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,].  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.

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