Smash the Wellness Industry
A few months ago, I had lunch with the writer behind one of my favorite movies of the year, the agent who made the deal and the producer who packaged the project. I wanted to hear all about the process and perhaps find an opportunity to collaborate. When the server came to take our order, I flashed to that scene in “Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion” when Mira Sorvino walks into a diner in a striped skirt suit and asks the waitress, “Do you have some sort of businesswomen’s special?”
Had there been any sort of businesswomen’s special that day, our group probably couldn’t have ordered it. Someone was slogging through the Whole30 program, someone had eliminated dairy, and someone else was simply trying to be “good” after a “bad” weekend. The producer said it didn’t matter how “good” she was. She had lost the baby weight and though she may look tolerable in clothes, under the Spanx her stomach was a horror show. The writer said she had so much cellulite on her thighs she looked diseased. I gazed around the restaurant, longingly, wondering what the men eating cheeseburgers were talking about.
At one time, I too would gleefully have torn myself apart. I despised my body, and my devotion to changing it amounted to years of unpaid labor, starting with a bout of bulimia in high school. In preparation for my wedding, I worked out twice a day on 800 calories. From there I moved on to counting macros, replacing rice with cauliflower pellets, 13-day cleanses, intermittent fasting and an elimination diet that barred sugar, dairy and nightshades like potatoes.
Every new regimen ended in the same violent binge. I’d wait for my husband to go to bed so that I could obliterate the pantry without him asking, “Are you O.K.?” For the next few days, I would throw myself on the altar of “clean eating,” only to start the cycle all over again.
I called this poisonous relationship between a body I was indoctrinated to hate and food I had been taught to fear “wellness.” This was before I could recognize wellness culture for what it was — a dangerous con that seduces smart women with pseudoscientific claims of increasing energy, reducing inflammation, lowering the risk of cancer and healing skin, gut and fertility problems. But at its core, “wellness” is about weight loss. It demonizes calorically dense and delicious foods, preserving a vicious fallacy: Thin is healthy and healthy is thin.
Almost three years ago, I moved to Los Angeles from New York. After death and divorce, moving is supposed to be the most stressful thing you can go through, and eating became my salve. I had a second book and a screenplay due, a new city to explore and friends to make, but I could hardly focus on any of that for how crazy I felt around food. So I did a desperate thing. I searched “intuitive eating” online.
Thanks to a stint at a health magazine, I had a glancing understanding of the philosophy, which encourages a return to the innate wisdom we had as babies — about when to stop eating, what tastes good and how it makes our bodies feel. I might have sought it out sooner if not for the part where you learn to accept how your body looks once you stop restricting food, even if that version of your body is larger than you would like.
The search led me to a nearby dietitian who is considered by some to be one of the founding mothers of intuitive eating. I picked up the phone.
Intuitive eating has been around for decades, but it’s suddenly receiving a lot of attention. Perhaps it’s because women are finally starting to interrogate the systems that hurt and exploit us. Perhaps it’s because we’re driven and ambitious and we need energy — not lightheaded, leafy-greens energy but real energy, the kind that comes from eating the hearty foods men eat.
I had paid a lot of money to see a dietitian once before, in New York. When I told her that I loved food, that I’d always had a big appetite, she had nodded sympathetically, as if I had a tough road ahead of me. “The thing is,” she said with a grimace, “you’re a small person and you don’t need a lot of food.”
The new dietitian had a different take. “What a gift,” she said, appreciatively, “to love food. It’s one of the greatest pleasures in life. Can you think of your appetite as a gift?” It took me a moment to wrap my head around such a radical suggestion. Then I began to cry.
Two years into my work with her, I feel lighter than I ever have. Food is a part of my life — a fun part — but it no longer tastes irresistible, the way it did when I told myself I couldn’t have it. My body looks as it always has when I’m not restricting or bingeing. I’m not “good” one day so that I can be “bad” another, which I once foolishly celebrated as balance.
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Occasionally, when I’m stressed, I comfort myself with food, and my dietitian assures me that’s an acceptable kind of hunger too. Emotional eating is a coping mechanism. We’re told it is an unhealthy habit, one we must break, but that’s another wellness lie. It is not vodka in our morning coffee. My binges stopped once I stopped judging myself for wanting to eat the foods “wellness” vilified, sometimes for reasons other than physical hunger.
I no longer define food as whole or clean or sinful or a cheat. It has no moral value. Neither should my weight, though I’m still trying to separate my worth from my appearance. They are two necklaces that have gotten tangled over the course of my 35 years, their thin metal chains tied up in thin metal knots. Eventually, I will pry them apart.
Most days, I feel good in my skin. That said, I am probably never going to love my body, and that’s O.K. I think loving our bodies is not only an unrealistic goal in our appearance-obsessed society but also a limiting one. No one is telling men that they need to love their bodies to live full and meaningful lives. We don’t need to love our bodies to respect them.
The diet industry is a virus, and viruses are smart. It has survived all these decades by adapting, but it’s as dangerous as ever. In 2019, dieting presents itself as wellness and clean eating, duping modern feminists to participate under the guise of health. Wellness influencers attract sponsorships and hundreds of thousands of followers on Instagram by tying before and after selfies to inspiring narratives. Go from sluggish to vibrant, insecure to confident, foggy-brained to cleareyed. But when you have to deprive, punish and isolate yourself to look “good,” it is impossible to feel good. I was my sickest and loneliest when I appeared my healthiest.
If these wellness influencers really cared about health, they might tell you that yo-yo dieting in women may increase their risk for heart disease, according to a recent preliminary study presented to the American Heart Association. They might also promote behaviors that increase community and connection, like going out to a meal with a friend or joining a book club. These activities are sustainable and have been scientifically linked to improved health, yet are often at odds with the solitary, draining work of trying to micromanage every bite of food that goes into your mouth.
The wellness industry is the diet industry, and the diet industry is a function of the patriarchal beauty standard under which women either punish themselves to become smaller or are punished for failing to comply, and the stress of this hurts our health too. I am a thin white woman, and the shame and derision I have experienced for failing to be even thinner is nothing compared with what women in less compliant bodies bear. Wellness is a largely white, privileged enterprise catering to largely white, privileged, already thin and able-bodied women, promoting exercise only they have the time to do and Tuscan kale only they have the resources to buy.
Finally, wellness also contributes to the insulting cultural subtext that women cannot be trusted to make decisions when it comes to our own bodies, even when it comes to nourishing them. We must adhere to some sort of “program” or we will go off the rails.
We cannot push to eradicate the harassment, abuse and oppression of women while continuing to serve a system that demands we hurt ourselves to be more attractive and less threatening to men.
And yet that is exactly what we are doing when we sit around the lunch table and call our stomachs horror shows.
There is something called the Bechdel test for film. Developed by Alison Bechdel in 1985, an American cartoonist, the idea is that the film must satisfy three requirements to pass: (1) feature at least two women who (2) talk to each other about (3) something other than a man. Sounds simple, but a shocking number of films have failed to pass.
In 2019, I want to propose a new kind of test. Women, can two or more of us get together without mentioning our bodies and diets? It would be a small act of resistance and a kindness to ourselves.
When men sit down to a business lunch, they don’t waste it pointing out every flaw on their bodies. They discuss ideas, strategies, their plans to take up more space than they already do. Let’s lunch like that.