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April 26, 2017

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The dirty side of clean eating.

  • Words: Anthony Nocera

Look, there are a lot of things I hate about the gym.

If I had to narrow it down to two things the first would be the couple who had their first Tinder date at the gym and have had all subsequent dates mid-workout. And they run little competitions to motivate each other and shout things like ‘babe, who can smash out the most squats in one minute’, or ‘who can get to fifty crunches fastest, love?’, and ‘who can be the most actively awful person in the gym at any given time’ (spoiler alert: there is no winner. It’s a draw between the both of them).

Anthony Nocera is a freelance writer

The second is the inspirational memes that flash up on the TV screens. One that always comes up says ‘you’re not given the body you want. You have to build it. Eat clean. Work hard. Play harder’.

I’m not interested in building a body for a lot of reasons, chief among them is that my body is not a fucking flat-pack cupboard.

But the main reason I think I struggle with the idea of building the body that I want is because sometimes I cut myself. It’s a symptom of my anxiety disorder. I rarely feel at one with the body I’m in. Renovations seem redundant when you’re just trying to hold it all together.

One of the side-effects of the anti-depressants I take is weight gain. It’s been a slow process that has led to me being a few kilos heavier than I’d like to be. Soft and marshmallowy around the edges. I look at myself, on my worst days, and think about slicing my stomach open and peeling the skin back so I can pull out everything that I hate underneath. I don’t. I haven’t. I know it would be foolish to do so.

One way I used to try and control my side-effects was through my eating. Specifically, clean-eating.

A few years ago, when I was at my worst, I drank a lot of smoothies. Banana, turmeric, kale and coffee blended together with lukewarm water. According to a website, it was an optimal combination to aid in digestion, immunity and detoxification.

I would choke them down, their chunks getting caught in my throat like vomit in reverse, and I would be confident in the fact that I was doing good by my body. And I was as thin as I thought I should be, but the notion of cleanliness rippled out into other aspects of my diet until I started to refuse to eat.

So, in a sense, the diet worked because I was clean. I was also starving and underweight.

Clean-eating is a part of the broader culture of wellness which is as insidious as it is ubiquitous.

According to food writer Ruby Tandoh, it’s just the same harmful diets wrapped in meme-friendly packaging, “For me, the biggest crime of the wellness industry is the way that its practitioners, as well as twisting facts and misinforming the public, have turned what used to be an explicit ‘diet’ into a ‘lifestyle’. When wellness is hailed as a ‘healthy lifestyle’, it becomes normalised. The weight-loss element is no longer brazen – it has become an implicit thing, hidden in plain sight. When people embark on these kinds of diets, then, it’s really easy for them, and those around them, to believe that this is a sustainable, and even preferable, way to live.”

And, yeah, wellness culture doesn’t cause anxiety nor does it cause eating disorders or, at the least, problem eating. But, as Fiona Wright said in her essay ‘There’s No Dirt in my Food’ for The Lifted Brow, fads like wellness and clean-eating are “implicated” in the development of unhealthy habits and relationships with food, “even if only as catalysts for disparate forces that were already in place”.

I was a vulnerable person who was, for lack of a better term, self-medicating through diet.

But, when we tie the food we’re eating to our intrinsic morality (clean, pure, well) and market that as a lifestyle through which we can “build the ideal body” and reach a point of self-actualisation, we need to ask ourselves just how responsible we’re being here.

And while participating in it with good intentions, we’re playing into the hands of an industry that makes its money from struggles like mine, and others which are much more serious.  It is, at best, a crummy project and, at worst, morally reprehensible.

As someone who is constantly tearing their body apart, wellness and building your body is something that’s irreconcilable. In fact, the quest for the latter accelerates the former. There is no concept of a body that is complete, nor should there be. A body is always changing and shifting. Always constructing and re-constructing itself. I say that to myself a lot when I look in the mirror.

I tell myself that it’s okay, you’re okay, you’re fine, and I eat, and I eat, and I eat because I want to, because I enjoy it and because I can and I say, hey, at least you don’t insist on taking your boyfriend to the gym.

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