Over the last decade, I’ve researched dieting and weight loss in American culture, but I’ve rarely written about the personal histories that led me to this topic, to study food and bodies from the viewpoint of anxiety and contradiction.
I tell part of my story in a review essay, “Food Culture at the Margins of Consumption: Two New Books on Eating Disorders,” published in the fall 2017 issue of Gastronomica: The Journal of Critical Food Cultures, which considers Richard A. O’Connor and Penny Van Esterik’s From Virtue to Vice: Negotiating Anorexia alongside Karen Eli and Stanley Ulijaszek’s edited volume, Obesity, Eating Disorders, and the Media. The essay opens with a more personal framing, which I’ve excerpted here:
Every year growing up, my grandmother labored in the kitchen alongside my mother to cook our Thanksgiving meal, but when she joined us around the table, she never enjoyed the bounty spread before us. Instead, she ate a Lean Cuisine meal—piping-hot from the microwave, thin wisps of steam escaping from an anemically shallow, black plastic dish. From an early age, I understood that food was a complex source of joy and conflict, freedom and control, pleasure and shame.
To be clear, my grandmother was an incredible woman, an esteemed geologist invited at one time to run the department at Vassar College. She chose instead a life in “the big sky state” of Montana, where she returned to university for additional training, spending much of her career teaching high school mathematics. She was a voracious global traveler, an exacting presence, a brilliant mind, elegantly fashionable, and exceedingly thin.
When we had my senior portrait photos taken in high school, my mother gasped at the results. As you can see in the photo above, it turns out I look a lot like my grandmother when she was young. I resemble her in a lot of ways, including her struggles with food.
On an episode of the Food Psych Podcast with Christy Harrison (out today!), we talk about what I’ve lived and learned, researched and discovered about diet culture. We discuss the history of dieting in America, my work on men and Weight Watchers (and dude food), the role of guilt in American eating, the history of nutrition science, and so much more.
We start, however, by talking about my own relationship with food, where it’s been, how it’s changed, and how the academic work of analyzing the dieting industry was a key part of my recovery.
The many years I spent seriously training in classical ballet were wonderful, but conflicted. Dancing was the first great love of my life, but also a difficult experience, in which my body was viewed as one that deviated from the discipline’s aesthetic norms. Ballet wasn’t the only reason for the eating disorder and years of disordered eating that shaped my youth and young womanhood, but it is all part of how I came to the work of studying bodies and identities, dieting and weight loss more generally, food and health ideals, culture and media.
This is just one way of starting a critical conversation about food, or as I wrote in Gastronomica:
My experiences and revelations are far from unique. Food anxiety is about as American as apple pie. Scholars and writers from Harvey Levenstein to Michael Pollan declare the current state of American food as “our national eating disorder.” What then can we learn about “our” food culture from studying at the margins of consumption?
I’ve learned much from studying dieting and the borders where it blurs into disordered eating, through a sort of inverted foodways approach: analyzing the public faces of commercial diet programs so to illuminate American identities, not through what we eat, but through what we aspire so vehemently to limit and avoid.
Top Image Credit: Emily Contois, 2016; my grandparents at a formal dance in the 1940s