Guilt is the new normal

The more I read, and the more I think, the more I'm becoming aware that the things I'm striving towards in recovery--a normalized, healthy relationship with food--don't exactly exist in our culture. Sure, they exist here and there, the occasional glimpse that temporarily restores my faith in the idea that such a thing is even possible.

But then I read articles that talk about Frito-Lay's new ad campaign geared at women,* I pause and begin to doubt that I have a chance.

Though Frito-Lay had often tried advertising snacks as guilt-free, this led to the conclusion that “we’re not going to alleviate her guilt,” Ms. Nykoliation said. “This is something in her life. So the question for us was, how do we not trip her guilt?”

Part of the strategy was to follow the success of SunChips by toning down the packaging and showing off healthy ingredients in the snacks.

“She wants a reminder that she’s eating something better for her,” Mr. Jones said.

So basically, the new premise in food advertising is this: our foods will make you feel less guilty for eating. What's next: an oxygen tank to make you feel less guilty for breathing? A toilet that makes you feel less guilty for taking a leak? What this tells me is that people (women in particular, since this is the segment of the population at whom the campaign is directed) are expected to feel guilty about eating. It's standard. Normal.

This has literally become normalized eating- and it's not my goal. I've lived this life for too long, and it SUCKS.

Jezebel had this to say about the new Fling candy bar, marketed as a low-calorie (well, lower anyway) indulgence, just for women. And in case you missed the girlie stuff, the package is pink and the bar contains sparkles**.

What the candy companies don't quite understand is that for those of us who truly love candy, we don't see it as gender-specific. And for every bar like the "Fling," which described as "a wanna-be Twix, minus the caramel," that arrives, the idea that candy is something women should feel guilty or careful about is perpetuated, leading to a public perception that some things are "bad" and "good" for women to eat. It's already happened with frozen dinners: you never see a man sitting down to eat a Lean Cuisine in a commercial; the men are always marketed a Hungry Man dinner, complete with "one pound of food!"

Even kids are being sucked into this madness, as highlighted by a wonderful NY Times article today titled "What's eating our kids? Fears about 'bad' foods," featuring our very own Laura Collins. With the health and obesity hysteria that's being promulgated just about, well, everywhere, kids are picking up on the messages and some of them take it to extremes.

Part of it has to do with cognitive maturity: young kids think in black and white. They haven't yet developed the brain functioning to discern between shades of gray. The other part has to do with the way some kids' brains are wired. Some kids will obsess about every detail, fearful of doing something "wrong," of being "unhealthy." Because unhealthy and fat are bad.

“We’re seeing a lot of anxiety in these kids,” said Cynthia Bulik, the director of the eating disorders program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “They go to birthday parties, and if it’s not a granola cake they feel like they can’t eat it. The culture has led both them and their parents to take the public health messages to an extreme.”

On a side note, the article does an excellent job looking at orthorexia, and whether it's a type of obsessive-compulsive disorder, or it's an eating disorder.

We've truly lost our grip on what's healthy. I would easily argue that a steady diet of fast food isn't healthy- you're missing fruits and vegetables that are very tasty and have lots of good vitamins and minerals. I'm not saying Ho-Ho's for breakfast every day. But jeez, if you wake up with a hankering for cold pizza and chocolate milk, remember, it's just food.

From Jezebel again (a different article this time, on servers being conspiratorial about dessert):

I choose to believe it's of a piece with the unhealthy relationship our society has cultivated between women and food, where matter-of-fact enjoyment has no place at the dining table. This is not the fault of any server - most of whom are not even guilty of conspiring - but rather of centuries of creepy marketing, a pernicious diet industry, and six seasons of Sex and the City. In answer to your question, yes, I will have that piece of pie. A la mode. And without a side of knowing winks.

Eating is not a crime. It's not a moral issue. It's normal. It's enjoyable. It just is.

*h/t Sarah for the link
**Okay, ew? Sparkles? Really? It might be safe and all, but still...
***But I bet I could get a 10 year old boy to try it and check to see if his poo is sparkly later.


Mica said...

This is one of the only reasons I'm *grateful* that I've had an eating disorder-because I can strive towards a healthy relationship with food that is not the norm in our society. When I was first starting to recover I always said I just wanted to be "normal" about food, and I would get angry that other people could goon diets and such and I couldn't. But then I realized that these supposedly normal people are miserable around food. This is what they've always known so they aren't trying to change it, but because I've experienced it to such an extreme, I want something so much better than just "normal."

Libby said...

Sparkles??? Oh, my... oh, oh, my...

Do you ever find, in your quest for a "normal" relationship with food that you will occasionally border on an "orthorexic" relationship with food? That's a big one I fight all the time, especially with my food allergies. My sane mind knows that food is just food. But my ED-mind says, "Well if you're going to eat, you ought to at least be virtuous about it..." Oh, the battle, how it rages.

Yesterday when "the" coworker apologized to us all for eating a candy out of the candy dish, I had had enough, and I said to her, "My god... eat the candy. It's OK. It's not like you go home and eat Kit Kats for your entire dinner. It's not like all you sit down to at breakfast is a bowl of Kit Kats. It's OK for you to have one from the candy dish. It's OK for you to have TWO from the candy dish!" She says, "Oh, no! I eat really healthy for dinner! And breakfast, too!" *sigh* I think she missed the point.

Gwen said...

What a wonderful, insightful post. I am often frustrated in my recovery by the attitudes towards food that are all around me. I posted a blog recently about the pervasive negativity that women in general feel and voice about their bodies and eating. One of the lines was, "You ate a piece of cake. You didn't murder a baby." Honestly, I liken recovering from anorexia in our society to an alcoholic trying to resist drinking while LIVING in a bar. It's just hard to be "normal" about food when the world around is essentially eating disordered. Reading your post has inspired me to keep striving for a healthy balance.

sarah said...

The best thing that I can contribute involves words that aren't my own. Said Kristin Hersh this morning on Twitter: "kids and i found a box of "no guilt" crackers...we're stockpiling them and looking for "no shame" and "no fear" crackers"

At least there can be some humor in the screwy way that society works.

Cammy said...

These marketing campaigns are almost laughable. These new sparkly things are small, thus they have few calories. They actually have MORE calories, and probably LESS flavor, than a fun size version of any "real" candy bar. Just like the 100 cal pack marketing blitz, it's completely aimed at taking advantage of people's paranoia and misconceptions.

Sad Mom said...

George Will's column today is relevant to this discussion though when I read it my uppermost thought was "What does George Will have to do with food attitude?" I read political columns for opposing views on things. However - the point was that societal attitudes regarding food and sex have swapped. We are made to and do feel guilty and remorseful about what we eat yet are more and more tolerant of sexual behaviors.

It's easy to get sucked into the food guilt conversations because it's the rhythm of social small talk these days. Women look at me like I've grown another head when I say food is not the enemy.

Carrie Arnold said...


Oh. *That* co-worker. :) I have plenty of OCD stuff around food, but it's not anything that would ever be construed as orthorexia. It's either OCD counting or just vestiges of the eating disorder. I have no illusions that my obsessions have anything to do with health--though I used to tell myself that. I just obsess over stuff.

Sad Mom,

Sadly, growing a second head is probably more normal than giving up the guilt around food.

Just Eat It! said...

I'm kind of on the fence about orthorexia. I wonder if it should be considered a separate illness from anorexia. I see so many similarities, although orthorexia seems more ritualistic. I know plenty of anorexics who would only buy organic and "natural" foods because they wanted only the purest of foods in their diet.

It always irks me to see things on magazines and websites that have "guilt-free" recipes. Why should the non-diet equivalent of this recipe cause guilt? Food shouldn't be something people feel guilty about. My friend who doesn't have an eating disorder said to me the other day that she felt guilty for eating mac 'n' cheese. This was disheartening because she's a beautiful girl who shouldn't have to feel guilty about some cheese and elbow noodles.

A candy bar sparkles? It must be a vampire!

Peregrine said...

I'm so glad you put a link to that NY Times article on your blog--I was hoping you would see it. I didn't realize the author was a friend of yours! The article was fantastic, and did a great job, I thought, of articulating the myriad different voices on different sides of the "good food/bad food" discussion--voices I think we are all WAY too familiar with. Honestly, reading some of the reader comments on the article was like tracking the progress of my eating disorder, from virtuous, uncompromising orthorexic fanatic to the more moderate voices I'm trying to internalize...and of course regarding with astonishment the "sane" voices of people who obviously don't have any moral associations with food at all, and who use it for what it is, fuel and pleasure.

Thanks as always, Carrie--this, like every post, is a total gem.

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I'm a science writer, a jewelry design artist, a bookworm, a complete geek, and mom to a wonderful kitty. I am also recovering from a decade-plus battle with anorexia nervosa. I believe that complete recovery is possible, and that the first step along that path is full nutrition.

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