Saturday, February 1, 2014

Trying New Things # 1: Eating Outside the Lines

Let’s face it. On Friday night, at the end of a busy and stressful work week, all any of us really want is good food. Shutting off the lights and doing the routine closing checks at my oh-so-lucrative job at the University Library, it certainly was the only thing on my mind. As usual, my best friend and I are arguing about cuisine options.

Me: “PIZZA” (ignoring the fact that my Doctor just put me on a gluten-free regiment I haven’t yet faced.)

Her: “Chinese. Burgers. No wait, we’re trying new things!”

Our New Year’s Resolution is to “try new things”, “get out of our comfort zones”, and “avoid complacency” (though I usually hate these, I made an exception for this one in particular). This cluster of images stems from a shared disillusionment at the direction (or lack thereof) our lives are taking- two graduate students in a “pre-unemployment” degree (as I’ve heard it fondly dubbed) have to make life meaningful somehow. So, we decided that, big decision or small, we are going to attempt something new or different at least once a week. Tonight, it was apparently our restaurant choice.

UrbanSpoon led us to a tiny sushi restaurant that, on the outside, was nothing to see. Letters were flickering on the large sign proclaiming its name, and there were few cars in the parking lot. I was not enthused, but in the spirit of adventure, we decided to give it a try. A quaint patio decorated with twinkly lights encouraged us that maybe this wouldn’t be so bad, and as we were seated at the sushi bar, fresh fish and other such delicacies proudly on display, I knew we’d made the right choice. Over dinner, our conversation spanned a wide range of topics. My friend and I come from vastly different backgrounds, her a Jamaican-Queens girl, and I a prep school princess from Columbia, SC. Of all the things I’ve learned in my time in Graduate School, I’d say my friend is the one who has taught me the most about the world, challenging me to broaden my, at times limited perspective, and to interrogate and challenge complacently accepted “norms”.

As we perused the menu, I first scanned it for anything un-fried or steamed or in some other way deprived of taste. As we weighed our options, my friend and I began talking about various relationships we’ve had with food, and the cost of not loving yourself in the way you should. I talked about the semester of my life I maintained an essentially liquid diet and ran twice a day, convinced I couldn’t love myself if I was over a size six. My friend told me that, like a lot of women, her emotions directly influence her relationship with food, often with detrimental consequences.

I recently read an article about a new internet craze called, “fitspo”. Defined as “images of active, strong, and fit women that promote proper exercise and diet”, I was intrigued. As an active and now healthy woman, I thought this would definitely be something with which I could identify. However, upon closer inspection, I realized that these relatively cliché images of a Zen woman performing yoga on a beach or a muscular, six-pack toting babe pumping iron at the gym were not as body image positive as one might think. Superimposed over women with perfect bodies were phrases such as, “sweat is fat crying”, or “destroy something that is destroying you”, or my personal favorite (superimposed over a woman in a bikini running on the beach), “so you’d rather have that bag of chips?”


I love the idea of encouraging women to eat well and exercise. I think that the primary way to avoid an abusive relationship with food we’ve all experienced at one point or another is through proper education about what constitutes a healthy diet, and how this can be managed in an affordable way. A healthy diet and exercise plan is a lifestyle that can be maintained, whereas crash diets or that expensive eating plan (where the food actually tastes like cardboard), are bound to fail. But, I do not think images like these are the way to encourage women towards these goals.

My first thought when I looked at these pictures was, “well my body doesn’t look like that…” Even though I exercise regularly and eat in a very healthy way, I will never have the body of a six foot tall, size two model. I don’t have the innate genetic makeup for that kind of a body (slim hips, long legs, etc.) However, to impose text over an image like that, implying that no matter what you look like, if you maintain this plan then you will eventually look that way, is a lie that promotes a cycle of failure and body-image negativity that girls in this day and age just don’t need.

Further, I take issue with the violent imagery that so many of these ads incorporate. Why does working out have to be a funeral for your fat? Why is fat something that is destroying you? Words like these figure a woman at the gym to be at war with her body, doing everything she can to destroy a natural and healthy and even beautiful part of herself. Working out should be a process of growing yourself, of loving your body through making it stronger. I really enjoy going to the gym, and I love the way my body feels after a good workout. It should be a time of self-care, of challenging goals and beating them, of building yourself up instead of tearing yourself down.

This brings me to my final point. Working out should be fun. It should be a time away from the stress of the day, a time when you’re not at the office or in the classroom, doing something just for you. I love the idea of dance or zumba classes, where fun and self-expression are first and performance is second. You do not have to be the fastest runner or the most flexible or the strongest in the weight room, and working out should not be a time of inadequacy or shame. Putting pressure on women to look a certain way via their exercise routine takes all the fun out of it, instilling instead a mindset of desperation in trying to complete that extra mile or lift those extra pounds.

So, to sum up. I think we can do better than the “fitspo” movement. Cycles of failure, language of violence between women and their bodies, and taking the fun out of working out by creating it as an obligation…not what we need to create a more body-positive world. There is no magical food or exercise machine that is going to transform you from the already beautiful woman you are into somebody else. We need to dispel the myth around each new healthy eating craze, stop shaming women for indulging in the pleasures of life now and then by implying that they’ll never be beautiful that way, and diversify the way we as a culture understand beauty. We need to completely destroy this notion that a healthy body is an emaciated one, and instead remind each other every day of our own unique beauty. How’s that for work out inspiration?

All this to say, my goal for the New Year is to no longer be afraid of food. To eat that tempura fried roll because it was DELICIOUS, and to ignore images that make me feel like I need to change who I am to be beautiful.

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