Food Insecurity: Dieting as Ideology, as Oppression, and as Privilege

CSWIP2013bon_appetite_posterIt’s an exciting weekend for Canadian feminist philosophers as we all start heading to Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario for our annual meeting of the Canadian Society for Women in Philosophy. This year, the conference is being organized by one of our guest bloggers, Kate Norlock. And the theme is “Good Appetite/Bon Appétit.”

It’s especially exciting for me because I’m the Keynote Speaker!  It gave me a great opportunity to reflect about some of the things we’ve been talking about on the blog, as well as some of my research on more global issues like collective responsibility.

Today I thought I’d share the abstract of my talk (if for no other reason than to prove that Sam and I do other things besides blog and work out!).

If you’re in Peterborough tomorrow night, feel free to attend! It’s a public lecture and you don’t need to be a conference registrant to come.

Food Insecurity: Dieting as Ideology, as Oppression, and as Privilege

Feminists have been talking about the oppressive nature of the feminine body ideal since Susie Orbach’s Fat is a Feminist Issue came out in the early eighties.  In  1996, Susan Bordo wrote about “Hunger as Ideology.” She argued that women’s relationship to food, as depicted in popular culture and advertising should be “considered as gender ideology – that is, as specifically…servicing the cultural reproduction of gender difference and gender inequality” (Bordo, Unbearable Weight,  110). In short, it reproduced gender oppression.

It’s no secret that women, even girls, are still starving themselves in order to be thin, that photoshop has made the ideal even more unattainable, and that arguably more women are on diets than are not on diets at any given time in the Western world.

For at least two decades, however, multiple studies have shown that diets do not work.  Not only do they not lead to weight loss, but several studies show that chronic dieters are more likely to experience weight gain over the long run.  Yet we in the west cling to dieting as an ideology not to be questioned.

At the same time as we in the West are obsessed with diets and weight loss, on an international global scale there is a food security crisis.  At the World Food Summit in 1996, food security was defined as existing “when all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life” [from the WHO website, http://www.who.int/trade/glossary/story028/en/].  At this time in the history of the world, food security and the related issues of food justice and food sovereignty are serious development issues. In stark contrast to the obsession with diet and weight loss among the privileged populations of North America and Europe, the majority of the world’s people do not have the luxury of dieting for weight loss.

In this paper, I argue that analyses such as Bordo’s, which see the ideology surrounding dieting as largely oppressive, still capture a well-entrenched form of gender control today. However, dieting is also an ideology of privilege, bringing into sharp focus the disparate relationship people in different parts of the world and in different socioeconomic circumstances have with food.  Given the global concern about food security, we might think of dieting, whether successful or doomed, as an ideology of privilege, unique to those who have the means to make choices, even if that choice is to starve. 

I invoke the feminist concept of “intersectionality,” as well as referencing Chandra Mohanty’s work as an anti-capitalist, antiracist, transnational feminist scholar to shed light on (a) how the same ideology can have its source in and produce both oppression and privilege and (b) how important it is to understand how the global food economy connects us all, and implicates us all.

My paper will be divided into three parts. In Part I, I review some of the key contributions of the eighties and early nineties on the topic of women, food, weight loss, and body image. I argue that there are still good reasons to think of dieting and weight loss as an ideology that deeply affects women in the West.  In Part II, I broaden my attention to the global context, and argue that global issues of food security and food sovereignty throw the Western obsession with dieting into a different light, thereby suggesting that the ideology of dieting is steeped in privilege.  In Part III, I talk about intersectionality and the global economy to help understand the way privilege and oppression can exist side-by-side within the same ideologies, and to highlight the way the globalization of food production and distribution connects all of us in an unjust and oppressive system.

11 thoughts on “Food Insecurity: Dieting as Ideology, as Oppression, and as Privilege

  1. I agree. Quite fascinating. If ever you publish a paper or simply release your paper on these issues, please let us know how we can access it.

  2. Hope you can give a synopsis of this talk afterwards for those of us who won’t be able to join you. Congratulations on the speaking engagement as well!

    I recently did a review of a popular diet book that gave a rule to “Go to bed hungry.” I concluded my review of that point with a disturbing observation about many diets that seems on point with what you’re speaking about. “Going to bed hungry is not something we should aspire to. When you are aspiring to the lifestyle forced upon people who can’t afford food, you should really re-think your choices.”

    Simple hunger is something that can hold people back from achievement in life. How easy is it to focus on an important meeting, on your personal development, or your status in society when your primary concern is how hungry you are? I hope to see this low-calorie dieting dogma end soon. Hunger impedes our development, mentally and physically.

  3. Tracy, this sounds incredibly interesting. I would love to get the paper when it’s available. The concept of dieting as privilege never occurred to me before reading this, but it’s clear now that I’ve read it. It reminds me of how much the collective we take for granted.

  4. I’m still trying to wrap my head on “dieting” as a privilege concept. I get it. But it doesn’t work entirely in my family upbringing/history.

    What would be interesting to explore is to add the factor of literacy, food nutritional literacy and what does actually mean. Then the concept of “privilege” doesn’t seem so black and white.


    My mother has Gr. 10 level high school education in China. That’s it. She’s never taken further courses in anything since then. Not even an English course. That was her choice since immigrating to Canada in her mid-20’s.

    I have to say that most of her 6 children owe the foundation of our good health to her…..cooking/cuisine or can I say “diet”. Very few desserts/little sugar in our diet for first 20 years of our life, she skimmed fat off soups, cut off fat religiously from piles of meat, always made sure there were 1-2 veggie dishes for dinner in addition to some meat, rice, etc. We often had consumme light soups …it’s a Chinese traditional thinking…soup is good for you, etc. We enjoyed decadent food for only special occasions. My parents didn’t go beserk in their healthy eating ways.. they just never bought much of the junk for the pantry/fridge. Out of sight, out of mind. It works. 😀 We rarely had chips, pop. Only for special occasions. Good tactic. 😀

    My father is fluently bilingual and can read English. So he and mother did discuss nutritional stuff he got from papers. Mother must have gotten some info. from Chinese newspapers, etc. I dunno.

    But we didn’t “diet”. We were simply raised on traditional, healthy Chinese cuisine..with daily milk and other non-Chinese foods when I grew up Ontario. Also raised to eat only 80% full. That is the “traditional” way of eating. It’s not “dieting” at all.

    My parents were poor all along in Canada. But…I must say that it was combination of adherence to some whole foods cooking based on traditional (peasant) cooking and being too poor to buy pop, chips often, that kept us healthy. I’m trying to say that poverty, lower literacy level does not always equate to bad diet, unhealthy eating habits. Latter occurred after we left home and earned our own money. 😀 But we swung back and went to back healthier eating habits. Did I say “diet”??

    I actually consider having beem raised poor plus parents who cared about whole food cooking, as a “privilege” for a healthy start in life.

    I look forward to reading more your paper!

    1. That’s so interesting. It doesn’t sound to me as if they were absorbed into the “ideology” perhaps because they were already adults when they came to Canada. It sounds like you have interesting material for a “food memoir”!

      But yes, of course there are other ways of seeing privilege and oppression–I’m not straying too far from fairly glaring examples of each. Really it’s more nuanced than that, as your own story shows. Thanks for sharing that!

  5. I wish I could have been there for this talk. This is something I’ve thought a lot about as I work with my own class and privilege, and my own past troubled relationship with food. I saw a performance once about the issues facing girls around the world today, and the act about eating disorders was notable particularly because it was told from the perspectives of girls from privileged cultures, mainly because those from non-privileged cultures (which includes many regions of the US) don’t have the time/opportunity to focus on body image.

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