Food, Dieting and Feminism

I think we can all agree that men and women deserve equal treatment. Today we're discussing the relationship between food, dieting and feminism. 

So, I had planned on a very different post today, one that was a little more 'nutrition-y'. But after a somewhat heartbreaking experience this Monday, I decided to write this post, which has been stewing in the back of my mind for some time.

After work on Monday, I ran to Trader Joe's to stock up on groceries for the week. There was a group of three girls there as well, presumably college freshman because a.) they looked like babies b.) one was still wearing a high school lacrosse shirt and c.) I heard them talking about exams. I couldn't help but overhear most of their conversation, since the store was pretty quiet and, you know, college freshman are loud.

One of the girls was going on a diet.

Mind you, I don't think anyone should go on a diet, but especially not a pretty, athletic and from all outward appearances, healthy young girl. As she navigated the aisles, I listened with horror as she studied the calories on prepared salads, putting back the ones she wanted because they were over 400-500 calories and instead grabbing ones that were 300 calories but she would "scoop out the cheese". My heart beat faster as she asked employees tips for reducing the calories in their deli items and they gave her tips like 'only use a little bit of the dressing' or 'you could leave out the noodles." I listened as she told her two friends, who had similar body types, that she was "getting fat and really needed to work on her six-pack." I watched her pick up sugary cereals, to which her friend remarked, "that can't be healthy" and she replied, "but a cup is only 120 calories and that's all I'm going to have for lunch." I watched as she fake waddled past the canned soups, complaining about the way her thighs touched. I noticed how every time she passed sweets or cookies or chocolate, she made a remark along the lines of "Welp, can't have that 'till I'm skinny!"

It was heartbreaking.

Being a dietitian who specializes in intuitive eating, a non-diet approach to eating, I knew I could help her. So, I waited until she was by herself, approached her and said "Hey! This is probably one of the weirder things I've ever done, but I couldn't help but overhear your talking about starting a diet. It made me so sad because you are worth so much more than your body. I'm a private practice dietitian and I work mainly with women who have dieted their whole lives, which has caused a lot of emotional pain, and never actually helped them lose weight long term, and I just don't want to see you go down the same path. Here's my card, in case you ever need anything or want to talk about other ways of eating."

OK, so that's not what happened.

That's the scenario I played out in my head at least 20 times, but in the end, I chickened out. I went back to my car, literally shaking, and cried for this poor girl.

Maybe you're thinking that's a bit of an overreaction, and you might be right. After all, people talk about diets and body shame themselves every single day, often in my own office. So why was this particular instance so upsetting?

Right before I left the house, I was making my grocery list while watching CNN. I was jolted to attention when an ad featuring real women reading statements made by Donald Trump came on.

“A person who is very flat-chested is very hard to be a 10.”


“Fat pig.”

“I look at her right in that fat, ugly face of hers.”

“You know it really doesn’t matter what they write, as long as you’ve got a young and beautiful piece of ass.”

Something about seeing actual women read his words made it all the more powerful...and hurtful. I had heard most of the statements before. Being read by other women, they were no longer sophomoric statements said for shock value. The hatred, sexism and pure lack of respect for a solid 50% of the population was painfully obvious. The idea that a large chunk of the population endorses, or is at the least not disgusted by these comments, made me physically nauseous.

When you run a small business, getting political is discouraged. But to steal a sentiment shared on Humans of New York, my purpose for bringing this up isn't political. It's moral.

I'm sharing this because the thought behind his statements is one that's shared all to frequently in our society - that to be a successful woman, personally and/or professionally, you must look a certain way. Usually, it's stated in less obviously sexist terms than Trump's remarks, but that just makes it all the more dangerous, and believable.

Things like, "That actress is so fat, she should just get off the screen." So, we can't have anyone in movies that represents the approximately 60% of women whose BMI falls outside of the 'healthy' range? Hearing conversations about women in the workplace center around their looks, not their achievements or skills. When I worked in a medical center setting, both inpatient and outpatient, I heard countless, practically daily remarks about my weight. It was either something along the lines of "never trust a thin dietitian" or remarks comparing my body to my other dietitian colleagues they had worked with, implying I was a better dietitian because I was thinner than them. It was incredibly uncomfortable and I always wondered (and still do) what would happen if I got sick or older or my metabolism just changed and I gained weight. My skills and knowledge would still be there, but what would happen to my credibility?

Studies show women are 16 times more likely to face weight discrimination in the workplace then men. You're probably familiar with the gender pay gap, but did you know that women who weigh more earn 6% less than thinner women?

No wonder that bubbly, athletic, and outwardly beautiful girl in Trader Joe's was going on a diet. The man who could be president is saying her her accomplishments don't matter unless she's a 10.

I have no hopes of changing any men's minds on how they speak about women, that is, if there's any men who have made it this far into my post (if so, heeeyyy! You're awesome!). But I do hope to change some of your minds on how you think dieting. We can outwardly look at the statistics on discrimination and hear these absurd comments and know it's morally and factually wrong. But by dieting, we're essentially accepting them as truth. By pressuring our friends to join us in our diet, we're spreading the same message, that you're not good enough unless you're thin.

As women, we have to work just that much harder for the same level of success. That's a fact. But how are you supposed to do that if you're dieting? How will you get an A on that exam if your brain is deprived of the energy it needs to function? How will you have the creativity to engineer that new invention if you're constantly thinking about the food you're not allowed to have? How will you get up in front of that crowd and make a sales pitch with confidence if you're distracted by the way your arms jiggle when you try to make a point? What skills or knowledge have you missed out on by spending your free time reading women's magazines and diet books? How do you kick ass in a debate if you’re worried about the pantsuit you’re wearing making your butt look big?

Dieting is a distraction from the hard work we women need to do to achieve equal standing in this society.

This isn't to shame anyone or call them anti-feminist for wanting to lose weight. Why wouldn’t you given the society we live in? It's to say there's a better way. Focus on loving your body as it is now, because you can't take good care of something you hate. Instead of depriving your body, think about nourishing it, so you can accomplish all the amazing things in your life. Let's stop telling our friends they aren't good enough by engaging in diet talk and body bashing and instead talk current events or family life or work or literally anything else. Individually, we might not be able to change the society we live in, but we can chose not to engage in it’s most destructive parts.

This is an idea that I'm just beginning to work through, so i would absolutely love to hear your thoughts. Please leave a comment below!