Friendship should drive self-improvement
Several weeks ago, I had the privilege of collaborating on the writing of an editorial discussing Sodexo’s recent insertion of special dining pamphlets into various dining locations around campus. At first glance, the pamphlets seemed to be encouraging a healthier diet, instructing students on how to build plates that maintained appropriate portion sizes, how to use water as a means of suppressing one’s appetite and secretly physically exert oneself doing mundane tasks in order to burn calories. Evidently, these seemingly harmless pamphlets encourage weight loss, something many attempting to have a healthier lifestyle do not seek to do.
In fact, these pamphlets may have had the opposite effect, pressuring on individuals who may be insecure about their eating habits or other aspects of their daily dietary routines. To me, such pamphlets are a manifestation of the harmful social phenomenon known as diet culture, where thinness is worshipped as an equivalent to good character and moral virtue. Under this detrimental logic, anyone who does not fit this model is, to some extent, less worthy of the admiration of others. Clearly, this ideology is an extreme one and was most certainly not the intent of the pamphlets. On the other hand, there was clearly some passive form of unfairly reprimanding those who may not make the best dietary choices. Why they do so, however, is no business of Sodexo’s and to overgeneralize what may be a very tough choice for many on campus and elsewhere is a grave mistake. While I think Sodexo’s message here was both positive and well-intentioned, it was poorly executed.
Since the publication of the editorial, the pamphlets have been promptly removed from dining halls. Sodexo made the right choice in doing away with them, but I still stand behind the pamphlet’s original intentions. Make no mistake, I believe that diet culture is wrong and that to pressure anyone into making dramatic changes in their lifestyle out of a lack of respect for their worth as a person due to their appearance is outright immoral. Conversely, however, I also believe that there should be a collective encouragement of a healthy, active lifestyle for all, that reflects on both a desire for self-improvement as opposed to validation in the eyes of others — as well as artificial standards of beauty and fitness. Indeed, I believe that encouraging self-improvement within ourselves by endorsing a healthier lifestyle, whatever form that may take, should be an important aspect of one’s life. This was the mark that the Sodexo pamphlets missed, but I nonetheless believe in one’s right to speak to someone concerning dietary habits or other aspects of their lifestyle they may believe to be detrimental.
Take, for example, an abuser of highly potent and addictive narcotics such as methamphetamine or cocaine. It is quite likely that a friend or family member of said addict would see these habits as incredibly harmful and even life-threatening, to the point of staging an intervention or forcing their beloved to enter a rehabilitation program. Here, the friend is doing this not out of a desire for self-validation or some societal conception of an ideal state of being for everyone, but out of genuine love and concern for their companion. This is top of the belief that they can do better and not exist in this state of dependence on harmful, debilitating substances. In this case, why should something such as diet be any different? There are dietary habits which are significantly less healthy than others, which may contribute to an individual’s poor health and livelihood. In my view, any true friend of an individual with these habits, if he or she knows why they are occuring, has an obligation to speak with them about the harm they are causing to their health. One real life example of this concept is the obesity epidemic in the United States, where the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that over forty percent of adults are obese, with a quarter of them classified as severely obese. Health complications associated with obesity include heart disease, stroke, type-2 diabetes and numerous deadly cancers. Knowing this, as well as the health risks associated with obesity, encouraging those who may suffer from it alter their lifestyle is necessary.
Using these examples, people should (albeit, far less extremely) encourage others to engage in dietary self improvement in a manner that is constructive, healthy and done out of love. This is what differentiates constructive criticism from the lifestyle questioning that were present in the messages within Sodexo’s pamphlets, on top of having people actually approach self-improvement in a way that yields positive results. Ultimately, body positivity and a healthy approach to changing one’s diet can go hand in hand and it's up to us, not a caterer or corporation, to see that it does.