the HAES files: work of art or paint-by-number?

by Health At Every Size® Blog

by Michelle May, MD.

There is a harmful meme* (an idea gene; see additional definition at the end of this article) that has become so widespread, so ubiquitous, that it is accepted as normal. It has subtly integrated itself into our society’s beliefs, thoughts, language, behavior, and reality. It’s so pervasive that it has become “conventional wisdom” and therefore it is rarely questioned.

This meme is so insidious that most people who have it don’t even realize it. Even the people responsible for spreading it don’t recognize its potential for long term damage. In fact, most believe that they’re actually helping others when they pass along this meme. They might even feel defensive or irritated when they read this post. Hopefully they’ll keep reading anyway.

 So what is this Meme?

 This meme is the belief that restriction is healthy. It usually starts with information about nutrition or weight management that mutates into rules and restriction. But the blurring of the line between healthy eating and restrictive eating is the difference between a work of art and paint-by-number. Either way, you end up with a nice picture—until you get up close to take a look.

Healthy       vs.     Restrictive
In Charge   In Control
Nourishment    Diet
Fuel   Calories
Quality   Points
Healthy    Skinny
Aware   Preoccupied
Conscious    Consumed
Mindful   Vigilant
Information    Dogma
Guide   Rules
All foods fit    Good or bad
Balance   Perfection
Variety   Temptation
Moderation   Deprivation
Choosing    Earning
Deciding    Rationalizing
Flexible    Rigid
Hunger based    By the clock
Comfort   Portion sizes
Physical Activity   Penance
Effortless    Willpower
Trust   Fear
Learning   Failing
Self-acceptance   Condemnation
Enjoyment   Guilt
Pleasure   Shame
Freedom   Bondage

The main reason that this meme is so powerful is that it has a built-in protective mechanism: the underlying belief that being overweight is a sign of weakness and due to lack of self-control and gluttony. This belief ensures the survival of the meme because when one tries to restrict themselves (or others) it actually leads to feelings of deprivation and cravings for foods labeled as “bad.” That eventually leads to overeating which appears to prove the underlying beliefs. That leads to guilt, more restriction, and perpetuation of the meme. (I’ve called this the eat-repent-repeat cycle.)

One of the reasons that the meme is so successful at replicating itself is that it initially appears to be beneficial to its host so people intentionally seek it out. The empires of Weight Watchers®, Jenny Craig® and NutriSystem® (to name just a few) were built on their ability to successfully transfer this meme to millions.

For those that promote weight loss, “lifestyle change” and “healthy eating” have become euphemisms for “you’re going to be on this diet for the rest of your life.” I’m not trying to be critical; the meme is so subtle and so ingrained that they usually don’t even realize that restriction is at the core of their message.

How is this meme spread?

People are most prone to this meme if they weigh more than society says they should (or think they do). Everybody else that has the meme tries to pass it on to them in an effort to “help” them (or sell them something). It takes the form of rational suggestions, loving advice, and even harsh criticism. 

The meme spreads vertically through advertising, television, magazines, books, the Internet, and medical research. It is propagated by marketers, models, celebrities, reporters, experts, bloggers, legislators and academicians. It is then spread horizontally from doctor to patient, dietitian to client, friend to friend, wife to husband, and parent to child.

Some people who spread the meme are carriers but don’t actually manifest it themselves. For instance, some health and fitness professionals eat without restriction and participate in enjoyable physical activity but spread the meme when they put their patients or clients on diets and rigid exercise regimens.  

This meme is also swiftly moving from the United States to the rest of the world. Clearly, the meme hasn’t helped Americans and it won’t help overseas but it will continue to propagate itself until society recognizes its dangerous nature.

How do you get rid of this meme?

One way to cure this “restrictive is healthy” meme is to replace it with a new meme called Health at Every Size℠. This idea gene has the potential to paint a new picture of health. In my next post, I’ll talk about a few key steps for creating your own masterpiece!

* What’s a meme?  According to http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/memea meme is a unit of cultural information, such as a cultural practice or idea, that is transmitted verbally or by repeated action from one mind to another. Memes are the cultural counterpart of genes. According to Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meme, like genes, some ideas will propagate less successfully and become extinct, while others will survive, spread, and, for better or for worse, mutate. Memeticists argue that the memes most beneficial to their hosts will not necessarily survive; rather, those memes that replicate the most effectively spread best, which allows for the possibility that successful memes may prove detrimental to their hosts.

8 Responses to “the HAES files: work of art or paint-by-number?”

  1. I am looking forward to the next post! This post hits the nail on the head, describing exactly how I feel and this meme that has been shoved down my throat for so long. I am so ready for change. I feel like I’m in bondage and I want to be free.

  2. It is difficult to learn to live outside of societal norms, the confidence to do this must come from within. Once we have this confidence, others begin to notice the confidence and not the fact that we do not fit into what is considered to be correct by society. Thank you to the writers of this blog who help give people who do not fit society’s idea of what is acceptable to live confidently outside of it.

  3. Thank you for this wonderful “food for thought”. Healthy aligns with my values much more than restrictive does.

  4. For those that don’t believe that the meme is harmful, this belief was the foundation of my eating disorder:

    “The main reason that this meme is so powerful is that it has a built-in protective mechanism: the underlying belief that being overweight is a sign of weakness and due to lack of self-control and gluttony.”

    Based on that belief, I assumed that, because I wasn’t thin, my *completely normal* eating habits must be out of control overeating. In my mind, a big meal became a “binge”, a moderate meal was “overeating”, and only a tiny meal (with just the right number of grams of everything) was “acceptable”.

    So when someone came along and told me that I could safely eat 500 calories a day of only protein, I was primed to believed them. Because I had years of experience following someone else’s rules instead of my body’s cues. And because I believed that the behavior that makes you thin must be normal and healthy.

    • Nadira, what an absolutely eloquent way to describe an all too common and toxic progression. Thank you for your clarity and Yay for your insight!

  5. Fab article – and every word is true.

  6. I think the “restriction is good” meme hits fat people the hardest, but it’s all over the place. Less salt doesn’t automatically make food healthier. Neither does less fat.

    Remember those articles about research suggesting that a glass or two of wine a day might be good for people’s health which would always finish with “but this doesn’t mean you should start drinking”. Well, why not? Or the articles that which that eggs aren’t bad for you, but you still shouldn’t have more than one or two a week?

Trackbacks

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,007 other followers

%d bloggers like this: