I am overweight. I have been for some time now. Not ridiculously overweight; I can still buy clothes in Topshop (just), fit into plane seats, and cross my legs without too much effort, but I am overweight. This is the point in many online blogs where I would write that today is the day that changes, throw in some buzz phrases such as ‘clean living’, ‘gluten free’, ‘5:2 diet’, and announce a new found respect for my body. I am not going to do that.
I am incredibly wary of ‘clean living’ as a concept. I know it has worked wonders for many people, and if it works for you then great. As independent consenting adults you have every right to embrace any lifestyle you choose, just as I have the right to reject it.
Firstly I believe ‘clean living’ places a lot of time, attention and focus upon the consideration, preparation and consumption of food. Speaking as someone who can easily devour an entire bag of popcorn in front of the TV without realising it, I fully appreciate the need for some mindfulness to be applied to our daily eating habits. However, stocking cupboards with only organic, rainbow coloured, in season vegetables is a full time commitment; and one that anyone with compulsive tendencies should take as a warning sign.
I don’t believe that anything should be the main focus, or motivation of your life – rather that it should be made up of many smaller, less time consuming passions and interests.
Though many will disagree with this comparison, I see many similarities between the compulsive eater who wakes to raid the cupboards, and spends every second of her day contemplating her next fix; and the ‘clean eater’ who prepares and meticulously logs each and every guilt free creation. Both appear to be allowing food to run their lives, and are handing the power and control back to their eating habits.
The language around dieting and body image is impossible to ignore, and society’s persistence to undermine women’s self-worth and confidence is insidious. I am by no means immune to feelings of dissatisfaction with my body. I have bought into the cookery books, diet plans, weekly magazines, and Instagram feeds, as much as any other woman.
I remember reading in one self-entitled ‘clean living’ book, the advice, never to use food as a reward. Upon first glance this seems like common sense, a motto we all enthusiastically buy into. However when I considered the statement more carefully I found myself asking, why not? We regularly reward ourselves with an hour of trashy television, or a glass of wine, after a hard day, so why not a bowl of ice cream? We know none of these things are exactly good for us, but as long as it doesn’t become too frequent of an occurrence, or something we rely upon, then where is the harm?
Many praise the ‘clean living’ movement for shifting the focus away from calorie counting and the thankless pursuit of size zero. Instead this campaign promotes ‘strong not skinny’ and ‘graceful eating’ over portion control. There is much to be applauded here, although my personal experience is that society still places ‘skinny’ above anything else.
My lowest adult weight was around 4 years ago, when I was living in Birmingham. I hated my job at the time, and ended up resigning from it after just six months. I was living in a chaotic, often unfriendly house share, and was embroiled in a toxic relationship. I was miserable. A combination of stress, feelings of depression, and the fact that the tiny kitchen was always in use, meant I lost weight. I also couldn’t sleep, had bags under my eyes, and terrible skin. I stopped wearing any make up and didn’t care about the clothes I wore. Yet every old friend or acquaintance that I saw at the time, told me I looked great. It is amazing what people will overlook for the admiration of weight loss.
But let’s say the tables are turning and that the aspirational figure for women has changed. Aren’t we just setting up a different, unobtainable goal, in place of the old one? There is as much likelihood of me achieving the old size zero pipe dream, as there is of me becoming a toned gym goer, with an athletic shape and pronounced abs.
At the end of the day we are still saying that there is one ideal for women of all shapes, sizes, ethnicities and ages to try and squeeze themselves into. The only possible moral high ground that the ‘clean living’ movement can take is that the final outcome is arguably healthier than the outcome of relentless, restrictive dieting. Whilst this may be true, the road to get there is paved with habits, expectations, daily commitments, and a foundation of dissatisfaction, which are disturbingly familiar to us all.