Tuesday, January 08, 2013

"When the body isn’t working on breaking down and assimilating food, it works on repairing itself," and other bad advice on the internet UPDATED

"The fact that, thanks to favorable genetics, I can eat and drink mostly everything and still stay on the slim side is a blessing and a curse."

This might sound first-world-problem-ish, humble-braggy, especially when you consider the sentence before it: "New York City is a dinner society—think of how many restaurants are in a single block. You can have dinner with a different friend at a different restaurant every day of the week [...]." Yes, very glam. But I hear what Emily Weiss is saying. If you get no immediate social disapproval for your size, there's not much incentive to eat well, other than this nebulous 'for health reasons.' I mean, tell this to someone who can't fit into clothes at the Gap, and they will have every right to present you with the world's most petite violin. But as non-problems go, it's not entirely ridiculous.

But I'm disappointed in "Into The Gloss," my online guilty pleasure, the place with the gorgeous photography of ordinary objects, where fashion-world celebs put their well-pedicured feet in their mouths after telling you which skin serums they use, after this latest post. Inspired by one of said women, Weiss, who runs the site, who admits she's already slim, and who includes a photo of herself in underpants (see, there's something in this post for the boys as well) to prove it, goes to a spa in Italy where they feed you 600 calories a day. This is, for the unacquainted, eating one small meal a day. As if the answer to too many cheeseburgers isn't, I don't know, a burger without the cheese and salad instead of fries, but rather a fashionable detour into anorexia.

And it's not Weiss I'm worried about - she seems like an adult woman with her life together, and she insists that the experience has taught her "everything in moderation." It's the readers - including, going by the comments, some very young ones - who will interpret this as not so much moderation as thinsporation. (The post is a thinly-disguised ad for the spa, as per the note at the end: "Accommodations provided by Espace Henri Chenot, thank God, because otherwise it would have been hella expensive." Indeed, few adolescent readers are likely to sign up, but this approach  to diet is definitely being promoted.) How else could you interpret something like this:

When the body isn’t working on breaking down and assimilating food, it works on repairing itself, and what’s funny is that this can actually hurt: my hips were sore one morning, my lower back, another. “You’re eliminating the toxins,” my new best friend, Jennifer, the acupuncturist, explained, sending electro-currents into pressure points in my foot. [Emphasis mine.]
It's probably inevitable, given their audience, that fashion publications, online and off, will dabble in health, and that "health" will be a euphemism for thinness. If this takes the form of cheery recipes, that's great and good-inspirational, like ITG's recent suggestion to put avocado on toast, which I totally followed, avocados being on sale at Whole Foods, and which I did not take as advice to eat less than I would otherwise. If a fashion blog wants to give me ideas for what to do with Swiss chard, for when that goes on sale, fine by me.

But a line is crossed when you go from 'eat more vegetables and get off the couch' - sensible, theoretically weight-neutral advice - to blueprints for eating disorders. This has come up before on ITG and elsewhere in the fashion blogosphere, a world that had such potential to dodge the fashion-mag trap of being glossed-up diet advice. And again, this isn't even so much diet advice - problematic, but some, one might argue, could benefit - as how-not-to-eat advice. Bad advice if you are significantly overweight, bad and extra nutty advice if you're not. The notion that the body "works on repairing itself" when not fed is not all that much better, from a feminist perspective, than "the body has ways of shutting that whole thing down" - it's just that the damage, in this case, is self-inflicted.


The glamorous, their evenings are just like ours (and we are waiting to properly celebrate the driver's license until our husband gets back to town): Weiss herself responded to my blog-comment, which basically quoted back to her the thing about the body repairing itself and asked why this was not a fad diet, something Weiss speaks out against in that same post. Her answer is that this relates to the body repairing itself when it sleeps, and she adds that she's not a nutritionist, and I shouldn't have shut that tab, since it would take forever to reload, what with all the images and the strength of this apartment's internet connection, but if yours is stronger, go read for yourself.

I mean, maybe? A French-Studies grad student knows as much about what happens to cells during sleep as a beauty blogger, so I don't think either of us are citing the relevant scientific literature. Anyway, I suppose the problem was that my comment didn't address head-on what the problem was - the perils of being overly concise. It's not that it's a fad diet, so much as that it's a starvation diet. While Science may show some benefits to this, the dangers of starvation are reasonably well-documented.


Moebius Stripper said...

Wow; usually adherents to such schools of thought as "When the body isn’t working on breaking down and assimilating food, it works on repairing itself" also believe quite strongly in listening to one's body ("if you're sick, that's your body telling you that you're working yourself too hard"). That Weiss instead takes the pain in her hips and back as *support* for her diet is...some top-rate cognitive dissonance.

(Mind you, I can get on board with this. Let's see: the other day I ate nothing but chocolate for lunch and ended up with a stomachache and a headache, which indicates that my body was renewing itself, and thus affirmed my choice to eat nothing but chocolate for dinner, as well.)

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

It's new-age, but with everything not about weight-loss left out.

What's striking is that a woman whose issue is that she's thin but eats badly approaches this by eating less. She clearly needs the same number of calories as before, but from different foods. Yet dieting is such a standard-issue part of femininity that even women who aren't ostensibly out to lose weight must join in the fun, must agree that any kind of New Year's overhaul includes calorie reduction. I mean, in this particular case, I think we're looking at a beauty blogger who got a free trip to Italy. But I think it's representative of something one sees in less exceptional situations.

Moebius Stripper said...

For sure, to the extent that those of us not on weight-loss diets, who have no reason to be on weight-loss diets, and who have never told anyone they are on weight-loss diets, are assumed by others to be. I'm thin-bordering-on-underweight; I eat when I'm hungry and I don't eat when I'm not. I eat decently, but I'm not a model of optimum nutrition or anything; in particular, I take every article about the health benefits of chocolate more seriously than I should. I've never tried to lose weight, nor told anyone that I trying. Yet when someone offers me a snack and I decline, half the time I'm told, "Oh, you don't need to lose weight!" As though the only alternative to being on a weight-loss diet is eating nonstop, and indiscriminately.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

OK, I think we're talking about two different phenomena. You're saying that thin women are assumed to be that way because of dieting - this happens, and although I'm not by any means underweight, I've experienced it as well. But I'm saying that thin women very frequently are... if not dieting, exactly, at least sharing in the popular chit-chat about OMG I was so bad, I had a piece of cake after lunch today. The great societal peer pressure for women to be on a diet reaches women who would actually look worse thinner. But yes, often enough, thin women are dieting. Women who are naturally slender are dieting to be unnaturally-even-thinner. I would hazard a guess that at most high-end, low-calorie-centric spa resorts, the average woman is normal-weight at most.

Britta said...

Hmmm...this is along the lines of the problem of having big boobs and a small frame. Yes, it is true that it is hard to find bras and the bras are more expensive, but it's not a problem that's going to win sympathy with 99% of the female populace. Here's my two cents on it.

1) health, if we mean living well into old age, is in some part heritable, and some people just have baseline better health or have bodies that can better tolerate modern living. A lot of things, cholesterol, BP, and to an extent diabetes are heritable, so having parents with high cholesterol is like having overweight parents--it doesn't mean you will be overweight or have high cholesterol, but you probably have to work harder at it than someone who has rail thin/low cholesterol parents. If you're thin and feel fine and energetic and healthy by all measurements at the doctors...I'm not sure how much you should worry eating chocolate cake for dinner, because you might just be one of those lucky bastards who can live til 90 on candy and cigarettes.

2) Weight and health are only loosely correlated, especially for skinny people, and habits are hard to change. If a skinny unhealthy person gets fat, then starts trying to get healthy and doesn't lose weight, my guess is she'll turn to lose-weight-quick type stuff before she'd accept having to run 5 miles a day and eat kale but still be 10 lbs heavier as a permanent lifestyle change. Anecdata, but all the skinny unhealthy people I who've put on weight have just become less skinny unhealthy people who whine about how fat they've gotten.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


"I'm not sure how much you should worry eating chocolate cake for dinner, because you might just be one of those lucky bastards who can live til 90 on candy and cigarettes."

Here's where my not being a doctor gets in the way - we all know that the issue with cigarettes is you can't know if you're going to be one of the ones who dies at 40 or who trots along till 90 until serious disease strikes suddenly, or doesn't. But how similar is candy? As in, if you know that what you're eating isn't making you fat, presumably there's still some health benefit to eating vegetables. Or maybe not - maybe this is what I tell myself because I do like vegetables, and end up spending a good amount on them.

But what you say re: habits might be a reason why the currently-thin but still-young would want to eat better. Future-oriented, but also vanity-oriented.

Britta said...


I agree that universally speaking vegetables are better than candy.* But some people can apparently live on sugars & saturated fats without the negative consequences that affect most of us, or at least not as much. I'm not a doctor either, so I don't know how common it is to have perfectly normal everything (fat content, blood sugar, cholesterol, BP, pulse, kidney & liver function, etc.) and suddenly drop dead from a diet-induced heart attack, but from what I gather it's pretty rare. This differs from skinny fat, or skinny-unhealthy, in that I think that shows in up in tests at the doctors office. Maybe 5 years ago, there was a study done in Denmark (I think) on the effect of a total fast food diet on people. The results were that results varied: some people showed minimal health and weight effects, while other people ate themselves into extreme poor health.

Maybe part of this is also a question of what is healthy: is it eating vegetables every day, or is it cutting out all refined carbs, corn syrup, gluten, saturated fats? I think my argument is stronger if you take a view that health is getting the proper nutrients but also eating what you want, rather than health as eliminating anything possible harmful from your diet.

*I'm sure someone, somewhere, is deadly allergic to vegetables and would dispute this, but I mean the point more generally.

Britta said...

Oh, I read her response. I also don't know, but sounds plausible, I've heard multiple reasons why light dinner is the way to go, but I don't see how you get from "eat a bigger lunch and smaller dinner" to "eat 600 calories a day." That doesn't seem like the same thing at all.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


For entirely subjective reasons, I'd like to think you're right re: health. I eat fruits and vegetables, but am not about to eliminate white flour, sugar, or cheese - poisons all, say the experts - from my diet. Not unless there were some compelling health reason to do so. If it's simply a matter of, that would make me underweight rather than normal-weight, no thanks.

"[...] I don't see how you get from "eat a bigger lunch and smaller dinner" to "eat 600 calories a day." That doesn't seem like the same thing at all."

Precisely. While I have trouble believing two otherwise identical people with identical diets, but one eating more at lunch than dinner and vice versa, would be perceptibly different weights, I could see that this sort of thing might impact energy level. The problem isn't the not eating at night, but rather the not eating, period.

I guess why this got to me is, I think Emily Weiss is incredibly talented, and influential in a good way. Not "good" as in saving the world, but I've absolutely been inspired by the ITG universe, Weiss's own fabulous haircut, etc. It's all just very appealing aesthetically, and the point of it basically is to provide inspiration. Voyeurism (the medicine cabinets of the glamorous) and inspiration.

But the lighthearted fun stops once the site, rather than suggesting highlighter makeup to 29-year-olds, starts urging 15-year-olds to starve themselves, because food is toxic. So yeah, I'll probably still read it, but I've stopped linking to it, because I'm not sure I want to be endorsing it.

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