Sunday, August 30, 2009

What Is Normal Eating?

I was sitting in McDonald's eating an Oreo McFlurry when I first read Tara Parker-Pope's Wellness blog entry titled "What Is 'Normal' Eating?" I was on a "working vacation" in a town where the best option for Wi-Fi was Mickey D's, and after four hours of copy editing when I really just wanted to be at the beach, I was irritated and thought an Oreo milkshake-like concoction would soothe my soul. In the piece, Parker-Pope quotes a definition of "normal eating" as given by nutritionist Ellyn Satter:

Normal eating is going to the table hungry and eating until you are satisfied. It is being able to choose food you like and eat it and truly get enough of it—not just stop eating because you think you should. Normal eating is being able to give some thought to your food selection so you get nutritious food, but not being so wary and restrictive that you miss out on enjoyable food. Normal eating is giving yourself permission to eat sometimes because you are happy, sad or bored, or just because it feels good. Normal eating is mostly three meals a day, or four or five, or it can be choosing to munch along the way. It is leaving some cookies on the plate because you know you can have some again tomorrow, or it is eating more now because they taste so wonderful. Normal eating is overeating at times, feeling stuffed and uncomfortable. And it can be undereating at times and wishing you had more. Normal eating is trusting your body to make up for your mistakes in eating. Normal eating takes up some of your time and attention, but keeps its place as only one important area of your life.

In short, normal eating is flexible. It varies in response to your hunger, your schedule, your proximity to food and your feelings.

I had a strong gut reaction (heh, heh) when I read Parker-Pope's main question: What is 'normal' eating? And I couldn't have scripted it better, what with the cultural and personal issues leading me to make unhealthy food choices: I don't usually eat at McDonald's, but there I was for lack of a better option -- not foodwise, but convenience-wise. And I was stressed and feeling put-upon and not doing a great job of walking the work-life tightrope, so I displaced my stress with food. But from the comments on the thread -- nay, from the existence of the post itself -- it was clear that my Wi-Fi McFlurry was far from some little blip on my own little trajectory. Satter's words should sound as ridiculous as "Normal breathing is through the nose, or sometimes the mouth..." -- but they don't. The mere fact that "normal" eating has to be written out in such a careful way shows how something that appears utterly achievable is, in fact, unachievable for so many.

The comments on the post (which garnered more than double the amount of comments of any other recent post on the Times Wellness blog) are frequently exactly the contrary to Satter's wise words. Among them: Eat only until 60% full. No snacks. No omega-6 oils (I didn't know what those were either). Go vegan. More than half the comments are basically echoing what Satter is saying, but given the essence of the post, the number of rules posted is interesting.

"Why can't eating be flexible and fun?" the author of the World of Psychology post that Parker-Pope points to, Margarita Tartakovsky, writes. Here's why: Because in the face of the actual reasons that drove our culture to become so messed-up about food, inflexibility and rigidity became concrete tools we could use to make sense out of it all, to feel as though we were taking some sort of action, however minute, to combat the poisoned mind-set we're in. We've got the industrialization of food production; the lack of community togetherness that drove us from bridge clubs to our television sets and bags of Doritos (related to McDonald's willingness to step in as community center, complete with Wi-Fi for working vacationers); the families of all socioeconomic classes trading home-cooked meals for "home meal replacements"; the sedentary jobs; the Coke machines in the middle schools; the beauty myth; the focus on restrictive eating; fat as a feminist issue. So you beef up on your Michael Pollan and "Fast Food Nation" and maybe read your Susie Orbach -- and then what? Awareness of the issues is a great first step, but it leaves the individual sort of in a no-man's land, aware that you're not eating "normally" but grasping in the fog for a way to begin doing so. The easiest navigation tool around is those food rules, especially if the sociological food issues you're steeped in have served to make you one of the majority of Americans who are overweight. Stop drinking soda. Don't eat after 8 p.m. Park your car farther away in the parking lot. These rules do some good, sure -- at the very least they don't hurt -- but for so many they're placeholders for the real issues that feel too enormous to even attempt to tackle.

I joined a CSA as one leg of my personal/political combat against being messed-up about food. It has undoubtedly made me a healthier eater; every week I have fresh kale and cucumbers I've gotta use or waste my money. But it has done crap to make me a normal eater. Even in my conscious attempt to personally contradict industrialization and depersonalization of food, I find that I'm still left swimming in the dark. I make my kale, then binge-eat sweets -- because that is my abnormality, the way I've chosen, albeit without ever meaning to choose it, to deal with my set of personal and cultural circumstances in regards to food.

I would love to be Satter's mythical "normal" eater, but I see her as exactly that: mythical. I picture her as the sort of person who can buy a Kit-Kat bar and save half of it for later -- and who, more importantly, would be prone to forgetting about the bar until she stumbled across it wrapped up in her desk drawer the next day. But then I think of my friends who can do exactly that, and they're not "normal" eaters either: I remember watching one of them plug all of her daily food intake into a nutrition tool on the web and reciting the day's vitamin intake out loud as though this were just what everyone did at day's end. Even the people I know who naturally gravitate toward a healthy diet yet don't preoccupy themselves with nutritional natter or body checks have their own food-control issues: I think of my father, one of those lucky folks, who gets fussy if foods of different consistencies wind up comingling in the slightest on his plate.

All this is to say that I wish to sign on to Satter's plan. I wish to sign on in ink and blood -- I just don't know what to do to make it a reality. My own signing on becomes an act of resistance, not an act of forward motion: I resist against the abnormal eating that has surrounded me as an American, as a woman. Every part of Satter's credo is so general, so obvious to anyone who has not been steeped in a food-crazy culture, that I have trouble navigating it without rules. There's no magazine cover line called "10 Ways to Have a Normal Relationship With Food." And if there were, I'm sure it would work as well as "Lose 5 Pounds in 5 Days" -- that is, not at all.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Glamour Plus-Size Model, Supposedly

Gasp! A size 12 woman is on the pages of Glamour! I wish this weren’t news, but it is -- and readers are noticing, to the point where editor-in-chief Cindi Leive wrote about the reader response on the magazine’s website.

Specifically, the piece the photo originally appeared in is titled “What Everyone But You Sees About Your Body.” The article coaches readers to “look through the eyes of these experts, who recognize the beauty and sexiness you don’t.” And to illustrate the concept, they use a professional model who happens to have a little tummy pooch. Are we supposed to somehow think that this model -- with glowing skin, a radiant smile, and an hourglass figure -- does not recognize her beauty and sexiness? Or are we supposed to play the role of the expert and see her beauty through the gentle padding, implying that there are others who don’t see the beauty of a woman who makes her living off of looking beautiful?

The magazine is between a rock and a hard place here as far as feminist critique goes -- had they illustrated this piece with a standard-sized model, the piece would have lost credibility; and as much as I’d love to see this magazine (or any other) use women who are actually plus-sized as models (as opposed to “plus-size models,” many of whom would be hard-pressed to find anything that fits them in a plus-size clothing store), we’re light-years away from that. The image was a good choice. But the attention it’s gotten forces me to look at it with a critical eye. I’m pleased to read that so many other women felt affirmed by the image. Me? I felt like I was being tricked, like when a saleswoman compliments you in order to sell you more clothes.

I’m guessing that Leive is correct when she writes that the image struck a chord because we have lost contact with what other women’s bodies look like. From the way people are reacting, you’d think that the model was as overweight as the average American woman and therefore a true reflection of what we look like (her BMI puts her at barely overweight, which, given the fact that nobody in their right mind would look at this model and call her overweight, goes to show how ridiculous BMI is as a measure of health; for more on that, see Kate Harding’s BMI Flickr collection). Still, people are reacting, and strongly. I would a zillion times rather that these images appear than not appear. I don’t think they do harm, and reading the testimonials that are on the magazine’s site, it seems that they are doing a powerful good for a lot of women. But one picture does not a revolution make.

I hope to see Glamour follow up this piece and the attention it’s getting with not a stronger message, but one that’s, in some ways, subtler. Using non-standard-sized models in neutral editorial pages (that is, in pictures that accompany an article on, say, dating, as opposed to fashion or body-image pages). Not insisting that models larger than a size 6 are automatically blessed with hourglass figures. (I mean, kudos for the Queen Latifah cover -- brown-skinned AND plus-size! -- but don’t tell me that the Queen’s waist is actually cinched in like that when Photoshop isn’t around.) Basically, what needs to happen for the all-shapes-and-sizes message to appear authentic is that women of, well, all shapes and sizes need to be represented in ways that don’t make it seem like they’re somehow anomalies.

Glamour has a halfway decent track record on this; I’ve seen one neutral editorial image of a model who was maybe size 12 with no comment or text about body image or her size. (Which sounds paltry but is one more than I’ve seen in any other mainstream women’s glossy.) Their woman-on-the-street Dos and Don’ts pages pay attention to the fashions their unwitting subjects are wearing, not the body sizes of the people photographed (yes, they show plump women in white pants, heavens be). And the May 2009 swimsuit spread was a fantastic sprint on the issue: The piece mentions what fabrics “camouflage lumps and bumps,” yes, but it’s the only time I’ve seen a plus-size model (the stunning Crystal Renn, who makes a living as a plus-size model) in a piece that’s not about plus sizes but about average sizes -- which, at size 12-14, Renn and most other “plus”-size models are. But now that the editors do have that track record and people are noticing, they have a responsibility to set a new, higher standard for themselves.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Belly Flop, Still

Still seeking the hordes of pot-bellied men on the street, and failing. I'm pretty convinced that the Times trend story on pot bellies story was a non-story, but it's been nagging at me. Part of me wonders if it is a trend and women have gained weight over the past year too--the recession upsizing--but that it would be seen as distasteful or disingenious, or even cruel to run a piece in the Times about the increase of women's hip size.

Overall, though, I don't think that the en vogue body has anything to do with how people actually shape their bodies, to the degree that we have individual control over it. That is, we appear to shape our bodies via all sorts of tricks, but the bodies themselves change due to circumstances that have little to do with the "in" body. Female models are as whippetlike as ever, yet Americans are heavier than ever. The "in" body shapes how we think of the ideal, and the emotional reaction we have to it, but it hasn't shaped America's bodies.

Movie starlets of old Hollywood were somewhat heavier than those of today (though not to the degree that some would have it--the whole "Marilyn Monroe wore a size 16" thing is totally bogus, and there's been no time in the past century when the weight loss industry wasn't around, so it's not like women saw The Seven-Year Itch and let out their breath). The average American woman was somewhat thinner than she is today; she weighed 140 pounds in 1960, and 164 pounds in 2002, according to the CDC. Despite the group of people who react to "thin is in" by regimenting their bodies to an unhealthy degree, American women have reacted to a shrinking ideal by getting bigger, not smaller.

The reasons for the expanding American waistline have been plundered from just about every angle--it's processed foods, it's failing communities, it's the income gap. Two possibilities come to mind here:

1) American women are reacting to unrealistic body standards by eating more. Emotional overeating hasn't been explored as much as I'd like as a cause for rising obesity rates, in part because it's hard to identify and examine objectively. But it makes sense that this is at least part of the equation--compulsive overeating is an eating disorder, after all, and it's taken for granted that media images play a significant role in the development of eating disorders that have been explored more thoroughly (anorexia, bulimia). But instead of reacting to images of rail-thin women by starving or entering a binge-purge cycle (and you'd be pressed to find a compulsive eater who hasn't at least tried purging in some way, whether it be skipping meals to "make up" for a box of cookies or by more drastic method), some may just say, "Fuck it" and skip the purging part. Not all overweight or obese people are compulsive overeaters, of course, but a good percentage are. (I've found statistics stating that anywhere from 10% to 30% of obese individuals are compulsive overeaters--the disparity suggests not necessarily bad methodology, but the difficulty in categorizing binge eating, which is only now being considered for categorization in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.) And compulsive overeating is caused by all sorts of things, not just reactions to Gwyneth Paltrow. But if there is a correlation between the expanding American body and the shrunken ideal, it could be here.


2) More likely, the relationship between the supposed ideal and the average has nothing to do with hipster rebellion against Obama's abs, and more to do with a desperate need for a style story. Or maybe men are just taking the lead in this recession on the big body = wealth equation instead of leaving it to Depression-style shoulder pads or the stimulus package (note the National Recovery Administration logo on the bottom of this 1934 weight-loss ad, pointed out by Karen Sternheimer at Everyday Sociology. Or maybe Guy Trebay is mistaking unemployed bankers for hipsters, and he's just spotting the laid-off dudes who are suddenly eating mounds of Cheetos instead of managing hedge funds.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Belly Flop

Like 85% of all style stories, I suspect this New York Times story about how men's potbellies are "in" was pulled out of the writer's ass. Or maybe there is a paunch trend--I haven't noticed it, but then I didn't notice depression chic anywhere either, and apparently that was huuuge. But check out the photos accompanying the story. I just can't see women's bodies--women's normal, "flawed" bodies, captured by a street photographer--ever making it onto the style pages. (I don't want them there, of course; the thought of being told that thick ankles are "in," accompanied by a smattering of poolside photos, is unsettling. Bodies are bodies, not trends, but that's another post.)

There's this assumption that men are "jus' folks" while women are supposed to be on the catwalk 24/7. Every so often you do see a trend story about how "curves are back" for women--always accompanied by photos of "curvy" celebrites like, oh, Scarlett Johansson, or basically any female celebrity who has breasts larger than a B-cup. The Times piece, however, is accompanied by headless shots of paunchy dudes--real people, that is, captured on the streets of New York simply looking like themselves. "Real women" graphics in this style only show up in a dos-and-don'ts formation--never, in my memory, have a collection of headless women a body-shape trend make. (Unless we're talking about Kate Harding's "headless fatties.")

The closest equivalent women have is the tired trend story about Michelle Obama's arms (though the link is to an L.A. Times piece that actually looks at the issue sociologically and with a feminist eye instead of a fitness piece on "How to Get Michelle Obama's Arms!"). Obama here is a stand-in for the headless, sculpted women who might otherwise make it onto the style pages--but, of course, she's anything but anonymous. Even in a piece that might actually be a women's body trend, we're still told to look upward, not sideways, for our mirror.

A quick thank-you to--never thought I'd say this--Quentin Tarantino for the only contemporary ode to the female potbelly, which starts at 2:30.)

Monday, August 10, 2009


This post about the de-skilling of food production and consumption got me thinking about one of the biggest ways that that de-skilling affected America: women's labor, and what happened once food industrialization allowed women to not spend their days canning and grinding wheat. In the 1950s, the post-war food market gave housewives the "gift" of packaged foods (which eventually, of course, led to recipes centered around creative uses of those packaged goods). An essential part of "the feminine mystique" was about what happened when homemaking went from being considered skilled labor to being transparently not-as-skilled, what with all those food processors and washing machines. Homemaking is indeed very skilled labor, but suddenly all those women with educations and/or common sense realized they were bored when staring at the spin cycle. From that (plus maybe another thing or two), we got the women's movement.

And from the women's movement, we got the beauty myth, which has it that cultural overattention to women's appearance rose in direct proportion to the amount of actual power women had in society, in order to maintain status quo. So when we stopped relying as heavily on individual women to be skilled food producers, thus began our journey toward becoming de-skilled food consumers. But the slow food/organic/localvore movement has had popular and practical success in urging a return to skilled production; it's probably the most successful such movement in the culture at large. (Alice Waters might not quite be a household name, but she'll draw a larger crowd than any, say, artisan cabinet-maker.) So we -- and by "we" I mean a fairly privileged group of people who have the time, money, education, and social investment in eating a meal prepared entirely out of local ingredients instead of one from Subway -- are back in the kitchen again, men and women sharing a sort-of-equal stage this time around, happily chiffonading our fresh basil.

Except that the beauty myth still exists. So women are back in the kitchen, but poured into a size 4 apron. As evidenced by the popularity of Julie and Julia, it's not like modern proponents of the slow food movement are skimping on the butter. Au contraire -- the slow foodies I know (of both sexes) are sipping the cream from local cows and kissing dishes with (Dean-and-DeLuca-procured) olive oil. But the body imperative remains, and slow foodies aren't exempt. I'm wondering if this attempt at re-skilling food production and consumption is leading to a subset of overskilled food producers -- slow-foodarexics?

Ideally, the slow food/localvore movement would have its followers to naturally follow a sensible eating plan: Eat wholesome, nutritious foods when hungry; stop eating when you're full; eat from every food group. I'd like to think that's not even "ideal" so much as it is natural -- by paying attention to our food preparation, we naturally pay attention to our consumption. But paying attention to one's food has never been a problem for women who suffer from eating disorders. The rough demographic for eating disorders also happens to be largely the same group most likely to jump on the slow food train -- again, relatively privileged folks.

There's a leisure-time gap between the olden days we want to emulate, and the days we live in. Our approach to food is wildly different than that of our great-grandparents -- it simply can't be as, well, organic (mentally organic, that is). My grandfather recently told me a story about canning foods when he was a kid. He was canning food so that they would have food in the winter, not because it was a fun family activity or because the tomatoes were local (what else would they be?). Those were happy byproducts. He talked about the way the machinery worked, not about how delicious the finished product was. I don't know what was on his parents' minds when they were canning, but I'm guessing they were thinking about the sort of things I think about while mopping the floor. That is, they were thinking thoughts one thinks when one works. Our great-grandparents didn't put as much investment into food as we do because it was a chore. For us, it's a pleasure, so we look forward to spending a lot of mental energy on it. Which is an enormous part of the problem of the American approach to food. People assume that the reason we have an obesity epidemic is because people are undereducated about nutrition. That's true for some, but every obese or overweight person I've heard talk about their weight knows full well that an emotional engagement and preoccupation with food is what added on the pounds, not a lack of knowledge of the fattening properties of Ben & Jerry's.

So I wonder if localvorism isn't for some, in a way, a faint shadow path running alongside the trail of a full-blown eating disorder. If that sounds far-fetched, or even just utterly harmless, consider orthorexia, an obsession with healthy eating. Orthorexics physically aren't usually in danger (unless it's accompanied by overexercising), but mentally they're swimming alongside anorexics, bulimics, and compulsive overeaters. I'm reading Living on Live Foods by raw foods guru Alissa Cohen, and she claims that when she went from a conventional diet to raw foods, she lost her obsession with food. This in a 500-plus-page book about eating nothing heated above 116 degrees. She makes her living off being a raw foods coach. And she's not obsessed with food? Similarly, how could slow foodies not be obsessed, or at least preoccupied, with food? Most people I know who align themselves with the movement (myself included) have a glut of cookbooks, and a blog reading list full of "food porn," and claim to "worship" slow food celebs like Alice Waters.

There's no doubt that the de-skilling of food production and consumption is an ugly path for the American diet. But we live in a culture that allows us the luxury of takeout, a culture ambitious enough to begin the industrial revolution that led us to this place -- a culture that now, as a result, leaves us with a lot of spare time on our hands. Time that is easily spent obsessing over food.

Slow foods at their best help us reclaim pleasure in preparing our own meals, pleasure in eating them, and pleasure in sharing with our communities of choice. But we're not a culture at our best, and I'm not sure if the glut of conversations and blogs surrounding egg custards in Perigordine sauce and pecan-encrusted skate put us any closer to being there.