Why digestion is a gendered realm...
Somewhere amidst ‘no chemicals allowed’ and ‘protein fortified madness’ one health trend emerged from wellness that actually had a pretty positive effect on innovations in food: gut health. Over the past few years, there’s been a huge surge in interest around the previously very unsexy subject which, along with introducing us to kombucha, making dairy cool again, and ameliorating fibre-rich carbohydrates, served to shed some of the misplaced taboo around toilet troubles. Driven by increasing reports of digestive discomfort in the population paired with a rapid growth in research into the gut microbiome, the market for gut-lovin’ is now at an all-time high and shows no sign of declining anytime soon. But despite the fact that digestion is a universal process we all have to contend with, there’s something about its narrative that is perhaps a little less indiscriminate…
Look up the term ‘gut health’ currently in mainstream media and you’ll be treated to pages and pages of slim, naked, pale and toned torsos. The standard adverts on TV portray carefree young women seductively spooning probiotic yoghurt over girl talk, marching bikini clad for a bowl of All Bran by the pool, and analogising their healthy bowel movements to decluttering unnecessary crap that’s been piling up in handbags since 1993. They make gut health look exceedingly attractive, aspirational and infinitely more palatable than a straight-talking textbook diagram of the digestive system. But with more feminine stereotypes than a 90s American sitcom, as these gendered representations infiltrate the space of health, food, nutrition and pharmaceuticals, they prompt some rather troubling reflections.
Within these images lies the aesthetic ideal of what is conventionally perceived to be a ‘correct’ body: slender, white and silent. It’s hard to miss the blatant sexualisation and objectification of female bodies, as women are diminished to merely a sum of well-functioning parts, and their ‘goodness’ judged by how attractive those parts appear laid bare. An absence of inner error rewards external muteness, or as some see it, flawlessness. The fact that these bodies are without fat, stretch marks or even a hint of after-dinner bloat then not only means to signify their wellbeing, but also commends appropriate bodily ‘management’ which women are expected to engage in, echoing a wider cultural belief that health, beauty and femininity are one and the same. Through this lens, women’s physical insecurities are transformed into health anxieties, and ‘imperfections’ made into functional impairments.
Of course though, beauty is socially constituted, and the images we see are governed by Western thin and white ideals that are impossible for most women to achieve. But if looking ‘good’ like this is considered symbolic of feeling well, the body shaming implicit in these representations is a powerfully persuasive and especially harmful message when presented under the guise of health promotion.
Research has shown that individuals suffering from functional gastrointestinal disorders, such as IBS, experience exacerbated body image dissatisfaction, attributed to society’s fixation of thinness as a necessary standard of attractiveness. This worry and psychological distress is strongly correlated with IBS symptoms, which some say indicates that body image pressures can be a contributing factor to digestive disorders. So body ideals not only damage self esteem, but actually have the potential to make our gut health worse, creating a viscous and never-ending cycle.
Inevitably in our size obsessed culture then, gut health has become conflated with weight loss initiatives, as more and more people embark on dietary interventions geared towards treating serious bowel conditions in an attempt to get the perfect flat stomach. Gluten free remains one of the largest growing areas in the food and drink market, though it was reported that 82% of those avoiding gluten haven’t received a diagnosis for celiac disease that would warrant its exclusion on a medical basis. And, more recently, the low FODMAP diet, a clinical tool used to identify trigger foods for IBS, has been given a lot of attention by women’s magazines this year as the secret to beating belly bloat and revealing hidden abs. Indeed, many people do successfully lose weight when following diet interventions such as these, as restriction of food groups necessarily creates a caloric deficit. But these techniques pose a serious threat to health if sustained for a longer period.
When speaking to Dr Megan Rossi, Registered Dietitian and Research Associate at King’s College London, about the implications of these aesthetic motivations underlying diet attempts, she said this: ‘Cutting out any food group or following a restrictive diet significantly increases your risk of a nutrient deficiency. Doing so should only be done short term for a specific purpose with guidance from a qualified healthcare professional i.e to identify food intolerance.’ Moreover, for those who do successfully shift a few pounds using these diets, the results are likely short lived. Megan says ‘If weight loss is your goal, cutting out food groups is unlikely to lead to long term weight loss according to research studies.’
Though I’ve primarily focused on images of gut health here, language also plays into its feminine aesthetic. From the reproductive and menstrual discourse mediated in talk of digestive passage, flow, and motility, to domestic discourses of plumbing, being blocked, plugged or backed up – the undertones of prudishness undoubtedly not lost on those who cultivated this dialogue. These ideas align with archaic remedies noted in the historical writings of (male) doctors, such as Richard Epps, who stated that ‘light household occupations are advantageous; dusting ornaments, picture-frames, etc […] has a beneficial influence on the abdominal walls and the contained viscera’ (1848). Others claimed that gut symptoms could be alleviated through marriage – of course, a condition of which was attractiveness and subservience.
There is a strong sense that control is central to the management of gut health, not just of physical symptoms but of femininity. A lack of control diminishes identity as a women, her ability to secure love with her beauty, her ability to manage household affairs and chores through bodily control. Her appearance is everything to her status and social role, and it is only through mastering the thin ideal can she be validated as a woman. But there is something else that excessive control over the body and diet signifies. Disorder.
Is the current rhetoric of gut health providing another platform diet culture’s promotion of disordered eating? Maybe. It certainly seems as though its preoccupation with elimination, micro-management and aesthetics absolutes presents strong reason to believe that, like many healthy eating trends, feeds an unhealthy relationship with food. This isn’t to say that tending to gut health is negative nor that we should be discouraged from practices that support digestive functioning and alleviate discomfort. But it’s always worth reflecting on whether our intentions are really rooted in health, or more superficial agendas that can impair rather than improve our quality of life.
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