Orthorexia, the new eating disorder?

Laura Brightwell examines the trend in organic and fresh foods and argues that we are unhealthily obsessed with healthy eating.

Our eating habits have changed hugely in the past 10 years. Women on a diet no longer content ourselves with eating a salad and skipping meals. We have also started paying microscopic attention to the food that we do eat. Understanding more about the way chemicals in mass-produced and processed foods impact our health, we, as a culture, are turning to organic and fresh choices. Outside of supermarkets, our city streets are sprouting whole foods shops, raw and fresh restaurants and even our fast food chains are selling foods marketed at a health-conscious audience. But how much of a difference do these foods make? Are businesses that offer “healthier” choices just cashing in on our nutty obsessions?

Orthorexia nervosa may be a familiar term to some of you. For others, it’s totally new. But, the reality is, we are all familiar with the eating behaviours this term describes. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, orthorexia is an “unhealthy obsession” with otherwise healthy eating. From the mass-marketing of organic produce to the popularity of “fresh” restaurants, orthorexia and related eating behaviours are an accepted part of our daily food culture.

Orthorexia calls attention to a disordered relationship with food that is so often perceived as a healthy one.

The first time I read the term orthorexia (admittedly, in my favourite book on healthy eating for women), was an AHA! moment. It gives the name to a disordered relationship with food that is so often perceived as a healthy one. Orthorexia is, of course, not just eating well. According to the AEDA, “Orthorexia starts out as an innocent attempt to eat more healthfully, but orthorexics become fixated on food quality and purity.  They become consumed with what and how much to eat, and […] self-punish if temptation wins (usually through stricter eating, fasts and exercise).”

Organic Coke by Koert van Mensvoort
Organic Coke by Koert van Mensvoort

For me and, I suspect, for many women, this description of a dysfunctional relationship with food sounds all too familiar. Although I recognize that orthorexia, along with other eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia, is a serious illness, like these other eating disorders, aspects of orthorexia can be seen in many people’s diet and eating habits.

For media and the collective subconscious, “healthy” is often shorthand for “thin.”

This new term calls attention to a disordered relationship with food that is so often perceived as a healthy one.People who exhibit orthorexic behaviours are often publicly praised for eating healthily. A person with anorexia who eats little may be lauded for their ‘restraint’ and dedication to their health. In a culture that values thinness over health, women are praised for unhealthy eating behaviours. For media and the collective subconscious, “healthy” is often shorthand for “thin.”

Other aspects of orthorexic behaviour include a feeling of superiority to others as your self-esteem becomes wrapped up in your eating habits. We often use moral terminology when we talk about to the food we choose. We say that we have been “good” when we follow a diet and “bad” when we don’t. Needless to say, thinking of all eating as “bad” and not eating as “good,” is inherently unhealthy. If we are unable to eat a cookie without experiencing a desire to purge or punish ourselves, how much of our attention to food is about our health at all?

The face of organic culture is undeniably young, white and thin.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I do believe there are benefits to eating whole foods over processed, but the whole foods/organic/fresh trend of recent years seems, for many people, less about eating well than losing weight. The obsessiveness behind our eating highlights the problem with our new healthy habits. It is worth asking ourselves why we choose the foods we eat. Do we choose healthy food to feel good and nourish our bodies, or do we aim to do both these things while secretly hoping that we will lose weight?

Healthy or not? Cafe sells organic fast food in NYC
Healthy or not? Cafe sells organic fast food in NYC

For me, the understanding of orthorexia as an illness sheds light on our emotional relationships with food. When I eat a carrot, I feel good about myself. I feel in control of my environment, my body and my life. When I eat several cookies, I start to feel that my body is my enemy and my life is out of control. The desire to eat healthy food is, unfortunately, less about being healthy, but more about controlling my body, my desires and my weight.

Is it worth asking ourselves who has access to our “healthy” spaces and at what financial and emotional cost.

The face of organic culture is undeniably young, white and thin. I would also argue that it is predominantly female. As Christi-an from Kula yoga in Toronto says, the litmus test of norms comes in what kind of bodies are welcome in certain spaces. It is very easy to see who does, and who doesn’t belong in a space. When I walk into a yoga class, or vegetarian restaurant I anxiously look around to find someone as fat as me.  Unless I am represented in a space, I am unlikely to feel comfortable in it.

Although it might be tempting to dismiss my discomfort as neurosis, this exclusion of non-normative bodies has been well documented. The absence of fat-positive yoga studios for example, has led Kula yoga studio in Toronto’s Annex neighbourhood to create a fat-positive space, as well as brown girl and queer yoga classes. I would, of course, argue that this exclusion stretches to the majority of health and well-being services.

Is it worth asking ourselves who has access to our “healthy” spaces and at what financial and emotional cost. If I, a young, white, middle-class, feminine, able-bodied, albeit fat and queer, woman feel uncomfortable in spaces that sell health, how would a queer person of colour feel, or someone who Is differently abled? And all this is not to mention the fact that such services are often expensive, thereby excluding those with low incomes.

If I’m not allowed access to a certain lifestyle because I don’t feel or look thin enough, then how much is this lifestyle about my health? Organic, fresh culture seems disproportionately focused on the way we look and far less on improving our mental and physical health. To take it even further, as this article argues, could our eating habits even be a way of proving our social status?

But, where does all this leave orthorexia? What’s so wrong, after all, with a preference for fresh, organic food over processed junk food? Although a fastidious attention to produce and freshness could be perceived as a healthy habit, as with all eating disorders and worrisome habits, the problem lies in the thought process behind, and the excessiveness of the behaviour. If we, as women, or as a culture, can’t ever enjoy a burger or a donut without feeling compelled to purge or punish ourselves by excessive dieting or exercise, then there is something tragically wrong in our relationship to food. This is undeniably unhealthy.

I’d like your input to help me work this moral foody conundrum out. Do we live in an orthorexic culture? I’m especially interested in how our gender dictates our relationship to food. Women often have a hugely complicated relationship with nutrition and our bodies. Is healthy eating, for you women readers, just a way to stay thin?

Fat Myths – BUSTED!

(You have to say the above in the gravelly voice of a movie trailer voiceover man.)

Yesterday I got a very long comment on my ‘Too Fat for Fashion” post from last week. It pretty much showcases the kind of fat-hating ideas that are accepted by most and I wondered whether to publish it or not. Does a calm but very sexist and very wrong comment have a place on my blog? Although I would  usually say ‘NO!’ and instantly delete personal or aggressive comments, I didn’t delete this one. I disagree with its content but I didn’t want to give any ammunition to people who might accuse me of silencing different viewpoints. Some of my lovely friends suggested that this is an opportunity for me to bash some of the myths that women, fat and thin, face, every day. So this is what I decided to do. I approved the comment so it now shows below that post and, I have taken what I see as the main myths about fat from this comment and write my own response to them. Please be aware that this post really needs to be a book, and I’ll let you know when that’s done. In about a decade.

 Fat Myth #1: “Fat people are not sexy”

This is silly. In fact, it’s the easiest for me to refute. Fat people are sexy. I think fat people are sexy and I know lots of people, both men and women, who are both fat and sexy. I am hot and other people find me hot. I considered posting gratuitous pictures of me and friends on this blog, but decided you have already seen enough of me in the buff. And stealing pics of my hot friends off Facebook and posting them here probably wouldn’t be consensual (darn that consent!). I therefore kindly link you to this post, drawn to my attention by my friend Pearl. Although Kate could only be considered ‘fat’ in the crazy fashion industry, the rest of the women are fat (and hot, duh!).

 Fat Myth #2: “Fat is unhealthy”

This is a hard one to refute. After all, all health authorities tell us that fat is unhealthy and we will die earlier if we are obese. So, I am just going to go with my gut on this one.

It is possible to be fat and healthy. I was very unhealthy when I was skinny – I was depressed and mad and hungry all the time. Even though I looked conventionally beautiful I was miserable. Barely sleeping, barely eating, my intellectual capacities greatly dimmed, I know I was unhealthy.

Physical and mental health are connected. I think exercise is a good thing – I love endorphins – and I feel good in my body and mind when I exercise. I also know that exercise doesn’t make me lose much weight. In fact, I enjoy food more when I exercise and tend to eat more. I feel sexier because my body feels more fluid. I am more healthy.

My experiences with health authorities have led me to greatly distrust them. I have been lauded my doctors for being healthy when I felt really unfit. I have been told I was too fat by nurses who asked me nothing about my diet or exercise habits, at a time when I was cycling up to 14 miles a day and felt healthier than before. I have been given wrong information about both my sexual and general health owing to assumptions about my queerness and fatness and I know the health system is flawed. Of course there are great health professionals out there, but who gives them their information? How can they better assess my health in a 10-minute session when I live in my body every day? I trust some doctors to help me when I need them, and I grant that they know more about a lot of health issues than me. But I also use my own judgement when listening to their information and take some of it with a pinch of salt. I have already linked it, but in case you missed it, here is a great video about fatness and health from a health professional. 

Lastly and, perhaps, most importantly, I don’t believe that society’s aversion to fat people is really about our health. If society really cared about fat people, it wouldn’t laugh at us and characterize us as lazy, stupid and greedy. It’s very easy to laugh and point a finger. I think our collective hatred of fat people reflects our own insecurities. Most people are so miserable, we put other people down to make ourselves feel better. Maybe we’re just all so hungry from those superfood salads that we are secretly jealous of the food that fat people get to eat?!?!

Fat Myth #3: “Fat people are greedy”

From a feminist perspective, the idea of wanting too much fascinates me. For women, it totally makes sense to me that we want more than society tells us we are allowed. We want to be successful, to love and be loved, to have babies, a career, to travel, to be artists… In short, to fulfil our individual potential. We are constantly sidetracked from embracing our desires, of all kinds, by the pressure to fit sexist beauty ideals. We spend so much energy, time and money trying to fit this ideal, we forget our own paths. Unhappy and tired because we are undernourished, we try to achieve an ideal of thinness that by definition slips further and further away.

Some fat activists see the desire to eat and take up space with our fat as fat women’s refusal to be shrunk into the tiny box that society allows us. Told that we should disappear, we do the opposite. We want and so we take.

In terms of overeating as a disorder, which it is, it can also be seen as an expression of thwarted desire. I know I eat sugar when I get the anxiety in my stomach that means I actually want to write. Sugar come downs and the sleepiness of being too full combine with TV to dull my senses, lead me away from my creativity. I eat to dull my desires and in this way deliberately obscure my talents. I want to I hide from the world and live in my dreams rather than my reality. The big bad world is scary. Being miserable is seductive; it seems easier than being happy.

It would be easy for me to say being fat is a wholly positive thing. That I have a great relationship with food and that my fat is 100% good. But it’s not. I know that my fat is both a natural body shape and a symptom of my thwarted creativity. Nothing less than starving myself would make me thin, but there is a level of fatness at which I feel too fat. I know this might seem to undermine some of my fat-positive beliefs, but, like all realities, fat is complicated. Only you can know when you have a positive relationship with food, fat and your body. Only you know when you feel good in your body; when you are healthy. Everyone is different, and it is this individuality that both the cult of thinness and, in some cases, overeating, strives to obliterate.

My most personal response to the characterization of fat people as greedy, as wanting too much, as “incapable of restraint” is why should we restrain ourselves? Why should we downsize our dreams to fit into the tiny, awful mould that society allows us? If overeating is the desire for more, more than we are allowed as women and as human beings, then it is a truly rational response to the life of emotional and artistic subsistence that our capitalist and consumerist society allows.

All my childhood and early adult life I was told I was wrong: too fat, too clever, too different. I wanted too much. Now, I am trying to stop railing against myself. I think the world is a better place if I am who I am meant to be. I receive and give more love the happier I am, I put stuff out there into the world that is a force for good. Who is going to say the unsayable if not me? Who is going to be the crazy artist, if not me? We need our different and crazy people. The truth is, taking up space and acting out our desires, our personal truths, makes us happier and better people.

There you go! All done! Feel free to comment with your own responses to these common fat myths so we can build a fattie army of resistance. Hurrah!

But You Have Such A Pretty Face!

Ok, guys, it’s time for me to come out. I know, you’re going to be shocked. I tried to deny it, but I just can’t. Now, don’t tell any other fat activists, but I REALLY LIKE SALADS (hides fattie face behind cushions). DON’T JUDGE ME! In this post I bitch about shaming fat women when we eat in public and throw in a picture of me stuffing my face for, like, reference. Enjoy!

OMFG! Yup, I seem to be pretty obsessed with writing about fat at the moment. It’s really got my (baby) goat (casserole) going. How many times have us fatties heard such ridiculous comments? I still remember, from when I was an impressionable babe, how a relative once commented on how much fatter women are in America and how ‘they have such pretty, well taken care of, faces and nails.’ She implied that this was to compensate for the ugliness of their fat bodies. This comment has haunted me most of my life. It implies that fat people can never be beautiful and has struck the fear of fat into my plump heart.

Not too long ago a German friend of mine gave me this academic article on ‘The Experience of Eating Out for Fat Women.’ Reading the article I was, like, yes, I feel like that, yes, I do that, yes. It was painful to read, recognising my own pain in others’ experiences. The author, Dawn Zrodowski, collects stories about eating out from self-identified fat women. Unsurprisingly, many of these women choose to not eat out or modify how much or what type of food they eat when in company. Because as fat women what they eat (or don’t eat) is commented on by others, they find the whole business of eating out fraught with self-hatred.

I often question how other people will perceive me when I eat out. Especially if I am alone. I imagine that I will be seen as a sad case, both for being fat and for being alone. The shame I feel around eating is similar to the shame I feel about being single. Both are discourses that are framed with concern for the health or happiness of the (fat or single) person, but both are actually very effective ways of demeaning women, while pretending to be nice. It’s OK to abuse fat people – through ad campaigns, the tyranny of the fashion industry, advice not to eat that donut because it’s too fatty – because it’s common knowledge that you are ‘doing it for their own good.’ It’s also socially acceptable to undermine someone for being single. ‘You should bring a plus one, have you been seeing anyone lately, aren’t you afraid you’ll end up alone and eaten by Alsatians (Bridget Jones rip off)?’ This false concern masks a chance to get one-up on fatties and singletons.

Stuffing my face in the name of art. An anti-diet performance at The Berlin Femme Show 2012

But this constant social criticism has almost nothing to do with the health of the fat person concerned. As Jackie, an excellent vlogger I recently encountered, argues in her It Gets Fatter video, discourse about fat and health completely ignores mental health. If society were so concerned for the health of its fatties, she argues, it would recognise the damage such shaming causes. (Please go check the project out. It is unutterably amazing.) 

Like I’ve said before, such blatant shaming of fat people, fat women especially, has something to do with wanting to make us disappear. It’s, like, a universal truth that women’s bodies are naturally more fatty than men’s. Our curve-hating culture encourages us to spend our energy attacking our own female, fatty, bodies rather than taking our anger out on, like, the big evil patriarchy. Low self-esteem? Check. Anti-feminist? Check. Effective, huh?

Zrodowski concludes that a lot of fat women “choose to eat alone,” a choice that worsens their “problematic relationship to food” and also alienates them from the social act of eating with other people. Our fat hate causes fat women to hide their ‘problem’ away and we, as a society, collude in this hiding. I, for one, know that my impulse to hide the chocolate that I am eating from others only reinforces my own difficult relationship with food. Instead of enjoying something delicious, shame spoils the fun. It’s a vicious circle. Recently, I have decided to stop hiding how much I eat from the people around me, and this is leading, gradually, to a far more happy relationship with food. No longer denying myself a pudding at the end of a meal, I am less likely to go home and binge in anger and frustration.

Being the stubborn feminist that I am, I often respond to the pressure to ‘eat thin’ when out and about by deliberately choosing fatty foods, even when I don’t want them. Part subconscious conviction that this is a treat (because you shouldn’t eat fat, right?) and part middle-finger to the patriarchy, evil promoter of salads, this is my way of saying fuck you while enjoying a tasty treat. That said, I am recently discovering that I often don’t want the fattier food, but the more vegetable-y one, but refuse to order it because I imagine other people will think, ‘poor fattie on a diet’ or, ‘good, you’re trying to lose weight.’ I know not everyone thinks like this, but I also know some do. And I don’t want to give them the satisfaction of thinking they’re better than me.

I’m not sure I can offer many pearls of wisdom on strategies how to deal with eating out for fat folks right now, but I know that reading awesome fat positive zines and books like Fat?So! by Marilyn Wann and Fat is a Feminist Issue by Susie Orbach help to free my inner fattie. Any other suggestions for awesome fat-positive blogs or books to read? All together now, after me, “Free your mind and the rest will follow…”

Over and out from Lipstick Terrorist, secret lover of salads…

You Are NOT What You Eat

I long for the day, when I can say ‘I’m hungry’ and it doesn’t mean ‘I’m fat’ or ‘I’m ugly’ or ‘I’m a failure.’ I write about my personal relationship with food, mean girls, and how food is never just nutrition for any woman.

Wahoo! First post from the U of K, on my way to Canadia. I said I be back… Eat your heart out Arnold Schwarzenneger… Let me know what you think 🙂

A friend of mine said to me this Summer that women are constantly in competition with each another. This was a real penny drop moment for me. I was, like, wow that is so true! That’s the reason so many of my female friendships have hiccups! Because we are constantly trying to be better than each other!

I think this competition is especially noticeable around body image. I know, like, a million other people have said it before, but women are taught by the media and our culture that we are only valued in terms of our looks. It makes sense to me then that we try to gain power by being the prettiest girl out there.

I find it difficult to relate to other women because I am taught that my worth lies in my body. I am always trying to be prettier, thinner, hotter than the next girl. I find it deeply hurtful when someone I like fancies my thin friend and not me. I know intellectually that if someone fancies a thin person, it doesn’t mean they won’t like fat me. But, emotionally, it just doesn’t compute.

Women often put the next girl down in order to make ourselves feels better. ‘Oh my God, she’s so fat, she shouldn’t be wearing that mini skirt/vest/bikini!’ Of course, this really doesn’t work. This is mean, and being a mean girl doesn’t make you happy. But, more importantly, it also makes you feel bad about yourself. When I think Ew, that girl is so fat! I am also hating the fat parts of myself. And self-hating just isn’t fun.

Me aged 19. I thought I was fat. Also, witness the cool trousers. Later in the evening, I didn’t want them to get ruined in the rain so I took them off and ran half-naked with them stuffed under my vest.

Today I saw a girl I used to go on the school bus with, like, a million years ago. Like me, she has always been fat – most would say ‘chubby’ – but, unlike me, she was always very chatty and seemed more at home in herself. As a child I always wondered, how can she fat and happy? For me, it always felt that being fat was stopping me from being happy. Now, of course, I realise it’s not fat per se that makes me unhappy; it’s all the energy I devote to self-hating. I believe that if I am thin I will be more attractive, successful and loved. I have been spending a lot of my energy recently trying to deconstruct the idea that I am only worth something in so far as I am conventionally pretty. I am trying to embrace my fat.

Seeing this girl again today after so many years, I was struck by how thin she was. Her face seemed deflated, flat, pulled tight, and all the freckles had been pushed together into one solid colour. Normally jolly, she seemed kind of bitchy. Is that because she’s starving? I wondered. I know she’s getting married soon. Maybe it’s for the wedding.

I know so many women of my age (late twenties/early thirties) and class (middle) who starve themselves. Dieting seems to be the thing to do. I often say to friends when we talk about eating, or fat, that I don’t know one woman who doesn’t have a disordered relationship with eating. Sadly, I think this is true.

The unhealthiness of my own obsession with really hit home when another friend, bored in her last year of university, told me she was thinking about eating all the time. What was normal for me was new for her. The revelation that not everyone is as obsessed about food as I am cast some light on my own habits. I’ve recently realised that I use food as a block, either to stop myself from writing or to make myself feel better when I find writing emotionally hard. I have all these great ideas, but I can’t write now, I’m too full. Too jumped up on sugar to sit down and write.

Sometimes I think that I am trying to fill a hole with the wrong substance.Sometimes I think that if I write enough, I will forget to eat and then I will be thinner. I long to be thinner. Sometimes I think that my relationship with food is so fucked up, I despair of ever being healthy.

Food is never just food for me, or for any woman. Food is moral, food is ‘naughty.’ Food is fat and thin. Food is beauty, happiness and being loved. Food is everything.

Every time I eat I think about my body. Even when I am satisfied and it is delicious I think, great, now I won’t want to eat anything else today and I’ll lose weight. It’s compulsive. It’s really fucking sad. And you know what? Being obsessed with food is boring. It’s boring for me and it’s boring for the people who know me. As writer Laurie Penny’s sister said to her about Penny’s anorexia:

“You were no fun at all when you were ill. You were always talking about food, and even when you didn’t it was obvious you were thinking about it. It was just miserable to be in the same room as you, to be totally honest. You just weren’t you.”

Laurie Penny, ‘Life Tastes Better Than Skinny Feels’

You are grumpy and boring when you starve yourself. Julia Robert’s character in romcom Notting Hill says, ‘I’ve been on a diet every day since I was 19, which basically means I’ve been hungry for a decade.’ Sometimes I wonder if most women feel like this. When I was 18 and at my thinnest, all I thought about, every day was food. I would plan my food meticulously, down to the timing, the amount. A bowl of muesli for breakfast, an apple for a snack when I got really hungry. A bowl of pasta for dinner and – my daily tasteless treat – a mug of Cadbury’s Highlights before bed.

The association of eating with sin and not eating with virtue is such a well known truism that’s it feels trite to even write. But when are we women going to stop measuring our own worth in calories? I long for the day when I can just eat and not translate it into how much fat is going onto my body. I long for the day, when I can say ‘I’m hungry’ and it doesn’t mean ‘I’m fat’ or ‘I’m ugly’ or ‘I’m a failure’ but it just means I want something to eat.

Mmm, this sandwich tastes good!

Further reading:

A Timeline of One Girl’s Relationship with Fat

“I want to disappear”

Burlesque: Sexy or Sexist?

My Breasts and the Bras That Don’t Fit Them