The words we use to talk about food and our bodies matter.
“A cultural fixation on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty but an obsession about obedience.”—Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth
It was over a bucket of fried chicken from a New Orleans gas station that I made my decision.
I was on a boat in the middle of a lake with a bunch of other people. We were meeting up with other boats, lashing them together, drinking cheap champagne and the champagne of beers—and I was really enjoying that fried chicken. It had that crisp exterior you want, that juicy interior you need. A woman I hadn’t yet met, about 30 years old, meandered over.
“Oh, my God, I had two pieces of that chicken. I’m such a fatty. I didn’t go to the gym this morning or anything. I feel so guilty.”
I paused, mid-bite. “Hi, I’m Andrea,” she said, sticking out her hand.
A little later, I was on the bow of the boat with Andrea and another stranger. Unprompted, this new woman told me about her weight-loss travails, and how disgusting she felt that day, before introducing herself as Patty. (Names have been changed to protect privacy.)
Andrea owned her own Pilates studio. Patty ran marketing for a major national nonprofit. Apparently, neither of these facts merited mentioning in their introductions. They were either suffused with guilt about food and their bodies—or they were just making conversation.
I’ve been a food writer and editor for 11 years. I’ve worked at massive national publications where articles we published would get millions of views. And whenever it was up to me, the phrases “guilt-free” and “guiltless” were verboten. “Guilt-Free Zoodles You Can Feel Great About” wasn’t going to make it through on my watch.
It was an instinct borne of feminist leanings–I grew up reading Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth, Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, and Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch—and an awareness that writers and editors have real power. We decide whether to parse a headline as “delicious brownies” or “guilt-free brownies.” We envision ourselves as having an ongoing conversation, a kaffeeklatsch, with our readers. It’s part of why many of us become writers and editors; we want to connect with others using our words.
I’m a New Englander and tend to keep my opinions to myself around new people, but that day on the boat, after a second glass of bubbly, I popped my cork. Why, I asked Patty and Andrea, did I keep meeting incredible women who introduced themselves in such a self-deprecating way? As soon as I asked, both women were on my team: Both confided that they wished they didn’t try to bond with other women over guilt, but that it was a social instinct.
I recently moderated a panel at a conference for food world professionals (listen to the full recording and see slides here) in New York City. I’d tired of seeing my colleagues in the food and nutrition industries using words like “guilt-free recipes” and “guiltless food” in headlines and stories. I spoke to a registered dietitian (my friend Christy Harrison), an editor who feels as strongly as I do (Faith Durand of The Kitchn), and a seasoned magazine executive (Jacklyn Monk) about whether the words we choose matter. I wanted to know if it was a dog whistle, this language, keeping women and other marginalized members of society down.
Harrison mentioned a 2008 study finding that three out of four women between the ages of 25 and 45 struggle with disordered thoughts, feelings, or behavior toward their bodies and food. “Ten percent of them had clinically diagnosable eating disorders,” she said. When I asked her if “guilt-free” in a headline could affect some of her eating-disorder clients, she replied, “Obviously, not everybody who reads that is going to be negatively impacted, [but] in terms of clinical research on people with eating disorders and disordered eating, the demonization of some foods and the elevation of others is a big part of the picture of eating disorders.” It was, she said, “sort of a steady drip of disordered messaging about food and nutrition. It absolutely plays a role in making some people vulnerable and exacerbating disordered eating that’s already there.”
Though eating disorders affect people of all gender identities, the brunt of the impact is on women. Why do we use language that can result in real physical pain?
I’m publishing this piece on a site that has used the phrase “guilt-free” hundreds of times, but I give a lot of credit to my Health.com editors for deciding to run it. When they asked me to write for the site regularly, I told them about my desire to never make a reader feel guilty, and of my curiosity about the Health at Every Size movement. (More on that on Health.com in the coming weeks.) I also give this publication a ton of credit for its body-positive Instagram.
When I’m reading this sort of essay, right about now is when I feel a compulsion to do an image search of the person writing it. I need context: Is she in a larger body or a smaller one? Old or young?
The decision I made on the boat, though, is not to talk about my weight or shape anymore. Not to other women, nor to men who want to tell me about a new diet that’s working really well for them. Not even to my own mother, no matter how well-meaning she is when she asks if I’ve lost weight. My body is not up for grabs conversationally. Aside from being female, it’s not relevant to the work I do.
Eating disorders are dangerous. Roughly a third of people with anorexia nervosa, bulimia, and binge-eating are chronically ill for life or die from their conditions. As editor Faith Durand said during our chat, “Language implies an arbitrary moral high ground.” Let’s not let a steady drip of poorly chosen words result in a flood for those among us who struggle with food, guilt, and their bodies.
One of the things I learned from my panelists was the definition of “healthism.” As Harrison explained, “It’s treating health as a moral obligation. It shows up in our wellness culture in so many different ways. Holding out health as the highest moral value… treating people as bad or wrong if they don’t take charge of their health.”
I’m happy to see I’m not the only journalist looking to disentangle pleasure from guilt. Kat Kinsman wrote a great piece for Cooking Light, and RD Cara Rosenbloom unloaded on “guilt-free” as a food marketing tool for The Washington Post.
As Wolf writes in The Beauty Myth, “The thin ‘ideal’ is not beautiful aesthetically; she is beautiful as a political solution.” If we women weren’t talking to each other about guilt and counting calories and the gym and dieting, what would we spend that intellectual energy on? Running for office? Starting businesses? Raising our families? Helping each other?
Isn’t it time we found out?
Alex Van Buren—follow her on Instagram and Twitter @alexvanburen—is a Brooklyn-based writer, editor and content strategist whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, Bon Appétit, Travel + Leisure, New York Magazine, Condé Nast Traveler, and Epicurious.