Memoir

Heat and hope and attention

Body control in a time of chaos

The Kingdom of Health, like the Kingdom of Heaven, is within you.
– Annie Riley Hale, early twentieth-century anti-suffrage,
anti-vaccination campaigner

 

WE WERE NEVER going to live forever, but this feels more apparent now than it has before.

Maybe your breath will be snatched away by the pandemic. Maybe war will stretch its tentacles this far, because all your borders are permeable. Maybe water will lap at your doorstep. Just type your symptoms, your worries, into the machine to see what might get you and how.

If you weren’t attuned to every potential problem within the meat-sack of your body before the pandemic, you’re sure as hell adept at it now. For two-and-a-half years and counting, we’ve been monitoring our bodies closely for COVID-19 symptoms: sniffles, body aches, a loss of smell or taste…it goes on. You know this list because we all know this list. Monitoring is your individual responsibility; getting or avoiding being sick is your responsibility; saving yourself is your responsibility. It’s a lot, up against all the chaos of the world – a massive burden to shoulder. With restrictions now rolled back within every state in Australia in all but healthcare and some public transport settings, this individual burden is optional, essential, salvation.

It’s reasonable to fear chaos in today’s world, but so often that fear turns things that aren’t worth being frightened of (such as the lack of a ‘thigh gap’ or taking 10,000 steps each and every day) into outsize problems, the solving of which feels compulsory, morally weighted, and needs to be seen to be valid.

 

EIGHTEEN MONTHS AGO I published a memoir that was, in part, about diet culture: discovering diet culture’s existence, noticing it everywhere and slowly trying to divest myself of its traps. Outside the covers of my book, this process is ongoing – and no matter the effort I put in, I’m also aware that my ‘choices’ create an illusion of control. We’re all simmering in this soup. Some of us can taste it, others not so much – but we’re all being poached.

In the time since I have started writing and speaking publicly on this subject, people seem to have become more attuned to diet culture’s existence. The phrase ‘diet culture’ is often taken as a given because it’s so pervasive. I can’t help but wonder, though – if we’re all so literate in the harmful ways that we’re attacking our own bodies, why can’t I escape the meal-replacement shake ads? Why does Julie Goodwin still make a disparaging remark about her own body when she competes in a MasterChef challenge that involves cooking with the bottom three tiers of the food pyramid? Why is the guy who dominated the non-fiction bestseller list with his extreme fasting program on my screen again selling another program if the first one was so effective?

Diet culture is a system of beliefs that prizes smallness and restriction, bestowing a sense of moral superiority and greater social capital on those who can ‘achieve’ and/or maintain the idealised body: thin, white, young. Such an ideal shifts and has shifted throughout history. Right now it involves being curvy in specific ways – hourglass good, belly bad; rounded butt good, soft arms bad. Diet culture intertwines health and body size, stressing individual responsibility for both rather than recognising the systemic things in all our lives that contribute to our overall health. ‘Diets’ as we think of them now encompass rules, regimens, restrictions and systems. In diet culture, the body is seen as a hackable object if only we could identify, target and obliterate the ‘problem’.

North American registered dietitian Christy Harrison calls diet culture ‘the Life Thief’ because it steals away our time, money, wellbeing and happiness. It keeps us stuck in a cycle. Data from the ABC’s Australia Talks National Survey 2021 showed that 60 per cent of Australians are currently trying to lose weight. That’s a lot of stolen life.

The thing is, we know that diets don’t work. There is significant evidence that for the vast majority of people, the long-term result of dieting is weight gain – this is why most studies that ‘prove’ the efficacy of any given diet drop off around the twelve-month mark, which is also when things tend to move in reverse. Not only does intentional weight loss often engender its opposite, but the more likely outcomes include shame, body dissatisfaction, eating disorders and weight cycling (up and down on the yo-yo).

Even so, we hold on tightly to diets and their promises. It can be hard to find community in the world – a damned island, me. Diets offered me a welcoming space and a set of common interests and ideals. They offered a site for a kind of shared trauma. This was my family, my home. Dieting was my religion for the longest time because faith doesn’t need reason (and suffers terribly from confirmation bias anyway). No, faith flourishes with heat and hope and attention.

 

WE WERE NEVER going to live forever, but our beliefs about what might save us have shifted. 

In the past – and for a long time – membership within an actual religious community, the doing of good deeds and the following of religious rules, were the ticket. What we do now might save us later. Religious observers are still given some comfort in the belief that adherence to the rules will make sense of the messy chaos of life: if you are good in the long run, you will be saved. Religious practice provides a buffer against the world’s uncontrollability, and if you do it right, do it hard enough, you get to live forever in your chosen kingdom with other true believers. Get raptured with the best, or live eternally in heaven, or level up to a higher life form. Observers also enjoy a sense of unshakeable community. We’re hardwired to love rules and to love rewards.

In contemporary Australia, we’re continuing to move away from religious adherence – we’re a multicultural and multi-faith society, and the number of those who report ‘no religion’ on the census has grown from less than 1 per cent in 1966 to almost 40 per cent in 2021. I’m in the ‘no religion’ camp, although I still eat fish on Good Friday because I like a sense of occasion and tradition.

But even in a secular society, bits and pieces of traditional value systems remain; religious calling cards are everywhere when you dig a little. In Holland, massive windows allow residents to get their furniture inside their buildings, given their incredibly tight and steep stairways. The curtains on these enormous windows are often left wide open – even and especially when they look straight onto the street. One of the commonly cited explanations for this is that it’s a vestige of the Calvinist belief that good Christians have nothing to hide.

Closer to home, it wasn’t until 1996 that Victoria deregulated Sunday trading for general retail stores – prior to this, retailers first observed the Sabbath, then workers’ rights to a reasonable working week. In regional and rural Western Australia, Sunday trading still hasn’t happened – despite the 38.9 per cent who don’t practise a religion at all and the 10 per cent who practise one other than Christianity.

The Protestant work ethic as a mode of body hacking is perhaps the most pervasive religious hangover within a society like ours that has positioned diet culture as one of its dominant thought systems. At first this ethos of hard work and self-denial was about salvation, but now it’s about performative morality and, of course, has become tied to body control. Central to the Protestant work ethic, then and now, is the concept of self-denial – this is the origin of the phrase ‘no pain, no gain’. For something to be worthwhile, it must hurt. In the case of weight loss, pain is the gateway to all the privileges unlocked by inhabiting the body ideal: sweat is your fat crying, pain is weakness leaving the body, nothing tastes as good as skinny feels.

In the 1830s, American temperance preacher Sylvester Graham became the namesake of an overwhelmingly boring biscuit (the graham cracker, now better known for being jazzed up with chocolate and marshmallows to make s’mores) in answer to the world of ‘overstimulating’ food types and groups. Among the things that Graham deemed simply too exciting for the human spirit were ‘spices, meat, sugar, caffeine, alcohol and even yeasted bread and condiments’. All those poor, weak spirits bolstered by bland food. All the pious togetherness of craving what is not allowed.

Rules that were once rooted in religion have settled into our insides as secular, self-imposed rules about ‘good’ food and ‘bad’ food and, by extension, ‘good’ bodies and ‘bad’ bodies. Warding against chaos, pointing us to salvation; the whyfors have shifted, but the moral imperative remains.

 

WHEN I WROTE my memoir, I was angry. I am still angry.

I’m angry that I was tricked into believing that true personal connection could be found in comparing notes on the ways we battled our own bodies and the ways we ‘won’. I’m angry that I believed a low-fat hot chocolate with tinned cherries was a morally superior option to an actual Cherry Ripe bar because one had a lower calorie count than the other. I’m angry that my attendance at this particular church earned me nothing, saved me from nothing. I’m angry that I wasted so many pages listing foods and their caloric values, calculating ‘points’, doing endless sums about what I saw as the precisely regulated engine of my body.

My first diet included points and maths – this system of merit allowed me to ‘earn’ points to eat more by exercising or ‘save’ points in the hope of more weight loss. I felt like a kid in an arcade constantly losing all my game tickets and wondering why I couldn’t be smarter about it. I got older and changed my allegiance to new weight-loss gurus, new systems. I sat in the university café between classes, sinking deeply into the couch as I held a calorie-counting book in front of my face. Its tiny index listed foods, brands, products: their serving sizes, their methods of preparation (fried versus grilled, steamed versus baked) and, most importantly, their calorific values. Their grey areas made this precise calculation more difficult – what’s a ‘small’ banana? I practised eyeballing fifty grams of different substances. I flipped back and forth through the alphabetised catalogue of things it’s possible to consume, tallying the total of my home-packed lunch (more controllable) and seeing what it would ‘cost’ me to add a takeaway coffee (skim milk? small? no sugar?). My philosophy lecturer strolled past and smirked. ‘Brushing up on Plato?’ he said. I buried the little book in my backpack beneath the more worthy but less important books, my cheeks burning. I remember next to nothing about Plato, but I remember how many calories are in a 170-gram tub of fat-free yoghurt.

I chose this, and I kept choosing it, but now un-choosing it feels impossible no matter how many incremental steps I take away from it. I’m still angry about that.

 

IT FEELS EASY to look at outdated food rules as archaic and arbitrary, but we continue to devise arbitrary rules that come and go.

William the Conqueror was said to have followed a liquid diet to lose weight. He was born in 1028. Lord Byron apparently fuelled his poetry writing with little more than vinegar and water. Liquid diets grew in popularity as a weight-loss tactic over the years, and in 1941 the Master Cleanse arrived to ‘detox’ bodies and minds – first ‘mobilising’ toxins and then stripping them away. The Master Cleanse liquid diet still exists, prescribing a concoction of water, lemon juice, apple-cider vinegar, cayenne pepper and maple syrup to be consumed six times a day. Followers of the diet are promised increased vitality, mental acuity and happiness. They shrink their social sphere to outings in proximity to bathrooms.

More recently, there have been changes in the colour and consistency of the liquids of choice. Back when low-calorie diets were fashionable, meal-replacement shakes sold well. Now ‘diets’ are going out of favour, replaced by an insidious brand of performative healthfulness instead: wellness.

Wellness culture wears a uniform that makes adherents easily recognisable – just as I imagine nuns might be hyperaware of other habits in the community, I can picture lean lululemon-clad physiques nodding to one another on their early-morning powerwalks in recognition of their shared body warfare. Wellness culture has turned a diet and ‘lifestyle change’ into a movement whose adherents stand firmly against the corruption of themselves and of the world. The Maintenance Phase podcast calls it a ‘pipeline’: wellness advocates usher one another down a rabbit hole of righteousness and often into increasingly counter-cultural thinking via a series of small steps that accumulate into a drastic divergence of beliefs from the mainstream (for example, the anti-vax movement).

But that’s at the extreme end of such thinking. More generally, membership in wellness culture is much as in any church: community, righteousness, solidarity. Sometimes denial and pain in the name of a greater good. In wellness, that greater good is the body ideal.

 

THE NEW ‘REGIME’ of wellness no longer requires simply less (the calorie deficit we’ve all been taught is the key to health, longevity and moral superiority). Now, it requires replacing what’s taken out with rarefied, specialist, hard-to-obtain ingredients.

The ethereal glow of the health-food aisle turns out to have a name: the ‘health halo’. This is the effect whereby we overestimate the healthfulness of a product based on a single nutritional claim or assume a product to be healthful simply because it seems so. And this performative aspect does for wellness what those wide-open curtains do for Dutch Calvinists: look as I do it right.

For me, the star of this performance is chia seeds. Chia seeds were hard to find when I ‘lifestyle changed’ to a ‘wholefoods’-based diet and exercise program. The one packet I bought after wandering the health-food aisle of my local supermarket now sits in the darkest part of my pantry. Occasionally the seeds substitute for egg when I’m baking for a group that includes vegans – the seeds are mixed with water to create a gelatinous binding gloop mimicking the wobble of egg yolk and white.

Similar products are all over Instagram – the açai bowls and kombuchas – and the platform is well known for its signal-boosting potential for performative ‘health’ preoccupations. The #cleaneating hashtag cleaves those with the righteous diets from those ‘polluting’ their bodies with ‘toxins’. The purity of being saved is now backlit and hashtagged.

Spot the gurus the same way you always have – count their followers, admire their uniform (for wellness, it’s floaty white and natural fibres), see the perfect control they project over their whole lives. Follow their food rules and think that maybe, maybe, this could be enough to stave off death, if only you pour in enough heat and hope and attention.

 

FOR A WHILE, I weighed myself using a Wii Fit balance board, tricking myself into thinking this ‘game’ was entirely different from stepping on the scales in my bathroom. Each day I played started with stepping on the board and watching a cartoon depiction of me on my TV swell or shrink according to the reading. Next, a cheerful proclamation of my ‘Wii Fit Age’: my cartoon image clapped or slumped in response, depending on whether it gave me a number higher or lower than my actual age. My BMI appeared on the screen, alongside a rating scale of my risk of becoming over (or under) weight. This act was the start of weighing myself daily, and it gave me a glimpse into the immediate effects of this gamification of my body control. If I could make my Wii Fit Age come down, perhaps I could rest easy in the belief that I would live longer.

This daily ritual of stepping onto the balance board was my secular prayer.

Diets and wellness culture both grapple for the sense of control that seems possible in religious fervour: certainty. Safety. Calm.

We seem to live right now in the middle of a storm of things outside of our control – but maybe we always have.

Numerous critics have pinpointed a link between periods of great political and social upheaval and a narrowing of the beauty ideal – and with it, modes of radical restriction and self-denial designed to achieve that ideal. Christy Harrison highlights that every time women claw back some sense of power, the ideal becomes increasingly thin and unattainable. During the 1960s, war took terrifying new forms and threatened to come from all directions (the threat of nuclear attack became frighteningly possible during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis). The civil rights movement in the United States grew to a deafening roar. Psychedelic drugs, experimental art and vegetarianism transformed the bodies and minds of hippies. And we met Twiggy – an extraordinarily slim model who became emblematic of a new body ideal. Naomi Wolf says that it’s hard to dismantle the patriarchy on an empty stomach.

In the last two years, we wore our masks and bemoaned our Covid kilos and started the diet on Monday, power-walking our five-kilometre radius. We watched as massive ditches took loads of coffins in New York City and we perfected our banana breads. In being robbed of agency by world events, we sought certainty and power by turning towards a system of rules we can perfect, believing the evidence of our mastery to be shown in our long lives.

The making of these rules is an essential coping mechanism. We are picking our way through to the other side, all of us, distracted by our bodies and our uninterrogated biases, hoping that there’s another side to be found. Perhaps pouring our power and faith into trivial body obsessions and the consistent failures of (impossible) diets is the price we pay for a sense of control and community in a world that’s more uncertain than ever.

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