The Facebook chat box bears the tiny smiling face of a woman in workout gear: a tank top cut off at the midriff and leggings in a matching black, bearing her taut, tanned belly. I can’t quite place her; she might be some casual acquaintance from high school. She greets me with a “hey there” followed by an infinite number of exclamation points, and, as I’m scouting her profile—all imports from a Fit-Bit, miles run and steps taken; “inspirational” quotes like “strong is the new skinny”; and photos of protein shakes with various fruits and vegetables artfully arranged around them in a kind of pornography of healthfulness—she asks me if I’d want to join her “weight loss” program (consisting of a certain number of shakes per day, at a certain number of dollars per shake—but, for one time only, I can get a special discount). This is not the first time I’ve gotten one of these offers: I’m a fat woman, which apparently gives everyone license to express their opinions about what must be my obvious, inevitable health needs. So I block Miss Beach-Body Busy-Body.
She is, after all, a product of a culture that—through shows like "The Biggest Loser" and (the even more bluntly titled) "My Diet is Better Than Yours"; the blitzkrieg of news reports extolling the virtues of eating organic, or, better yet, a raw diet; and a myriad of sponsored listicles where free-range, hormone-free omelets and quinoa salads are photographed like they’re on the cover of Vogue—promotes the ideal that a virtuous life is one devoted to racking up stats on our fitness apps or spending a Sallie Mae payment at the Whole Foods, and the evidence of that ideal is in our slim hips and immaculate abs. The Ladies Who Lunch have given up their martinis at noon for Cross-Fit and kale. Healthy living has become a new mode of conspicuous consumption, with thin, yoga-toned bodies emblematic of one’s social standing: Cheap-and-easy fried foods are for the poor and uneducated, people who couldn’t possibly spell serotonin, let alone realize that 30-to-40 minutes of rigorous cardiovascular exercise will boost their levels of it.
Our culture has always found ways to problematize poor people and fat people, often conflating the two groups in the terrible stereotypes of the Pepsi-swilling welfare queen, and the Cheeto-munching, NASCAR-loving boogeyman who willfully inflates healthcare costs for everyone with his abominable laziness. The great unforgivable ugliness of these types is their perceived lack of virtue: They don’t have the hustle or the grind to make something better of themselves, something more productive. Something useful. People who can afford to spend top dollar on personal trainers and “clean eating” must, by contrast, be go-getters, the holders of high-paying jobs with impressive titles. Thin bodies, or “healthy bodies,” are, therefore, associated with industriousness—which makes them inherently more worthy, more respectable. Clean eating is really about the purity of the soul. And if we are what we eat, then healthiness is close to godliness.
Or, as Sondra Kronberg, MS, RD, CEDRD, a spokesperson for the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) and executive director of the Eating Disorder Treatment Collaborative, puts it, “People are no longer going to church, they’re going to the gym every day.” Over the past several years, Kronberg has seen an uptick in disordered eating that is fixated on the healthiness and wholesomeness of foods consumed: “People idolize fitness,” she says. Though (often untenable) thinness has been the look du jour (and by du jour I mean for the past several decades), there’s been a shift from a standard born of the cigarettes-and-black-coffee diet to an emphasis on a hard body forged through clean eating and hours of treating hot yoga like a blood sport.
Size-based bigotry has always hinged on looks, but it has evolved into “concern trolling” (or couching said bigotry in an “I’m just worried about your health”). Recently, former Sports Illustrated cover girl Cheryl Tiegs slammed the magazine for including “plus-size” model Ashley Graham on the cover of its famous swimsuit issue. “I don't like that we're talking about full-figured women because it's glamorizing them because your waist should be smaller than 35 [inches],” she told a reporter from E! News. “That's what Dr. Oz said, and I'm sticking to it … I don't think it's healthy.” Dr. Oz has peddled “magic” green coffee beans as a weight loss “cure”; the marketing team behind that particular piece of chicanery earned a $9 million fine from the Federal Trade Commission, and Dr. Oz has been called out by fellow physicians, and on the floor of the United States Senate.
But when body size becomes something that must be cured, at any cost, so that we can, as so much ad copy promises us, “look—but most importantly, feel—our best,” we will buy the magic beans; we will run until we decimate our knees; we will give up carbs, and then saturated fats, and then vegetable oils, and keep on giving up until we’re living on air—because there are no trans fats or pesticides in air (right?). This delusion is the engine purring in the heart of some great machine that sucks in human insecurity and spits out money. As Claire Mysko, president and CEO for the National Eating Disorders Association, puts it, that machine is the diet industry itself: “It's problematic [to] equate the ‘perfect’ body to happiness, success, love and confidence,” she says. “A person's appearance has very little to do with health. Weight loss, ‘clean’ eating and extreme exercise are couched in conversations about health, but when we look at the bigger picture … weight loss is a $61 billion industry … we see that selling the ‘perfect body’ is big business.”
Supermodels like Tiegs, and the fitness personalities who have made Instagram and YouTube the modern-day mid-morning infomercial, have the luxury of such ideals: They are literally paid to be hard bodies, doing crunches the same way most of us crunch expense reports; and even if they don’t have private chefs, then they could, perhaps, turn their sojourns to Fresh Market into tax writeoffs. The immaculately packaged uber-fit lifestyle they present is a world away from the workaday drudgery that keeps so many of us housed and fed (even if from an office vending machine): There are no gray cubicles under fluorescent lighting better-suited for an interrogation room; no hands chapped and raw from washing other people’s dishes; no slow grinds through traffic and no bus rides spent inhaling our neighbors’ armpits. The hot, “healthy” bod with the 35-inch waist is, in its own way, a totem of leisure, just as the soft-bodied beauties of yore relied on their double chins and their fair skins to show that they were the pampered elite.
Consider the untenable hours of exercise that the trainers (and, real talk, the producers) of "The Biggest Loser" expect their alumni to adhere to, or the eating plans that the nutrition wunderkinds of "My Diet Is Better Than Yours" craft for hapless contestants: There is the “Wellness Smackdown Plan,” an oh-so-doable (especially for anyone who has any kind of job, or children) “anti-inflammatory vegan diet that uses herbs to detoxify the body … only feeding it between the hours of 10AM and 7PM …”; or the fits-in-any-budget “Strong, Safe & Sexy Plan,” which “… allows wild caught seafood but no other animal flesh … clean and lean protein choices including: … eggs, beans, nuts, seeds and small amounts of organic or grass-fed dairy like Greek yogurt.” Sure, I could be “strong and sexy,” I could be lithe and muscular, an approximation of the ever-airbrushed fitness mag cover cutie; I could even achieve bowel movements that rivaled those of GOOP-era Gwyneth in color, consistency and spiritual enlightenment—but I’d be living in my parents’ basement. So let’s face it— kale isn’t the only green stuff that drives certain parts of the “clean eating” movement—“strong is the new skinny” is more like “strong is the new wealthy.”
The clean eating movement, with its veneer of privilege and wealth, its promise of a better life through a “better” body, can instill the same neurotic fixation on thinness that has driven many people to eating disorders, which can cause everything from kidney failure to cardiac arrest, osteoarthritis to acid reflux. When high-school senior Ashley G. was exposed to more and more information about foods and nutrition, she became particularly attentive to eating organic—this attentiveness became an obsession: “I was always thinking of what would be the healthier option,” she says. This constant worrying about the “healthier option” spurred Ashley to drive 30 miles or so just to buy organic food; she also began to restrict calories with a severity that eventually, she says, manifested in anorexia.
Sojourns to the gym became so long, and so intense, that her parents approached the facility’s managers and asked them to keep Ashley out. Her life was reduced to the four walls of her bedroom, where she devoted hours to researching “good food and bad food,” and logging information into online calorie counters. “I was young and vulnerable,” she explains. “I do think I was predisposed because I was [dealing with] depression, and this gave me an identity: ‘Ashley is so healthy. She has so much control.’ I felt such guilt whenever I stepped out of these restrictions.” Eventually, Ashley sought treatment; still, she remembers standing in a hot shower and writing her calorie intake in the steam along her shower door. Here, in this image, we see the true toxicity of “clean eating”: a woman’s worth distilled into numbers, vested in everything she consumes (or doesn’t).
Stories like Ashley’s show the peril of making a particular body type public health enemy No. 1. And, in doing this, we forget the actual public health issues that plague the people who can’t afford weekend jaunts to the farmer’s market. Our supposedly health-conscious culture wages “the war against obesity,” with everything in its arsenal, but it doesn’t expend a tenth of the effort on ensuring that all people have clean water. Poison coming out of the tap is a far greater public health crisis than the circumference of anyone’s waist. Still, we’re far more likely to hear about how eating hormone-free chicken nuggets will boost our children’s brain power than about contaminated water pipes, or lead paint in city housing. The focus on fat bodies as inherently unhealthy is knotted up with elitist, consumer-driven ideals of wellness: After all, the corporate bottom line becomes a fat-bottomed line when people feel impure and ashamed enough to pump more and more money into “get thin quick” schemes. If we truly cared about health, we’d be investing all of the time, energy and, above all, the money we spend on smoothies and supplements and premium plus gym memberships into creating oases in the food deserts (or areas where people, especially people without cars, can’t find affordable nutritious food) across the country.
Driving through broad swaths of my hometown, Baltimore, I see a culinary Sahara of corner stores and fast food joints. And often enough, anything pre-cooked or in a box is not only more available, but preferable—“just add water” isn’t just cheap, it’s easy, and easy is all you can manage after being ground down by low-wage, long-hours work. Any authentic campaign to prioritize health would address poverty and push for a living wage one could actually live on; it would push, with a typical Cross-Fitter’s evangelical zeal, for safer neighborhoods and more public parks. A truly positive, lasting vision of health—one that doesn’t drive people to turn their calorie counts into a calculus of their worth—should be about community, not competition. It isn’t about being “holier than thou,” about making that 6 p.m. yoga class, and then dashing off to the My Organic Market to pick up a hormone-free chicken for dinner. Healthiness should be about making each and every body, no matter how big or small, how fit or able, feel protected and cherished.