Content warning: This article contains discussion about body issues and eating disorders
A familiar conversation: You ask someone – friend, lover, acquaintance, family member, etcetera – if they would like to share some delicious item of food with you, only to be greeted with the increasingly common phrase, “Oh I shouldn’t, I’m trying to be good”. How many of you have been a part of such a conversation in the recent past? I’m guessing that if we were in a classroom right now, there would be a sea of hands raised in agreement. But what does this perception of food and health mean for us as a society? Are we really at the point where we judge our morality on how physically healthy we are?
Doesn’t that seem kind of messed up? These days we are bombarded with the idea of conscience laden eating, with phrases such as ‘guilt free’ being plastered across everything from pasta recipes to ice-cream and moral labels such as good, bad, naughty and virtuous being used to refer to what we choose to put into our bodies. The health industry is one which seems to constantly be trying to guide us towards a perfect lifestyle, offering us “superfoods” and informing us how much exercise we should be doing, what we should and should not be eating, and why the way we want to live is just not good enough.
More and more we are being conditioned not to accept our intuitions about our health and to instead follow the guidelines of the latest study or celebrity fitness blogger, who we are led to believe understands our bodies far better than we ever could. Simultaneously, our trust in our own senses and needs is degraded, while we are flooded with a barrage of conflicting information. At the end of the day it seems that no matter whose advice we follow there will be someone else telling us that we are doing it wrong. This leads to the conclusion that there must be a “right” way to be healthy.
Can anyone see what is missing from this insidious perception of individual health? That’s right – the individual. What our health industry seems to be largely missing is the fact that health is immensely personal and is not something a one-size fits all mentality can be applied to. When wellbeing is moralised individuality is eliminated, leading to a widespread disassociation of personal needs and desires, an effect which can have extremely dangerous outcomes on mental health and identity. As a person who is struggling with, and recovering from, an eating disorder, I have seen this disassociation first hand in an eating disorder ward at one of our local hospitals. As a direct result of messages from the media and the internet, I have experienced in myself – and I have seen in others – a complete loss of trust in physical sensations, with my needs only allowed to be fulfilled when they are endorsed by someone else. Desires and behaviours are labelled as good or bad, based on the latest piece of information read or heard.
No doubt these are extreme cases, but they are not as far removed from the norm as one may think. In fact, this obsession with, and moralisation of, health is so prevalent that it has even spawned its own unofficial diagnosis: orthorexia nervosa. It seems that general beliefs about food, exercise and health are blurring with mental illnesses, with even perfectly healthy people’s consciences prickling when deciding to watch a movie instead of going to the gym or to enjoy a piece of ‘guilty’ cake at a friend’s birthday party. While health is undoubtedly important it is also holistic, and encompasses more than just the physical, unquestionably linked with wellbeing and – crucially – happiness.
When how we choose to go about achieving our own personal version of health becomes the focus of morality and judgement, we run the risk of losing sight of what our real needs are and how we can achieve them. While there are people who may want some professional guidance to achieve optimum wellbeing, for the most part we are the ones who understand what health feels like for us and what we need to do to function at our best. So, next time you or someone else goes to refuse something they want because they are ‘being good’ perhaps take a moment to question whose concept of good is being considered. Is it really yours?