Diet: (1) What a person or animal usually eats and drinks; daily fair.
(2) A special or limited selection of food and drink, chosen or prescribed to promote health or a gain or loss of weight.
I am stunned that Merriam-Webster can offer such a neutral description of this very loaded concept.
Three separate readers have recently asked me whether I’m supportive or not of women who are focused on dieting and losing weight. Can dieting fit into the re-picturing women project?
My immediate, knee-jerk reaction to these questions is that dieting is bad, bad, bad. Re-picturing women is about accepting and representing real women of all shapes and sizes. Seeing ultra-slim models on the internet, on television, and in magazines certainly contributes to girls and women’s dissatisfaction with their bodies. However, have I been on a diet? Yes. For most of my life, in fact. And, when I’m not dieting, I feel like I should be dieting.
Yet, dieting tends to be a big part of many women’s lives.
I recently polled some of my readers to get their perceptions on dieting. And, yes, several people came back with extremely adverse reactions, similar to mine.
“Restriction, hunger, thinness, struggle, no food,” came to mind for Lindsey Moser.
Pam Gervais described it is “deprivation, torture.”
Meghan Davidson from Life Refocused said, “UGH. That’s my first thought. And then other very negative associations come to mind–restricting, withholding, deprivation, lack of abundance, punishing.”
“Two words that immediately come to mind are ‘deprivation’ and ‘temporary,’ reflected Elizabeth Thomas of Life in Pencil.
Emily Kayzak chose words including, “Control, judgment, sexism, perfection, waste of energy,” to describe dieting.
Others didn’t have quibbles about dieting, per se, but they had strong opinions about the best approach to dieting.
Maura Tanabe noted, “When I think of dieting, I think of something I always think about around January to lose weight. I find that extreme changes never work for me. The word usually has a negative connotation for me because I feel like it is a huge commitment for a short period of time. Dieting really should mean slowly changing your eating habits to include foods/drinks that serve a positive purpose for your body. I have heard numerous times lately that what you put into your body should serve a positive purpose.”
Similarly, “I think the whole concept of dieting is warped. I know a lot of people who go on extreme diets for weeks before a vacation, shed lots of weight and then put it right back on (and then some) when the diet is over. I associate times in my life when I was dieting with over-depriving followed by over-indulging. It’s not sustainable. Instead of going on a diet, I prefer the idea of healthy eating as a lifestyle that involves an ongoing commitment to buying fresh, organic food without additives and eating reasonable portions. I like and enjoy eating fruit, vegetables, salads and drinking water. But I also indulge in french fries or chocolate sometimes, and I think that’s fine, too. I don’t count points and I never weigh myself, but I always know when my body is getting sluggish from too much junk food and not enough exercise. If I haven’t been eating healthily enough, I try to tip the balance back in favor of carrots over candy bars,” noted Melissa Dowler of the Long Haul Project.
Offering a similar approach, Elizabeth Thomas noted, “In my mind, ‘dieting’ needs to boil down to fundamental lifestyle changes that speak to our day-to-day choices and carries us through our lives. So many diet plans seem to work in terms of meeting the goal of losing weight fast, but they rarely seem healthy and sustainable over the long haul. I’m especially leery of diet plans that eliminate entire categories of food, often based on reductionist reasoning.”
Still others added important caveats or re-frames for dieting.
Taking a “playful” approach to dieting, Lesa Hoffman suggested, “My approach to ‘dieting’ this year has been to think of it as a game – how full can I get and still stay under the number of calories I should have in order to create a deficit? This has meant thinking outside the box in terms of food choices in order to find more ways to get protein, so from that perspective, it’s actually somewhat enjoyable because I end up eating new things… but then on occasions when I do eat my preferred carb-laden food I invariably feel guilty about it, like normal, which is not so fun.”
Offering a man’s perspective, my brother, Ben Gervais stated, “The thought that I am trying to cognitively reposition in my head on the subject is: It is not about weight loss or body image, or anything external for that matter. Instead, dieting means simply eating foods in a manner that will support my greater goal. That greater goal is to shape my body in a way that will allow me to do things I desire to do, such as to run faster miles, perform household chores like heavy lifting with more ease, and be more creative in the bedroom ;). I can’t get to this point without a healthy lifestyle that incorporates proper food intake. This philosophy is something a close friend of mine at school, a former Army Ranger, is a big proponent of.”
Importantly, one of the goals of re-picturing women is to help women live more fully in their bodies. Although I want women to love their bodies how they are right now, I don’t want to encourage women to just act as if they love their bodies or to just sit still if the universe is prodding them to do something with their bodies. It is a very touchy issue, though. Every woman’s experience is different. My hope is that the re-picturing women project can honor the unique narratives of all women and help people realize that each story is to be respected because it represents a real experience from a real woman. One of my readers recently realized that she was carrying around layers of extra weight to protect herself from the hurt of serious losses she had experienced. Another reader wanted to stop using food to stuff what she was really feeling. And a last reader simply wasn’t happy that she wasn’t fitting into her clothes anymore. Do I support these women making life changes that are helping them to live more fully, be more alive, feel like their bodies belong to them? Hell yes!
Is dieting good or bad? Well, the answer is probably…it depends. It depends on what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. It depends on whether it helps you feel more in touch or alienated from your body.
What has dieting revealed to you? Please weigh in on this weighty issue!