As a nation, we love a mantra. We adore a #motivation post. We love being a part of something, whether that’s talking about the latest Netflix series, buying colouring books and practising mindfulness, trying out the latest exercise regime, or eating chia seeds. And, if any of these things offer a chance for self-betterment, we are all over it.
The zeitgeist right now for those of us in the UK or stateside is, undoubtedly, the clean eating movement. You only need to look at the bestselling cookbooks, telling us how to “get the glow” and perfect the “art of eating well” to see that. The Hemsley sisters and Ella Woodward/Mills are now kitchen-shelf stalwarts, just as Nigella and Delia were before them. But they couldn’t be more different. Where my beloved Nigella was all about indulgence and the pleasure to be gleaned from the licking clean of a bowl of cake mix, these new-found domestic goddesses have over-indulgence on a grubby black list – on-par with farting in public and being drunk in the gutter.
Food is a subject I’ve been wanting to write about for a while now, but somehow it has always been inherently more difficult than other subjects for me to share my thoughts on. In fact, this post has been sitting in my drafts folder for a month or so now, being re-written and altered over and over. I think, like a lot of women, I have a complex relationship with food. It’s difficult not to in a culture that connects what we eat with what it makes us look like, rather than purely with eating to live and to nourish ourselves.
I’ve read a number of pieces recently that have accurately echoed some of my own sentiments. One was from the wonderful Pandora Sykes, who I stalk and admire in equal measure, partly for her wardrobe but mainly for her thrillingly large vocabulary. For me, her assertion that by labeling certain foods as ‘clean’ we automatically render others as ‘unclean’ and the eater of them ‘dirty’ by proxy was absolutely bang-on.
“The connotations of a ‘clean’ diet can often feel smug and elitist – another way for those of us living in an increasingly complicated, modern world to feel bad about ourselves. The implications that you are ‘dirty’ because you eat processed food is as problematic as it is nonsensical.”
Read her post here, if you’re interested (it’s far more eloquent than this one will be).
The second was written for Vice by Ruby Tandoh – Great British Bake Off alumni and someone who has spoken openly about her own struggles with eating disorders on a number of occasions. It’s a long read, but a worthwhile one, managing to be both honest and incredibly informative.
The multi-million-pound wellness industry, that has us swapping the Frosties for chia-seed-topped porridge and ditching our Pret sandwich in favour of bone broth, is just that. It’s an industry, and it’s one that makes certain people a lot of money. We, the consumers, inevitably end up spending more money to invest in the lifestyle they’ve sold us.
And it is a lifestyle, too. This isn’t like the Atkins, or the 5-2. Wellness-preachers are all equally quick to assert that clean eating isn’t a diet, but a lifestyle, and it’s a school of thinking that has captivated many. In doing so, these modern-day ‘health-gurus’ let themselves off the hook from the negative connotations of dieting, but simultaneously direct attention straight to the individual – attacking not just the way we choose to eat, but the way we choose to live. Wellness isn’t about restricting, but about making the right choices, they say.
I think it’s important for me to say here that I’m not about to purely lambast the people who peddle this sort of thing to us. Originally, I was going to. But then I found myself watching that Hemsley & Hemsley program on Channel 4, whilst simultaneously writing a pretty scathing paragraph about clean eating, meanwhile chortling to myself at Delicously Stella’s instagram feed (I’m a good multi-tasker, OK) and I realised I was the biggest hypocrite. Ultimately, the idea of clean eating, and putting it out there to the masses, is a good thing. It teaches us more about what’s good for us, and shows us how to incorporate these things into our everyday meals. I bloody love an almond-milk smoothie or some avo and egg. I’ve bought flaxseed before. What I have an issue with is that following such a rigorous regime, however loosely, ultimately encourages people to feel shitty about themselves when they inevitably fall off the wagon. Because, with all of this stuff constantly on repeat about how easy it is to eat healthily and enjoy it, is it really so difficult for us to exercise some self-control? Why-ever would we choose to enjoy a cupcake, when we could be nourishing ourselves with an, arguably, equally delicious spirulina smoothie?
Clean eating and wellness fads seem to slip under the radar because of their association with promoting only good health, and none of the ‘bad stuff’ like targeted weight loss that predecessors have peddled. They aren’t explicitly telling us to lose weight and they may not market themselves specifically as diets but, dig a little deeper, and those same sentiments aren’t too hard to find. They’re just better-hidden than they used to be. Throughout all of the advice and the arbitrary categorisation of food types to good and bad, we are still being told what not to eat and, moreover, how to improve ourselves. To get a more youthful glow, to cleanse ourselves, to be a better version of what we are now. To be more of this, and much, much less of that.
But wellness itself isn’t just about physical attributes – a glowing complexion, or toned abs. Wellness is intrinsically linked to what’s going on inside, and how things impact our mental health and wellbeing. For me, wellness is having the ability to allow myself to eat something I know isn’t ‘clean’ and to be OK with that. I refuse to feel guilty or dirty every time I don’t sign up to their program.
I am so grateful to have reached a point in my life over the last few years where every mouthful of food isn’t accompanied by frenzied mental arithmetic. It hasn’t always been like that and – trust me – when your mental maths is as bad as mine is, it’s even more exhausting. To eat without for one second considering the consequences of what is on your plate is something you utterly overlook until you realise it’s gone, instead having been replaced with a nagging, chiding voice and an underbelly of anxiety and guilt. I never realised just how blissful it was to be able to eat something without a spiral of numbers going round in my head until I couldn’t get rid of them. What concerns me most about the current over-exposure of clean eating ideals is that it will put these voices into more heads. No matter what the intentions are, to make us so focused on what we eat every day can only ever be a negative thing in my opinion.
For many, clean eating is used as a springboard to aid recovery from eating disorders – a way to eat ‘safely’ again. And this is great. And yet, isn’t it somehow, the same? Eating disorders are obsessional and dangerous – an unhealthy preoccupation with food comorbid with many other deep-set mental health issues. They are not purely a narcissistic-pursuit of outward perfection, as Joan Bakewell would have us believe. To me, clean eating is just a way of repackaging this obsession; it may be for the sake of wellness and good health, but the striving for something illusory, along with the preoccupation with good and bad foods is still very much apparent.The whole umbrella term of ‘clean eating’ is problematic in itself. If we eat a doughnut, or don’t regularly eat handfuls of kale and goji berries, does that make us dirty? Are you somehow a grubbier person because you chow down on spaghetti rather than courgetti? Of course you aren’t. But sometimes, it really can feel like that. And the longer the wellness obsession continues, the more these things will become irrevocably linked.
I am all for good health, exercise and not eating a diet of MacDonalds and KFC every day of the week. I just think we need to cut ourselves a little more slack, and we really need to stop denying ourselves things. In this generation of mindfulness and #HappinessProjects, it’s somewhat ironic that so many of us self-flagellate on a daily basis just because of what we eat. If we’ve had a shitty day or, even if we haven’t, we absolutely have the right to come home and comfort eat.
When did eating become such a guilty taboo for those of us lucky enough to have the luxury of a full fridge? To become so obsessed by something that is intended for our survival is ludicrous. Food should be celebrated and we should let ourselves off the hook a bit more.
Are you Team Kale & Spirulina or Team Ben & Jerry’s? Let me know your thoughts on what health means to you – I’d love to hear different opinions to skew mine even more.