One of the most frequent criticisms I see lobbed at anti-dieting proponents — after, of course, “fat is unhealthy and there’s only one right way to eat and I know because I am an expert” — is “how dare you question my right to eat the way I want.” On the face of it, that’s a great question. Part of our whole premise, after all, is that your food intake should be determined by your desires, not by anyone else’s preconceived notions of what it’s healthy or moral for you to eat. It seems contradictory — how can we promote autonomy with regards to body attitudes and food choices, yet not leave the door open for the choice to hate your body or starve it?
By way of an answer, let me tell you a story. My cousin (we’ll call her Eleanor) is, and always has been, very small and young-looking for her age. Her mother is also a tiny person, maybe 5’1″, but when they told her that Eleanor might not hit five feet, she freaked. Short was fine, but THAT short? MORE THAN FOUR INCHES below the national average? Would she be able to function?
I think Eleanor was about ten when they started her on growth hormones, though she may have been even younger. It wasn’t clear that she had an HGH deficiency, but she was short, so it was apparently the obvious path. So picture this: a ten-year-old who looks like a seven-year-old injecting hormones into her stomach every day, because otherwise her body won’t be acceptable. Do you find this image objectionable? I did. But when I objected, I always heard the same thing: “Eleanor wants the hormones. The kids at school tease her. She doesn’t want to be small.”
Well, of course, I said. The kids at school tease her, like they tease pretty much everyone for being even a little different, and when she comes home, her parents say “okay, we’ll fix you, whatever it takes.” Not “those kids are being idiots.” Not “you’re great how you are.” No, they say “there are technologies to fix you, and they’re unpleasant and cost money, but we’re all willing to suffer a little if it means making you normal.” Is it any wonder she felt like a freak, enough to voluntarily shoot herself up with growth hormones even when it became clear they weren’t working?
Can a choice in such a situation really be called a free choice? It would have taken strength and self-reliance far beyond the average ten-year-old for Eleanor to reject the HGH option, and she would have had to make that decision unsupported. Naturally she clung to the choice she thought had a chance of making her normal — nobody had told her she was normal already. Of course her parents wouldn’t have forced her to take hormones against her will, but they didn’t have to. There was only one choice that made sense, given the natural human desire to be loved and accepted, and her unchallenged conviction that her size made this impossible.
The context for weight-loss decisions, at least for women and at least in middle-class America, is much the same. Certainly people make the voluntary decision to diet, after a certain age (I’m sure many of us, including me, have experienced involuntary diets during childhood and adolescence). But in the morass of “privation is morality” and “only thin is lovable” and “eating makes you a sinner” messages we’re steeped in, can we ever really make that choice freely? Even if you’re supposedly making the choice to restrict “for your health,” can you dabble in dieting without calling down an avalanche of cultural associations — superiority, deprivation, sexiness, femininity, control?
I realize I’m mixing my geological metaphors here, what with the swamp and the avalanche. But my point is that no choice is made in a vacuum, and in this case our culture is pushing so incredibly heavily towards one option — often hiding or ridiculing the others — that I question whether the choice is ever freely made.
This may sound like I’m saying “women who choose to diet are too dumb to realize their options.” (By the way, as always I’m focusing on women here because I’m a woman and a feminist and most familiar with women’s issues and experience, but, again as always, I’d love to hear from men/male-identified people.) But I’m not saying that, any more than I’d say that the people in Plato’s cave are too dumb to realize they’re looking at shadows. Societally-ingrained prejudice, including fatphobia, is one of the greatest con-jobs ever pulled, since so many people mistake it for objective reality. We here at SP are really, really good at rejecting that illusion, and even we get sucked in. All the time. If you’re getting messages from all sides at all times that obesity is unhealthy and fat is immoral and food is sinful and diets work and exercise makes you better than other people, nobody can call you an idiot for thinking that maybe you should try to drop a few pounds. You’d be an idiot not to think that, in context. We just happen to think you’d be the kind of idiot who’s right.
If you’re making a choice to diet, I understand. I understand food issues, and I understand the Fantasy of Being Thin. I don’t think you’re a sucker. But I think you’re being done an enormous disservice by a society that makes you think you’re broken and an industry that says “whatever it takes, we’ll fix you.” When we reject your diet, we’re not rejecting your choice — we’re rejecting where that choice came from, and all the baggage it brings. It’s not your diet but your need to diet that we condemn — and that need is not about you.