are all unique, different people; beautiful in our own ways.

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I Loved You Once – Reflections from NCCWSL on Authenticity and Leadership

The following post are reflections from rising-sophomore Nitya Kumaran who represented UMBC at this years National Conference for College Women Leaders (NCCWSL). When Nitya found herself in my office after attending the conference in May she was full of energy, passion, complex thoughts, and challenges for herself. I asked her to write some of what she was thinking and feeling down so others who didnt attend the conference could also learn from her leadership journey. Nitya took up this challenge by sharing her thoughts in a conscious-raising way that presents itself as raw and authentic reflection of her journey and growth as a feminist leader. 

-Jess

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I Loved You Once

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Nitya with Elizabeth Acevedo at the Women of Distinction Awards

At the National Conference for College Women Student Leaders’ Women of Distinction awards, the last award winner was National Slam Poetry Champion — and a woman comfortable with her natural skin and hair — Ms. Elizabeth Acevedo! This Dominican woman had unabashed curls springing from her head like fresh beans from the soil, like flowers in the sun. She had coffee skin and a smile that charmed me to the floor. There were cheers all around and they took on a new volume at the mention of that last phrase. A few black women around me cheered particularly loud and I cheered with them.

Try Fair and Lovely for radiant skin!

The skin-whitening creams, my own dark skin, hate from another place and time struck my mind.  I couldn’t fathom the weight of that last accomplishment.

Easily and graciously, Ms. Acevedo’s whole face smiled and thanked us.

“I was a nina de la casa. A girl of the house. That’s all I was expected to be. Now, there’s nothing wrong with that if you want to do that, but I think everyone should have the choice.”

Her own difficult journey to become “her own woman” was shared with us with both hands. We weren’t supposed to become her, we were supposed to become our own women, find our own destiny.  Continue reading

My Body and Me: The Original Arranged Marriage. A guest post by Ashley Sweet.

This was originally posted on Unruly Bodies a group blog for UMBC’s Gender and Women’s Studies course, Unruly Bodies. 

As long as I’ve been alive, I’ve been some version of overweight. I was my mom’s biggest baby. There was the “baby fat” phase (which I tried to ride to middle school, much to my embarrassment); the “I’m gaining weight because of puberty but it hasn’t decided where to live yet” phase of middle and early high school; the “I may not actually be overweight but I’m so disgusted with that tiny bit of belly fat that I’m pretty sure I’m obese” phase that seems pretty rampant in American high schools; the “shit, now I really AM overweight because I decided to take birth control and I put on 50 pounds in 3 months” phase of panic, terror and depression; the “I’ve stopped trying to stop gaining weight” phase where I saw numbers over 200; the “I had a baby and despite gaining hardly any weight with pregnancy I’ve managed to get even bigger postpartum” phase that’s pretty popular with new moms; and my personal favorite, the “oh my god, this is the biggest I’ve ever been ever in my life and I’m completely freaking out” phase of morbid obesity that has consumed my adult life.

Basically. Though my scale isn’t this clever. And I have better toes.

Basically. Though my scale isn’t this clever. And I have better toes.

Sensing a trend? My image, my self-esteem, my worth, my life, has always been wrapped around fat and weight. And don’t think that a comment of “there’s more to life than that” will magically change the way I’ve always thought about myself. Despite my Gender and Women’s studies major that’s been diligently trying to help me see myself as more than “fat”, I regularly struggle with seeing beyond my size. And that’s just how I see myself. We haven’t even begun thinking about how other people see me, how they’ve always seen me. And so, allow me to demonstrate where the idea that my identity is a number came from.

As a toddler, the clothes that didn’t fit were pretty popular topics of conversation; I was the “third-born” that didn’t get hand-me-downs because I wasn’t the same size my sisters had been. By middle school, how I was supposed to look (THIN) and how I looked (immensely curvy by 12) was a constant source of inner turmoil, fueled by the boys that didn’t like me (hello, I looked like a woman, not a kid) and my family who, for whatever reasons, couldn’t help themselves from talking about my weight. There were lots of ways my body showed up in conversations; “you’re fat” from my sisters when they were angry; “do you really need that bowl of ice cream?” from my step-dad who convinced himself that shame was a parenting tool; my personal favorite was the time my dad took me out for ice cream and bought me this monstrous sundae and, half way through, began a lecture about how “concerned” he was that I’d put on MORE weight. I’ve never since consumed ice cream that tasted as badly as that shame-sundae that I finished, teary-eyed, because I’d been taught not to be wasteful.

Oh yeah, because that’s the only definition of healthy.

Oh yeah, because that’s the only definition of healthy.

By high school, there was a lot of self-loathing. Most assuredly my body, that had somehow taken on a life of her own (she showed up in conversations that didn’t mention “Ashley” and she’d somehow gained priority in all of my relationships), was the primary root of my self-hatred. I hated her; not necessarily me- my depression, however intense, never morphed into a desire to have no life, just the desire to have someone else’s. I was sure that she made it to every interaction before me; that my “first” impressions were always snagged by her rolls and chubby cheeks and heavy breasts and voluminous thighs. She was what people knew about me. I was “that fat girl,” “Oh, the one with the big tits,” and “her face is OK.” When I somehow found the logic to see myself beyond “her,” I knew I was smart, I was passionate, I was considerate, I was helpful, I could sing, I could write, and I was funny. But that wasn’t what people saw. Because you really can’t see those things, you see bodies. And I resented being “seen” as nothing more than a body.

We didn’t get along, my body and I. I would cut her when I was consumed by pain or loneliness or hatred. Sometimes (often) I overfed her in sorrow, sometimes I starved her in despair. I hid her in clothes that made me look bigger, and when high school taught me that grown men, at least, saw her as sexy, I subjected her to a lot of physical contact that neither of us liked. And as much as I thought all of those things would make me feel better, they didn’t. We were disconnected.

Um… yes.

Um… yes.

By now, I’m sure I’ve made you sad. Fat stories are, by nature, really really depressing. And I want to console you (because I’m also kind) by telling you that I sporadically found some amazing body acceptance lying around. But I didn’t, not entirely. What happened was harder: I married the first man thatconvinced me I was beautiful (and to be clear, I love him more than I could ever express, but my self-esteem must be credited for at least part of why I married so soon). I spent a time disconnected from my body, believing that no one could like me if they didn’t like her. And how could I test her likability? By pimping her out to guys that said she was sexy (again, to be clear, my maturation since then has confirmed that that was a really bad idea). I blamed her for my sadness, my pain, and my failures. After all, she was the root of it all. She was all the credit I ever got and I kid you not, year by year she EXPANDED.

As an adult, my family STILL talked about her, but it was different. Adulthood had meant that I could pass the overt criticisms and painful remarks about my size and instead could skip right to passive aggressive “concern for my health” and sarcastic jokes that no one “really meant.” Now my fat-shaming (oh yeah, adulthood taught me that my every interaction could be summed into an experiential phrase) came in forms like moving me to the back of a picture, worry that I’d die by 30, and the time my step-dad’s mom just KNEW I’d have gestational diabetes (hey, I’m obese, how could I not?)

Alright, alright, let’s show some respect. This body is having an apple.

Alright, alright, let’s show some respect. This body is having an apple.

There was never a moment when something, a conversation with a real friend, an article too logical to ignore, my husband’s insistent adoration, convinced me that I wasn’t my body (or maybe, I wasn’t just my body, I’m still not sure). I just got older. I got smarter. I grew up. I began to think like the adult I’d been posing as for years. And after a while, I began to see things differently. It’s been a slow, oh painfully slow, transition. Most days my body is my body and mybody. We are both one thing and separate things. I am her and somehow more than her. And the parts of me that aren’t her, the smart, funny, caring Ashley I mentioned before, they’ve become increasingly more significant to my identity. She’s still important. She is a bigger concern in having another baby than my mental stability, finances or two-bedroom house. She’s sometimes the reason I don’t have the courage to go out. She’s at least 75% of why I don’t like school, when I don’t like school (those tiny desks). She is sometimes the reason I cry.

Our relationship has been slowly progressing; sometimes I love her. Sometimes those rolls (oh my goodness there are so many) and stretch marks are just “character”. Sometimes my now enormous breasts are actually pretty incredible. Sometimes I’m pretty impressed with how well she’s survived the years of abuse, torture and hatred I’ve dumped on her when no one else was there to help me out. Oh yes, part of my maturation has been taking responsibility for what she’s become, the role I’ve played in making her the monster I’ve been afraid of. And my developing love for her has helped me take an interest in self-care that’s healthy. I’m not interested in starving her or leaving her to rot or abusing her anymore. Adulthood has given me the gift of knowing that this body is the only one I get, and if I keep being mean to her, she might quit on me.

And now I know.

And now I know.

It’s like a marriage, the relationship we have with our bodies. Some people see it as “oneness,” as two halves of a whole; sometimes it’s just two pieces, separate but interdependent. I think of my marriage as arranged; I may not have chosen this body, had I a choice, with a genetic predisposition to obesity, as my “partner for life.” But we’re in this thing. I’ve spent too long hating her, pushing her away, rejecting her; we’ve been in couple’s therapy for a while now. Sometimes I still say mean things to her. Arranged or not, we’re married. For better or worse we’re committed. And I like to think of this “turning of a new leaf” as a kind of vow renewal. I vow to be nicer to you, body, if you vow not to quit on me until I’m treating you with the respect you’ve been missing. And hey, since this is a marriage, give us some gifts. We like cake and pedicures.

To read more about bodies and what they do and refuse to do, how they are represented and how they represent, the ways they are disciplined and the ways they resist – in other words – the political, social, and economic lives of bodies, visit Unruly Bodies.