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All Fired Up

Apr 26, 2019

Wellness influencers are everywhere; our social media is littered with shiny haired, sparkly toothed, spray tanned gurus eager to sell us a 'better version' of ourselves. Wellness is just diet culture in organic recyclable wrapping, and my guest Virginia Sole-Smith, feminist author, has had ENOUGH already. Who is responsible for this epidemic of commercialised wellness? WELL, ACTUALLY, our cultural obsession was engineered by thin white men! That's right, back in the late 1990's a bunch of privileged white dudes created a whole new way of gaslighting women! No longer content with the simplistic demand for thinness, wellness culture has added extra layers of guilt - not only MUST we be thin, we must also care about the environment, never eat processed foods, recycle, and remain ZEN. It's exhausting, confusing, and we've had enough! Join us for an epic rant!

Show Notes

  • My guest is the fierce and fabulous Virginia Sole-Smith, journalist and author of “The Eating Instinct: Food Culture, Body Image and Guilt in America”.
  • Virginia is enormously cheesed off with privileged, thin white men who get off on telling us what to do with our bodies and how big/small we need to be.
  • I found a brilliant article that Virginia had written entitled “Well, Actually...The thin white men who rebranded dieting as “wellness”” - and just HAD to talk to her more about this.
  • There are a truckload of ‘mansplainers’ in the wellness space. And in her article, Virginia is tracing back the timeline of our current wellness saturation.
  • Virginia points out that currently, wellness ‘influencers’ are often thin white women, and they cop a fair amount of criticism for their messaging - RIGHTLY SO - but when we look at where they’re getting this world view of wellness from, it does tend to go back to thin white men who really think they know how everybody should eat.
  • Back in the 1980’s diet culture was heavily influenced by thin white men like Dr Atkins (Atkins Diet) and Dr Agatston who invented the South Beach Diet. We’ve had men telling us what to eat for decades!
  • This trend dovetailed with women entering the workforce since the 1970’s. If we can keep women focused on our bodies, on trying to stay as small as possible, that saps a lot of energy when we could be out dominating the world.
  • In the 1990’s Naomi Wolf wrote in The Beauty Myth that dieting is the most potent sedative in women’s history, it keeps us focused in a really narrow way and not participating in the world.
  • We can trace this trend of the Thin White Men back even further, back to Kellogg, to Banting, to these thin white men who dominated and create the narrative of deprivation for us to follow.
  • Even Jenny Craig launched her business with her husband Sid who was really the driver of the business model, while she was ‘the face’. This often happens - a woman is the front of house but a man is powering everything.
  • Guys often take credit for their thinness when in reality they’re born on 3rd base - they have bodies that are genetically programmed to be a smaller size. Others are programmed differently, theirs just happens to fit a cultural ideal. It’s not really through anything they did, it’s just biology & genetics that set them up this way.
  • The ‘bootstrapping’ mentality - if you have success, that’s definitely down to you, but concepts like adversity, hardship, oppression - none of that really applies to the Thin White Men.
  • In the mid 2000’s, Thin White Guys got more subtle, and more overtly political than their diet peddling forefathers In the 1990’s and even early 2000’s, we knew when a diet was a diet. But when Thin White Men like Michael Pollan (In Defense of Food) and Michael Bittman (Vegan Before 6) came along, they talked about food with an environmental and political agenda, this whole other mission of reducing meat consumption and embracing organic farming. Concepts like this - having a more sustainable food supply, or eating more plant based foods, - are fine, and useful ideas, but the Thin White men turn these concepts into dogma, and take it into communities who just don’t have access to this way of living and to be honest have bigger problems to face than the quality of the food they’re eating, and say hey, you should eat like me and the “o*esity crisis’ will be solved.
  • For many people, it’s hard to connect with organic farmers, but if it is framed in terms of the weight issue, this becomes something that really grabs people’s attention.
  • This is where the groundwork for our modern concepts of wellness came from - now it’s not about dieting, now it’s about wellness and healthy eating and sustainability. Except it’s not, it’s still about weight!
  • We’ve really lost the environmental agenda but we’ve still attached this morality to these food choices.
  • This is where it gets really elitist and classist and racist, in addition to the misogyny that’s been there all along. I’m better than you because of how I eat.
  • Louise admits that early on in her anti-diet career, Michael Pollan’s book was for sale in her practice! He was so convincing. It took her a while to recognise how elitist and snobby (and white) it was to tell people that a certain way of eating was morally superior to another, without taking consideration of the multiple layers of disadvantage and inequality people experience.
  • Michael Pollan did one great thing - he called out the ‘fake’ diet foods (especially low fat yogurt, how gross) which were very unsatisfying for people. The problem was he replaced it with another diet and did not empower people to trust their bodies.
  • Pollan never questioned the thin is good rhetoric, he even talks about his way of eating as a way to solve the ‘problem’ of larger bodies.
  • Pollan’s second book, “The Rules of Food”, is like a women’s dieting magazine article, but it’s written by a man. Ewwwww.
  • The mansplaining of wellness is not just an American Thin White Man thing. In the UK, Jamie Oliver also talks up the power of unprocessed foods as a way of solving the apparent ‘crisis’ of larger kids.
  • At first, approaches like Oliver’s seemed exciting, and Louise had his cookbooks as well, it was fun to enjoy cooking again with lots of fresh foods. But as time progressed it seems that his message has increased in fervour, that the reason to eat like this is to change the problem of fat bodies.
  • Jamie’s habit of lunch box shaming drives Virginia crazy, as kids don’t really have a lot of choice as to what’s in their lunch box. It’s particularly stigmatising to poorer and disadvantaged kids, which is evil!
  • Here in Australia, the King of the Humans when it comes to Thin White Men mansplaining wellness is Pete Evans or ‘Paleo Pete’, a celebrity chef from Masterchef who owned a pizza restaurant and was normal until he discovered the Paleo diet, lost 300 grams, and became an absolute zealot. He’s gone really extreme, totally rogue, anti-fluoride, anti-vaccination etc.
  • The amount of moralising and dressing up wellness as a disguise for thinness is really awful with Pete. It seems he is everywhere right now as well.
  • It’s really dangerous the way people like this use flimsy arguments or bring up totally shit studies to support their extreme views. And we are vulnerable to these people and these messages.
  • In her article Virginia writes that celebrity influencers like Gwyneth Paltrow have been ‘simultaneously inspiring and terrorising their audiences”, and this works well for Paleo Pete too. It’s 5% inspite and 95% terrify and gaslight, introducing this distrust in our bodies. Don’t trust yourself, you need to outsource everything to this guru or expert.
  • This was the foundation for Virginia’s book The Eating Instinct, that as humans, we generally know when we are hungry, what we feel like eating, and when we are full. We can trust this.
  • Virginia is a journalist, who used to be a ghost writer for celebrity “lifestyle’ books, and used to cover ‘wellness’ for women’s magazines - right in the thick of it! As a feminist it was really hard and Virginia struggled with the messages women were being given around food.
  • For a long time, Virginia looked for the ‘right’ diet - one that would work. And Michal Pollan offered that, or so it looked, so for a long time Virginia was on that bandwagon.
  • In 2013 when Virginia’s daughter Violet was born, everything changed. Violet was born with a congenital heart condition and she almost did. As a result of this, she stopped eating completely and was dependent on a feeding tube for the best part of 2 years.
  • Virginia had done everything ‘right’ - really trying to look after her prenatal nutrition, exercise etc, and now her baby would not eat and no-one knew why.
  • There are no experts, there are no plans here. There’s just me and this kid and we’ve got to figure this out!
  • When Violet was too scared to eat, it really brought home the reality of food as a basic instinct. It’s not about finding the right ‘plan’, it’s about figuring out our own relationship with food.
  • Virginia realised it wasn’t just about nutrition: food needed to provide comfort.
  • In order to get Violet to eat, she needed to teach her that food was safe, comforting and pleasurable.
  • In diet culture emotional eating is viewed as a ‘bad’ thing, when in fact this is what we’re programmed to do. Babies eat emotionally!
  • The act of feeding a baby raises our oxytocin levels - the hormones associated with love, safety and comfort. And this is breast or bottlefeeding!
  • Diet and wellness culture views eating as something to get ‘right’ nutritionally, and ignores all of these other important aspects of our relationship with food.
  • Even in some non-diet spaces, there’s a message that if you learn the principles of mindful eating you’ll stop comfort or emotional eating.
  • This is different to eating to numb difficult emotions - which we may call comfort eating, but it’s not really providing comfort, it’s more a habit of eating to escape or check out from difficult emotions. It’s more accurately described as ‘distress’ eating.
  • At the heart of this kind of eating is restriction, and you can’t get away from this type of pattern unless you have full permission to eat.
  • Once this sense of permission and safety is established, a beautiful self-regulation can appear, so you feel safe eating whatever you feel like, and you also know when you’ve had enough. That’s pretty radical, and something a lot of adults struggle with in diet culture!
  • Many people who come to the non-diet approach arrive because they want to stop the binge or comfort eating. But establishing a safe foundation of food safety needs to happen first - not elimination of binge eating.
  • When you start the process of permission and food safety, often you will eat more than you might be used to while everything is settling in. This can be scary for people, but it is necessary to keep embracing full permission, as it’s only when we feel truly safe that we can start to feel more in contact with physical signals.
  • Going through the process of eating more is not pathological - you are healing from this deprivation induced trauma. It can take time & can be messy!
  • In diet culture the restriction mindset is so dominant, particularly for women we are taught that we should always want less. It’s so difficult to eat, especially in public.
  • This is this patriarchal message about food that we’ve really internalised.
  • It’s a very radical thing to reject that, and to say I embrace my hunger, my appetite, my body, my right to take up space in the world.
  • We’re fighting not just for ourselves, but for others, and for future generations.
  • During Virginia’s experiences with Violet, she got to know a lot about paediatric feeding problems and how they are treated. In the USA, babies are treated at feeding centres, not eating disorder clinics.
  • It’s behaviour therapy - kids are encouraged to push through their fears, and get rewards for eating a bite of food.
  • Virginia was horrified - knowing that her daughter was going to grow up in diet culture, with so many messages already there to not listen to her body - and the programs would really strongly reinforce this.
  • Virginia believed that Violet’s response to the trauma was logical, and that treatment needed to honour that.
  • She researched & found out about the child lead model, a longer process but one which really allows the trauma to heal and for the child to re establish a sense of safety and comfort around food.
  • The behavioural approach is quicker, it’s a kind of boot camp model. But for Virginia, it was like looking at dieting versus intuitive eating, and she wanted to do the intuitive model.
  • Virginia began to realise that it is the loss of the eating instinct - the loss of knowing hunger, fullness, and a sense of safety and comfort - that underpins many eating struggles. So she wrote a book about it!
  • The book has many stories of how people get disconnected from their instincts, and how this impacts their lives.
  • Virginia’s experiences with Violet have really helped her with her second daughter, to navigate things like appetite fluctuation without panic.
  • The feeding philosophy which underpins Virginia’s approach to Violet is called “The Division of Responsibility in Feeding” developed by Ellyn Satter, she’s been around for decades. This says that feeding is a relationship, that parents and kids have distinct roles. Parents are in charge of what, where and when to eat. Kids are in charge of how much to eat, and whether or not to eat everything on offer.
  • With this model, food intake may not look ‘balanced’ at every meal, but over time, they tend to get everything they need.
  • Also what appears is this ability to self regulate, for the kids to really know what they need, it’s so awesome.
  • When you have kids who are intuitive eaters, things change all the time. And that’s ok. It’s about honouring the child’s instincts, not policing their nutrition intake.
  • This is where the lunch box policing is not helpful! There are many other considerations than dietary quality.
  • An awful news article came out recently comparing the lunch box contents of rich kids to poor kids, with the conclusion of look how much better the rich kids are eating…..tone deaf!
  • It is a privilege to be able to think about dietary quality. It is ok to give your kids comfort food. And processed foods! Violet wouldn’t have learned how to get comfortable to eat without baby food pouches.
  • Certainly, there’s something wonderful about improving our food supply. But we need to not shame people, and also to honour people’s individual relationships with food.
  • Feeding kids is not easy! We need to honour the work parents are doing.

Resources Mentioned:

Virginia’s amazing piece for Bitch Media: “Well, actually…..”

More about Ellyn Satter & The Division of Responsibility model

The awful news article on school lunch boxes

Find out more about Viriginia Sole Smith