To Diet or not to Diet?

At the beginning of last term I decided to organise an event to mark No Diet Day (6th of May) in Cambridge. I decided to do so for a wide range of reasons, some of which I’d like to share now with those who couldn’t make it but who are nevertheless intrigued (N.b. today, when I’m typing this article is Anti-Child Labour day, another day which I think should be publicly marked in Cambridge. Oh well.). Anyway, please check it for yourself or believe me that when you Google the word “diet”, one of the first pages that come up will include a “diet personality quiz”. No kidding. My question is then: can diets, like the kind of clothes we wear, the books we read or the way we spend our free time characterise us? So it would seem, at least according to this wonderful digital gem, which suggests that diet can become not only a habit but also part of our personality. Hah. Who would have thought so?

Let me ask you another question, which I would like you to answer honestly (no worries, we won’t actually come and find you to get the answer): Have you ever thought of dieting? Frankly, I certainly have. In fact every time I go back to my native Hungary I get a sudden urge to lose weight even when I am in perfectly good shape (my jeans tell me if I’m not: they are very talkative.), and was I in the UK, I probably wouldn’t even think about not having that odd cookie. Simply because Hungarian women of my age seem to weigh less than me. And because my boyfriend’s mum (who was able to convince herself that she hates sweets and skips meals on a regular basis to maintain what is, I must admit, an impeccable figure for a woman of her age) greets me with a radiant smile every time she thinks I have lost weight or just pats my cheeks gently asking if I’d prefer a salad for dinner if she thinks I haven’t. It is obvious that the fact that I am on my way to graduate with a second degree from Cambridge, that I enjoy my life and other nuances are all nice and good but what really matters is what size I look for when I go shopping. Now, I guess some of you have already heard Mariah Carey’s infamous quote where she supposedly stated how much she envied African orphans because they don’t have weight issues. I also suppose that you have heard how half of the world is starving because they have nothing to eat while the other half forces themselves to starve even though they’d have plenty to eat. What I don’t think that many of you will have heard about is that in Mauritania women are forced to eat.

A couple of young Hungarian documentary filmmakers went to this remote country, where white people aren’t that safe, where half of the population is starving – a result of that slavery was legal until 5 years ago or so – and made a film about camps where young women are forced to eat. They are the elite of their society, rich girls who have nothing to worry about apart from gaining weight so that they can marry. Because men don’t want thin wives: around 100 kg is the ideal but the fatter the better; families actually pay great sums to fatten up their daughters according to these social desires. Such camps are flourishing in the countryside, where women force other girls and women to eat from as young as 14-15 years old. And when I write force, I actually mean physically force. The girls who refuse to eat are beaten and if they throw up because they can’t take it anymore, well – sorry if you were reading this whilst eating – they are forced to eat their vomit. On a continent where millions starve to death, in a world where women become anorexic, we find women who suffer because they must eat. Those who live in the capital, Nouakchott, and cannot afford these exclusive camps, take pills. Unfortunately the pills they take were in fact designed for livestock such as camels and the like so that the animals gain weight more easily and quickly. Needless to say, the side-effects are horrible in both cases. Women essentially double their weight sometimes in less than a year and end up with a range of cardio-vascular diseases, ruined joints and skin problems. You know, just like over-weight people in this part of the world do. Except that in the whole of Mauritania there is only one hospital, which is not very well-prepared to treat all of these women. So first they suffer to gain weight and then they suffer, hopefully at least in a happy marriage, the consequences.

Don’t misunderstand me, please. The moral of this tale is not to discourage anybody from maintaining a healthy lifestyle or from trying to feel good about him/herself. But we need to ask ourselves what the ideal is in this less than ideal world? Why will you not have that second cookie? Is it perhaps because the only thing you can control is your body? Or perhaps because you’re anxious to find the ideal man, who “obviously” won’t find you ideal if you allow yourself that second cookie? Or because you know that too much sugar isn’t healthy and you’ve been sitting in the library for a good while with no prospect of a good jog or yoga in the near future? If it is the latter I’d say go girl and have the cookie if you know that you won’t harm your health. But if it’s anything else then think twice – and don’t always think thin. You can always find a rich husband in Mauritania…

Judit Damasdi

1 Comment

  1. John

    Fascinating example. And why is thinness only desirable in women? Surely, economically, it would be better to have more robust women who are better at working and not dying of diseases/childbirth? It’s ludicrous that only one gender should feel social pressure to starve themselves.

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