Recently, researchers in New Zealand and the U.K. have come up with a terrifying solution to the “obesity epidemic” — a magnetic contraption installed in the mouth that locks people’s jaws shut and restricts them to a liquid-only diet. Experts studying nutrition and eating disorders have expressed their horror at this “barbaric” device but the researchers from University of Otago, New Zealand, are convinced that their latest invention will help people.
The world has made significant strides in the fight to normalize bodies of all sizes and fight diet culture. Pinterest recently banned all weight loss ads, but society’s obsession with our bodies and what we eat continues unabated. In designing a contraption reminiscent of medieval era torture devices, the researchers are drawing on a widely held notion that the issue of weight loss is simply a matter of control and will power. It also plays into the notion of food shaming by upholding a liquid-only diet as “good” and anything else as harmful for a person’s health. Luckily for the researchers, you don’t need to lock your jaw shut to be kept away from the things you like to eat. So many of us do that to ourselves and have others do it to us on a daily basis, anyway.
I was thin throughout my childhood and enjoyed food immensely, especially because I could eat anything I wanted without any of it “showing on my body.” My little cousin, on the other hand, was considered overweight and often complained how he wasn’t allowed to eat “fattening foods” while I could eat anything and still remain thin.
A couple years ago, however, I started gaining weight but in the way people normally do as they grow older. Once that happened, suddenly people were paying attention to what I ate and how much of it “showed.” If I was eating less at a family dinner, someone would inevitably ask whether I was dieting. Once, an uncle sermonized about the high calorie-count in soft drinks while I was drinking one and politely suggested that perhaps I should start jogging. Someone else suggested I drink lukewarm lemon-honey water to speed up my metabolism. Even my mother sometimes jokes about my love for food and my father feigns astonishment at how I’m able to “eat like a grown man.”
These comments, jokes and hacks did eventually get to me, leading me to have a complicated relationship with food; one that is marked by periods where I eat whatever I want, immediately followed by a sense of shame for not being able to control my appetite. I know for a fact that there are people whose body image issues are far worse than mine, but this doesn’t help much when I’m hating myself for eating cake two days in a row. And as research shows, shame isn’t a great catalyst in inspiring someone to reach their fitness goals. This explains why our guilt-driven gym memberships after feasting through the holiday-season rarely ever lasts beyond January.
Food shaming is also a gendered issue, wherein men and women are socialized differently in terms of food habits. In movies and TV shows, I’ve only ever seen women eating junk food after their hearts were broken by a guy and a 2009 study shows that women eat less when they are out on a date with men in order to appear more attractive. The study also noted that neither the number of dining companions, nor the group’s gender made any difference in how much men ate. Within families too, it is often women who are the victims of food shaming. Growing up, I noticed how the women in the household would eat lesser quantities of meat compared to the men. The lion’s share would always be consumed by the men and the children, while the women ate whatever was left behind. Since my uncle passed away, my aunt has stopped eating meat and fish around extended family members out of the fear that she will be shamed for “not behaving like a proper widow.” Even in 2021, we’ve somehow managed to carry this baggage of shame through our lives. Incidentally, several studies conducted across the world have found that women eat significantly less meat than men, even though they need roughly double the amount of iron as men.
When the researchers from the University of Otago propose their deadly contraption as a way to force people into eating what they think is right, they are simply continuing with this centuries-long tradition that moralizes food and shames people for finding joy in it and as a means of sustenance.