The impossible quest for purity

Sunday morning, church hour, and my family has absconded to grandmother’s. For 60 glorious minutes the house is mine. Against my conscience, I eschew yoga for a bag of sweets and a social media binge, scrolling lazily through a mass of soft-focus Instagram images, noticing the puritan delight with which green juice and seed loaves are paired with hashtags like #whole #clean and #goodness. In contrast, I’m the picture of unfiltered sloth and gluttony. I swallow the first flicker of panic.

Language is a powerful tool. If cleanliness is next to godliness, then it follows that eating “clean” is a shortcut to God, a baptism in wholesome waters and unprocessed glory. “Clean” eating, which employs all manner of semiotic and linguistic gymnastics in its wellness narrative, seduces followers with the promise of unrefined nourishment, a sort of utopian throwback to a gentler era before genetically modified organisms and mass-produced foods.

Although it seems innocuous enough, sensible even, for a person like me, who once enjoyed the control that not eating gave her, pairing food with piety is not just triggering, it’s dangerous.

In an article for the magazine Psychology Today, writer Emily Troscianko wrote that, “by the very nature of the cleanliness metaphor, and the ‘dirty’ world we live in, you will never quite feel you’re eating clean enough; there’ll always be another more arcane or indigestible dietary replacement to give you a shot at entry into that glittering inner circle of wellness.”

By framing eating in a lexicon built on notions of purity, the moral packaging of “clean” eating establishes virtue as its guiding principle and guilt as its cornerstone.

My own relationship with food began with an SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor, a kind of antidepressant) that made me lose weight at university. Teamed with fears of first-year spread, this weight loss woke a monster that craved hunger to survive. It relished the way my scapulae and spine vied for attention. Being too thin felt good, albeit painful; the sharp, clarifying hunger was like a drug and, when one day I couldn’t spoon salad into my mouth without crying, I knew that this thing, this disorder, had developed a life of its own.

Nine years later and I’m a mother who works full time, without domestic help. Like many women in my position, I’m time-poor and exhausted. Coffee and chocolate are fond friends. My house is a mess, I barely shave my legs. Ironically, it’s more than ever that I feel under pressure to present a portrait of domestic control, to maintain a neat house, healthy toddler and pleasing appearance.

Perhaps this was why I tried “clean” eating. Its metaphorical structure connoted an aesthetic purity, a cleansing process far superior to the humble realities of digestion. The “lifestyle” promised flawless skin, a faster metabolism and a happier mindset — tempting for a young mother pining for the creamy cheeks and slim waist of her prepubescence. I was urged to feed my body with “real” foods, not succumb to sugar cravings and refined substances. Raw foods purify, wholesome meals elevate.

But four night-time feeds and a 5am start were hardly the ingredients for a caffeine-free day. Throw in work and traffic, and there was a greater chance of marrying Jon Snow than eating something “wholesome”.

Growing up, I was haunted by the idea of the “good” girl. Good girls were quiet, tidy. They listened in class, smiled and were married before they fell pregnant. They didn’t bare their breasts in public, not even when they breast-fed.

My mother once told me that men would never find a short girl like me a threat, insinuating perhaps that my stature made me more appealing, more edible, somehow, to the fragile male ego. This innate pairing of smallness and goodness is not unique.

But I find that as my body refuses its past incarnations I’m more aware of the destructive marriage of wholesomeness and weight loss. The spiritual undertones in “clean” eating phrases such as “conscious consumption” and “heightened awareness” further ingrain the supposed “goodness” of the diet, a direct hotline to patriarchal God.

“Eating the way nature intended” also sounds a lot like “birthing the way nature intended” and “feeding the way nature intended”. I had an emergency C-section because of complications during an unmedicated vaginal birth at home. The shame and stigma of that “failure” cemented a guilt I have been unable to shake off.

As a kind of curative measure, “clean” eating offered me a new domestic ideal, a way to recoup the moral “value” I lost in failing: first, when I fell pregnant outside of marriage and then again when my birth plan went awry.

Let me clarify: I’m not advocating a takeaway meal plan. My issue is not with self-care, or with eating fresh greens and less meat. I take issue with the virtue assigned to specific foods, which often lacks sound scientific grounds. East London-based dietician Shawn McLaren describes “clean” eating “a fad that came about from the Eighties body-building culture, taking off on the back of social media and hashtagged images of kale and baked chicken breasts”.

He adds that it’s “vague, ambiguous, with very little consistency in the advice available online”.

More experienced clean eaters have advised me that “moderation is everything” and “balance is key”. But there is no balance in a binary; you cannot be both sullied and pure. You are clean or you aren’t.

The inconsistency of this higher-vibrating, ordered ideal is powered by an evangelical fury that made me want to bolt. In a movement that punted listening to one’s body and eating closer to nature (whatever that means), the phrase “keep the hunger at bay” was awfully prevalent, which is just a nice way of saying trick your body into believing it’s not hungry.

But I was tired. I had postpartum depression. I needed self-care, not another test of my womanhood. I didn’t want to be considered a failure because a cheese sandwich lined my stomach, and not purified kale water from the outlying Himalayas.

“Clean” eating cleverly mimics the pattern of disordered eating because the relationship between the signified and the signifier is in constant flux. The goal posts are always shifting to define new expectations, to defy a current norm and develop a new one. Fresh experts emerge and more exotic ingredients are discovered. Where at the heart of the movement one might expect to find meaning, there is instead a vacuum, around which the permeable boundary between what is clean and refined dissolve and solidify at whim.

Eating “clean” is no innovation. It is impossible, for food is neither dirty nor clean. When we treat it as such, it becomes a loaded weapon to use against the body.

I felt oddly smug in the week I ate “clean” — all that yoghurt and avocado. I also felt proud and suspiciously superior, in a way that satisfied the part of me that likes control and weight loss. Scanning the list of “permitted” and “acceptable” ingredients on a clean-eating plan, I realised I was being controlled by my fear of the unspoken unclean. If I wasn’t being a “good” girl and eating wholesome “goodness”, I was somehow defiling my body and, by inference, myself.

“Clean” eating websites and gurus promote homemade salad dressings, almond milks and organic vegetables — a list of ingredients I would need to traipse across town to purchase, screaming toddler in tow, using petrol I can’t afford. I don’t have money for the nuts and legumes and prettily packaged morsels, not when it’s between flax seed or a new bag of nappies. And, if I’m to eat several small meals each day, I would need to spend more time in the kitchen.

If “clean” meals are only available to those who can afford the time and rands to make them, then this is no different from any other diet or movement where health is commoditised, where women are rewarded for curtailing cravings and for hours performing domesticity.

I was raised Catholic. Guilt is an old friend and not someone I want to introduce to my refrigerator, especially now that I like my body again. It’s not healthy to pair remorse with a juice cleanse, or practice yoga out of guilt. Sure, I look and feel better when I’m not eating pizzas every evening.

My aim is not to be prescriptive. If a way of eating and life works for you, then that’s wonderful. But health benefits are no reason to deify food groups. For some people on the verge of disordered eating, or who are still in recovery, a diet can be a shortcut to not eating. I wouldn’t extol the virtues of alcohol around an alcoholic, so neither will I fetishise what was once my obsession.

For women with body insecurities, “clean” eating can be a trendy subterfuge for a problematic relationship with food, a shortcut down the Instagram rabbit hole of “clean” eating hashtag heaven. It’s fertile ground for my existing mental health problems, a quick on-ramp to anorexia hell.

What I have since learnt is that what I eat and how I feel will not be bedfellows, no matter how exclusive the club or how tempting the offer of salvation. For, if the body is a temple, I might argue that “clean” eating places us in mortal danger of fetishising the temple rather than nurturing the spirit.

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