I am a recovering diet coke addict. I grew up with the stuff, it’s been a hard habit to break, but the more and more I abstain, the easier I find it is to say “no” to it when I am going out, and order water, lemonade, tea or milk instead (This is the point where I observe that servers look at you funny if you are a childless adult who orders milk at a restaurant by itself, and always feel the need to ask if I mean I want coffee with milk. I don’t drink coffee) I feel this is a great step in the right direction for me, health-wise, but I noticed that when I first began ordering milk or lemonade, I could hear my mother’s voice hissing, “Think of the calories!” in the back of my mind. Sometimes I can still hear it, such as when I slice some cheese to put on a sandwich, when I add a spoonful of sugar to the top of a bowl of fresh summer raspberries, when I reach for the bread basket at a restaurant, or when I order dressing on my salad rather than requesting a side of balsamic vinegar. Since I am about to move to Victoria, a town rich in restaurant variety and deliciousness, I feel now is the time to address an important topic or two: Calorie Essentialism, fat hatred, and health.
Calorie Essentialism is what I described above: It boils down to thinking that diet sodas are healthier for you than milk, that the low calorie option is always the healthiest option, and that how healthy you are can be measured in a ratio of how many calories you burn versus calories you consume, better known as “Calories in, calories out.” This mentality is often seen among dieters and writers of articles warning the public of the dangers of restaurant food, which often incorporates language which suggests that calories are heavyweight boxers sneaking around in your salad or steak and lobster in order to ruin your life: “Packs a whopping xxxx calories”, “loaded with xxxx calories”, “weighed down with xxxx calories” are just some examples I can recall. What’s most interesting is that, the identity of the almighty calorie remains mysterious and inscrutable. I once asked someone what they thought a calorie was. It’s a unit of measuring energy, if you’re unsure. But the person didn’t know this, and stammered for a moment, before blurting out, “It’s what makes your butt huge!” That, I think, is more of a credit to my Jewish genetics than anything else, by the way.
Calorie Essentialism is dangerous. It promotes a falsehood which not only tricks a lot of people into thinking that sipping on a diet coke and eating iceberg lettuce is the ultimate in health, it also demonizes foods which are healthy, nutritionally sound and delicious, and discourages people from making their own food and savouring it. I’m not the best cook on the planet, but I love cooking, and I gain satisfaction from eating what I cook. I have no idea how many calories are in my caramelized balsamic onion turkey cheese crepe, but it fills my belly, gives me energy, and tastes like Heaven. The dark side of Calorie Essentialism is that it actively discourages you from making your own food and eating for pleasure. Every single morsel needs to be accounted for, and with packaged food, that’s much easier to do, hence the ubiquity of Lean Cuisine and other frozen brands of diet food.
The most curious aspect of Calorie Essentialism though, is how the adherence to the calorie restriction becomes associated with moral purity. Dieters who subscribe to Calorie Essentialism describe their days in terms of whether they were “Good” or “Bad” based on what they ate, not whether their day was enjoyable. They silently pat themselves on the back for passing up the cookies a coworker brought in, and then fixate on their goodness the rest of the day, ironically, thinking more about the cookies than anyone who ever ate one ever will. They also put themselves on a higher level than the cookie consumers, considering their decision to be more virtuous than theirs. A whole artificial hierarchy of morality is built around food and deprivation.
What’s this have to do with anything? Well, I’ve been feeling the pressure on to lose weight, both internally and externally. Externally, it comes from mostly my mother, who has taken my move to Victoria as a chance to remind me of how nice it would be if I were skinny and pretty like all the other people in Victoria. But honestly, the biggest pressure comes internally, from myself, and my own issues surrounding my body. The sad truth is, fat hatred most often comes from within. I’m very aware that I’m fat. I don’t need my mother, the internet, or a doctor to be aware of this. I am aware of it because I am a double-digit pants size, because the first number on the scale I see is “2”, because I have difficulty finding clothes, because I am told I “can’t get away” with wearing a two-piece bathing suit, having a pixie cut, or wearing shorts, and because when I tell people my real weight, they gasp in horror, admitting that when they picture that particular number, they picture someone much fatter than I am, someone who is at the point of being immobilized (That’s a topic for another day eh?) Being aware that I am fat, I’m also aware of how my fat supposedly says something about the state of my health. I know what people assume about me, and the sad thing is, after a while, you start to believe it. I know I sure do sometimes. This has been one of the many things contributing to my depression, along with unemployment. The funny thing is, when you’re depressed, you tend to stay put, because nothing seems worth getting up for, and your energy levels plummet. That means that my health suffers due to my depression, which is not caused directly by my being fat. It’s caused by people’s attitudes towards my fatness. That is the true poison. In their effort to push me to health, my health deteriorates.
I am trying to break the cycle of depression and internalized fat hatred. It’s not easy. Part of it was getting rid of that nagging voice in my head whispering “Think of the calories” and putting down the diet coke can. Now, I try to enjoy food based on its own merits, not whether it is a “fat burning antioxidant mumbo jumbo woo woo superfood” type of food, and not whether or not it has a caloric content under xxx. Second, I’ve been working on breaking out of the depression over my body by appreciating its beauty, its abilities, and its limitations. Because of my scoliosis, some exercises are beyond my grasp, but gentle, joyful movement helps me focus on how my body feels, not how it looks. It’s a work in progress, especially when your body is fat due to reasons beyond your control, such as genetics, disability, poverty, allergies, sickness, medication, or anything else. But I think it’s worth it. Hatred is never healthy, whether against yourself or other people’s bodies. When you break out of your own fat hatred, you begin to ease away from judging others’ bodies. I think it goes without saying that this is a lot like learning to accept your disabilities if you have them, and learning to not be judgemental of other people’s bodily or mental abilities.