Takedown: My diet is making me beautiful. Also known as: I am better than you.

This week’s takedown has been making the rounds in the form of a picture. Author, raw-food enthusiast, and PETA celebrity from 2010 Mimi Kirk is pictured on the left, and an elderly woman labeled “unknown” is pictured on the right. The text: “They are both 73 years old. Can you guess which one is a vegan? That’s right, Mimi Kirk, voted as PETA’s sexiest vegetarian over 50!”

Vegan
Look! Vegans are beautiful and everybody else is just old.

And, I think in response, another picture has been created and shared. Same idea, only this one shows Gillian McKeith, a 51-year-old “health guru,” and Nigellea [sic] Lawson, also 51, “who eats meat, butter and desserts.” Nigella looks like she is headed to the Oscars, and Gillian looks like she just rolled out of bed. Oooh. Burn.

Antivegan
Look! Meat eaters are beautiful and vegans are just old.

First: the premise is absurd. Both sets of pictures are problematic from the very first glance. Mimi is compared to “unknown.” If they don’t know her name, how do they know she’s 73? How do we know what kind of food she eats? Maybe she is a 119-year-old who eats only steak and cheese fries, and yet looks 40 years younger. If the person on the right is unknown, the picture fails immediately.

And the second one is equally problematic. Nigella Lawson is a beautiful woman. So is Gillian McKeith. The picture of Gillian was a screenshot from the reality TV show I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here – of course she looks haggard and tired. That’s the point of the show. Here is a different picture:

Gillian McKeith
Picture courtesy of http://www.zimbio.com/

I’m not advocating comparing women based on looks, but if the premise of the photo is going to be taken at face value, at least compare apples to apples. Makeup+hair+dress is quite different than on-the-set-of-a-reality-show-intended-to-make-you-look-like-shit.

So both pictures fail from the get-go, but for some reason, they are still circulating. That reason relies heavily on a lack of critical thinking skills, but it also falls hard on the desire of many people to believe that their way of eating is the best and only option.

Food has become a contentious issue in our society, and rightly so. Advertisements teach my kid to think of me as some idiot who doesn’t understand kids’ needs (sugar), McDonald’s is the only place I can go to for an indoor playground, the chemicals that are in processed foods are enough to turn your stomach. I think a lot about the food we eat, I read labels, I research antioxidants. The food industry is so powerful and overwhelming that to forge a path that is counter to what the advertisements tell you is a daily battle. One of my vegan friends (who, by the way, I didn’t know was vegan until she told me about this exchange) was confronted by a coworker for always talking about veganism. “I have to eat every day,” she said. “I have to think about how to accomodate my diet all the time.”

To fight the food industry, even on a simple, individual level, is to constantly struggle, to never let your guard down. It is completely natural to look for validation that what we are fighting for is worth the effort. Nobody wants to spend their entire life denying themselves the easy route only to find out that there were zero benefits. Thus, the stereotype of the “smug vegan” emerges: not necessarily because the person wants to be smug, but because the person needs to know that their way is the best way. And pictures like the first one above go viral.

But food is such an individual choice, and such a personal issue, that it is equally difficult to not want to push back against the original picture. Oh yeah? I see your picture of Mimi Kirk and raise you one Nigella Lawson.

So who is right? Which side wins in this battle?

Everybody loses.

Even if the pictures weren’t absurd, even if they were valid representations of what they are supposed to be representing, the logic is just wrong.

Let’s start with the aging process. Eating a low-fat, whole-food, vegan diet has been shown to be have an effect on the aging process (the same can be achieved, according to this article, with: exercise training, soluble fiber, insulin sensitizers, appetite suppressants, and agents such as flax lignans, oral estrogen, or tamoxifen that decrease hepatic synthesis of IGF-I). Eating lots of fruits and vegetables, especially brightly colored ones, can also make you appear younger. Diet definitely plays a role in what you look like as you age.

But it is a minor role. We are starting to understand the role of heredity in the aging process, and it is huge. Change one gene in a worm, and the worm lives ten times as long. Werner Syndrome, a genetic disease, causes premature aging. Extreme longevity in humans is, it turns out, genetic. Other things that can be done to make you look less aged, according to Discovery Health: eating well, exercising, antioxidants, Renova creams, skin treatments, hormone replacement therapy, and human growth hormone therapy.

A vegan woman in her seventies who looks like she is in her forties can thank her parents for her genes, her personal trainer for her fitness, her dermatologist for skin treatment, her doctor for hormones, and her vegan diet (provided she is getting a certain amount of antioxidants, fruits, and vegetables). A meat-eating woman in her seventies who looks like she is in her forties can thank her parents for her genes, her personal trainer for her fitness, her dermatologist for skin treatment, her doctor for hormones, and her meat-eating diet (provided she is getting a certain amount of antioxidants, fruits, and vegetables).

The problem is deeper, though. Both sets of pictures are trying to prove that a specific lifestyle is the right path to choose. How can you tell? Beauty.

There are lots of reasons to eat vegan. There are lots of reasons to eat meat. There are lots of reasons that it’s your own business what you eat. But beauty? Really? That’s what’s going to prove the point? “Eat the way I tell you to for your whole life and you could look like this”? Because I’ll tell you right now that I’m not going to look like any of the women pictured, regardless of what I eat, nor is that my goal.

In the scholarly literature, “successful aging” is defined in various ways, but the most common are “age (young-old), nonsmoking, and absence of disability, arthritis, and diabetes”¦ greater physical activity, more social contacts, better self-rated health, absence of depression and cognitive impairment, and fewer medical conditions.” We spend our entire lives being told that beautiful people are better than ugly people. Can’t we let go of that in old age? Please?

One could argue that the women in the photographs are a “picture of health” and therefore, the point is not beauty, but health. But beauty and health are not the same, no matter how many people try to tell you differently. From an article published by John Hopkins University Press, “A Picture of Health? Unmasking the role of appearance in health”:

The majority of university students in one study believed that a tan makes them look healthy, concern about weight gain is a common barrier to smoking cessation, and exercise enthusiasts may focus more on looking healthy than on being healthy, using a range of potentially dangerous drug and dietary regimens to achieve a healthy look.

Somebody who is going to tanning, smoking, using speed, injecting steroids is not necessarily (or even probably) more healthy than a pale, non-smoking, chubby person who works out to get strong.

Beyond that, if the goal is successful aging, a focus on appearance makes people less likely to succeed when they decide to change their diets.

So. The viral pictures are stupid in their content, they ignore enormous chunks of the puzzle when it comes to aging, they once again conflate beauty with health, and they are trying to prove a point that will ultimately make it harder for people to move to their side if they end up being swayed.

I rest my case.

 

Published by

Susan

I am old and wise. Perhaps more old than wise, but once you're old, you don't give a shit about details anymore.

44 thoughts on “Takedown: My diet is making me beautiful. Also known as: I am better than you.”

  1. I’ve said it before: I don’t think food should ever be moralized, for any reason.  Life is long, life is hard.  Food is the stupidest shit to argue over.  All things being (hypothetically) fair and equal, I get to care about my comfort and happiness over anyone and anything else’s, and you get to feel the same way about yourself.

  2. I’m hoping I manage a coherent reply. Apologies if not.

    I’m not vegan, or vegetarian but there are food choices I’ve made that bring about the strangest reactions at times. For me, it’s a case of not eating red meat and not drinking coffee, soft drinks or alcohol. For some reason, not consuming these things is perceived by some as a judgement on their own habits, when it is simply a personal choice. I do occasionally (IE every few months) have coffee or soft drinks, but I haven’t had alcohol for six years. When I do have those things, as I said, it is a personal choice.

    When it comes to people being smug, I think it goes two ways. There are times when people mistake someone’s comfort with their own choices as undermining their own choice. But that’s where it’s different choices for different people. There are then, of course, people who are smug in that they present their choice as being the better choice.

    In short: very interesting article. Thank you, Susan.

  3. One of my vegan friends (who, by the way, I didn’t know was vegan until she told me about this exchange) was confronted by a coworker for always talking about veganism. “I have to eat every day,” she said. “I have to think about how to accomodate my diet all the time.”

    THIS THIS THIS THIS THIS.

    I feel like when veg*ns get accused of being smug it’s 99% of the time because they were simply trying to find out whether or not they could eat something, or it’s because someone asked about their food. Or they were having a regular conversation about a meal, but because that meal was vegan they were bragging or judging. If someone came over and said, “man, I had the best burger yesterday,” most replies would be something like, “really? What was so great? Where did you get it?” But if someone comes up and says, “I had the best plate of roasted vegetables and seitan yesterday,” the response would be more along the lines of, “why are you telling me this? You’re smug! I love meat!”

    Sigh. I’m not even a vegan, I’m a vegetarian (who tried to eat vegan meals when they are available), and I get so sick of this.

    1. I’m not a vegan and occasionally eat meat, but I honestly believe that a lot of the charges of vegans being “smug” are really reflections of guilt on the part of meat-eaters. It’s much easier to criticize vegans than to confront the very real issues of systematic animal cruelty and sustainability.

      That’s not to say that smug or self-righteous vegans don’t exist–of course they do–but their existence doesn’t negate the issues.

      1. This is my opinion of the matter too. People feel that if you have made a decision for a moral reason, and they have not come to the same decision, you must be passing judgement on them for their lack of morality. Because opting out of eating meat is tied to animal welfare activism, a lot of people feel like the vegetarians and vegans of the world MUST be judging them for eating animals. Chances are though if someone brings up their diet it’s just that they want to make sure a food option is available that they can eat. I get the same grief when I explain that I don’t eat meat on Fridays during Lent. I am not being a smug Catholic, I’m just trying to eat on my own terms.

    2. You’re absolutely right, and I remember when I was a vegetarian running into things like this.

      I apologize if I offended you when I was talking about vegan smugness downthread; I was talking about instances in which I was specifically talking to someone about the ethics of food and diet. I in no way meant that to refer to all vegans, nor criticize someone’s choices.

  4. Great article. I’m not a vegan, but I am a vegetarian (and have been for almost a decade) and I get so.unbelievably.tired of having to explain my lifestyle/diet to people. I’m also a bit of a health nut, so if you visit me at my home you’re likely to see me cooking with coconut oil, drinking greens mixed in water, making my own fruit and veggie juice, and taking apple cider vinegar. I have wild cherry bark syrup and echinacea and  keep medicinal herbs on my windowsill. I do these things because I enjoy living a somewhat-natural, healthy lifestyle and I really feel like it keeps me healthy. I feel younger and healthier than I have since high school. My skin is clearer, my hair looks healthier, I finally lost my baby weight.

    BUT. My lifestyle and dietary choices are just that – mine. All of our bodies are different, and we all respond well to different things. Just because lots of fruits and veggies and not eating meat works for me does not mean that someone else will feel their best with the same lifestyle. My husband craves the protein in meat, and though he’s tried, he cannot hack it as a vegetarian. So he eats meat, and I’d never think of judging him for it. My Dad occasionally ‘goes raw’ and eats all raw foods. And yet, he’d never judge me or anyone else for throwing our food in a frying pan before eating it. I have vegan friends who will eat meat a couple of months out of the year because they like turkey at Thanksgiving. I know meat eaters who give up meat for Lent. I know people who subsist on lots and lots of junk food, and people who won’t allow a boxed meal in their house for fear of ‘processed foods’. And you know what? All of us are equal, all of us are making choices that are right for us and our bodies. I don’t have time or interest in judging anybody else for what they choose to eat. How on earth does their food choices affect me? Unless they are cooking a pork chop right under my nose and forcing me to inhale, it doesn’t have any bearing on my life.

    I’ve had people criticize me for being “difficult” when going out because I want to go to places that cater to vegetarians. In turn, I’ve had more smug vegan/vegetarian friends tell me that I’m not disciplined enough because I’ll occasionally order side dishes that I suspect have broth in them without asking too many questions. I’ve had people sneer at me for cooking meat for my husband and suggest that I’m not a “real vegetarian” because a real vegetarian would never cook meat. I’ve been told that by owning leather products (even though I don’t really buy them new) that I’m a traitor to the animal rights cause. I’ve been told that I’m too thin/too fat/look pale/look sickly/could use a steak so many times I can’t count. When I was heavier, it was suggested that I ate too many carbs and sweets to make up for the meat and I should put lean fish and chicken into my diet for weight loss. Now that I’ve lost weight, people are always telling me I’m too thin and my diet is unhealthy and that I should eat some steak or bacon and fatten myself up. None of this advice has ever been solicited. I’m tired of the jokes, the spitefulness that some people have against vegetarians…you so much as mention that you don’t eat meat and they go out of their way to make sure you know that they will be enjoying a giant kielbasa for dinner or whatever…and those people who get mad at PETA and say, “they make me so mad I feel like eating foie gras just to spite them”. None of it is nice. None of it is respectful. All of it is judgy.

    Live and let eat, people! And STFU about others food choices. They are all valid. And none of them are your business but your own.

  5. Superbly-articulated point. I don’t think one can ever discount the significance of genetics. Looking at my mother and grandmother, it’s pretty clear how I’ll look when I’m 50 and 85. Yes, I eat more mindfully than my mother and I exercise more than both of them, but all I can ever do is make the best of what my genetics give me.

  6. To me I really see these facebook posts in tandem with the recent “real women aren’t skinny” stuff that’s been appearing on facebook and the body snarking of Angelina Jolie after the Oscars. It’s all about the public (or some of our facebook friends) feeling like they have permission to comment on every aspect of a woman’s body. It all aims to take agency and choice away from women.

    1. This one was for you!

      You were the one who sent it to me, right?

      I haven’t even had a chance to look at your pink article, but I am excited.  Well, as excited as one can be after spending an evening writing a really, really, really awful article about a really terrible situation.  Ooh, cliffhanger.

  7. I get really frustrated with the whole “smug vegan” archetype.

    I mean, I am far more likely to encounter a defensive omnivore than omnis are likely to encounter a smug vegan on any day that ends in Y.

    The fact that I have to explain my food choices or even justify then to people makes me shudder at the thought of lunch meetings.

    When I sit down to eat a tofu-based meal, I am questioned and cross examined and then I get to hear the litany of “people eating tasty animals” lines and whatnot.

    I don’t think I have ever confronted someone over their hamburger.

    sigh.

    For what it is worth though. – fat genes on both sides be damned – I lost 80 pounds in my first year and a half of Veganism. My skin cleared up, I felt better, my hair was healthier and just felt invincible! So don’t dismiss the message as propagandist bullshit in its entirety.

    1. I’m with you. Some people just work better on vegan diets…but the smugness some vegans has pisses me off to no end. Especially when it involves ethical arguments; they act like since I’m an omnivore, I’m obviously in the wrong ethical camp, even though I’ve thought a LOT about it, and I still think about it often.

      Although I also remember the experience of being vegetarian…and how ridiculous omnivores get about it.

      Even though I’m no longer a vegetarian, I still love things with vegetables, and I don’t need meat on things like pizza in order to enjoy it. But when I say things like, “Oh, veggie pizza sounds good,” people ask me. “Are you a vegetarian?”

      NO I JUST LIKE VEGETABLES

        1. You’re right, and omnivore smugness has culture backing it up, and it doesn’t seem to fucking stop.

          I think, with vegan smugness, the part that irritates me is specifically the “ethical” smugness. Mainly, when they assert that veganism is clearly the morally superior way to live. This is probably for a couple reasons, 1) I’m a philosopher and these questions are very important to me, and 2) I’m an omnivore who thinks constantly about these issues, who has, occasionally, wanted to not eat because I felt like I would be taking life from other things. Which…to eat, you are.

          But in terms of obnoxiousness and how often non-omnivores encounter it, omnivore smugness is far far worse

    2. This.

      I am 95% vegetarian (actually transitioning to more vegan meals due to food allergies) and in my OKC profile, I explicitly state that yes, I eat mostly veg but I couldn’t give a shit what the dude I’m dating is eating–bar any attempts on cooking up my cats. I’ve had a handful of guys message me saying, “That’s cool that you’re a vegetarian, but DON”T EXPECT ME TO BECOME ONE. I LOVE MEAT.” Ugh. First, reading comprehension fail. Second, do you even know how to have a conversation with someone who lives differently than you!?

      /rant

    3. I hear you.  It’s like vegans are damned regardless – EVERYBODY talks about food, because food is everpresent.  But when vegans do, no matter how it is couched, it comes across as smug.    Which, sometimes it is.  But for most of the vegans I know, it’s just regular talking-about-food.

  8. Yeah, this is much like that whole “Female Democrats are all ugly”, which was responded to with “No! Look at all these ugly republican women, and also, all of these hot democrats!”

    Oh great, you guys. You really just proved a point! That being ugly… makes you politically active?

    Oh, right. Your illustration doesn’t actually make a point. I forgot.

    That being said, I understand the knee-jerk desire to react to that “smugness” by proving it wrong, but when we do, we reify the importance of beauty over all else, and that’s just sad. Let’s stop doing that.

     

     

    1. Hear hear. I can’t fucking stand those pictures. And the pictures invariably are of just women. Whoo for judging women solely on the basis of their appearance in relation to dumb beauty standards.

      Also: I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a non-white woman in one of these pictures.

  9. Fantastic article, as usual.

    The conflation of appearance with health is one that deeply bothers me. When I was thin, I was complemented on how I must be “doing something right,” even when I told them I didn’t exercise. Maybe they would have thought differently if I told them I was that thin because, thanks to my mother, I thought that 1000 calories was an appropriate amount for daily consumption (which it is most definitely not, at least not for me).

  10. Great article! I spent most of my 20s feeling like crap and wishing I looked better. Now, I am concentrating on feeling good, exercising and eating right (the eating is a slow process, I love me some McNuggets every once in a while).

    Side effect? My confidence is up, and because of that, I feel like I look better. I weigh about the same, things have tightened up a bit so really I probably look about the same in reality, but the feeling is the best part.

    I guess I just realized that I only get one body, so I should start treating it right, so it treats me right when I’m old! And I have those fantastic longevity genes, so I’m probably going to be around for a long time. I don’t want to be immobile when I’m 90.

  11. I saved the Take Down for last, because I always save the best for last.

    Using these pictures as a proper argument is like saying “Smoking isn’t that bad! My grandfather smoked eighteen packages a day and died when he was 111!” (seems like grandfathers are hobbits).

    As my college used to teach me: one argument is no argument. You need a fundament of them.

  12. Ugh, few things annoy me more than this type of shit. Even more wrongheaded than the idea that good health will make you beautiful (ridiculous–I’m lucky enough to be in great health, and I am very ordinary-looking) is the implication that it’s really, really important for us to look pretty and not-old.

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