Saturday, August 18, 2012

Gluten and weight-think

Commenter Lisa raises some important points on my gluten post below. So many I'm addressing them, and continuing the discussion, in a new post:

-The reason I linked to the Refinery29 slideshow wasn't to launch some kind of witch hunt, or to claim I know anything about the specific health concerns of any of these individual women. I wasn't, and I don't. Rather, I linked to it because it was about the best example I've seen of the new, more euphemistically-expressed weight-think. Of the ambiguous discourse that's kind of about health, kind of about beauty, where the line between the two is imprecisely drawn, and where different audiences are being addressed simultaneously. In particular, I was struck by the "trigger" (in Jezebel lingo) aspect of the slideshow, where these women's diets are laid out in detail. This sort of thing may not be intended as thinspiration (if that term can be used for text?), but when there's stuff like that in women's and "health" mags, that's how it's appropriated.

-My intent wasn't to mock anybody. I think it's sad, not silly, that so many thin women feel the need to diet. And I certainly didn't intend to mock those with debilitating migraines. I mean, I get debilitating migraines. My point there was that maybe I'm the one who's being ridiculous by going ahead and eating gluten even if there's some chance that I could get rid of them by eating totally differently.

-There are medical reasons other than celiac for which not eating gluten is beneficial. Not as necessary perhaps as for those with celiac, but legitimate all the same. Thank you, Lisa, for linking to the science on this. That said, the existence of real issues doesn't mean there's no convenient self-diagnosis going on. When lo and behold much of the female staff of a fashion blog announces, in unison, joining the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow, that they're all incapable of eating bread/pizza/pasta/cake, you have to wonder if maybe, just maybe, the concern is weight.

-That a particular diet is used as a proxy for weight loss doesn't mean the ostensible non-weight-related reasons for that diet aren't also real. The Beheld points us to new research showing that women with eating disorders are four times as likely to be vegetarians than other women. This, as Autumn Whitefield-Madrano correctly insists, doesn't mean that there aren't fantastic reasons to be a vegetarian, or that all female vegetarians have eating disorders, or that no female omnivores do. And, as I must add here, I am absolutely not suggesting that the women in the gluten-free slideshow suffer from eating disorders. Lord knows I wouldn't be qualified to diagnose that sort of thing in person, let alone via blog! The issue that concerns me is the obsession that many women have with exactly what it is they're eating, an obsession that the vast majority of the time falls short of anything that would be diagnosed as an eating disorder, but that nevertheless constitutes a profound waste of time and energy, one for which there's no real equivalent in the lives of men.

-Lisa reminds us of the "paleo" diet, which is more of a guy thing. I don't doubt it, but the bigger picture here is that the number of men preoccupied with what they eat is vanishingly small compared with the number of women doing so. Weight-think is a feminist issue, not because no men ever ever ever think about their weight, but because for women, it's the default.

-That someone might cut out gluten, meat, dairy, whatever, to lose weight isn't in and of itself a problem. Some people would benefit from losing weight - health-wise, social-stigma-wise, etc. The question I'm addressing is that of women who don't need to lose weight, and who recognize this, which is precisely why when they diet all the same, they feel the need to hide behind health or ethical concerns.

-Eating delicious, real food is one of life's pleasures. So too is going about your day without giving much thought to food, and, you know, getting other things done. It's understandable that those with real weight concerns might feel the need to sacrifice both of these somewhat, but it's truly upsetting that doing so is, again, the default for women.

-It is theoretically possible to maintain or gain weight on a restrictive diet. Not all weight-loss diets work, so maybe someone eating no gluten is eating a ton of rice pudding. But I'm not sure how the possibility of not losing weight on a gluten-free diet tells us that those cutting gluten for the heck of it aren't doing so as an attempt to lose weight. Some attempts are failed attempts.

-The challenge of this topic, as Lisa's reaction illustrates, is that it's socially unacceptable - not to mention potentially rude - to cast any doubt on the health (or, for that matter, ethical) claims people give for their dietary restrictions. The answer, I think, is to do with euphemistic dieting a bit as we did regarding the expression "Jewish self-hatred." We need to be able to discuss this very real phenomenon. But only insult people and hurt the cause if we start accusing individuals of being self-hating Jews. So on this topic, we need to be clear we're not saying that Woman X (especially if she's sitting at the table with us) is lying about her newfound intolerance of all fattening ingredients. But we also absolutely need to be able to talk about the phenomenon more generally.


PG said...

Weight-think is a feminist issue, not because no men ever ever ever think about their weight, but because for women, it's the default.

When the NYT wrote about men's losing weight to look good for their weddings, the article was about men who hired nutritionists and went on diets -- often after having been admonished to do so for years by their doctors. The most extreme action taken was by a guy who underwent weight loss surgery, but who weighed 300 lbs. prior to surgery.

Three months earlier, when the NYT wrote about women's losing weight to look good for their weddings, the article was about women who were getting fed through a tube to lose 10 lbs.

Anyone who thinks there's gender parity in this area is delusional. And that includes the NYT, which put in the men's article: "Male weight-loss tactics can be as intense as the female versions." No, until I see the guy who "went about [his] business with a tube in [his] nose," when no weight loss was medically indicated whatsoever, they are not as intense.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


Thank you for this.

The only possible counterargument here (against what both of us are arguing, that is) is that maybe it's actually a good thing that women care so much what they/we put into their/our bodies, and that men's obliviousness in this area is just part of male recklessness. And there may be a glimmer of truth to that - the ideal is probably a society with some internalized qualms, where neither men nor women will eat absolutely whatever, whenever. I don't think we need to celebrate if a man only notices he's overweight when he comes to require bariatric surgery.

But there's this strangely pervasive idea that real food is something no girl/woman past a certain age can consume. And I can't imagine that the mix of yogurt-and-salad and OMG-I've-been-bad that characterizes many female diets is actually much healthier than the American male I'll-eat-whatever approach.

Lisa said...

Hi Phoebe,

Thanks for the detailed response, I really appreciate your consideration. I think that we run in different circles as far as media consumption goes - I'm a Kool-aid drinker in the paleo-sphere, and don't read many women's magazines; your blog is some of my only contact with that media type. The focus I'm most familiar with (in my male dominated sphere) is "perfect health at any lifestyle cost" over "space between thighs at any cost," so when people say that they're thinking of their health over their weight, I'm more inclined to take them at face value. If you hang around on Paleo forums, one of the questions that comes up often (from women, a lot of the time) is, "I'm eating Paleo and I'm doing everying right, why can't I lose these last 10 lbs in my thighs that are driving me nuts?"

The thing is, when you focus on actual health, the results aren't always fashion-forward. Personally, when I started eating more of a real food diet I gained about 10 lbs in the breast and butt area, to my consternation. I've never FELT better, so I think I may have been underweight for my actual body type before. My experience is not uncommon, and on McEwen's blog that I've linked to, her story and the stories of other women support this type of thing happening. There is more and more science on how fat (specific types and areas of fat deposits) is extremely important for women's health and the health of their babies. Thigh and hip fat, for example, have been shown to be deposits of essential fatty acids DHA and EPA that are essential for fetal brain developments, and are mobilized during pregnancy and breastfeeding. Lose too much of them on a juice fast and you might end up with a slightly less smart baby.

I guess my point is, at the point when weight-think becomes actual health-think, the results will separate out the wheat from the chaff. Women that diet this way and don't lose the fat that their bodies actually need will move on to the next fad, and the rest of us will be left with our curvy-style jeans and hopefully our health.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


I'd point you to PG's comment above. It's technically true, but misses the bigger picture, to say that there's on the one hand the "paleo" blogosphere, and on the other, women's mags and women's pro-dieting media. One is a niche interest of a few men and even fewer women, the other a massive set of incredibly powerful industries and cultural practices. There are diets aimed at men, but the default for women, even women who are a healthy weight and eat a healthy diet, is to view themselves as works-in-progress in this regard.

Next, re: health, I agree that it makes sense to care about this more than pants-size. But there's no consensus on which diet is healthiest. (No need to reiterate that you believe it to be "paleo" - we heard you loud and clear!) We can all probably agree that kale is better than twinkies, but beyond that, what? Is whole wheat OK? Butter? Eggs? New studies emerge all the time with new findings, and the best any of us can do when it comes to food choices is to eat what makes us feel healthiest, also taking into account taste (i.e. which foods we like), and perhaps, if we feel like it, society's stigma against being very overweight. What's almost definitely not healthy, mentally, at least, is weight-think.

Autumn Whitefield-Madrano said...

>we need to be clear we're not saying that Woman X (especially if she's sitting at the table with us) is lying about her newfound intolerance of all fattening ingredients. But we also absolutely need to be able to talk about the phenomenon more generally.<

Perfectly put. It can feel redundant to keep saying "this doesn't mean everyone!" when talking about the phenomenon, but sure enough, say something about eating patterns being connected with eating disorders (which, duh!) without that caveat and sure enough, people grumble. Which I do understand; I'd hate to know that, say, my digestive concerns that led me to restrict gluten were being eyed with suspicion by the likes of...well, me, I suppose. But manalive, is this ever a problem.

Re: men and women--I'd add that of the men I know who are super-vigilant about this stuff, I'd easily say most of them would fit diagnostic criteria for ED-NOS. Preoccupation with one's food intake *is a symptom of an eating disorder.* Alone, that doesn't make it an eating disorder. But it cannot be ignored. I laughed myself silly when reading a raw foods book by a woman who claimed going raw had liberated her from being preoccupied with food. She wrote an entire book about food! She makes her living talking about and working with food! How is that not preoccupation? (And sure enough, I was reading things like raw foods books because I had an eating disorder. My own experience is definitely a good chunk of why I'm suspicious of this stuff.)

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


I immediately thought of what you'd written re: vegetarianism when I saw the Refinery29 post on gluten. It's such a difficult topic!

Maybe one way out of this messiness is to remind, whenever possible, that "eating disorder" (or "disordered eating") should be understood as something unfortunate, and not as a form of frivolous narcissism of which a person might stand accused. As in, we might say, 'It's a shame so many already-slim women (and some men) feel the need to diet,' as opposed to, 'I've had it with those sneaky vegans who don't even care about animals, just fitting into a size zero.' Because our concern isn't so much the hypocrisy of those who pretend to care about health/ethics but actually care about weight. Rather, it's that there's so much weight-obsession going around to begin with, and that the health/ethics cover makes it harder to have a conversation about it.

Another way out might be to just take official eating disorders (which can be about so many things other than weight) out of the discussion, and to focus just on the weight-think of women who'd never meet any diagnostic criteria. The biggest feminist issue in this area is that the default for women is preoccupation with diet. If it were simply that eating disorders were overrepresented among women, that too would be (and is!) a big deal, but what's at stake here impacts nearly all women, not just the few it impacts most.