Are we really what we eat?
Updated: Aug 29, 2019
Consumption stereotypes are the stereotypes we form and reinforce about people based on their food intake. Specifically, what they eat, how much they eat, the way they eat, etc. When I first heard about consumption stereotypes I was fascinated. The idea was both so new and yet… somehow made so much sense of this whole world of “food judgement”. Something clicked and a whole new world of thought opened up. Basically… it seemed important. I got really curious about how these stereotypes around clean and “healthy” eating impact people with Orthorexia. Do these stereotypes drive people towards or away from Orthorexic behaviors and mindsets? If people are already in Orthorexia, could these keep them there longer?
Here’s some of what I’ve found to answer these questions. My hope is that understanding what’s here will help all of us to have greater compassion for ourselves and each other and move us all to a healthier, more healing, safe and loving culture. I think that’s God’s heart and my honest prayer is that as God’s family we’d have that same heart.
Current consumption stereotypes in America drive us towards Orthorexic mindsets and behaviors.
What do you think when you hear “you are what you eat”? My guess is that if we took a poll, we’d be able to plot out a whole range of reactions along a wide spectrum. The idea might seem archaic to some. Maybe irrelevant. Maybe superstitious. Maybe it seems intuitively true in the way that we absorb what goes into our body (even in a spiritual sense of what we consume affects us). Maybe you’ve never really thought about it before and you have no idea where I’m going with this.
I know I hadn’t consciously thought of it in this way before. But having struggled with Orthorexia myself and being surrounded by a diet-steeped culture I’ve realized that I’ve operated in these mindsets myself. For example, “I’m staying away from those foods because I’m trying to be good” or “I’m so bad, I ate the whole thing”. Now that I’m aware of this kind of thing I can’t help but feel the moral judgment radiating out of these statements.
It’s easy to dismiss those comments as “just a way of speaking”. But I believe that we really do speak out of what’s in our hearts and minds. I believe that these snippets reveal the deeply held collective belief the “we are what we eat”. If we eat “good”, then we are “good”. If we eat “bad”, then we are “bad”. Believing this, internalizing it and projecting it is how we develop and perpetuate consumption stereotypes.
Let’s get specific. Based on studies, there is a perception among the general population that people who eat “clean” or “healthy” are considered more moral along with a host of other positive attributes including more intelligent, attractive, conscientious, virtuous, calmer and more responsible.1 Even though these are stereotypes and not actually true to reality, they’ve found that when people are aware of these stereotypes they alter their eating behavior accordingly. Sometimes consciously. Sometimes unconsciously.
Think about our hidden eating habits, the times we don’t want anybody to see us, the times we drown in shame because we feel so alone in our “badness” or “weakness” or our “terrible self-control”. Or how we choose from the “lighter fare” section on the menu because we don’t want to be judged by our pro-diet friends or by the strangers in the restaurant.
This is why I think that consumption stereotypes reinforce Orthorexic mindsets and behaviors. We must eat “good” (whatever we take “good” to mean… clean, pure, healthy, responsible, right, perfect, self-controlled) in order to be “acceptable”. The alternative is to risk judgment, shame and fear of disconnection. I don’t think that’s right. I don’t think that’s how God says it should be. But I do think that is what it feels like these days. It’s important to acknowledge how we feel and what affects us, our identity and our choices. It’s a starting point.
Aware of these stereotypes, we try to control how people see us, which threatens vulnerability and moves us toward shame and isolation, which keeps us in Orthorexia longer.
Brené Brown talks about the Shame Web as an intricately woven, “web of layered, conflicting, and competing expectations that are, at the core, products of rigid socio-cultural expectations”. When I’ve talked about the Shame Web with people I’ve gotten a few “Hmmmm balance. Yeah, it’s about balance.” And I kind of agree. But probably not in the way that they mean it. Not in the “I just gotta keep trying until I achieve balance and meet both expectations” kind of way. To me it feels more like balancing along a tightrope that is moving… blindfolded... and trying to make it look easy. In other words, impossible…and dangerous.
Based on the research and my own experience, here’s a tiny piece of how I see the competing and conflicting expectations that weave together this impossible tightrope scenario. These are just a few of the messages that confuse, distract, move us towards and keep us struggling with the dangerously tight ropes of Orthorexia. Do any of these conflicting socio-cultural expectations resonate with you?
Be completely self-controlled - BUT - Don’t be too self-controlled.
Be disciplined - BUT - Don’t be boring or stuffy.
Be thin - BUT - Don’t obviously put effort into it.
Stick to a diet perfectly - BUT - Don’t be obsessed with food and your body all of the time.
Be very careful about what you eat - BUT - Don’t let it negatively affect me in any way.
Be pro-diet with your pro-diet friends - AND - Be diet-free around your diet-free friends.
Take good care of yourself by eating extra healthy - BUT - Don’t make me feel bad about myself by comparison.
Be very mindful about the quality and purity of your food - BUT - Don’t be so inflexible that the rule consumes you.
Diet well and successfully - BUT - Stay thin and have high self-esteem.
Do all of this perfectly - AND - Make it look easy.
See how this works? Praised for meeting half of the pair, shamed for failing to meet the other. Even if these combinations were possible, how could we possibly know where the invisible line was? Add to the mix a shame-prone culture and the stakes for stepping out of line just got reaallll high. When we can’t really do it, but we feel like we have to do it the logical option is to fake it. “Hey… maybe we could even fake it ‘til we make it” (or so we hope).
That’s the point that we go into image-management mode. Researchers call this impression management. I like to think of it as PR or as Brené Brown so aptly calls it… the hustle. It’s how we try to manage the way people see us when it comes to our food. Keeping up this façade wears on our bodies, spirits and relationships. Especially our relationships with ourselves. We might be able to “con” some people into thinking of us a certain way but it’s a lot harder to fool ourselves. The shame of it all distracts us from looking at the big picture and realizing that the whole thing is an impossible situation.
So why does any of this matter? What difference does it make if we know this? How can this help?
Like I said before, my hope is that understanding what’s here will help all of us to have greater compassion for ourselves and each other and move us all to a healthier, more healing, safe and loving culture. I think the first step is awareness. Awareness of our own consumption stereotypes and how they impact us and other people. We can dig deeper into our own moral food judgement beliefs and stereotypes. Do you think you are better when you eat better?
Hopefully, we can have a some more patience with ourselves rather than berating ourselves for not being able to do this whole impossible tightrope thing perfectly. Hopefully, it’s a tad clearer why the cultural current is steadily moving us toward perfectly controlling our food and body while threatening to shame us if our food or body control us.
Once we’re aware we can talk about it. Talk about the shame and the expectations. How they affect us and what we really need instead. Empathy, love, unconditional acceptance and greater purpose beyond micro-managing our food and image. We can develop the empathetic words and the compassionate lens to see each other as God sees us. We can each ask Him to point out how the food-focused world systems keep us in shame- hidden, trapped and isolated. Cutting free the ropes that both move us towards and continue to keep us in disordered eating like Orthorexia.
1 Vartanian, L. et al. "Consumption stereotypes and impression management: How you are what you eat" (2007) Appetite 48, p265-277.