The Trouble  with “Wellness” by Katey Zeh


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During the holiday season we’re bombarded constantly with contradictory messages about how we ought to take care of our bodies this time of year. Over the early winter months there is a collective expectation and even glorification of indulging in all kinds of ways–eating, drinking, spending money, etc. But if we dare enjoy ourselves a bit, we’re then on the receiving end of the diet and fitness culture propaganda that capitalizes on our time of indulging by telling us we need to clean up our eating and get (back) to the gym–assuring us that 2018 will be the year when we finally achieve our “dream bodies.”

Oftentimes the coded language of “wellness,“ “clean eating,” and even “health” is rooted in the same problematic framework that toxic diet and fitness culture espouses: your best self is your thinnest self. Strict binary language used to describe food–processed foods high in fat or sugar are “bad” while fruits, vegetables, and whole grains are “good”–attributes moral weight to what we eat. Beneath this is the myth that our health outcomes and the way that our bodies look are completely within our control. If we simply commit to “healthy” habits, we can become “good” (thin).

Our cultural emphasis on health centers primarily on individual success stories. Despite the research that says diets don’t work, we are obsessed with the personal weight loss journeys of celebrities and participants in shows like The Biggest Loser. They convince us that despite what the science and data say, we too can find a way to rise above and to become another exception to the rule if we only try hard enough.

These stories distract us from the economic realities that shape our access to health. Instead our focus ought to be on systemic injustices that prevent those who are poor from accessing grocery stores stocked with affordable, high-quality produce; safe green spaces to enjoy the outdoors; and quality health care services. Public assistance programs, like SNAP, for those who are food insecure often do not cover the full cost family’s monthly food budget. This is especially difficult for parents of young children who are forced to make tough decisions about how they spend their benefits. Often this meaning that they buy what is least expensive and most palatable to their young children, like shelf-stable processed foods that lack the proper nutrients needed for a well-balanced diet.

Through initiatives like food banks and free hot meals, many faith communities are able to help fill these food gaps that individuals and families living in poverty experience. But in some instances religious communities are actually culpable in reinforcing problematic diet and fitness culture, and a few of them even benefit monetarily from their participation in it.

The Daniel Plan, created by evangelical pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church and The Purpose-Driven Life, is based on a passage from the book of Daniel in which Daniel is said to have resisted the king’s rich food and wine and instead ate only vegetables and water. After ten days of this vegetarian diet, Daniel is purported to have looked healthier than the other young men who ate the royal food. (Note that the emphasis is on his appearance, not the state of his health.)

At its essence the Daniel Plan diet is nearly identical to practically every other diet–eat less food, move your body more–but with the addition of “relying on God’s power” throughout the process. If you fail to lose weight on the Daniel Plan, then you’ve not only let yourself down. You have also disappointed God. What faith communities ought to be doing is challenging the narrative that our health is completely within our control and that we can be “good” (thin) if we only work hard enough and trust God enough. We ought to be working towards systemic change that will make the pursuit of health accessible to all, regardless of income.

This topic was the focus of our latest episode of the Kindreds podcast entitled “Bodies, Health, and Wellness.” You can listen on our website or find us on iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play, or anywhere else you listen to podcasts.

 

Katey Zeh, M.Div is a strategist, writer,  and speaker who inspires communities to create aRA82more just, compassionate world.  She has written for outlets including Huffington Post, Sojourners, Religion Dispatches, Response magazinethe Good Mother Project, and the Journal for Feminist Studies in Religion. She is the co-host of Kindreds, a podcast for soul sisters. Her book Women Rise Up will be published by the FAR Press in March of 2018.  Find her on Twitter at @kateyzeh or on her website kateyzeh.com

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Categories: Body, Embodiment, General, holiday

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20 replies

  1. Yes, I agree with the following statement: “We ought to be working towards systemic change that will make the pursuit of health accessible to all, regardless of income.” Seems (to me) that one of the hardest concepts to get across to people is how “systems” either make things possible or not for a population. Books that claim to deliver the secret to living successfully (in lots of areas) proliferate so it’s no wonder many of us feel that to achieve our goals, all we must do is to just master the steps involved. It’s somewhat akin to “blaming the victim.” However, that’s a fine line to tread.

    Liked by 1 person

    • We are so focused on the individual that the systems are hard to see, especially if they do not affect us on a daily basis in explicit ways. We’d rather continue to tell ourselves that we can be the exception–if we only try hard enough. No wonder so many people are frustrated with their bodies!

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  2. I think the author successfully drilled down to the insidious marketing motivation that drives so much of the wellness and self-help, self-improvement scene. We are all dying & none will get out alive. Time to celebrate who we are, ectomorph, endomorph, mesomorph or mondomorph! And if we do decide we’d like to change, it is unlikely that anything short of a complete life-style and spiritual re-boot will do the trick.

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  3. The reality of poverty is very relevant – thank you for including it. I find capitalism so depressing, superficial, and exhausting!

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  4. Katey, thanks for all this truth. When did our best bodies come to be our thinnest bodies? This has got to be during the second half of the 20th century. There were millions of thinnest bodies during World War II, but then it seemed as if (at least) Americans fattened up during the 1950s after we started getting TV commercials about household appliances like refrigerators in which to store all the food we were able to buy during the 1950s. I still think the 50s is when the Troll-in-Chief/Abuser-in-Chief thinks America as at its “greatest.” Is that the “great” period that the Daniel Plan also echoes?

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    • I also think it has to do with the FDA guidelines around fat changing. Low-fat, high carb diets are linked with lots of health risks, including cardio-vascular disease. Gary Taubes has done great work on this issue.

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  5. Having taught Women’s Studies from 1975 -1991, I can attest to the fact that during that period almost no woman liked her body. But…I think it’s gotten worse over time. Just look at Marilyn Monroe, the sex queen of the 1950s, and compare her with Nicole Kidman. We need to love our bodies and ignore advertising and diets. And make healthy food available to all, as you so rightly state, Katey. And enjoy this time of year, with its emphasis on peace and love, rather than agonize over everything.

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  6. Not having enough food to feed the people on this planet is an issue that makes me feel crazy when I think about the stupid diets Americans buy into – we are a nation of addicts – if not to food then – well, you name the poison.

    I don’t have television, hate shopping, and restrict what I read on the internet so I am woefully and happily ignorant about diets, fads, and just about everything else commercialized…

    But starving people, well this is a matter that should concern us all.

    I am presently living in a house with people who routinely throw out their leftovers, waste water and other utilities and simply don’t give a damn.

    My response to this attitude of indifference is rage – without apology.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sara, I’m glad that you’ve found a way to block the unhealthy messages about food and dieting, but you’re right, access to food is a justice issue that concerns all of us. Our throwaway culture is based on convenience and our changing whims, and there are serious consequences for our doing so–for others, for our bodies, and for the planet.

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  7. Thanks for pointing out how we make food and weight morally/religiously charged issues. (When the real moral issue is the whether people have means to nourish themselves and their children!) This is a culture that equates pleasure with sin and virtue with deprivation and the body (and ourselves) as something/one not to be trusted. Do these attitudes go back to the Puritans? There are many other cultures where taking pleasure in food is normal, it’s life, it’s connection with others and with the earth. You don’t have to force yourself to eat “what’s good for you” or long for “what you shouldn’t have.” If we can trust our soft animal bodies (to paraphrase Mary Oliver) to love what they love, we would be so much happier at the table and in our skin–and maybe we would also be more generous and just as a society.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Exactly. Our all-or-nothing culture deprives us of enjoying food. The capitalist machine wants us to buy the “quick fix” of processed food–and then buy the diet plan counteract the guilt we feel for having eaten the quick fix. We can’t win!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. This is very timely. I appreciate you calling us to a more sustainable way of approaching health and wellbeing. Do you have any suggestions for avoiding the moralistic language we attach to food and exercise?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the question! I think it’s helpful to reframe foods that are occasional indulgences. Rather than calling them “bad” I call them a treat or a splurge. I also try to focus on what makes my body physically feel best–a lot of water, vegetables, and daily movement. As far as exercise goes, I think about what it is I want in the long run–flexibility, agility, strong bones, and cardio vascular health. I try to focus my exercise on those things rather than how they make me look, though I’ve still got work to do on that.

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  9. As a dietitian and a Christian, I agree wholeheartedly! And I highly recommend The Gluten Lie by Alan Levinovitz – he’s a religion professor at James Madison University, and the book takes a look at food trends through the lens of religion. I found it fascinating and so relevant to the diet messages that are so widespread in our culture.

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