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Does Being a Woman Mean Being On a Diet?

July 20, 2014

Note: This is one of a couple of posts with reflections on two memoirs I recently read by those who struggled with eating disorders:

 

 

Do you think that being a woman means, by default, being on a diet?

 

I don’t remember ever thinking this way when I was growing up, but then, my mom didn’t diet. I never thought that perhaps this puts me in the minority until recently reading two memoirs by those who had anorexia. Both authors equated womanhood with dieting, and after reading their stories, I could understand why.

 

Take Lori Gottlieb, who became anorexic at age eleven. Her mother rarely finished her own food, instead giving most of it to her husband and son. She instead “tasted” everyone else’s food, and Lori sometimes found her sneaking sweets in the middle of the night.

 

Lori also had a friend whose mother had countless diet books, and it seemed that everywhere she went, diets came up as a hot topic of conversation among women. “Everyone’s mom loves talking about their diets and how full you can get from eating lots of salad.” (p. 34)

 

In fact, it was so much the norm that she believed that this was “just how you have to eat when you grow up.” (p. 59) That’s why she found it so hypocritical when those women who barely touched their food (especially her mother) chastised her for not eating enough.

 

As Lori lamented: “I wish I was a woman already so I could diet and people would think it’s normal.” (p. 89)

 

Marya Hornbacher had a similar experience. Her mother hardly ate anything, taking just a few bites before declaring herself full, and usually sticking to salads. As Marya hit puberty and began developing, she started following her mother’s patterns, nor was she alone.

 

She noted: “Puberty is a perverse rite of passage in contemporary culture…. Girls, Becoming Women, begin to emulate the older women in their lives: they diet…. They pinch their bellies, announcing, ‘I’m not eating lunch today, oh, no, I really shouldn’t.’” (p. 52)

 

Marya took it to the extreme with bulimia and anorexia, and she eventually received treatment for her eating disorders. Once treatment stopped, though, she discovered that: “There are precious few women who eat normally. You get out of the hospital, look around at what other people are eating, and realize the nice little meal plan you’re on – though you need it to stay healthy – is not the norm. You start cutting back. And back.” (p. 217) She cut back to the point of needing more treatment and hospitalization, and nearly died.

 

Given their role models and influence of society, I began to understand why these girls went to such extreme lengths to shrink themselves. It made me reconsider my own upbringing and to realize that I have cause to be grateful to my mom by providing a different example.

 

Don’t get me wrong. She certainly paid attention to what she ate and was careful not to gain weight. But that stemmed from health concerns (diabetes runs in the family), and it’s a far cry from actively trying to lose weight.

 

Additionally, if my mom wanted something sweet, she didn’t sneak it in the middle of the night (that was more my style). She’d just have a little chocolate, or eat one of my dad’s baked goodies, or suggest that we go out for ice cream.

 

She could also go to town eating fruits and vegetables, but it wasn’t because those were “good” or “allowed” foods. She simply loved them so much that sometimes she ate a lot of them. Green beans, corn, fiddleheads, blueberries, raspberries, and the list goes on.


Only now, in retrospect, do I realize how lucky this makes me, to have grown up seeing a woman eating healthily and truly enjoying her food. And I have to think that for people like Lori and Marya, having such an example would make a positive difference, and help them realize that being a woman does not mean that you have to be on a diet.

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