A while ago an MSW intern (I’ll call her Melanie) at my old job gave a presentation to us during a staff meeting about empowering girls, and a couple things she talked about really stuck with me. I’ve been thinking about them lately, so I decided to share.
One of the things she talked about was encouraging a healthy body image, and I think this applies girls and boys of all ages. Part of having a healthy body image is having a healthy perception of food. We have to view food as a good thing–we have to embrace that we need it. And yet, food tends to get a bad reputation. Food makes you fat, and thus food is bad.
Melanie pointed out that we see advertisements for “guilt-free” food everywhere. While these marketing campaigns are mostly just a cute way of saying, “Hey, this is actually fairly healthy,” it also implies that we should feel guilty about eating any food that isn’t fat free, sugar free, and totally healthy. This thinking has infiltrated our society. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen Pinterest pins that label a dessert as “sinful” or an easy treat as “dangerous.” We have a habit of telling ourselves that if we eat something that isn’t exactly healthy, we should always feel bad about eating it.
Melanie explained to us that labeling foods as good and bad–whether just in our heads or out loud to kids– can be a very dangerous thing. It’s this kind of thinking that leads to eating disorders. Melanie told that once her daughter came home from kindergarten and told Melanie that they aren’t supposed to eat hamburgers and fries because they’re bad foods. Melanie worked at an eating disorder treatment center and knew first hand that this label can end up completely consuming a person. After all, many of the factors behind bulimia and anorexia are based on feeling guilty for eating “bad” food. So she emphasized to her daughter that hamburgers and fries are sometimes foods. They are ok to have sometimes, but not something to eat a lot of. She then drove her to McDonald’s and bought them both burgers to further show her there is nothing wrong with eating greasy food occasionally.
Something Melanie suggested to us was intuitive eating. Mostly this means using moderation and common sense as you eat. Only eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re full. Eat a variety of things and if you know intuitively that you’re eating more treats, greasy food, etc. than is good for your body, cut back. For example, if I start to crave Coke or Dr. Pepper, I know I’ve been drinking it too often.
Eating intuitively also takes away the temptation to binge. Binging is never a good thing, whether it’s unhealthy food or otherwise. So called “guilt-free” foods often claim that you can eat as much as you want without negative consequences, but we all know this isn’t true. You wouldn’t feel awesome eating a whole pan of brownies in one sitting, but you wouldn’t feel great eating a 5 lb bag of carrots in one sitting either. Too much of anything isn’t good for your body. Your intuition would never nudge you to down way too many carrots, and it also wouldn’t tell you to eat too many brownies. Listening to your body and having the self control to stop is the best thing we can do for our bodies.
But I digress a bit. Ever since Melanie’s presentation I’ve been very aware of how food is portrayed to both adults and kids. Special K (especially the strawberry kind) has been one of my favorite cereals for years, but I always felt weird admitting it. The commercials portray it as a diet cereal and that you should eat it if you want to lose weight. However, that’s not why I eat it. It tastes good, has a nice texture, and don’t even get me started on those yummy foamy strawberries. But for a long time I worried someone would start up that awkward Napoleon-esque conversation and say, “I see you’re eating Special K. Is it ’cause you think you’re fat? ‘Cause you’re not. You could be eating Fruity Pebbles if you wanted to.” I shouldn’t feel awkward eating a cereal I like. But media tells me I should have issues with how my body looks in order to want to eat this cereal.
I’ve seen several commercials that discreetly portray women in general as having an innate weakness for sweet foods. The moral of the story commonly seems to be that women don’t have the strength to resist unhealthy cravings, so they need some sort of replacement food to help them out–low-fat yogurt, a high-fiber granola bar, or a sugar-free brownie. I’m not saying those products are bad, but I dislike this message it sends to women: You are weak when it comes to food. I don’t really consider myself to be a feminist, but this is a little demeaning. If I know I shouldn’t eat that brownie, I just say no. I don’t have to replace it with a low-calorie snack so that I don’t turn into The Incredible Menstruating Hulk.
Men aren’t exempt from these subtle food messages. Men are told to eat “like a man” by having a thick and meaty soup or a man-sized TV dinner. Here and there you get commercials with guys eating salad, but even then sometimes they make such a big deal about him eating that salad that the message is still, “It’s abnormal for men to eat salad, but make this one exception and come eat this salad.”
I guess the point I’m trying to get to is be aware of how media influences your view of food and your body. Don’t feel guilty, stupid, or weak. You have the power to make good decisions about your body and you have the strength to be healthy.