There is no “Normal”

In Weight-Loss Maintenance on January 17, 2011 at 7:16 am

Often people talk about wanting to develop a “normal” or “healthy” relationship with food.  This is often the goal of HAES practitioners, intuitive eaters, or some variation on that theme.  The idea that there is such a thing as a “normal” or “healthy relationship with food” has become a favorite myth.  And it will remain mythical as long as there is a month called “January.”  We are in the throes of an annual festival of soon-to-fail New Year’s resolutions, all documented in our women’s magazines.

At the grocery check-out, I picked up a Family Circle (at $2.79, it was the cheapest).  Here’s the on-line version.   Let’s have some fun with content analysis:  try to figure out the messages we’re supposed to get that will help us develop a “normal” or “healthy” relationship with food.  In total, there are 192 pages in the print version.   Maybe we can pretend that a Martian is on his first visit to this planet.  Assuming he wants to experience what we think is “normal” or “healthy,” what shall he choose to eat based on the messages he sees? 

In addition to food messages, I identified body image messages, since that speaks to the other side of our “relationship” with food.   Food and body image messages comprised 60 percent of the magazine’s content.  Some pages clearly had a single message, while other pages were significantly dedicated to a message, so I counted them toward my totals as well.  I created four categories, and in each category I separated ads from articles.  Here are my findings: 

  1.  Pages predominantly about food with messages that are neutral or unconcerned about health (emphasize pleasure), Ads = 18, Articles = 15, Total = 33.
  2. Pages about food that promote health benefits (but not necessarily weight loss), Ads = 26, Articles = 7, Total = 33.   
  3. Pages concerned about obesity and specifically promote weight loss.  Ads = 13, Articles = 18, Total = 31.
  4. Pages that promote fashion, makeup or style using extremely thin, young models:  Ads = 9, Articles = 10, Total = 19.  (Note, there is one ad featuring a fat model who presumably uses aspirin to prevent heart attacks.  That is the only ad or article that features a fat person but is not about weight loss.)
  5. Remaining pages (subtracting from 192) of miscellaneous content:  76 (39%)

You tell me what this says about us.   More than half of a wholesome “family” magazine is devoted to expounding on food, while presenting images of thin women engaged in shopping, living or modeling (and fat ones engaged in weight-loss dieting).  Food is presented in almost equal quantities of health v. pleasure.  Since we may acknowledge that the two are not mutually exclusive, could this indicate that we are balanced (healthy and normal)?

Hell, no.  Clearly, we are schizzy.  An article tells us how to “lose weight faster” within pages of another that entices us to indulge in “elegant cocoa confections.”  Page 168 features a recipe (with luscious photo) for “irresistible” double chocolate cookies.  It faces an ad that shows a woman zipping up her slinky green dress because she eats a type of light soup that is 80 calories per serving.  Page 169 is a picture of two other chocolate desserts (recipes on later pages), which face an ad featuring two older people on a motorcycle who have conquered their heart problems because they eat the low cholesterol version of that same brand of soup.  Turn the page from the Atkins Diet ad (pages 78-79) and, viola, it’s a one-and-a-third page ad for Stouffer’s lasagna, which makes no health or weight-loss claims, but promises to pull your family together.  The message of the Stouffer’s ad (which ends on p. 81) is re-enforced by a three-page article starting on page 84 stressing the importance of family meals and supported by guilt-provoking statistics.  That article is followed two pages later by a Nutrisystem advertisement, which explains that a “Hot Mama” receives her fresh-frozen gourmet cuisine from “America’s #1 home delivery weight loss company.”  Hmmmm.  Surely she doesn’t serve that to her kids family style.  If thinking about how she’s destroying her family depresses her, however, she can ask her doctor about Abilify – one flip to the next facing page.  And isn’t it additionally telling that regardless of the question, in the “Solve my Health Problems, Please” feature (p. 128-130), anyone who wishes to ask Dr. Oz a question must first state her height and weight?

I knew I’d find this, of course (except for the height/weight requirement on the advice column – that was a surprise).  I periodically promise myself I won’t read these kinds of magazines, because they can make me mad.  The message is always, “hate your body, buy stuff, drug yourself when all else fails.”  Still, other days, I can’t help myself.   I take guilty pleasure in playing “spot the silliness.”  Hmmm.  Makes me wonder whether my hair stylist has the annual “Half Their Size” issue of People in the waiting area.  Always a fun challenge to read between the lines and figure out who’s still losing, who’s in the honeymoon and who’s entering maintenance.  There are very few legit maintainers, and some years none. 

As I grin at my magazines, I hear our Martian friend’s head explode in his helmet.  He has no idea what to eat here or why, and he doesn’t “get” the fun of the game.  One thing he does know, we do NOT on this planet have a “normal” or “healthy” relationship with food.

  1. All I can say is keep preach on, sister! Your material is so full of good stuff and I love having someone on the NWCR as a resource. Thank you for the time you spend on your posts! They are such an encouragement to me.

  2. I’ve known this for years. The same thing goes on with commercials on television. Notice the ads for fast food, ice cream, luscious desserts at restaurants, etc followed by ads for Jenny Craig, NutraSystem, WeightWatchers, BowFlex, any Chuck Norris exercise equipment, or any other exercise equipment/routine – all showing thin/ripped people using/doing them. For my sanity, I don’t read magazines, and I very seldom watch television, the cognitive dissonance is enough to drive one mad.

  3. Debra,

    For once I really don’t agree with you. Fortunately, I feel that you are a person with whom one can have an interesting discussion without falling into insults and name-calling (I just dropped in on one of the many sites where ignorance and stupidity are common currency, so I’m feeling a bit nervous), so here goes:

    Everyone has their own way of eating, be it normal or disordered. What’s normal for me, might not be what’s normal for Tribole or Paul McKenna or someone else. But I still believe in finding one’s “normal” and concurrently, I think we have more than enough proof that repeated dieting causes so much havoc with our bodies as to turn us into fat producing machines. The most destructive myth around is that dieting will make you slim. That’s the myth that drives me crazy, not the possibility that one can make peace with food and find their own “normal”, which I still see as a real possibility and certainly not as a myth.

    If we give up on normal (and actually, for the most part, I think society has), we will continue to feed the destructive myth and continue to see new generations of women (in particular) dieting themselves into fatter and fatter bodies that they hate more and more.

    I’ve got to sign off right now and get supper out of the oven before it burns but I want to think more about this and get back to you.

    I must say, though, that I did enjoy your deconstruction of the women’s magazine. The same, of course, applies to TV. Enough to make you pull your hair out.

  4. OK, everyone’s eaten my famous, classic shepherd’s pie, and I can add a little more to the discussion.

    The myth that just makes my blood boil is what is now in some circles being quaintly called the “nightmare on ELMM street”, ELMM being “eat less move more”. Anyone with half a brain knows that ELMM is a gross generalization that shunts aside all those wonderful, depressing studies that you have cited here on your blog.

    Oh, and let’s not forget the accompanying myth that all overweight people are lazy SOBs who stuff their faces with junk food and that if they’d only eat nutritious foods in “normal” portions, they’d be fine. This idea totally negates the fact that we are all different, with different metabolisms (that have often been screwed up by dieting) and different sensitivities (and here I tip my hat to RNegade, whose diet–as in Sway of eating”–seems to work marvellously well for her).

    These, for me, are the really dangerous myths. Making peace with food, intuitive, mindful, whatever you want to call it eating may be tough, and may not be for everyone, but I really don’t think it wreaks half as much havoc on us as the pervasive diet culture we live in.

    Respectfully submitted to a group on intelligent, thoughtful people–which is more than I can say for most of the people in the weight-o-sphere. Sorry, I’m feeling pissed off tonight.

    • Oh, NewMe, you crack me up! I can’t be mad at you. And I’m not 100 percent sure we do disagree here. In any event, I will be your Sancho Panza if you think you can bring about “Food Normal” in this world. I will help you strap on your armor and hoist your sword. I will hand you your corn starch when your armor chafes.

      Do I think you are bigger than Family Circle or Women’s Day? Do I believe in my heart that you can whallop the Biggest Loser Mentality? Uhm, well, er . . . BUT I think the cause is noble. And you aren’t the only one. But you are, truly, out numbered and out gunned. “Food normal” may be able to exist (may currently be practiced in small “underground” pockets of subversives), but I’m not optimistic that it will in my lifetime become common. We are destined to second guess ourselves, our food choices, our bodies. As long as our information is controlled by a schizzy media and our scientific/medical understanding is undergirded with an anti-fat agenda, we can only attempt “normal,” but dare not dream to reach it. We aim for self-acceptance, and often make it as far as resignation.

      But joust on, my friend. Joust that Jillian Michaels off her high horse atop that stinking windmill! Take on the whole Village on a Diet! I’ve got your corn starch and a satchel of bandages!

      • Debra, You gave me good belly laugh! And I agree: we probably do agree on this.

        I only wish I could really be Don (Dona) Quichote. I’m a bit too timid. There’s a big, fat gasbag of a windmill out there I wonuld like to just rip into, but I know that his zombie brigade of desperate, starving women would rip me to shreds.

        Thanks for giving me a safe place on the Internet to explore these fascinating and ferociously complex issues.

        Gotta go again. I’ve got a plane to catch to get home tonight.

  5. @NewMe: LOL re “nightmare on ELMM street.” Getting pissed off is frequently the sanest response to insanity! Good for you.

    “Family Circle” indeed. I wonder how many men buy it, or read it. Sure, men read magazines and blogs about “fitness” and “body building”, but these same men are not simultaneously subjected to dozens (hundreds?) of recipes and full page photo-spreads of (fill in the blank kinds of food) and encouraged to prepare them for their loved ones. How bizarre: a particular food, when prepared by a woman for her family, can demonstrate love for them, but the same food (cookies, for instance) conveys love for herself only when she restricts it. Indulging her man’s appetite shows TLC (we all know the way to a man’s heart, HA!, through his stomach), but indulgence for herself…tsk, tsk, tsk. Imagine a world where men would nod knowingly, and approvingly, at the thought that the way to win a woman over is to bake her a spectacular batch of brownies.

    When a message requires all manner of media (print, TV, movies, blogs, etc) to continually and repeatedly reinforce its premise, there is something strange about that message, something that warrants careful analysis.

    So. Thanks for the content analysis, Debra. (Nicely done!) And thanks, vesta44, for underscoring this constant “cognitive dissonance” we have, as a culture, come to accept as “normal”.

  6. Ha, nice to know its not just me. And I am referring to the fact that I can’t seem to eat to that illusive ‘normal’ standard, and also to your commentary on the craziness that is promoted in women’s magazines.

    I also admit to picking up and looking at some of these magazines in the crazy hope that they will have something new and revolutionary, ‘the final solution.’ Then I put them back, a little disappointed. ‘Oh, I knew all that stuff already.’

  7. very good post.

    Weight loss blog people DO tend to hanker for the mythical ‘normal’.

    the first part is the perception that thin people can eat whatever they want and do not have to work for it.

    the second part (in my opinion),
    for years I have been saying – (real) normal is who is in line at Wal mart and the Bureau of Motor Vehicles and most of us do not want ‘that’ normal.

    • Some thin people think they’re “working for it” if they do anything other than sit on their asses, drive to work, and eat all the junk food they can manage. On the other hand, fat people can be walking or biking for an hour a day, working out at the gym for 4 hours a week, and eating a healthy and moderate diet, and they’ll think they’re lazy and have poor eating habits because they don’t run marathons and they occasionally eat a cookie.

      (real) normal is who is in line at Wal mart and the Bureau of Motor Vehicles and most of us do not want ‘that’ normal.
      That sounds incredibly snotty. “They” may be looking at you and thinking the same thing about some aspect of your appearance.

  8. Right on Debra, as always! I stopped reading most women’s magazines 20 years ago, as they tend to just make me rage-y with the constant, and contradictory, exhortations. As for “normal”, I don’t see how there can be such a thing as “normal” when bodies, and metabolisms, are so different. The “nightmare on ELMM street” (which, btw, I love that phrase!) is a dream for some, but truly a nightmare for others. Some can lose weight on low-carb or low-fat or primarian diets, others not at all.

    Then, try to extend the concept of “normal” eating beyond the US/Canada! A “normal” breakfast in Japan might include rice and miso soup; a “normal” breakfast in Costa Rica includes gallo pinto (rice and beans), eggs, and platanos; but most USians turn up their noses at rice for breakfast and instead head for the cereal, or go the eggs & bacon route. Any one person might have their own “normal” (though, speaking for myself, that has changed dramatically over time), but I don’t think it’s possible to generalize on a national scale, let alone a global one.

  9. What is normal? The word gets used a lot and all attempts on my part to define normal have been either fruitless or so ambiguous as to be useless. We all have to figure out what is healthy for us as individuals and work with it. Our Martian friend might well have a brain explosion trying to figure normal eating out; after 45 years I’m still working on it.

  10. I just found your blog, and I am very happy that I did. You have very down to earth information here. I appreciate the honesty and astute oberservations. I will certainly be back for more.

  11. Fantastic analysis! This made me laugh. Thanks for confirming that the interior of such magazines matches the contradictory messaging on the covers! You just saved me $5 or so. 😉

    Our family doesn’t subscribe to very many magazines; I gave up long ago on the “women’s” genre having much of use to me. I recently picked up one that featured a blogger I like, and I was dismayed by all the advertising-masquerading-as-articles. Guess it was always there, but it was even more glaring after not reading them for awhile. I’m glad I didn’t read about all the equipment one “needs” to embark on the sport of triathlon, for example, or else I would never have had the nerve to get out there on my 20-year-old bike and do it.

    And “normal.” Sigh. I knew that thin people had to work for what they had – saw how my mom stayed that way, for example – but what about people who looked “normal” to me? Surely they were the ones eating all that stuff and not having to work to stay “normal looking,” weren’t they? I did used to pine for a metabolism that could keep up with whatever I threw at it – now that would be a rare gift for anyone. But I’ve grown to be content with “normal for me,” which is different than even my immediate family members.

    • “I did used to pine for a metabolism that could keep up with whatever I threw at it – now that would be a rare gift for anyone.” Yes, indeed, Pubsgal. Something has changed, and I think it is more than simply a “toxic food environment” of fat/sugar/salt. We’ve always had fat/sugar/salt, but now something more is happening. Something is broken.

  12. “I knew that thin people had to work for what they had…” (Pubsgal)
    “the first part is the perception that thin people can eat whatever they want and do not have to work for it.” (Vickie)

    I can see my cluelessness shining through.
    If you’re naturally thin, why can’t you eat what you want and still adhere to a particular weight or stay within a small weight range? How much of a weight difference does all this “working for it” make? Is thinness defined at such a low weight that hardly anyone is considered naturally thin these days?
    I’m fat and my body sticks to a small range. It does that so well that when my weight changes by more than a handful of pounds, I have a pretty good idea of why, and it’s got hardly anything to do with food. Is this not the case with most people who are thin and most who are of average weight?

    There is so much jargon these days! I don’t want a “relationship” with food; I just want to eat and enjoy the stuff and have it nourish me.

    Oh, and if magazines want me to buy stuff, they’ll have to at least show stuff that I can use or wear. They’ll have to show people like me using or wearing these items. Since they don’t do either, I can only assume that I’m not the target market and they don’t need my money, so I don’t buy the magazine.

    • You know, you’ve got a point, Mulberry. I’ll grant you that what I observed growing up with a “thin person” (underweight BMI) was probably not the norm among naturally thin people, unless eating one meal per day (granted, a superbly healthy one) and subsisting the rest of the time on black coffee and cigarettes is the norm? I don’t know if it would have happened, but my mom certainly believed that if she ate everything she wanted to eat (and as much of it as she wanted), she would become fat. Yet, she indulged in small amounts of things like candy and premium ice cream now and then – she was just really selective and controlling about what she ate. (And, thank goodness, did not force that behavior on anyone except herself.) I’m pretty sure she enjoyed what she allowed herself to eat, though. I do know that as she has gotten older, she has gotten less restrictive about the variety of things she will eat (for example, she will now eat some beef and pork, although not often and very little of it), and her weight does not appear to have changed. She no longer smokes, either, and does not drink as much coffee. So maybe she was one of the “naturally thin” all along. Hmmm.

  13. Amen, Mulberry. Don’t buy ’em.

    Just when I thought this magazine couldn’t get worse, I actually read the article on losing weight faster. It says you’re supposed to “break” six old diet rules. One of them: “Eat Mindfully” They use Brian Wansink (the scientist who brought us the ever-refilling soupbowl) to justify this. They advise that rather than eat mindfully, we need to “re-engineer” our eating environment. Buy smaller plates and put treat foods on inconveniently high shelves, etc.

    Yeah. We’ve never tried THAT before. Yeesh.

  14. […] the Hell wrote that?  Would Family Circle have published this?  Should I trust this woman and take her advice, which would mean cutting […]

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