Digression: the dangerous sell

So, this is a food blog.  Most of the time, that means cooking, eating, and then running to my computer to tell the Internet all about it.  I just made some killer Father’s Day eats yesterday that I’m dying to write about.  But they’ll have to wait a bit, for a new kind of post.

Sometimes food is about more than pots and knives the perfect touch of heat.  There’s also culture, and politics, and environment, and a whole host of thorny and complex issues around the act of eating in the United States.  I think about these issues a lot.  It’s only fair that I write about them, too.

So here is the first of what I’ll call “Digressions.”  These are musings about the world just outside my kitchen, and what happens when it finds its way in.

And, for my first trick…a rant about yogurt.

(Disclaimer: potentially triggering subject matter after the jump.)

Okay, so this isn’t actually about yogurt.  It’s about yogurt advertising.  Specifically, this:

Unsurprisingly, the National Eating Disorders Association has prevailed on General Mills, the parent company of Yoplait, to pull the ad.  There have already been excellent discussions elsewhere on the intarwubs about the implications of the ad itself, the decision to pull it, and General Mills’s explanation–that it “never occurred to anyone” that the internal monologue of a woman weighing a slice of cheesecake against a day of exercise and watery vegetables might, you know, upset some people.  I read the essays.  I read the comments.  I watched the ad on YouTube.  I scowled, shrugged, and moved on.

Then I saw it again on TV, in the middle of some Food Network program or other, and it sent a cold shock through me.  Here it was, tucked cheerily between an animated dog selling baked beans and a promo for a new reality show called Extreme Chef–a gut-wrenchingly crystalline illustration of the dialogue I’ve had with myself for years.

I’m lucky.  I’ve never had an eating disorder.  Even through all the years of confusion and frustration over what food was doing to my body, I never tipped over into full-blown disordered eating.  But I still spent years locked in that back-and-forth argument: questioning my lack of self-control, berating myself when the howling sugar cravings became too strong to ignore in the middle of the night, hating my body as it inexorably plumped no matter what I put into it.

I’m familiar with those bargains the Yoplait woman is trying to strike with herself, because I tried to strike similar bargains.  For months at a time, I ate a bag of Chex Mix every day–and nothing else.  But, even as I did this, I knew it was bad.  I knew it was damaging my body and putting my long-term health in jeopardy.  I’ve spent years unlearning the urge to punish my body for betraying me.  Only now am I starting to be able to look at a glass of orange juice without having that black veil of uncertainty drop suddenly over my field of view.

And now here’s this thin, pretty, unthreatening woman–a woman like all the others in all the commercials I ever see–using that same ubiquitous, slightly humorous tone of voice–so casual, so practiced, as if this internal monologue were so commonplace and frivolous that it should be funny to anyone listening in.  And then the final little exchange: You’ve lost weight.  Oh, thanks.

This is supposed to be funny, the commercial says.  Cheesecake is unhealthy, but ha-ha, look at the lengths she’ll go to to get a piece.  But oh, don’t you know, losing weight is easy if you just eat yogurt instead.  Especially if you’re already thin.  No gymnastics required.

I only wish it were that easy.  I wish the urge to bargain, to berate, to question would just cease.  I wish I could quell the notion that only draconian measures will get me to the body I need to have.  I wish I didn’t need to lose weight; I wish I’d never gained it all in the first place.  I wish I hadn’t spent so long playing so badly with the cards I was dealt.

And I wish advertisers weren’t so damn aware of it.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Digression: the dangerous sell

  1. Kate

    Personally, I am fascinated by how gendered a product yogurt is – not once have I seen a yogurt ad that didn’t directly target women and didn’t directly focus on managing weight through calorie counting. I’m sure there’s a graduate thesis on this topic somewhere…

    As for food and women’s health, I can only imagine the long-term damage that we women do to our bodies and spirits by feeling we have to play the agonizing, one-woman tennis match that Yoplait portrays so blithely. I find the assumption that health for a woman is all about skinniness and calorie intake wearisome, uninspired and harmful, and to see it put forth like it’s some cute little quirk women inherently share really torques me off. Food, by definition, is nourishment, and bodies need to be nourished in order to function properly. That being said, I don’t understand how we (women, Americans, eaters, whatever) can subsist on this notion that being a healthy woman means subscribing to self-imposed famine and guilt-tripping. Even at a biochemical level, joy and pleasure are just as important one’s well-being as anything else, so why shouldn’t they count as much as calories when we stand in front of our open fridges and make our choices?

    Oh, and nevermind how that artifically sweetened, nutrient-deficient, non-fat yogurt will do little to sustain the “good,” skinny woman throughout her day. If anything, she’ll likely find herself craving more food an hour or two after enjoying her first snack, which defeats the purpose of cutting back on calories in the first place. One wonders how much she’ll have to supplement her diet with caffeine to keep her stamina up, a move with no negative health consequences whatsoever, I’m sure. But she’s thinner than her already thin coworker, so what does it matter, right?

  2. Kate

    P.S. Three cheers for speaking on this topic so eloquently, Zoe. 🙂

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