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!”
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.
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:
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?
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.