As usual, you guys blow me away. Thanks for the intelligent and very brave comments on yesterday’s post. Big thanks, too, to the many women who emailed privately to say that the image had made them feel nervous about their looks, their age, or their diet. As JL pointed out, the very purpose of that image is to capitalize on some womens’ worst fears—getting older, or not being perceived as “beautiful,”—and use those fears to deter them from plant based eating. I hope that you all feel a little more empowered to resist that kind of messaging.
So, if you’re not caught up, I posted yesterday about a meme that’s been going around. It compares photos of Nigella Lawson and Gillian McKeith; the former looks splendid, while McKeith simply looks caught off guard, and perhaps a little tired. The point of the meme is to say that McKeith, who advocates a mostly plant diet, detoxification, and exercise, looks older than Lawson, who loves some butter, meat and cheese. Slow clap.
If you want a recap of my thoughts and those of my readers, you can check out the post here. Today, I wanted to specifically address the conflation of health and beauty, which is of course the theme that this meme (oops, I rhymed) evokes. In this case, the creator of that meme is arguing either a) that health and beauty are not one in the same, or b) that what is “healthy” is not what popular health gurus claim (plant based food and exercise) but rather a good, old-fashioned, meat n’ potatoes diet. I think he or she—I couldn’t confirm who created it—is saying b), but no matter: the point is that the visual is intended to complicate the idea that eating a healthy diet, full of vegetables, will impart glowing complexion and youthful radiance.
Oddly, I kind of agree. Or rather, I agree that it’s unfair to make presumptions about how a healthy diet will affect one’s appearance. Do I think there’s some truth to the idea that healthy lifestyle habits can help to keep one looking trim and youthful? Sure. Do I think there’s any sort of guarantee? No, not really. I’ve met incredibly healthy women and men who did not necessarily emanate youth, and I’ve met many more women and men who have lifestyle habits I’d call pretty unhealthy (processed food, no exercise, alcohol/nicotine/drug addictions) who appear to be the picture of youthful beauty. Healthy habits may offer some promise of youthfulness and beauty (whatever “beauty” means), but there’s certainly no direct cause and effect relationship.
And it gets more complicated. One of my favorite comments yesterday was from my friend Bitt, who lives with an autoimmune disease and chronic pain. She wrote:
“I think it’s unfair to judge someone on how they look. I have had people say to me “you look awful” when I felt fine, and have other people think I look “great” when I feel absolutely terrible. It’s part of the trouble with an invisible illness. A little make up and some sun exposure can make someone look a lot better but does not heal the inside.”
Very true. Some health conditions manifest themselves outwardly, but a good many don’t. And until you walk in somebody’s proverbial shoes, you truly have no idea how he or she feels from day to day. Remarking upon beauty/appearance as a sign of good health can be very frustrating to those who suffer from silent illnesses.
Finally, my friend Sarah, who used to work at a holistic treatment center, had this to say:
“I saw firsthand the intense pressure for holistic health folks to look a certain way so that people would follow their advice and/or buy their products and supplements. The raw vegan medical doctor with whom I worked for several years frequently got weekly facials, acid peels, and other regular “holistic” aesthetic work done. His argument for doing this (according to my spa friend who administered said peels and facials) was that people would judge his work based on his appearance. When my friend let me in on this, I felt kind of sorry for him, a well-intentioned doctor in his silver years constantly walking around with a puffy red face while he was waiting for his weekly acid peel effects to subside, and a nagging fear that if he got wrinkles or looked less than Hollywood-esque people would be less likely to follow his advice. The doctor encouraged his staff to “stay on point” with their diets, as guests would see us as ‘models of the lifestyle’.”
Sarah, I can relate to this well. When I first got into raw foods, I was a part of several communities of women who were very wrapped up in the notion of “detox.” There was always talk of glowing skin and better hair, tiny waistlines and taught physiques, comments about one’s jean size. Ostensibly, these were seen as marks of good health, but I often felt that the health talk was really there to validate an incredible strain of vanity. Beyond that, I found the very notion that skin, hair, or weight are the measures of good health to be disturbing. Good diet will not necessarily eliminate every pimple or set of crow’s feet, and even if they did, who cares? Good complexion and bright eyes are nice, but they are hardly the most important benefits of a healthy lifestyle.
There is a ton of pressure for people who eat healthy to also look “the part.” It is assumed that healthy vegans and vegetarians will be slim, clear-skinned, and energetic at all times. The truth is that we come in every shape and size, and that we, just like everyone else, have our token dark circles when we’re tired, pimples when we PMS, and wrinkles as we get older. I’ll admit, I’ve been approached by readers when I was particularly exhausted before, and gotten worried: did I look pale? Did I have bags under my eyes? Obviously, those things indicate nothing more than the fact that I’m a full time pre-med student and blogger who doesn’t sleep enough. But the fear is that people will assume my healthy lifestyle habits are ineffectual, or a hoax.
Let’s all do ourselves a favor, and focus on our lifestyle choices not as a way to reverse aging or “get the glow,” but as a means of feeling vibrant, satisfied, and complete. As Carrie wrote,”
“I’ve had so many compliments on my appearance since I became a healthy vegan, but I always try to communicate to people how much better I feel on the inside. True health to me means feeling energetic, vibrant and balanced. What we see on the outside is only one part of the story.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself.
On that uplifting and sane note, I have two winners of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Raw Food Detox! They—randomly generated—are #232, Aimee, and #256, Jackie!! I’ll email you both to get your mailing addresses.
Happy Friday to you all!