Why I don’t talk about food choices or weight (yours or mine) anymore

shhhhh-clipart-2It’s been a long time coming, my personal prohibition against talking to people about food, diet, weight loss or gain–yours, mine, or someone else’s. Several years ago, in the early days of the blog, I wrote, “‘You’ve lost weight, you look great!’ isn’t  a compliment.” I outlined a bunch of reasons, from the implicit insinuation that you used to look “not so great” to the association of losing weight and getting thinner with looking better to the reinforcement of the idea that it’s okay to police other people’s bodies.

I still believe all that, and along the way I’ve added a deeply aspirational commitment to body neutrality to the mix. It’s not only because loving my body is not a likely scenario for me, but also because, as I said in my post about body neutrality, “when I’m neutral I’m not passing judgement either way. It just is.”

So I’ve been pretty committed to cultivating a non-judgmental stance towards body/weight and food choice. And I’m realizing that it’s almost impossible to be non-judgmental and at the same time congratulate people on weight loss and “good” food choices. Praise about either makes it seem as if we’re keeping an eye on how the people around us look and monitoring their food choices.

But sometimes other people invite that kind of thing, right?  They’re vocally and publicly trying to lose weight (maybe even keeping a blog about it) or make the “right” food choices (maybe even sharing their choices on social media). In those cases, is it okay to jump in and tell them how great they are?

I feel like I’m in a minority, but I want to say “no.” It’s still not okay because it perpetuates two ideas that I just can’t abide. First, it perpetuates the pernicious idea that we should associate weight loss with looking better. This is something that is drilled into our psyches to such a degree that I can already hear some people saying, “but doesn’t losing weight make people look better?” or “I know I would look better if I lost weight.”

People, that’s a social ideology that we’ve been indoctrinated into through years of conditioning. Thin, lean bodies are still the dominant aesthetic ideal in this part of the world. And that ideal is as harmful and oppressive as ever.

Not only don’t I want to applaud my friends for their weight loss efforts–and any friend of mine will tell you I really offer no comment on their bodies. I hardly even notice, to be quite honest. A co-worker of mine told me last week that she’s 7 months pregnant and I didn’t even notice she had a bump until she pointed it out.

Now, what about food? I like talking about good food that you or I enjoyed, sharing recipes, and trying new things. Also, I’m vegan (for ethical reasons), so if someone wants to engage me a conversation about why I choose to live a vegan lifestyle, I’m there.  So it’s not that I will never talk about food.

But I do not talk about what I eat in relation to diet, weight loss, food restriction, and so forth. Awhile back I made the mistake of suggesting on the blog that I might experiment with sugar elimination. It was a mistake for all sorts of reasons and it opened me up to attack. Why? Because a feminist fitness blog has got to be the last place you expect to hear about food restriction or elimination, or any idea that hints of diet.

This came up in relation to the book Sam and I wrote (coming in Fall/Winter 2017). The publisher has mentioned a few times that they want me to include some detail about my food choices. But this feels seriously out of keeping with my values around this issue.

Not only that, I have come to see that when people talk about their diets as if following a specific way of eating is somehow virtuous, that attitude of self-righteousness annoys me. I’m probably not alone in that. Also, don’t we have better things to talk about than the fact that we ate a slice of pizza last night (gasp!) or that we declined a slice of key lime pie (so virtuous and strong!)?

Back when I was a graduate student, I spent a disproportionate amount of my time talking and thinking about diet, weight loss, weight gain, eating and cheating. I don’t know how I ever got my dissertation written considering how I obsessed about these things. And now I feel as if I’ve had my fill of it.

So if you want to talk about your diet or those pounds you want to lose, you’ll have to talk to someone else because I have chosen to “zip it” when those topics come up.

What about you? Do you engage in these conversations at all? Reluctantly? With relish?


23 thoughts on “Why I don’t talk about food choices or weight (yours or mine) anymore

  1. I absolutely agree!! If I can avoid it, I never ever comment on people’s body shape, either in a positive or negative way. I know that sometimes people seek praise for their weight loss, but you know what, I’m not going to get dragged into that just to indulge them if it’s against my believes. Yes, if they ask, I will say it, but something along the lines of “yes you look great, but you did before too” (or something similar). Truthfully, I don’t really notice subtle changes in people’s bodies anymore. The less importance you give to something, the less you notice it. This is also very important to me because I want to be a positive examples to my nephews who are surrounded by people who complain about their bodies and talk about diets all the time. :/
    Regarding food/nutrition, I have a similar stance. I don’t talk about what I eat and/or why and I don’t comment on other people’s choices. However, sometimes it’s hard to stay silent. For example, my best friend has recently started demonizing certain food choices, she often complains about eating “garbage” or “unhealthy”, or eating too much etc. (side note: I have noticed that the more she talks about “healthy eating” and avoiding sugar, the more she complains after about eating too much). When she does that, I don’t know what to do. I usually respond with just uncommitted “hmph” or an awkward laugh. I could tell her I don’t want to talk about this and I know she would respect that, but on the other hand I want her to feel like she can talk about anything with me. I also do not want to be patronizing and talk about how dividing foods into good and bad is not such a good idea; besides, I think this is one of those things that one has to experience for themselves or they won’t get/believe it.
    Phew, my comment has gotten very long haha, but as you can see I have strong feelings about this. You live and learn!

    1. I agree that it’s tough because people invite us in to these conversations and we don’t want to get on our high horse every time. It sounds as if you have a similar stance as I do and we grapple with the same challenges (complicated social interactions!) when these topics arise! Thanks so much for your comment.

  2. In an autoimmune disease support group we often discuss diet and weight because often patients run into a physician’s reluctance to treat if they are overweight and certain foods make some people feel worse, like sugar. However, I think I will bow out of those convos from here on because, after thinking about your perspective, I am concerned that some readers may feel judged or less than.

    1. Possibly in some medical contexts it might be a necessary conversation. But I think it’s really hard to separate out that type of conversation from the kind that’s full of those internalized assumptions about how thin is better and sugar is bad (for example). And it does tend to pit the “virtuous” against the “sinners.” It’s just so hard to keep track of motives and motivations. It’s fraught, that’s for sure! Thank you for your comment and good luck with your group.

  3. I love this post, but I also want to just add in there that we need to still make room for talking about food choices from an aesthetic point of view, or we will miss out on an important domain of human pleasure. I want to be able to describe the fabulous Cambodian dish I had and where one can get it and why it was worth eating, for example. This may seem obvious, but I think that in practice it is VERY hard to disentangle the purely aesthetic value of a food choice from its at least implied health and ethical values, especially since many of us don’t experience these as entirely separate. But I think it would be tragic if we couldn’t talk about how aesthetically great various foods are and share tips about how to obtain them and when you might want them. Doing that without folding in healthism and moralism is hard, but important.

    Last night when I got home after 25 very stressful hours of travel I was super cranky. I critiqued my sweetie’s food choices from an aesthetic point of view (which is already not cool) but I could also just feel that judgmentalness about the more general ‘worth’ of what he was eating, nutritionally, etc., was folded into my aesthetic attitude. Not good; I feel bad about it. But this stuff is hard.

    1. Absolutely. That’s exactly why I said: “I like talking about good food that you or I enjoyed, sharing recipes, and trying new things. Also, I’m vegan (for ethical reasons), so if someone wants to engage me a conversation about why I choose to live a vegan lifestyle, I’m there. So it’s not that I will never talk about food.” Bring on the passion for good food! I love how much you raved about the Cambodian food on the weekend — simple pleasures add a lot to our lives.

  4. Yes! I really appreciate this. As someone who has struggled with eating disorders in the past, I avoid diet talk as much as possible. While I don’t have much of a problem with food anymore (so happy to say that!), I find diet talk to be a very slippery slope for me. It’s like those old ways of thinking are just sitting there waiting to be set in motion again, and someone going on about calories or “eating clean” or “being bad” because they ate cake just sets me off. It sometimes takes me a few days to get back to (my) normal.

    I often find feminist conversations about diets especially triggering, maybe because I have a harder time dismissing them as uninformed about feminist critiques of dieting and body size. I have to avoid posts about food on this site for that reason. And I often unfollow friends on Facebook because they post about their diets. I end up missing important things in their lives but my life is so so much better sans diet talk!

    That being said, I do love eating and will gladly talk about how delicious your dinner was last night or the best meal you ever had.

    1. What you say about feminist conversations about diets being especially triggering really gave me a lightbulb moment! I just realized when I read that that I too have the thought “well, if they’re talking about it it must be okay.” I’m really sorry that some of our own posts (like mine on sugar elimination, which I never did do, by the way!) have had that effect on you. I can see that so clearly now. Thanks for your comment.

  5. I think it matters a lot where you’re coming from. I have highly idiosyncratic food issues, so it’s been a real process for me to figure out a satisfying, basically healthy food pattern (eg, good energy level, good gut health). I’ve had lots of conversations with people trying to solve similar problems, and figuring out which issues drive what needs is inherently interesting as well as helpful. Food (and for that matter, movement) is a huge part of human experience, with many dimensions; cutting some off from discussion can freeze us in a bad place.

    Pervasive cultural messaging that leaves people feeling triggered is vile, and talking openly and supportively about how food really does operate is one way to push back against judgmental prescriptiveness.

    1. For me, it’s too hard to have the “right” conversations with the “right” motives (unless I’m just talking about how delicious the food is or why I love that restaurant). I worry that it’s just a covert way of telling people what they should and shouldn’t eat (in the name of “good health”). I’ll leave those conversations to you and others who have more clarity around their own reasons for engaging. I don’t find a lot of people wanting to engage about those topics in that way. Thanks for your perspective.

  6. As a trainer, I despise the way our gym’s sales staff stresses weight loss instead of fitness as a means of selling memberships. Any time a gym member tells me that she has lost X pounds, I say, “I bet you feel stronger and have gained so much endurance and confidence!”

    1. I love that shift in emphasis. So important for fitness professionals to be contributing to the reorientation of attitudes about this stuff. Thanks for your comment.

  7. Great article but like a few others I also have mixed views. For me health and good eating is so much more than simply losing weight. I have always suffered from an array of weird and wonderful medical issues and I think food plays a massive role in how we feel and disease. I have a scientific background and it frustrates me enormously when I hear scientists going on about how people should not be cutting foods out without medical proof. You and only you know your body best and what foods your body works best with. In this context, I think discussing food is very helpful. I think health is so much more than eating for weight loss and it really excites me how this is starting to gain momentum now and I am such a firm believer. Happy for you to disagree but that’s my 2 cents worth. Thought provoking though! 😊

    1. I know there are different views on this. Every body is different and in the end people need to make their own choices. The cultural obsession with losing weight and choosing the “right” foods dominates to such a degree that it is hard to talk about “health” without people equating that with right and wrong foods. Thanks for your comment.

  8. This is really interesting because I’ve been thinking a lot about my own body recently once I finally noticed that the weight I had lost in the last year really showed in my face. I’ve always bee skinny, but I dropped about ~10 pounds once I started working out more. And guess what – I started to get complimented more. This is really difficult to process because on the one hand, it’s nice that the people in my life want me to feel good. On the other hand, it has completely reinforced the idea that I am more attractive when I am skinnier and have more visible muscle. I have no idea what the solution is, but it’s been on my mind today so I wanted to comment 😊

    1. Thanks for you comment. It illustrates exactly what the issue is. It’s nice to be complimented but not so nice to have our good looks associated with being skinny.

  9. Oy. Tough one. I teach teenagers (young women and men) and I do suggest sugar elimination – because it is a toxin and feeds tumors etc., because it spikes insulin, and can cause moods swings and problems with insulin – not because of weight gain. I counter my nutrition talk with images of women who move their bodies in expressive and wonderful ways. Women of all shapes and sizes. I believe the issue of appearance is a difficult one for feminists. Being seen as an object is a problem, but it is also human nature to want to adorn ourselves. The key might be – for whom? I have also wondered (because I am ignorant on the matter) if “skinny” as a form of adornment is a white woman’s problem? Seems that women of color have a greater range of beauty? Which I would think allows them to have a better sense body health?

    1. You raise lots of good questions about normative femininity and the limited range of “acceptable” feminine appearance (and its relation to race).

      To the first point though: I would never promote the view that sugar is toxic. That is just not backed by science: “In short, sugar is a substance meant to be used strategically and enjoyed occasionally, not avoided at all costs. Don’t worry, parents, a little sugar binge tomorrow is not as scarily detrimental to your kids’ health as many articles on the Internet would have you believe.

      1. True enough. I’m aware that lots of people think of sugar as toxic etc. But “conflicting evidence” usually points to inconclusive science.

  10. Food talk I engage with other people tends to stem from restaurant experiences and exploring cultural spins on food. I certainly do make food cuisine comparisons…I love talking about creative, delicious food. My blog does occasionally touch upon food..from these perspectives.

    My mother did and still does cook healthy. She didn’t spend much energy telling us vs.just simply preparing and giving us food, with expectation that we ate or tried it at least. However my nutritional habits are partially learned from her as a child…just knowing what is too rich/fatty, that a meal needs to be balanced out with veggies. She didn’t tell us every wk. nor month.

    It was a lot by developing/influencing our palate –so with children there is occasionally remark or explanation. As long as it’s not to punish the child.

    It’s been over a decade since I talk about my cycling with work colleagues, etc. Only if asked, I will. No point talking about what I did. Who cares, but me.

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