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18th March 2015

Food Politics: The Underlying Struggles of Social Eating

Ellie Gibbs opens up the prevalent issue of health, eating, and conciousness in today’s society

Does anyone else have this problem?

As a 21-year-old female, I know I don’t need to ask that question.

I opened up honestly with a friend recently about this topic—expressing the struggle that is every day in the life of the food-obsessed. Constant calculations of when I’m next going to eat, how can I make sure that it’s healthy, what is my backup healthy eating plan, would it be better to eat now at uni something averagely healthy or to wait until I get home, or would that be too late to digest? Should I just not eat?

In a world where every food on the planet is available to us in a nearby supermarket, the suggestion that we be health-conscious is not easy to dismiss. We have access to the ingredients, and thus no excuse not to subscribe to this lifestyle.

How about when we’re in uni 12 – 8, and there is no time to prepare a home cooked meal? Do we ‘cheat’ and buy a wrap or meal deal from Sainsbury’s? Not really enjoy it because we feel too guilty as we check the scientific nutritional breakdown and wince at the numbers in red? I can’t help feeling that despite the numerous benefits of a healthy lifestyle, the national obsession may be going too far.

Things I have done in the name of ‘health’:

– got distracted in 70 per cent of lectures while planning nutritious meals

– obsessively scoured menus in advance to avoid choosing an unhealthy option in a rush/under pressure

– felt unable to enjoy ‘bad’ foods due to ‘guilt’ association

– felt disappointed in myself for eating ‘bad’ foods, also associated with lack of restraint, willpower and weakness

– eaten three slices of cake to replace meals for fear of calorie overdose

– panicked at the thought of going to a restaurant socially—no one wants to be the girl with a salad, or get plate envy, or spend the entire evening thinking about food and weight when the real purpose of the event is the interaction (which is supposed to be enjoyable).

The last one is tricky. I’m sure people experience varying levels of food anxiety, and I have felt envious of those who seem to have got it down—nonchalantly ordering what they fancy and eating as much as they feel like. In public, I have previously felt obliged to choose something that doesn’t say ‘I’m on a diet’ and even points more towards the ‘I don’t give a shit about weight loss, look at me feast’. I would then eat more than my stomach was asking for, thus enlarging it and my lack of confidence.

So what is the solution? Maybe menus and quick conveniences need to universally cater for the health-conscious. Maybe.

Maybe we all just need to chill out.

I think the real issue here comes back to the notorious size-zero Photoshop perfection that is forcefully present across advertising.

Does anyone feel good when they see these images? How many people look at clothing posters in shops, try on the model’s outfit and think “yes, I look like that” in the changing room mirror? Bodies come in so many shapes and sizes and the world needs to be more aware of that. Health is an important factor in life, but it stops being healthy when the need for it becomes a mental obsession.

While I’m still personally trying to find the balance with this, I’d like to share some ideas for maintaining a healthy and nutritious mind as well as body:

– Enjoy every meal, whether it be healthy or not—you need food to survive and you shouldn’t feel guilty about that

– You are your own harshest critic, no one is judging your ‘imperfections’ in the same way as you; positive people look for positive things

– Work on your personality over your image. It’s easier to change a personality flaw than an appearance based one

– Not being a certain size or weight does not make you inadequate

– You are beautiful, and happiness comes from within

These are very important things to remember. Of course I believe in healthy eating most of the time, but I also think we need to be assured that it is okay to have something that does not necessarily satisfy the recommended quota of our daily amount.

As long as you are a healthy weight for your height and make sure you apply a reasonable amount of restraint at the urge to eat entire trays of brownies, tubs of ice cream and third helpings of chips, you should be happy. A basic knowledge of what’s good for you and what isn’t should be held on to, but the moment food starts affecting your confidence, social presence and ability to focus on other tasks, then it is time to rethink.

Why are so many of us aiming for this elusive ‘perfection’? Confidence is the biggest form of attraction, and it can hide a world of complexes than can eventually lead to their eradication. So you have excess fat on your thighs, is anyone else going to change their opinion of you based on that? If they are, do you want to be associated with them? Same goes for stomach, arms, hips, chin, neck, ankles, etc.; the list of potential body anxieties is virtually infinite.

This is a socially constructed anxiety which should not exist. The problem of obesity and binge eating cannot be ignored but the negative effects of the opposing side are not as openly discussed. Something non-existent can actually hold us back in life, make us sad and even loathsome of ourselves.

We should stop aiming for perfection and view that it’s already there, right now. Look in the mirror and see a bump or a bulge? Embrace it, it’s you, it’s alive and natural and not stopping you from doing anything. It doesn’t make you any less of a person than the photoshopped model with a thigh gap and a flat stomach. Not to say that she isn’t beautiful too.

That said, if we want to choose something less calorific at a restaurant, we should not feel embarrassed to make that choice. The friendly urges of ‘go on, treat yourself’ actually exacerbate anxieties with regard for the need to please others whilst caring for the self. We should all be more open about this topic and I would not be surprised to find that many of our consciences are alike. Having the perfect body is not a competition; there is no prize. Live for yourself, make your own choices and be comfortable with who you are and what you decide to do.

We’re all beautiful for who we are, not what we look like. Let’s be proud of that and get on with the more important things in life.

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