A 5 minute Juice with Academic Emily Contois PhD
Posted on October 26th, 2017
It gives me great pleasure to introduce Emily Contois as this weeks 5 minute juice.
Emily is a ballerina turned food, health and diet culture expert. She has studied everything from Medical Humanities, Public Health Nutrition and even Gastronomy at Boston University, a programme which was co founded by none other than the Julia Child.
Throughout her career Emily has published numerous papers including “Guilt-Free and Sinfully Delicious: A Contemporary Theology of Weight Loss Dieting” “‘Lose Like a Man:’ Gender and the Constraints of Self-Making in Weight Watchers Online” and “The Dudification of Diet: Food Masculinities in Twenty-First-Century America.”
Without further ado here’s Emily…
So Emily, I always start off with this question, you can invite 4 other people to dinner and they can be real, fictional, dead or alive, who would they be?
It would be delightful to have four guests, but three women I’ve been thinking about a lot lately and would love to have all alive and around one table would be Julia Child (author of Mastering the Art of French Cooking and a brilliant food world luminary), Betty Friedan (author of The Feminine Mystique and an icon of the women’s rights movement), and Jean Nidetch (one of the founders of Weight Watchers and a fascinating, complicated spokeswoman). They all introduced revolutionary perspectives into women’s lives in the 1960s, but in very different ways. I can only imagine the conversations we’d have!
Emily you’ve conducted a wealth of research relating to food, body image and diet culture. At what point in your academic career did you become fascinated in these issues?
I’ve been interested in these issues for a very long time and started researching them more than a decade ago in my honours thesis at the end of my undergraduate studies. I was initially interested in nutrition science and dietetics, but quickly expanded to take a more interdisciplinary approach to understanding how, what, and why we eat the way that we do—and what larger stories food can tell us.
You spent over decade training as a ballet dancer. What kind of impact did this have on your relationship with food and your body?
Ballet was the first great love of my life. Starting from when I was eight years old, I spent many years training very seriously to become a professional ballet dancer. I remember this giant book of ballet technique that I had as a girl. One page clearly outlined the ideal physical qualities of a ballet dancer, everything from a small head, a long neck, and well-arched feet to thighs and calves of approximately the same size. That wasn’t a body that I naturally had, so my years of ballet training certainly wrecked havoc on my relationship with food and my body.
As a young child, ballet was compulsory for both my younger brother and I. I’m fairly certain this is still very much true in certain schools in the UK. Do you think there are any precautions that should be taken with this? Perhaps ballet like fashion could do with a Health at every size approach?
I think ballet in a setting like that can be profoundly useful, if the focus remains on moving the body and celebrating the shapes it can make, rather than emphasizing the shape and size of the body itself. Ballet can be wonderful training for school-age children not only for developing a habit of joyful and consistent physical movement early on in life, but also for cultivating a sense of musicality and performance. And if encouraged in a balanced way, the discipline that ballet training fosters is useful for motivating all sorts of endeavours throughout one’s life. In these various ways, dance training helps me quite a lot now with public speaking, lecturing, teaching, and research.
You wrote your honours thesis on the language of the dieting industry. Can you tell us a little bit about this research and how it made you feel towards these industries?
I examined the language of the diet industry in the late 1990s and early 2000s, drawing from diet books, women’s magazines, and chain restaurant “diet” menus. I titled it “Revealing the Darker Side of Dieting: Using Eating Disorders to Keep Americans Fat and Coming Back for More.” I’m not sure I’d still choose that title, but what I concluded then (and continue to believe now) is that the diet industry is not about promoting individual eaters’ “success” with weight loss, if we can even call it that. The diet industry literally profits from the failure of diets to promote long-term “results” and stands to benefit from individuals’ damaged relationships with food and their bodies.
I sometimes think there’s a struggle between identifying diet culture and realising its pervasive and harmful effects, and then using this to actually not get affected by it. I hope I’m making sense, like knowing it’s there’s one thing but then actually being able to remove oneself from it and not getting bogged down in it can be another. Do you have any tips?
This is so difficult to articulate because of the very nature of diet culture; that it is all around us in our everyday lives, constantly reinforcing damaging messages. In many ways, the critical thinking skills that I teach my students are part of what we all need as we engage with aspects of our consumer culture, like diet culture.
In my classes, we talk a lot about questioning a proposition’s underlying, foundational assumptions. For example, diet culture assumes thinness is good. Why is that? Through what historical, social, economic, and political processes did that come to be so? How does the logic of thinness create a binary opposition with what types of bodies are not good?
In my work, I’ve written about moralized chains of consumption, from the categorization of particular foods as good or bad, which then shape understandings of good/bad eating, good/bad eaters, and good/bad people. We can break those assumptions down at any level and work to break free from the moral logics of diet culture. But that is hard work! Sometimes we need reminders and to be refreshed in new ways of thinking to break out of these destructive cycles.
Your PHD dissertation was entitled “The Dudification of Diet: Food Masculinities in Twenty-First-Century America.” Despite the fact eating disorders and problems of body image have been traditionally seen as “female”, we’re increasingly seeing men being included in the conversation. Would you argue that men face increasing pressure to look and eat a certain way, or has this always been around?
Over the course of the twentieth century, men have definitely started facing increasing pressure to achieve an impossible physical ideal, akin to the thin ideal for women. Ideal body types for men have certainly existed for much longer than that though. For example, the physical culture movement of the nineteenth century popularised a muscular male form and an earlier wave of bodybuilding. Recent sociological research shows that men’s dissatisfaction with their bodies may now be as widespread as it is for women. There’s certainly a convergence in how ideal bodies are constructed in culture and the degree to which men and women each experience that, though differences certainly remain in how these bodily ideals are experienced. Fat stigma significantly affects men, even as it has oppressed women more.
I’d love to hear a little bit about your research findings of this project too?
My dissertation analysed food phenomena generally considered “feminine” in American culture—like diet sodas, yogurts, diet books, weight loss programs, cookbooks, and food television. I looked at specific versions of these phenomena that were developed and marketed to men in the U.S. between 2000 and 2016 to see how these food producers and marketers negotiated definitions of gender in that process.
More than just food and weight loss companies jockeying for market share, I argue that these new food phenomena marked the beginning of a gender “crisis” and the rise of dude masculinity. Dude masculinity celebrates the average (or even below average!) guy. At the same time, however, it remains complicit in normative masculinity’s overall structure of social inequality.
I’m interested in how dude masculinity communicates not only apprehensions about gender, but also about consumption—not just what we eat, but what we buy, and how we relate our sense of self in and through the broader consumer culture. At the same time that these foods and food phenomena emerged, American social life was influenced by a variety of factors, including increasing concerns about terrorism, border control, immigration, same-sex marriage, race relations, new media, and neoliberalism. Despite decades of social progress toward gender equality, these recent changes have resulted in the reactionary shoring up of gendered categories—like the emergence of dude masculinity. I’m exploring these complex and contradictory sociocultural processes by studying how media depict food and the body.
How do you think we can best prepare younger generations growing up with social media and the likes to appreciate their bodies and not pander to diet culture?
I said in a talk recently that whether our bodies are fat or thin or anywhere in between is the least interesting thing about any of us. What makes us interesting, powerful, engaging, and worthwhile are our ideas, our capacities for understanding, our convictions, our generous spirits, etc. It’s a tough task sometimes to be in our bodies and not be critical of them, but it’s important to let that focus on our bodies go, so that we can use that mental and emotional energy to focus on the many other things in our lives that deserve our attention. With that in mind, I’d encourage folks to craft the social media environment that they want to be part of, one that supports their goals and that fills their feeds with thoughtful, beautiful, and inspiring images and content. There’s a difference between protecting yourself from toxic messaging and still remaining open to challenging viewpoints and informed debate.
What is your own personal approach to food and your body?
I depend upon some automatic habits—like walking a couple of miles just about every morning with my dog and always eating breakfast—to structure my day, but from there, I just strive for balance and moderation and what brings me joy. I don’t meet that goal every day—and have even experienced stretches of time where meeting that goal isn’t feasible—and I’ve learned to be okay with that too.
Finally, what would be your last meal on Earth?
Oh gosh that’s an impossible thing to choose! I guess I’m stuck between two very different responses. One is just a really fantastic bread. I’ve always loved bread. So much. My first job was at a bagel shop. Part of me hoped it might quell my bagel obsession, but it remains intact. So, I’d be perfectly happy to go out on the note of a lovely, bready something.
On the other hand, I’m a sucker for a chef’s tasting menu, prepared by a chef you actually know, who takes you on this gorgeous, improvisational journey of flavours and textures. So maybe what I want is an amazing set of breads to start and then an incredible menu from the imagination and talents of a wonderful chef for whom feeding me would be a final act of love and commensality.