Like many things born in the ’70s, the Information Age is not aging well. It started with so much promise in its youth—unlimited access to the collective knowledge of mankind and all that. But now it’s going through a midlife crisis, and instead of just divorcing its wife and buying a Porsche like everyone else, it has decided to reinvent itself as The Propaganda Age.
I think we all get the routine at this point: rhetorically gifted writers and speakers take a story—a political incident, a new ideology concocted by dysfunctional academics, a finding from some research study—shove it through their worldview meat grinder, and serve up the resulting opinion-packed sausage in bite-sized treats for people who are pre-primed to agree with them.
Nowhere is this truer than when it comes to diets.
According to Business Wire, the weight loss industry is $72 billion strong. You’ve got little chance against that. You are facing psychological expertise of unparalleled refinement. Partnering with entertainment media, the weight loss industrydefines beauty for you and plants an unattainable archetype of bodily perfection deep in your mind. It shows you how you fall short and how being less beautiful makes life less fulfilling. And it provides you with myriad, always changing, always “research-based” solutions that will make you, well, not quite beautiful, but at least a few pounds lighter and a couple degrees closer to their ever-receding ideal.
If you’re old enough, you’ll remember the Beverly Hills Diet from the early 1980s, which popularized the magical thinking that by eating foods in certain combinations, your body will finally shed that stubborn belly fat. Most medical experts were skeptical of the Beverly Hills Diet, but that didn’t prevent omnipresent media coverage, which propelled the book promoting its principles to the New York Times bestseller list for 30 weeks. I mean, attractive celebrities were losing weight on this diet—the story had to be told!
Several fad diets later, and we had the carbophobic Atkins Diet dominating media in the early 2000’s (though it was based on a book first published in 1972), followed by its present-day lovechild, the Keto Diet. Keto began as a treatment for pediatric epilepsy (an honorable origin story to be sure) but has gained popularity in recent years for those seeking weight loss via bun-less bacon-cheeseburgers. The Paleo Diet takes its inspiration from The Flintstones, limiting foods to those available prior to modern farming, which basically leaves you with low-hanging fruit and freshly killed meat. The dieting flavor of the week for today’s chic influencers is intermittent fasting—the name kind of makes further explanation redundant, but it’s sort of like Paleo for hunter-gatherers with short arms and poor aim.
We had the South Beach Diet, the Rice Diet, low-fat diets, raw food diets, cleanse-based diets, and let’s not forget Diet Riot, which pairs eating meals with cathartic screaming . . . Alright, I made that last one up (though I wouldn’t be shocked if someone somewhere is trying it), but you get the idea: We will forever be served up new ways of approaching food, usually with the goal of forcing our bodies into new shapes.
Unfortunately, whether these fads lead to weight loss or not, dieting propaganda is leaving a bad aftertaste in our culture’s mouth.
Here is the problem: The restrictive eating inherent in diets treats the body as a separate, inferior part of the human being to be manipulated as desired by the mind, as though the body and mind are in an adversarial relationship. Author Nancy Pearcey, in her book Love Thy Body, critiques the predominant postmodern view of our day in which the body is not only subordinate to the mind, but can be defined as whatever we want it to be, with no anchor in biology, because the body itself can be understood as a social construct in postmodernism.
This amorphous identity construction might sound tempting at first, and though it makes great “be whoever you want to be” material for trite pop songs and logical fallacy-laden TV shows and films, in practice it falls far short of leading to fulfillment. Ignoring the symbiotic design of the body and mind leads not to freedom but to disintegration of the self. Treat the body like a meat sack that we can starve or stuff or over-exercise or under-exercise or alter to remake in our image, and we engage in a Sisyphean civil war that will result in an abused body and alienated mind.
Maybe for you, it will be subtle—a nagging sense that something is off, a less than harmonious relationship with your body. For others, this self-fragmentation can be devastating: anorexia, bulimia, body dysmorphia (obsession with perceived defects in physical appearance), orthorexia (obsession with healthy eating), self-harm, suicide, and other mental illnesses all are thriving among younger and younger people.
So, what’s the solution?
First, regardless of our age, we need to become the old codger who sees all the new trends coming our way and calls them out as a bunch of—pardon my language—donkey dust. You can’t escape the propaganda coming at you, but you can train yourself to identify it for what it is—carefully crafted messaging by psychological experts intending to get your money, control your behavior, and commandeer your power.
Second, simplify. Toss out all the rules you’ve heard about diet and exercise and listen to your body. It was crafted by an omniscient ultramega genius, and it offers constant built-in guidance which should be followed (in partnership with your physician, of course): Feed it when it’s hungry; stop feeding it when it’s satisfied; feed it what it wants and what makes it feel energized. And, don’t forget to take it out for a walk once or twice a day. You would do no less for your dog.
Third, refuse to succumb to the ultimate aim of the Propaganda Age, which is to flood you with ever-changing distractions and thereby fool you into thinking there is no such thing as truth. The Truth is a person, who also happens to be the Way and the Life, who chose to take on a body Himself two thousand years ago because He loves you. The propagandists of the day killed Him, but He rose again, and then chose to stay in a body—yes, a body!—forever. In Him may you find your identity and an integrity between your body and mind that brings you peace.
Sean Coons is the author of Body: or, How Hope Confronts Her Shadow and Calls the Flutter Girl to Flight, an inspirational fiction comedy exploring body image and intuitive eating. SeanCoons.com. Twitter: @seancoons