Years ago, I worked in an office with a woman named Becca who made me feel bad about myself. It wasn’t that she put me down – not at all! – but rather that she was everything I wished I could be. She was strong, and funny, she’d made her way in the world and found her way back home, she didn’t take any guff from anyone, she knew right from wrong. I wanted to grow up to be her.
I was her boss, which was a little strange. We both worked for the local university, in the School of Public Health. I had started as a student and had been promoted when I got my degree. She had joined the team after bouncing around in a few other fields. I supervised around 30 folks (which, in retrospect, is crazy. I was 22 years old! Who was I to supervise anyone?), almost all women, almost all under 20. It goes without saying that disordered eating was the order of the day.
One evening, after someone (probably me? it sounds like something I would do) brought in a tray of brownies, and after several of the ladies-under-20 had made comments along the lines of “Ooooh, get those away, they’re dangerous,” or “What, are you trying to kill me?”, Becca lost it. “OH MY GOD,” she yelled. “For christ’s sake, they’re brownies, not bombs. Let’s get this straight: food is NOT dangerous!”
I’m reminded of this story as I page through a recent book that’s been getting a lot of press, Eat This Not That. Written by two editors from Men’s Health, the book has a simple design: it shows you a meal you might want to eat (say, Cosi’s Signature Salad) and then tells you why you shouldn’t eat it and what you should eat instead (in this case, the Bombay Chicken Salad). Much of what’s in here is interesting (would you have thought that the Blackened Chicken Fiesta Salad from On the Border has twice as many calories as the Chicken Salsa Fresca?). A lot is obvious (shockingly, the deep-fat-friend battered fish from Long John Silver’s has more fat than the baked cod). Some of the comparisons are downright perplexing (they suggest the Oriental Grilled Chicken over the Black Pepper Beef at Manchu Wok – as though a hunger for beef and celery would be satisfied by a meal of chicken and broccoli).
But what kills me is the side commentary. On the page comparing two meals from Applebee’s, the book warns of the “hidden danger” of low-fat chicken quesadillas (“This may seem like a healthy alternative to burgers and fried food, but the collective impact of calories and carbs will do its best to stretch you horizontally.”). In the section on Little Caesar’s, the book calls 2 slices of Hawaiian Pizza – a total of 172 calories – a “guilty pleasure” (to me, it sounds more like “less than half the calories someone needs for lunch”). Best of all, several entries feature a charming image of a bomb with a lit fuse and the label “Weapon of Mass Destruction”. Such “weapons” include a bagel with sausage, egg and cheddar from Au Bon Pain (“Start your morning with this gut bomb and be confined to eating rice cakes the rest of the day.”), the Boston Meatloaf Carver from Boston Market (“…enough salt to preserve a small city.”) and lo mein pork from P.F. Chang’s (“Try the Singapore Street Noodles… [they] stack up well next to this atrocity.”).
It’s enough to drive a woman mad. (Actually, it has driven millions of women mad, this idea that some foods are “good” and others are “bad,” that some are “safe” and others “dangerous”). I kinda feel like ordering up a bunch of “This Promotes Eating Disorders!” stickers from the Renfrew Center and covering the book jacket with them.
(Should I have gotten the book from the library in the first place? No. I didn’t need to open it – the title is pretty damned clear – to know that it promotes disordered eating and has no place in a fat acceptance world. But this is all still new to me, and I thought to myself that maybe the book would help me make a few easy changes – so easy that it wouldn’t really be dieting, just harmless substitution. Well, I was wrong. A diet by any other name is still a diet, and any book that tells its reader what to eat is going to do them more harm than good. Color me embarrassed.)
*Unless, of course, you’re allergic to peanuts or whatever. Don’t mess around with food allergies. They really ARE scary.