Why I write so much about immortality, significance, and injustice.

In the past couple of years, I’ve been more active on Twitter than here. But I miss being here. I want to round up my notes and do a little explaining.

What follows are links to threads that seem relevant:

Where I linked Terror Management Theory to diet culture (more) explicitly (than before.) This was the rough draft of the article that later appeared in The Atlantic.

Where I shared my (sketchy and preliminary) thoughts about
neoreaction, politics in the US, and more Terror Management Theory. There was also a Metafilter thread about it, and people said nice things, which is particularly nice for reasons I don’t have the words for…yet. (You know me, it’s only a matter of time.)

After the van attack here in Toronto, before we knew the motive.

And a follow-up.

There are probably one or two more, but they are submerged in the sands of Twitter and it will take some digging to find them.

So, if you’re wondering what the endgame of all of this tweeting about significance and immortality is for me, it’s this: it is my personal believe that no one can do anything that will mark them with lasting significance.

No book, no building, no work of art, no hospital wing with their name on it, no great fortune, not even the destruction of the entire planet will leave a legacy that marks out an individual person as significant on a truly cosmic scale.

Certainly, no amount of hierarchy-building or climbing will do it. (I could go into why, but instead, refer to this standalone tweet.)

Now, the explanation.

Many of my young years were wasted by the idea that certain bodies are inherently superior to other bodies. I gave over years of my life to shame because my body was supposed to be bad and undeserving of its basic needs and existence, and as a result, I missed time and life experiences that will never be returned to me.

And I know this is true for many, many people who live caught up in the same hierarchy, under the same system of ideas that certain bodies and certain people are worth less than others, and many, many people have had smaller or larger fractions of their lives wasted more or less violently, as a result.

This bothers me. Which is why I started this website, and why I chose this career.

People who cannot admit their own insignificance or mortality seem to think that spoiling other people’s time by shaming or oppressing them will somehow add to their lives, and while it does succeed in creating misery and even shortening some people’s lives, it doesn’t make the perpetrator immortal or even significant. It’s a fool’s errand, a waste of one’s time, and involves the wasting of other people’s time without their consent.

Life is fragile, short, and precious. The best any of us can do is make our time good and meaningful. We do that by creating things, feeling and experiencing things, and bonding with other people in a way that acknowledges their inherent and unchanging value.

If I can clear obsession with food and shame about having a body out of people’s way so they can get down to living, then I have done a good job. If I can help chip away at some of the structures that unjustly limit people’s use of their finite and precious lives, even better.

In some form or another, I have been writing about this stuff for six years, and thinking about it for twenty-five. I figure why stop now.

As always, the after-party happens in comments. Bring snacks.

Posted in Unified Theory | 17 Responses

The desert island.

I’m conscious when I go out in public that my very presence is a tiny act of rebellion. It’s a kind of rebellion that I find totally ridiculous – the idea that just existing in front of other people is transgressive is…I don’t even know how else to put it. It’s mind-bendingly, surreally, ludicrously ridiculous. And it says a lot more about the world we live in than it says about me.

For one thing, it says that the world we live in is completely messed up when it comes to appearance-based discrimination, social hierarchies, and how we value people as members of society. It says that, when I walk out onto the street, some people assume my body is a tragedy, a cautionary tale, or a fetish object. And that they have certain rights over that body.

They have the right to make pronouncements about it to my face, or just barely behind my back where I can still hear them, and that they can assume all kinds of things about my life and my character and personality based on how fat I am.

Not everyone does this, and certainly not every time I leave the house. But it has happened enough that each time I walk out the door, it crosses my mind.

I think about the joggers who mocked me as they ran past, I think about the men at the street market who followed me until my husband intervened, I think about the men shouting at me from cars, and I think about all the photos of fat ladies with bodies like mine that have been used as objects of ridicule on funny cards and websites, because they dared do something as transgressive as wear a bathing suit at the beach, as though they were human or something.

I think about how much I love the beach, how much I love the water, how good I am at floating, or surface diving, or snorkeling, or kayaking – and then I think about all the people back on shore.

Very often, I think about the desert island scenario, which is something I often ask my clients to do when they are caught up in blaming their body for things that may or may not be its fault.

The desert island scenario goes like this: If you were stranded on a beautiful desert island, with no one else around, and with plenty of food and water accessible to you, what problems would being fat cause you? This can help you separate out which difficulties you’re having are actually located in your body, and which difficulties are located in a culture that treats fat people poorly.

For me, the answers are something like: I might walk kind of slow in the sand because I sink into it more, and I would probably be sweaty and hot and maybe get the chub-rub. On the upside, I wouldn’t have to worry about people judging me for being sweaty, I would wear whatever is most comfortable without wondering how I looked. I might have trouble climbing trees, but I would be totally fine in the water.

Things I wouldn’t have to worry about: people judging me and treating me poorly, feeling self-conscious about how I look, having trouble finding clothes that fit me, wondering whether I will fit in that chair with arms, worrying that they might throw me off the airplane, playing the Good Fatty all the time, having to constantly prove that I am 1) not ignorant, 2) not lazy, 3) not gluttonous, 4) not smelly, 5) not sick. As if any of those things affect my intrinsic value.

Once you know what problems are located where, it gives you some information about the source of the problem, and how might be the best way to handle it. Problems located in the body might need a solution that is body-focused. You may need accommodations or physical therapy or medicine. Problems that come about simply because you can’t avoid being part of society, well…they probably require some personal fortification and self-compassion in the short-term, and changes to the culture in the long-term.

Next time you’re blaming your body for something, try it. Would this problem still exist if you were stranded on a beautiful desert island with enough food and water? If so, what is the kindest way you can help your body? If not, maybe your body isn’t the issue.

Hi! Looks like I wrote this post a long time ago, and never posted it. I might write it differently today, but here it is. Feel free to add your experience and thoughts in comments.

Posted in Liking Yourself | 41 Responses

Diet culture and immortality.

I know it’s been quiet (TOO quiet) around here lately. What can I say? I’ve been working my face off.

I did write something for The Atlantic, though, after a good long period of grumpy hermiting. Here’s a good chunk, in case you want a sample before committing to a click:

The act of ingestion is embroidered with so much cultural meaning that, for most people, its roots in spare, brutal survival are entirely hidden. Even for people in extreme poverty, for whom survival is a more immediate concern, the cultural meanings of food remain critical. Wealthy or poor, we eat to celebrate, we eat to mourn, we eat because it’s mealtime, we eat as a way to bond with others, we eat for entertainment and pleasure. It is not a coincidence that the survival function of food is buried beneath all of this—who wants to think about staving off death each time they tuck into a bowl of cereal? Forgetting about death is the entire point of food culture.

When it comes to food, Becker said that humans “quickly saw beyond mere physical nourishment,” and that the desire for more life—not just delaying death today, but clearing the bar of mortality entirely—grew into an obsession with transforming the self into a perfected object that might achieve a sort of immorality. Diet culture and its variations, such as clean eating, are cultural structures we have built to attempt to transcend our animality.

By creating and following diets, humans not only eat to stay alive, but they fit themselves into a cultural edifice that is larger, and more permanent, than their bodies. It is a sort of immortality ritual, and rituals must be performed socially. Clean eating rarely, if ever, occurs in secret. If you haven’t evangelized about it, joined a movement around it, or been praised publicly for it, have you truly cleansed?

I’m going back to grumpy hermiting for a while. I’ll send up another flare if anything exciting happens.

Posted in Unified Theory | Comments closed

You don’t have to figure out the universal truth of nutrition.

When I speak with clients, a theme that often comes up is the question of what is true and what is false in nutrition. Yesterday, an article about the demonization of fat made headlines, and along with it, whipped up that familiar confusion about nutrition and people asking a very familiar question: what is actually the truth?

It’s a good question, an important question, and one which will likely keep researchers and dietitians busy for decades. But the thing that always strikes me about this question is who asks it, and who seems to feel most tormented over the fact that there are, seemingly, very few answers: usually a person who is neither a researcher or a dietitian.

I’ve met many people who appear to be engaged in a one-person mission to discover the universal truth of human nutrition by conducting a series of uncontrolled experiments on themselves. It’s a very human, and very noble, undertaking, but one that always strikes me with its futility. It also carries with it a great deal of stress, and a great burden of effort with very little promise of reward for its champion.

I am fully supportive of people who enjoy conducting nutritional experimentation on themselves, though I’m not one of them, and it’s not a lifestyle I would recommend. Some people view it as a hobby, and come away with a few insights into their own body’s workings, largely unscathed. But this isn’t true for everyone, and my own clients (some of whom are people Ellyn Satter referred to as “Dieting Casualties”) are a great source of information on why this is.

When the foundational workings of your relationship with food are not yet in place (the lower tiers of Satter’s Hierarchy of Food Needs), it can actually be destructive to that relationship to place the burden of experimentation on top of it. Nutritional experiments reside in the very top of the Hierarchy of Food Needs, under the label of “instrumental food,” which means eating in a way that gets you some symbolic or health-related outcome.

Hierarchy of food needs, in order: enough food, acceptable food, reliable ongoing access to food, good-tasting food, novel food, and instrumental food.

Certainly people can make instrumental food choices without damaging their relationship to food — but not before the lower-order needs are fulfilled and stable.

The unfortunate thing is, the way nutrition is communicated in our culture and even from our established health authorities, “instrumental” food choices are usually front and center, before (and often instead of) any of the lower-order needs. Thus, most people, when they start to think about nutrition, try to begin from this point rather than working their way up to it.

This results in people who haven’t already established, for example, feeding themselves regularly — or who don’t have quite enough money to buy more expensive “instrumental” groceries, or who feel guilty and ashamed for taking pleasure in food, or who only have a handful of foods that they know how to eat and like — attempting to impose upon their eating habits completely new and burdensome food rules.

Which usually ends in spectacular “failure” a little way down the road. (I put “failure” in scare-quotes because it’s hard for me to view it as an actual failure when an arbitrary set of diet rules falls by the wayside — your body probably views it as an unqualified success, but to the person making the attempt, it is demoralizing all the same.)

The bigger issue, of course, is this: it is literally not your job to figure out the universal truth of nutrition. Unless you’re a researcher who has been funded to do this, not only is your sample size too small, but you run the very real risk of hurting yourself and destroying your relationship with food. Please remind yourself of this when the temptation to conduct yet another uncontrolled experiment comes your way.

You are not obligated to uncover, all by yourself, with your mouth and your body, what holds true for all people with regard to nutrition. Your only job is to feed yourself faithfully, get comfortable with food and your enjoyment of it, and then to find out what is true for you. The only universal rule of nutrition that I’ve discovered in my many years of studying and practicing it, aside from eat or die, is that humans are massively omnivorous and nutrition is extremely individual. Your truth will be different than someone else’s.

That’s okay. Your truth counts too.

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Individual truths in comments.

Posted in Diets, eating, Humane Nutrition | Comments closed

Good food, bad food, and subversive food combining.

The idea that there are universally “good” foods and “bad” foods is an old one, ancient even. There are traces of it in Leviticus, though the way the concept was used then is perhaps different from how we use it now.*

Given what we know about clinical nutrition, that sometimes a startling mix of foods can be used to help people in certain disease states — more ice cream and gravy for someone undergoing cancer treatment, less protein and fewer vegetables for someone with kidney disease — and since dividing your risk among a wide variety of different foods can help hedge your health bets, the idea that there are universally good or bad foods doesn’t hold up well under scrutiny.

I take it more as evidence of black-or-white thinking — a hallmark of diet culture — which is almost always false.

The words themselves, good and bad, imply a moral dynamic to food that I just don’t think belongs there. Sure, food can be literally bad if it’s spoiled or contaminated with botulism. But even if you eat this kind of bad food and get sick from it, we don’t generally assume that you now have become a bad and contaminated person.

We just think you’re sick, send soup, and wait for you to get better.

Getting food poisoning doesn’t stain your character or reputation, even if you are literally contaminated by a bacteria that a food has transmitted to you. There’s an implicit understanding that the body is self-cleansing and will get the pollution, the infection, out of its system over time. And though you might be averse to eating a food that made you sick in the future, due to stomach-churning associations, you probably won’t assume it is a universally bad food eaten only by bad people.

We do, however, make this assumption about moral contamination, that (morally) bad foods (which are coincidentally usually high-calorie, presumably “fattening” foods) are eaten by bad, gluttonous, ignorant, irresponsible, and usually low-class (and coincidentally fat) people. And we try to avoid those foods, we claim, out of concern for our health. But, in practice, it appears to be much more about avoiding that moral stain.

Even if there are foods that, in isolation, don’t produce ideal health outcomes for most people, does the idea that these foods are uniquely bad while other foods are uniquely good actually help us to be well-fed? I’ve asked dozens of people this question, “Does believing in ‘bad food’ help you to eat better?” It’s an honest question.

After looking at the ceiling for a second, then looking down and letting out a bitter little laugh, they always tell me no.

No, thinking of the foods they want to avoid as morally bad does not help them to eat a more nourishing diet in the long run. It doesn’t even help them to avoid those foods, most of the time. For a lot of us, it only succeeds in producing guilt for eating a perfectly human mix of foods.

If a belief in good foods and bad foods helped people, on balance, to eat better, I could grudgingly get behind the idea, though being a fat hedonist, I would always advocate for pleasure. But it fails even in its stated objective, to say nothing of the side-effects that come with it.

I do believe there are foods that are generally more nutritious than others (in certain ways, keeping in mind that macronutrients and the calories that represent them are still technically nutrients, after all), and which usually leave a person generally feeling better, and generally in better health, than others. But there’s also something to be said for eating and including foods that are designed primarily for pleasure, not for the cessation of physical hunger or the promotion of long-term health.

Learning to break down the categories of “good” food and “bad” food is a little tricky, but it can be done.

One of my favourite techniques for doing this, aside from giving yourself explicit permission and acknowledging that all food is food, is to do what I called “subversive food combining.” This means, simply, putting together foods that you would usually classify as good and bad, and that you would usually keep apart (that “healthy” meal of fish, rice, and vegetables you eat when you’re being “good,” vs. the pint of ice cream you eat when you’re being “bad”) by including them in the same meal, or even on the same plate.

Maybe I’m a jerk, but it gives me a cheap thrill. Some combinations I’ve tried:

  • Potato chips and salad
  • Sauteed kale and pizza
  • Peanut m&ms and an apple
  • Boxed macaroni and cheese with pork tenderloin and greens (this is traditional in many places, but where I grew up, boxed mac and cheese was strictly kid food, and strictly eaten in isolation)
  • Carrots with bean and cheese burritos
  • Cookies and almonds

Telling yourself that there are no good foods and bad foods is one thing. It is necessary, but not sufficient to produce an actual change in how you view food. Backing it up with action is crucial.

Try it. Break a few rules. Crush the false dichotomy.

So, if thinking of foods as either good or bad doesn’t actually help people to eat better, what does? In my experience, it’s eating observantly, but non-judgmentally, and taking note of your pleasure both during and after eating. Noticing how food both tastes during eating, and how it makes you feel, physically, after.

Over a series of hundreds of personal experiments, you can start to shape your eating in a way that makes the most sense to you, that leaves you both happy and feeling healthy, and that improves measurable indices of health, like cholesterol or blood sugar. But in order to conduct these experiments, you have to give yourself permission to eat anything. You have to acknowledge that food is neither universally good or bad, real or not-real, pure or polluted.

And you have to believe that it cannot, by association, make you good or bad either.

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*I like what Mary Douglas had to say in the preface to the 2002 edition of Purity and Danger: “[My] most serious mistake was to have accepted that the rational, just, compassionate God of the Bible would ever have been so inconsistent as to make abominable creatures…I now question that they are abominable at all, and suggest rather that it is abominable to harm them.” It is quite possible that such ancient food rules weren’t based on pollution theory at all, but it seems possible that many contemporary food rules are. Foods that are not seen as “whole” or “natural,” foods that skirt neat categorization into a single food group (pizza), or defy entry into any staple food group at all (gummy bears), are usually seen as impure and having the power to pollute anyone who consumes them.

Posted in eating, Humane Nutrition | Comments closed
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