We live in a society full of peer pressure, unrealistic media and role models, and other messages telling us about how we should live our lives and what standard we should strive for.
It has been well discussed for example that the constant images of models put unrealistic expectations on young women and are fundamental to some of the pressures which cause women to become anorexic and insecure about their body image.
Another aspect of this cultural trend has become to be known as ‘food shaming’. With food shaming “Like a vegetarian censoring a meat-eater, a food-shamer will criticise someone who doesn’t meet her definition of ‘good.’ “ People are feeling a lot of pressure to eat the ‘right’ way, and torn between that and a multitude of other pressures to do the opposite.
In a health crisis like we happen to be in now, many people would suggest food shaming is one way of moving people to more healthy behaviours. It’s a bit like smoking, where various factors (including being less economically reasonable or convenient) have caused a gradual cultural shift making the habit less socially acceptable, has meant that smoking rates have dropped. Smoke shaming happens more openly, and smokers respond with 70% of them saying they want to quit.
However many would say any method which causes people to feel guilt and inadequacy is not the right way to achieve this. I would agree. Other people would then say that food shaming is what is causing the rise of eating disorders like Orthorexia. This I’m not so sure about.
Orthorexia is on the rise, no doubt. Or at least the recognition and labelling of it is. I have no doubt that the way society is evolving is at the heart of why people are increasingly obsessed with eating healthily. But I think we need to be careful about the distinction between cause and effect.
I have a theory that true Orthorexia is not at it’s core caused by external influencing forces.
Take me for example. In my case I was a stable, emotionally in control, high achieving student. As I explain in my book, after first becoming passionate about health, the driver of my obsession was my values. My personal standards. My desire to be better, be superior. To live longer, and be happier. I truly believed in ‘you are what you eat’ therefore I had to eat perfection. I wasn’t doing it for anyone else. I was doing it entirely for myself. People would joke about me, and I would simply spur myself on to the next level of restriction. This relates to the articulation as this website politely puts it “It begins innocently enough, as a desire to overcome chronic illness or to improve general health”. The word ‘innocently’ fails to recognise how ‘righteous’ I was – but the principle if the same. And many of the extreme diets which are linked to Orthorexia, like veganism, are also very linked to a righteous and moral approach to how one should live their life.
Then there is another overlapping theory I’ve discussed with various thought leaders; people need control. Although this wasn’t the obvious issue for myself, I have recognised, that when a perfectionist can’t seem to predict or control many aspects of their life, being able to control your dietary intake is a very powerful idea. You can find resilience when going through tough times by reassuring yourself, that you can control your body.
Both if these ideas are internal to the sufferer. The fact is whilst some people believe food shaming causes the rise of eating disorders and Orthorexia, in the case of Orthorexia, often the Orthorexics are the ones are the heart of carrying out the shaming. Those who feel the external pressure to conform to healthier ways, just like a yo-yo dieter struggles to maintain a low-calorie diet, will relapse into their old ways.
Orthorexia is an obsession. Food shaming exacerbates the problem all round, and is not a great idea – no one should be judged or made to feel inadequate because of their dietary choices. But it is not causing people to be OCD about food. People are doing that to themselves. (Or more likely society is indirectly causing people to do that to themselves for a multitude of reasons related to their psychological environment and persevering beliefs).
As people learn to understand Orthorexia better I hope this distinction will become clear. But if there is one thing everyone can agree on; it’s that food shaming, and similar pressures society puts on people, are a problem. No one should be shamed into eating better, it should happen because people want to take action. Then on the flipside if the result of taking action results in healthy eating ruining your life, my bet is the answer remains inside.