LONDON — “There’s not a single part of my body that I’d want to change, even if I could,” a woman commented to me the other night at dinner.
“Liar,” I wanted to say back.
My dinner partner correctly observed that the real culprit in the scandal was body image: the idea sold to all of us that we’re meant to look a certain way. And the horrific lengths to which we go — vomiting, starving ourselves, paying inordinate amounts of money to plastic surgeons to add or subtract a curve — to comply with that ideal.
But I don’t really think there’s a single one of us — certainly not female — who hasn’t fallen prey to the lures of an Atkins Diet, a Slim Fast regime or a Weight Watchers program at some point. I have one friend who couldn’t contain her delight when she discovered that her anti-depressant doubled as a dieting pill. “A twofer!” she exclaimed to me giddily over the phone.
Which is why I was heartened to learn about today’s anti-dieting march in front of the British Parliament. Spearheaded by a campaign called Ditching Dieting, the protest is intended to highlight “the toxic nature of diets to our physical and mental health.” And what better way to do so than by encouraging women to bring along diet plans, slimming magazines, calorie counters, and any other dieting gimmicks they’ve amassed over the years and dump them in a hazardous waste bin outside Parliament?
The demonstration is timed to coincide with an ongoing parliamentary inquiry into body image in the United Kingdom, including the problems of anorexia, obesity and self-harm. Over the past few months, parliamentarians have been grilling diet companies, psychologists, advertisers and ministers on how to tackle the problem. At today’s hearing, groups such as Weight Watchers will be presenting their side of the story.
In part, this protest is meant to attack such groups for faulty advertising. Although one in three people in the United Kingdom strives constantly to lose weight, research from the United States shows that only 5 percent of dieters manage to keep the weight off permanently.
If today’s protest were merely about the efficacy of diet plans, I’d be far less sympathetic. But the message behind the protests is much broader and much more global than that. At a recent summit of Endangered Species — the organization that is sponsoring Ditching Dieting — writer Susie Orbach put it this way: “We want every girl to grow up feeling a matter-of-fact right to her body without attack, without self-criticism, without being watchful.”
And not just girls in the West. The commercial exploitation of the body by the beauty, dieting, fashion and pharmaceutical industries, Orbach noted, is one of our most “nefarious exports.” “We can measure modernity,” she said, “through the rise of disordered eating in the developing world.”
The statistics speak for themselves. In the United Kingdom alone, half of girls and a third of boys age 14 have already dieted to change their body shape. My 8-year-old daughter gazes down at her stomach constantly, asking me if I think it has shrunk from the day before.
And, of course, it isn’t just kids. So-called midlife anorexia is on the rise. In the United States, treatment centers have seen a significant uptick in the number of women seeking treatment later in life — from their 30s to their 60s. I just learned that a childhood friend of mine who was hospitalized for anorexia in junior high has had to be re-hospitalized in her mid-40s.
So I salute those women gathered outside Westminster today tossing “Enter the Zone” into the rubbish heap.
I only wish I could burn Jenny Craig in effigy alongside them.
Delia Lloyd is a London-based journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Times, the International Herald Tribune, the Financial Times and the Guardian. Previously, she was a correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter at @RealDelia.