Fear of food

Monday, January 13, 2020 - 11:57am

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Designed by Maggie Huang

In 2010, while sitting at a table in a no-longer-existing diner, I used the iPhone application Lose it! for the first time. I was eleven years old.

At the beginning of the last decade, “wellness” took off as a modern trend and began its descent into a capitalist, money-making business that thrives on pyramid schemes and overpriced vitamins. Ben Zimmer, former columnist for The New York Times, dated modern wellness back to 1950 in a 2010 article, beginning with the World Health Organization’s 1948 constitution. It read, “Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” Seventy years later, we’ve spiraled from a foundation for healthy practices to an exploitative world of obsessive, expensive tendencies. The wellness trend has blown up into an industry that boasts shiny gyms with expensive membership rates, diet powders to add to low-calorie smoothies and Instagram accounts of white women doing squats and advertising flat-tummy teas and homeopathic turmeric pills. 

Growing up, I never thought about my diet. My siblings and I were lucky to be raised on healthy ingredients, fresh produce and lean proteins. Counting calories and being hyper-aware of the things I ate was never on my radar. In sixth grade, after receiving an iPhone for my birthday, I was introduced to the trend of wellness via social media. 

I was new to Instagram and was infatuated by the cohort of slim, tanned women in well-fitting athleisure who preached wellness under the guise of kale juices and grass-colored matcha lattes containing an array of impossible-to-pronounce boosters and vitamins. At five foot with a body developing softer curves, I couldn’t help but wonder why I didn’t look like the women doing squats on my iPhone screen. 

As my spiral into social media deepened, I downloaded Lose it! — an iPhone app with a scale emoji as the logo. The first thing you see when you log in is their tagline: “Weight loss that fits.” The app requires you enter your starting weight and goal weight, then an algorithm comes up with the number of calories you should consume each day in order to reach your intended goals. The app fails to take into account any other health information — I grew up with a disease called hypothyroidism, one that requires specific dietary restrictions and regimented food plans in order to maximize my health. The app didn’t know this and never would. 

You track calories by entering everything you eat in a day. The setup is easy: Lose it! acknowledges all major brand food and chain restaurant meals as well. Once you start, it’s hard to stop. Counting calories became an obsession — the first thought of my morning and the last thought of my day. The idea of not entering a meal’s calorie total becomes far off, unimaginable. As you add meals and snacks, your calories decrease until you reach zero, meaning you shouldn’t eat anymore. If you go beyond zero, you have a negative sign, indicating you’ve eaten more than your allotted calories. The concept of breaking below zero is terrifying, even if you have your calories set to 1,100 per day as I did in 2010. 

I remember downloading the app, shielding my phone from my friends as baskets of chicken fingers were set down in front of our adolescent faces. I googled things like, “how many ounces in four chicken fingers” and “how many tablespoons is a serving of honey mustard,” which would be the beginning of hundreds of similar searches. To avoid questions from my friends, I ordered the brownie when they did, shakily entering it into my app, swallowing the sugary consequences. 

Lose it! quickly turned into MyFitnessPal, a more specific application in the calorie counting and weekly notifications reminding me to “step on the scale.” I lowered my calories to 800. I used it for weeks and deleted it for days, hoping to end the vicious cycle and eat without restriction and anxiety.  

The app has been proven popular, Forbes recorded over 150 million accounts in 2018. That being said, for me, it became a dark tunnel in which I could never find my bearings. Adding up calories, tracking workouts and recording my weight became a daily occurrence — a thoughtless routine. It didn’t lead me to the results I craved, instead, I had headaches from lack of nutrition and struggled to get a grip on the thing I never thought would be a problem: food. 

Physically, I appeared as though I didn’t have eating problems, but I suffered mentally, fearing to put anything in my mouth I couldn’t record with ease. Restaurant meals and undisclosed calories terrified me. By college, eating out or drinking cocktails made a heat creep up my neck. I opted instead for foods I could measure with my measuring tools at home and labels that told me exactly what I was eating. I was lauded by MyFitnessPal for a streak of recording my full day of eating, and I didn’t want my streak to end. This obsession began because an iPhone app built off internalized patriarchal messages, dedicated to “wellness,” dictated my every move. Nobody knew. It was between me and the screen.

As I continued down the path of “health-based” destruction, wellness culture continued to gain speed. I thought I was the epitome of health as my life passed me by while I spent hours a day adding calories and stalking the Instagram accounts of the women whose bodies I envied. I was idolizing wellness Instagram bloggers like Rachel Mansfield and Kayla Itsines who made their living convincing young women like me to buy into their diets and “wellness fads” — plant-based meals, celery juices and intermittent fasting. I bought their skincare products, their paleo pancake mixes and their natural laxative tea. I spent half of my free time scrolling through accounts that appeared light and happy —full of colorful juices and shirtless mirror selfies. The other half of my day was spent on spin bikes and treadmills, measuring out plain Greek yogurt and almond butter. 

The wellness bloggers I idolized and envied for their Instagram pages were the fast lane, the gateway drug, the tip of the iceberg for my own wellness demise. So many young women suffer from destructive eating tactics and orthorexia as collateral of the boom of the wellness trend. The National Eating Disorders Association recognizes orthorexia, a condition with symptoms of obsessive behavior in the pursuit of “health” or “wellness.” The societal push toward thinness and the age of social media make Instagram the perfect place to put the eating disorders and disordered eating of wellness bloggers on display — making them normal, beautiful and even envy-worthy. 

Lee Tilghman (@leeforamerica) was one of these idols for me. I spent hours of my life staring at her thin legs and yoga-toned abs, her charcoal lattes and plates full of avocado and spinach. After a six-month hiatus from her Instagram account over a year ago, Tilghman reentered the social media world with a deeply personal blog post apologizing for the way the wellness practices she preached were obsessive and destructive to her followers. 

Wellness blogging and eating disorders are not mutually exclusive. MyFitnessPal and Lose It! work the same way. Wellness culture can lead to hours of body scrutiny and an 11-year-old to spend the last ten years of her life obsessed with a word that truly means nothing: calories. But the wellness industry can also inspire and influence positively. I would be lying to you if I said I unfollowed wellness Instagram accounts, deleted MyFitnessPal or if I stopped counting calories. The truth is I’m aware of the effects of these platforms on my life. I know what they’ve afforded me and the darkness we walked toward together, hand in hand, toward a world of thigh gaps. I had to learn how to prohibit an Instagram persona and a weight-loss application from being the pinnacle of how I lived my life. I was born with a disease (hypothyroidism) which causes my metabolism to work slowly and has burdened my eating habits my entire life. Stalking skinny people on Instagram has no real agency over my own health or weight loss. I had to learn that a number on a scale or specifically curated amount of calories is no basis for my self worth and it never will be. I simply needed to listen to my body. I’ve needed to all along.