How Do You Feel About Diet Foods?: Some Feminist Navel-Gazing

10 years ago

"Studies show that consumption of aspartame is linked to short-term memory loss," my friend told me one afternoon as I sipped a cup of tea. Since I like my tea sweet (and milky), but I don't want the calories from sugar, I usually put a packet or two of Equal in my hot beverages. Steph loves sweet tea, too, but hates artificial sweeteners. This does not stop her from putting 10 teaspoons of sugar in her glasses. Unlike me, she doesn't care if the real deal causes her to weigh a pound or two more in the long run.

As I swallowed my tasty drink, it seemed sort of sweeter than usual. I looked for the shredded packets to figure out how much I used, but the waiter at the cafe had cleaned them up. "Hmmm... do you remember exactly how many things of Equal I dumped in this?" I asked Steph. "I'm not trying to prove your point, but seriously, I can't remember and this tea is awfully sweet." She smirked at me.

New York Presbyterian Hospitalsites a 2006 study indicating that 83% of college women are on a diet, regardless of their weight. In the 1990s, some 50% of American women were on a diet at any given time. In 2005, Ellen Goodstein wrote at Bankrate that the diet industry generated $40 billion in revenue. Logic would indicate that a good portion of this profit came out of the pockets of women desperate to be "thin." Yet in 2007, John Hopkins School of Public Health reported that, "Women 20–34 years old had the fastest increase rate of obesity and overweight."

Just to throw another confusing stat into the mix, a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association built on previous studies indicating that people who are slightly over their "healthy" weight are actually healthier than those who weigh less. Let's not forget that a "healthy" weight usually is more than the "ideal" weight many women strive for. All this is to say that an actual healthy weight is probably a few pounds heavier than the current "healthy" rate, which is then many pounds more than "ideal" weight. Clearly, being thin is killing us.

And now, back to me. Like many women, I enjoy eating. I adore cheese and chocolate. Once, during a painfully boring and looong conference call at work in which I put together an alphabetical list of foods that I enjoy, I even determined that if I were forced to eat food that only began with one letter, "C" is by far the best choice. ("S," by the way, is the second best option.) I could possibly live on cheese and chocolate if I weren't so worried about gaining weight. (In that case, perhaps my obsession with my weight is for the best, as a diet consisting entirely of cheese and chocolate lacks many important vitamins, minerals, and other things necessary for good health.)

Still, at the end of the day, I pass up things I would like to eat, and ingest disturbing chemicals in a misguided effort to keep myself 5 to 10 pounds lighter. Sometimes I think about whether all the calorie-saving foods might actually lead me to die earlier. Is it worth it? I mean, once I die, I'll have plenty of time to be really thin. Maybe I should think more like Steph and just enjoy life while I can, jeans size be damned.

Even though this post is extremely self-centered, I'm not the only feminist caught in this conundrum, of course. The Happy Feminist wrote:

I have worried quite a bit over the last few years about my copious Diet Coke intake. Completely abandoning moderation with regard to an artificial drink can't possibly be a good thing. And, indeed, it's probably not. I think it's having an effect on my teeth, and I have a feeling I may not have any teeth in a few years if I keep this up.

And I have also had visions of myself dying of cancer in 15 years. Or visions of the first Diet Coke lawsuits and people saying, "Well, everyone always knew or should have known that that stuff is terrible for you." But my cancer nightmares appear to be unfounded according to a new federal study... I may be toothless in a few years but at least I'll be above ground!

Given that I've been heard calling Diet Coke "the elixir of life," The Happy Feminist and I might as well be separated at birth.

An excellent conversation about feminism and dieting sprang up at Big Fat Blog. Jenny from Rants, ramblings, and random thoughts commented:

I've asked this question of myself before, and my answer is: No, it's not anti-feminist to "diet," but it is anti-feminist to hate your body. Unfortunately, that's what most dieting is. If I want to go vegetarian because of concern for the environment, worker exploitation, etc., and "happen to" lose some of my natural mass, then so be it. If I decide to stop eating out of the vending machine because I've finally decided that the stuff in there tastes like cardboard, fine. But if I count every calorie/protein/carb/fat gram/bad guy du jour because I hate the way I look and I think that, by having less of me, I'll suddenly love the way I look, that's anti-feminist. Hell, it's anti-humanist.

Marshfield, however, noted:

I love my body. It's sturdy, healthy, and generally nicely-proportioned. I have shiny graying hair and a pleasant face. I've reached advanced boomerhood with few complaints. That doesn't mean I would preclude modifying the way I look by healthy means (weight training is one I've considered). Commercial media encourage body dissatisfaction in woman of all sizes; it's not just fat women they pitch to. You can pay attention or not. Anyway, self-improvement is a popular human pastime. It's not always pathological.

So to conclude my (slightly pudgy) navel-gazing, I guess that - like most women - I have very mixed feelings about my desire for delicious, sweet, fatty foods, my interest in being healthy, and my obsession with my appearance. My usage of Equal perfectly encapsulates a dilemma that so many of us face in our lives. Do you compromise your principals to keep a few pounds off, and if so, how does it make you feel?

Suzanne also blogs about life at Campaign for Unshaved Snatch (CUSS) & Other Rants, about yogurt at Live Active Cultures, and social issues at Just Cause.

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