The Most Potent Sedative in Women’s History

“A cultural fixation on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty, but an obsession about female obedience. Dieting is the most potent political sedative in women’s history; a quietly mad population is a tractable one.”

– Naomi Wolf

This statement, coined by Naomi Wolf in her 1991 book ‘The Beauty Myth’, is still relevant as ever. It’s crazy to think that these words came before the tiny sample sizes of the nineties and noughties. It got a whole lot worse, Naomi, and even though we seem to be emerging from other side of that phenomenon, many women are still restrained by the subliminal power of diet culture.

Sedated by self-image

Dove, who have been campaigning for women’s self esteem since 2004, commissioned The Dove Global Beauty and Confidence Report in 2016. The results are miserable: 9 in 10 women will refrain from important life activities when they don’t feel good about how they look; 9 in 10 will stop eating or risk their health; 5 in 10 will not be assertive or stick to a decision when they are unhappy with their appearance.

To an alien species these numbers might be shocking, but as a women living in the world I can believe it. I have definitely cancelled plans or been hours late because I couldn’t find a way to appropriately disguise my body. I’ve risked my health in many ways. I’ve been silent in group discussions and even turned down a job interview when my acne had flared up and I wanted to avoid offending people with my face. All of these things sound excessive, but when you live in a world that places female beauty on the highest pedestal, many of us learn to make sacrifices if we don’t fit a certain standard.

The problem is with this is that the standards we are taught to strive towards – an ‘ideal’ weight and classic beauty – are vague. That’s the point. These goals are subjective, they can’t be measured and they can be refuted at any time by someone trying to gain power over us. Donald Trump, for example, frequently mocks women for their weight and appearance as a way to dismiss their allegations or question their status. It’s no wonder that women are reluctant to speak up when this sexist brat is one of the most powerful men in the world. However, if we continue to internalise opinions like his, nothing will change.

Sedated by hunger

The term ‘hangry‘ is now so well-established that it is defined in Oxford Dictionary as “bad-tempered or irritable as a result of hunger”. However, when it comes to preaching about dieting and intermittent fasting, the mental impact of food restriction rarely gets a mention.

In 1944 – presumably a time before ethics committees – a group of men took part in the Minnesota Starvation Experiment to investigate the mental and physical effects of starvation . Participants had their food intake halved to around 1600 calories over a period of six months. Although there’s various ways that this 75 year old study might not be relevant today, the results are fascinating. Men described the time in between meals as “a burden”. They became increasingly irritable, particularly around mealtimes. They lost enjoyment for former hobbies and desire for former partners. They developed habits to distract themselves from their hunger and struggled to focus, make decisions or remember appointments.

The participants were also described as developing an obsession with food. One man would be up in the night researching cookbooks and another had saved recipes for every possible variation of custard pie. One became preoccupied with frozen food lockers and another with the physiology of nutrition. They spent hours planning how to best savour their next meal. Anyone who can’t apply this to the present day has obviously never tried to diet.

These men went into the experiment knowing that they would be deprived in order to measure the influence of starvation. The difference with diet culture is that it advertises dieting as a realistic, attainable way to live. Women are regularly encouraged to go hungry with no warning of the consequences. We blame ourselves for our preoccupation with food, when it’s the diet formula that should be brought to scrutiny. Living in a constant cycle of restriction and bingeing makes our incredible minds clouded and distracted. Quietly mad.

It’s hard to smash the patriarchy on an empty stomach

The issues that women face as a result of dieting are not an unfortunate side effect, but a carefully curated method of keeping women in line. When we’re starving ourselves, we’re distracted. When our value is reduced to our appearance, we second-guess our worth. When we let our size limit our lives, this misogynistic culture thrives off our obedience.

Diet culture is pervasive and hard to escape – none of us chose to live a life of body dissatisfaction, but we’ve learned to put up with it anyway. This is exactly why we need to reject it. For ourselves, the least we can do is push through the negativity. We need to question our feelings, and identify who they serve. Have you ever benefited from your self-hatred? No? Have you lost out on moments, opportunities and money? For years? Without reaching the ideal that you thought would make it all better? The diet industry is so successful because it makes lifelong customers – you’re set up to fail.

On a wider scale, rejecting diet culture will not only help us – it will change lives for women everywhere. Existing with the ‘flaws’ we’re taught to hide is an act of solidarity to everyone else who thought they had to change. Every time I question myself, I open my (carefully curated, body-positive) Instagram feed. I see Tess Holliday‘s sass, Charli Howard‘s Agent Provocateur campaign or Megan Jayne Crabbe‘s pep talks and I remember that I deserve more than a life spent comparing myself to a fabricated ideal. We all do.

I started writing because I know that every one of us deserves better. I hope that as our voices grow, it’s the diet industry that is finally put to rest.

Follow me on Instagram for more.

6 replies on “The Most Potent Sedative in Women’s History”

I want to thank you for writing this article. I shared it and it got 1 like on my facebook from my social group and it makes me realize how much we need more people writing about this topic. We need to challenge the cultural norm of dieting and body dissatisfaction. We are living in a culture that perpetuates a thin ideal through those who are benefiting from it and by those who are oppressed by it.
I had my ahha moment when I watched the Minnesota Starvation experiment in a college course on nutrition and eating disorders. It has been challenging to stay quiet after I took this course and continued to read the Beauty Myth, Health at Every Size, Fat is a Feminist Issue, etc that further educated me on this system that puts such emphasis on weight as a moral issue.

Thank you, and please keep writing!

Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s