Tuesday, August 08, 2017

"As if it were nothing"

I knew Taffy Brodesser-Akner's feature on the status of the diet industry in an ostensibly post-diet culture would be brilliant before I started reading it, given author and angle alike, and yes, it sure was. Diets are passé, but eating less to lose weight is not. If you'd ever wondered about how that's supposed to work (I had! I had wondered this!), you need to get to it.

It's a deeply reported piece, as well as a personal one. Brodesser-Akner leads with the reported, not the autobiographical, but it's hard to picture a story working at the level it does if it were written by a journalist, however talented, who lacked personal experience in that area. The personal angle comes through most clearly in the conclusion:
A skinny woman was eating a cupcake and talking on her phone, tonguing the icing as if she were on ecstasy. Another skinny woman drank a regular Dr Pepper as if it were nothing, as if it were just a drink. I continued walking and stopped in front of a diner and watched through the window people eating cheeseburgers and French fries and talking gigantically. All these people, I looked at them as if they were speaking Mandarin or discussing string theory, with their ease around their food and their ease around their bodies and their ability to live their lives without the doubt and self-loathing that brings me to my arthritic knees still.
I've read through a handful of the piece's nearly a thousand comments, which was enough to see I was not the only reader to wonder about the "ease" Brodesser-Akner says she witnessed. It seems possible, I think, both to respect her response to seeing thin women eating non-diet foods, and to question whether "as if it were nothing" is an approach to food our society ever really allows women, of any size. Which is something she argues, or at least suggests, elsewhere in the piece, when she writes, "A woman’s body isn’t neutral. A woman’s body is everyone’s business but her own."

What that conclusion describes might be called thin privilege - that is, the blithe indifference of the thin to the struggles of those for whom every bite is fraught. But is thin privilege, in that understanding, something all or even most thin women have ever experienced firsthand? Is it the typical experience of slimness?

Let me be clear: In a society that stigmatizes being fat, it's advantageous not to be fat. In one that valorizes thinness, it helps still more to be thin. If you're someone who has never had to wonder if you'd fit in an airplane seat, or if the store has a large enough size, if a doctor has never suggested you lose weight, you probably can't get what such experiences are like, and may have never even considered them. If I were privilege-categories dictionary dictator, that would be Thin Privilege.

But how many thin people - how many women especially - experience "ease around their food and... their bodies"? Is that thin privilege? Once you include people who were once fat but are currently thin due to tremendous effort, and once you add to those the ones who'd be not-fat regardless but remain thinner still due to (yup) tremendous effort, you're talking about a whole lot of... effort. (See Alana Massey's excellent essay on this phenomenon.) Some of that effort crosses the line into diagnosable eating disorder territory. That which does not will nevertheless often take up huge amounts of time and mental energy that could be going absolutely anywhere else. Throw into the mix women whose thinness is the result of stress or illness - here, see Maris Kreizman's - and you've got quite a lot of women who absolutely reap the unfair advantages of thinness, but maybe don't experience thinness as "ease."

I point all this out not to say that well actually, thin women have it worse, or even as bad. Certainly not. Rather, it's that because these two things - societal weight obsession and sexism - are intertwined the way they are, they're that much more difficult to dismantle. In theory, "wellness" and so forth might have proven a great equalizer, reminding that you can be living well, or not, at any size. As Brodesser-Akner's piece makes painfully clear, it's done nothing of the kind.

Dieting has long been the default (not universal, but yes, default) state of women's food consumption, as well as an activity engaged in by women and men who - because society has deemed them fat - are trying to lose weight. The concept of "clean eating" manages to somehow merge existing fatphobia with a purity requirement extending to all women. It's not a chipping away at thin privilege. It's the worst of both worlds.

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