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Intuitive Eating

For the most part I’m all about the body positive movement and am happy it’s gaining such momentum. I’ve had two babies and honestly, though there are days I’m unhappy with my saggy belly skin, mostly I don’t want to look like I didn’t grow and birth two human beings. I love what Kerry Washington said: “My body is the site of a miracle now. I don’t want to be pre-miracle.”

I think it’s awesome that we’re starting to let people know that they can be truly beautiful regardless of their size and more importantly, that their value and self-worth are not dependent on their physical appearance.

I do take issue, though, with one of the popular phrases I’ve been hearing in this movement, and I’d like to talk about it.

I cringe when friends talk about “intuitive eating.” On the surface it’s awesome—it’s the idea that once you get over the “taboo” of eating unhealthfully—once you can stop feeling shame and guilt about your food desires, you will start to eat more moderately. It’s about “making peace with food” and its principals are great: You stop associating how you eat with good and bad behaviors, you tune out the diet industry and the food police, you listen to your hunger cues and your fullness cues, and you get active. Mindful eating is a great way to eat more healthfully and ethically, to eat in a way that is better for our bodies and the world, but the part that’s left out of most of the discussions I’ve seen about intuitive eating—that it happens within the context of our society—within capitalism.

To break down why this is a problem, it’s helpful to know a couple things about our psychological tendencies when it comes to food. We crave sweet things because sweetness evolved as our body’s reward for finding nourishment for itself when we were primarily hunter gatherers. We like calorie dense foods for the same reason. Studies on serving size show that we tend to eat all of a portion in order to feel full. If we eat a whole 10 oz bag of chips we feel fuller than we do if we eat 10 oz of a 12 oz bag of chips. The people who make and sell food know this, believe me. They aren’t the good guys, any more than the diet industry is. The idea that if we can just get out of the grips of the diet industry, then we’ll be making our own, unbiased choices about food, is unrealistic. We’re still being sold things, in ways that play on our biological tendencies.

It’s fine, still, if you’d like to use the idea of intuitive eating strategically, to help someone who is struggling with pressure about weight, and it’s ok to use it for yourself if it works for you. The problem is when we use it to dismiss the choices of others—those who choose to lose weight or those who enjoy working on their body as a form of self-improvement. I’ve seen promoters of intuitive eating say one should never intentionally try to lose weight while wearing a face covered in very heavy makeup. The idea that the diet industry should never be supported, while choosing to ignore the influence of fast food companies or cosmetics companies is hypocritical at best and racist, classist, ageist, and sexist at worst.

The appeals of a McDonald’s billboard are much more likely to sway a woman of color, forced by structural racism, classism, and sexism to work two jobs to grab that burger between shifts than they are to appeal to someone on their way home from an 8 hour desk job to a wife who cooked him a healthy meal. A mom who routinely works the “second shift” at home or who carries the sole burden of her family’s “mental load” is the one being sold a 380 calorie, 49 grams of sugar, pumpkin spice latte as a substitute for self-care. Makeup is seen as an obvious solution to the “problems” of aging and hormones—also things that bodies just do.

So what’s the answer? Ideally we would be free of the whole thing—the diet industry, the fast and processed food industry, the cosmetics industry—of capitalism. We could listen to our bodies’ hunger and satiation cues without the influence of anyone trying to sell us anything. We could choose what aspects of our appearance we care about—weight, skin, hair, without that pressure too. But we don’t live in that kind of vacuum. We live within capitalism and we’re all making choices all the time within that context—trying to balance what’s best for us and our families with what’s best for the world. It often takes compromise and surrender and just because someone makes different choices than we do doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve been duped. It isn’t helpful to assume they have been or to pretend that our own choices aren’t a compromise.

If we truly care about body positivity, about freeing people from the idea that they need to buy things to improve their appearance and thus their worth, we should be working toward moving away from that system, all of it. Incidentally this would rob people of one of their favorite arguments against body positivity, that overweight people tax the healthcare system that we all pay for, because outside of the context of capitalism, healthcare for all would be seen as a human right. While capitalism is still the word of the day, though, we can work toward awareness of its influence on us, in all realms, and then honor the different choices people make with that awareness.


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