When you were young, what terrified you most?
I was scared of being kidnapped. And of flying seagulls and homework. But more than these, I was afraid of anything and everything that had sugar and was edible.
It's hard to believe that one person dies as a direct result from an eating disorder every 52 minutes, but this is a painful reality that shows how destructive they are. Eating disorders are complex mental illnesses characterized by abnormal behaviors, thoughts, and attitudes to food, eating, and body weight or shape. There are multiple types, including anorexia, binge-eating, bulimia, and more. Because eating disorders are mental illnesses, they don’t discriminate based on race, body shape, gender, or age; none of us is exempt. I personally struggled with disordered eating and a binge eating disorder for over seven years, but I can promise you that these years of struggles had nothing to do with my lack of self-control or discipline. If anything, my eating disorder flourished due to my ability to control, self-deny, and restrict. Like many of us, I grew up believing I was more disciplined when I ate diet foods, and feeling incredibly guilty if I did the opposite.
Now, if you look at this photo of me,
this may not seem like a kid who grew up fearing sweets. But I actually had a very unhealthy relationship with food growing up. My parents warned me I would become overweight if I had dessert, or I’d never get married or be respected by a man if I were fat. I’d only be rewarded with dessert if practiced the piano. Even then, it was always the fruit-flavored dessert. Thanksgiving felt like a test, snack sections were a temptation, and classroom parties felt like the perfect way to score zero in self-control and discipline.
Perhaps you relate, which suggests that somehow, the fear of weight gain or seeming “undisciplined” with food choices is something we learn as children. It is so deeply ingrained that children tease other children for being in larger bodies, and it is instinctual to feel guilty for eating high-calorie foods and proud for eating low-carb meals. The fact that the U.S. diet and weight loss industry grew to be a $72 billion industry in 2021 is testament enough to how this pursuit of thinness is a collective, nation-wide one.
But, as this troubling reality is going on, there is an entire industry that witnesses this and sees it as an incredible opportunity for profit: food advertising. The truth is, if you’ve ever felt guilty for finishing a bag of chips or judged others for choosing a cookie over an apple, chances are that you were highly influenced by food ads you’ve seen and our culture’s over-glorification of thinness.
Unless we’ve been living under a rock, I’m sure many of us understand the pressure to have the “perfect celebrity body." And while ad messages imply we can achieve this enviable body if we eat perfectly, I'm sorry, but most of us will never be able to sustain such a body shape and size. The industry knows this, too, but the fact that the media-portrayed standard of thinness is genetically unattainable for most people is precisely what makes it such an effective marketing tool. Food ads imply that we are weak if we can’t control our appetites; at the same time, foods are packaged as “guilt-free” to send an opposite message: that we are self-controlled and morally good if we choose these “healthier” options. So yes, the way companies market food exploits body dissatisfaction and is guilty of contributing to one of the deadliest mental illnesses in the world.
Now, you may be thinking: “Hey Jessie, we’re struggling with obesity here in America - What’s the problem with companies making it clear that certain foods are lower calorie and “guilt-free”? Won’t people thank us for it?”
I hear you, but trust me - marketers are perfectly aware of this, too. I want to introduce you to an idea that Boston College professor Sharlene Hesse-Biber calls “the cultural paradox” in her book The Cult of Thinness. Essentially, food advertisers are aware that our culture values thinness, and they appear to give us a win-win solution by offering us free access to eating without guilt. They do this by calling food guilt-free or diet-friendly when in reality, there should never have been guilt associated with eating in the first place. More and more addictive ingredients are being added to food. We are being bombarded with artificially glamorized images of highly processed foods. Remember that food companies want us to snack and eat more because it drives up their profits. So, it is under the guise of helping us become healthy, that they are promoting more snacking than ever before, more eating because it’s profitable, and adding ingredients we can’t even pronounce anymore to make us want more of it.
Therefore, the cultural paradox shows how “the demand for diet and junk foods occurs at the same time, resulting in a situation where Americans are becoming increasingly obese within a culture of thinness.” We can only imagine what that leads to - more shame and unhappiness with our bodies.
So, if we think food ads are doing us a favor by trying to fight obesity, we have to think again. The way to achieve good health isn’t to make people hate their bodies and ruminate endlessly on food. My hope is for us to become more aware of the way food ads impact us and those around us, and I challenge all of us to reject the external messages we hear and to instead, tune in internally, to really listen to what our bodies need in order to be nourished and satisfied.
So the next time we’re shopping for groceries or eating food, and we find ourselves feeling guilty or anxious, here are some questions I challenge us to ask ourselves:
Why do I feel guilty eating this? Is there fear attached to food?
Am I hungry? Am I full? What is my body telling me right now?
What’s the worst thing that could happen if I allow myself to fuel my body with the food I want?
Because you see, this change on our end needs to start with the perspective we have of food and the daily interactions we have. If you have children, especially young children, or younger siblings, cease using sweets as a reward to compensate children for hard work or to punish them by restricting it from them. Food ads market sweets as the perfect guilty pleasure or incentive for desirable behavior, but this can have extremely negative psychological impacts. It is normal for kids to want sweets, and we can encourage them to eat them moderately in a way that still honors their bodies. It is actually when sweets feel like a scarce, hard-to-earn reward that they become a source of guilt and temptation.
For those of us in college, the pressure to “eat right” may feel immense. But we need not compare ourselves and evaluate our worth based on our food decisions. Every body is different and needs to be nourished differently. We don’t have to buy the ice cream that is labeled as keto-friendly or choose eggs over bagels because we’ve been taught that carbs are bad. Even the way we talk about food - avoiding statements such as “I can’t believe I ate XYZ” or “It’s okay to eat this because it’s guilt-free” - can make a huge difference for our peers who may be secretly struggling with eating disorders.
Let's pay attention to the messages we hear, switch the narrative we have around food, and shape a better society where we cherish food for what it is and promote a truly healthy generation, body and mind.