Clean Eating and Dirty Women

Back in June, Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett wrote a piece in The Guardian about the aesthetic revival of 1950s domesticity and the marketing of “clean eating”. It is a very good piece in that it highlights some aspects of the clean eating rhetoric, especially in regards to similarities with eating disorders. She also expanded on the seemingly rigid gender roles that this return to domesticity appears to promote in what she calls “the rebranding of the feminine in contemporary visual culture”.

I agree with all her premises but I would take it one step further: the marketing of “clean eating” is an extension of historical associations of womanhood with dirt, fear of female sexuality and a desire to control it. Now, before you gather your pitchforks and come at my doorstep to inform me that your specific clean eating is nothing like that, let me make one thing very clear: this is not about individual choices and what consumers prefer to eat or not eat. There is an industry behind the food we eat, the fashion trends we follow and the marketing of ideas. Nothing that we eat is isolated from the rest of our social environment: we buy, we cook, and we consume based on a number of factors among which we are certainly influenced by everything around us. The fact that words like “clean” and “wholesome” are consistently used by brands and mass media organisations is neither innocent nor is it removed from the wider context in which these ideas come to be.

Terror of the insatiable appetite

It is not novel or original to say that in modern food marketing, sexuality and gender are often associated. Foods directed at women (chocolates, ice cream, sweet confections, etc) are, more often than not, marketed with associations to indulgence, sinful experiences, decadence. If you are a woman, to give in to these foods is to give in to the sinful nature of your sexuality. You are not merely consuming sugar, you are also allowing yourself a morsel of sensual consumption. However, no matter how original media professionals might claim to be, the marketing of these foods is usually done with words that in Western Christian tradition have been historically negatively associated with a woman’s sexuality. Women are shrews that lead to sin; experiencing pleasure, particularly of a sensual nature is decadent etc. Back in the Middle Ages, if one had money, one could buy a Papal “indulgence”. Sins could be forgiven by decree and the concept of “indulgence” became one where the “sinner” could allow him or herself to act on these base instincts to be later redeemed by the purchase of a pardon. The word “diet” itself is derived from the latin word “dieta” which simultaneously described the Assemblies of the Sacred Roman Empire nobility with the Catholic Church and “daily food allowances”. In more recent times, people like John Harvey Kellogg created entire industries marketing wholesome foods as an antidote to impure sexual thoughts and as vehicles to promote Christian based fear and control of sexuality. His terror of unbound female sexuality went as far as prescribing the application of pure carbolic acid (phenol) to the clitoris to “quiet” women’s arousal. All of this to say that in dominant Christian cultures, at the very least from the Middle Ages if not earlier, food has always been about sex, gender and morality.

In this context of naturalized associations of food and Christian morals “clean eating” emerges as a trend, a marketing gimmick directed mostly at women. It is unsurprising that there is no clear definition of what constitutes “clean eating” just like there has never been a clear definition of what constitutes a “good woman”. Both “clean eating” and being a “good woman” are then ever moving goal posts that change depending on who uses the definition and the political needs of the moment. This much we can say, though: just like with definitions of what constitutes a “good woman”, “clean eating” consists of foods that are either widely consumed by white middle and upper classes or “ethnic” foods that have been absorbed by the white middle and upper classes (think quinoa, hummus). To be considered “good and wholesome” a woman needs to meet certain class, racial and aesthetical criteria. Whiteness, wealth, physical and mental health, able bodied, upholding specific set of moral values, a self expression that conforms to mainstream notions of beauty and style, a heterosexual desirability that conforms to mainstream and mostly Christian notions of modesty and self control, be a productive member of society (whatever that means), cis gender… All of these (and more that would be too tedious to list) need to be met in order to be considered a “good woman”. Whatever deviates from these rigid requirements is usually viewed with suspicion, either “not good at all” or “not good enough”. Within these exceedingly oppressive expectations to be a “good woman”, “clean eating” and wholesome foods are marketed for and by white, upper and middle class people usually through an idealized version of the same kind of “good woman” we are supposed to emulate and aspire to be. Because being or becoming a “good woman” is set from the start as an ever moving target, media and product marketing come in to fill the void. We would all be there if we just do this one thing that would make us “good and wholesome”.

That “clean eating” is promoted as something aspirational for mostly wealthy white women doesn’t of course, preclude people of color, working class or poor people from consuming “clean foods” or participating in clean eating related media. It’s just that the foods that originate from cultures other than white and wealthy will almost never be assimilated into the clean eating trend in their original incarnation. A rich Asian stew will have to be tailored for the mostly white upper and middle class palate; a Caribbean dish will have to be reworked into something appealing to suburban consumers, etc. Only when a food product or dish has been stripped of its fatty, sugary, extremely spicy or rich nature is it allowed to enter the “clean eating” mainstream. Ethnic or cultural markers become diluted, absorbed by the aspirational industry that wants us “good and wholesome”, “clean” and preferably docile.

Another quality of “clean eating” is that it is either very low fat or entirely fat free. “Skinny” used as a compliment for thin/ slim women and as a qualifier of clean food. Skinny as the peak of mainstream sexual desirability. The thin, fat free woman then, in a rhetoric house of mirrors becomes the “clean” woman opposed to the fat, dirty woman that lacks self control and does not abide by the clean eating standards. To consume “clean foods” is to either be or desire to be thin and clean, rid of the dirty fats that never make a “good wholesome woman”. In the same vein, “clean eating” used as a synonym of “healthy” which invariably leads to the association of lack of health with dirt, impurity or degradation. The subtext of clean eating is that to be either fat, unhealthy or suffering from chronic health issues, is to be defiled, unsanitary and corrupt.

Now that for cis gender women vaginal douches have fallen out of fashion, the demand for a “cleanse” is of a somewhat different nature. The vaginal douche was marketed as a means to not be disgusting to men. Vaginas were dirty by nature, smelly, the receptacles of all of women’s unclean sexuality. The douche promised to rid the vagina of its very nature rendering it attractive for the heterosexual penis. It is no coincidence that while anal sex, anal play and anal related porn directed at cis gender heterosexuals are on the rise, the demand for cis women’s cleanliness extends further outside the vagina. In a piece originally posted at Alternet (mirrored at Salon), Kali Holloway writes:

By 2005 […] 35% of women and 40% of men between the ages of 25 and 44 said they’d had anal sex at least once. By the time the CDC again posed the question in 2006–2008 to 13,495 people between the ages of 15 and 44, heterosexual anal sex was more popular than ever. Forty-four percent of men and 39 percent of women had engaged in straight anal sex, a leap that seems nothing short of impressive.

Correlation does not imply causation but these two graphics of google trends offer an interesting insight of the cultural context in which the discourses around clean food take place:

Simultaneously with the rise of all things anal sex, there is a steady increase in foods and diets that focus on, through lack of a less vulgar choice of words “clean shitting”. Now, women are also expected to clean their bowels, rid themselves of “toxins”, turn faeces as odorless as vaginas should be. Cleanses or, “Master cleanses” as they are usually referred to are supposed to “purify” the bowels. “Clean eating” presented as the aspiration of healthy gut bacteria that leads to odorless shit and a properly hygienic woman who increases her sexual desirability.

Our collective imaginations have always had a place for the terror inspired by women of insatiable appetites: the woman of lose morals, unbridled desire, uncontrolled passion. Her yearning in direct opposition to the wholesome ideal; the dirty woman who is the ultimate “man eater”. The antithetical “good woman” who is modest while battling a sexuality which is not only easily satiated but exists purely to please her heterosexual, cis gender male partner. She is desirable only in so far as it serves to satisfy her man; her appetites only aroused when needed to engage in normative sexual activities. Her food consumption demure, restrained, wholesome with the rare bits of permissible indulgence. The marketing and promotion of clean eating, master cleanses or wholesomeness are nothing more than the new old way to sell us an unattainable aspiration of docility.