Are blogs about healthy living just a disguised form of thinspo? This question, posed by a ladymag, has ignited a fierce debate about health, weight, writing, and how they all intersect.
In an article for Marie Claire, Katie Drummond profiles a group of bloggers she calls the "Big Six" — women who blog about their eating and exercise routines and their effort to lead lives they consider healthy. But she says their blogs display "an arguably unhealthy obsession with exercise, food, and weight." She writes,
A typical morning post documents breakfast with a photo and description-say, a smoothie of raw spinach and rice milk-followed by an afternoon report on the day's herculean exercise and an evening update on perfectly portioned snacks and dinner. [Blogger Heather] P once chased a 10-mile run with a flourless, low-fat, black-bean "brownie." Boyle ran 22 miles and, after a day of light eating, signed off with, "I am so hungry!"
Drummond also mentions that "the sites feature weight-control tips and even cover 'food sabotage'" and implies that some of the Big Six undereat, overexercise, and may encourage readers to do the same. She also includes a rather nasty quote by Caitlin Boyle of Healthy Tipping Point: "The vast majority of Americans aren't anorexic or bulimic. They're overweight and have no idea how to eat healthy. If they read blogs like mine, maybe they'd learn something."
However, the Big Six themselves dispute pretty much every aspect of Drummond's story. Boyle says, "Every single quote attributed to me was taken seriously out of context to fit into the story's slant. I consider it to be libel." Heather P of Hangry Pants says, "as stated in the article I ran 10 miles and made Black Bean Brownies in the same day. While these statements are atomically correct, I ate 3 full meals as well." She also notes that her post on "food sabotage" in fact comes out against the practice. Meghann Anderson of Meals and Miles says the bloggers have never even heard the term "Big Six" before.
Katie of Sweet Taters makes the good point that a mainstream women's magazine full of "pictures of photoshopped models" is hardly the best place for a critique like Drummond's. The Health & Fitness section of Marie Claire's website includes, somewhat incongruously, both Drummond's article and a piece titled "7 Best Websites for Weight Loss." And in at least some cases, Drummond seems to have misrepresented her subjects. However, Rachel Wilkerson at Hollaback Health argues that her criticisms also expose key problems with healthy living blogs. She writes, "We've started the discussion on eating disorders and 'everything in moderation' on Hollaback, but I'll be honest - we danced around it because we knew that we'd be crucified for making some of the same points that MC did." Drummond's points, she says, could only be made by an "outsider:"
When you take away what we know about these women, and just look at them as a set of behaviors or "symptoms," it's a lot easier to see the problems. If you were presented with a list of behaviors and asked, "Does this sound like disordered eating to you?" you'd probably say yes. Pouring salt on food, eating really low calories, only indulging in treats when one has "earned" them through some very serious exercise, and experiencing amenorrhea…these are standard warning signs. But maybe we're just too in it to see it when we read it, or if we do it ourselves.
The bloggers Drummond interviewed argue that they're not promoting the behaviors Wilkerson lists, and many mention instead how much they eat ("I ate nearly a loaf of French bread on the hood of my car after the run! And then I had an entire box of pasta…. and that was just for lunch!"). But Wilkerson's comments reveal a difficulty with which healthy living bloggers seem to struggle — how to discuss food and exercise without veering into disordered territory. Another post at Sweet Tater (not one of the "Big Six" blogs) illustrates this difficulty:
A 1/4 cup serving of peanut flour is just 110 calories, which means a 1 Tbsp serving like what I made (it was pretty substantial) is about 50 calories. Whaaaat? It's not like I'm calorie counting or anything… or like I'd skimp on peanut butter if I were. But this, my friends, is some damn news.
Katie may not be calorie-counting, but this really isn't "news" unless someone is. In millennial America, it's become almost impossible to write about health without some dieting or weight-loss tips creeping in — and while women once got the message that they should be skinny by any means necessary, we're now getting the even more contradictory command to be thin but not use any deprivation or unhealthy methods to get there (which is why actresses, models, and now bloggers are forced to brag about eating loaves of bread). Bloggers aren't going to single-handedly free us from this bind, but they can help with one pretty simple change — just stop blogging about weight. Stop posting before-and-after pictures. Stop equating weight loss with health. Don't post weight loss tips or calorie counts. Just take weight out of the equation. Many entries on healthy living blogs already accomplish this, but not all do — and while Drummond may have twisted her subjects' words, she also shed a light on something we need to be talking more about. The specter of skinny is still lurking around the edges of most conversations about women, food, exercise, and health. In a way it's more dangerous now that it's hidden, because women are expected to both be skinny and not care about being skinny. And we need to get rid of that specter — not disguise it under a bunch of euphemisms — if we want to reach true well-being.
The Hunger Diaries: How Health Writers Can Be Putting You At Risk [Marie Claire]
My Rebuttal To Marie Claire [Healthy Tipping Point]
My Response [Meals And Miles]
The Marie Claire Article [Hangry Pants]
Please Blog Responsibly: "The Hunger Diaries" [Hollaback Health]
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