Communication Currents

Food, Body and Identity

February 1, 2009
Health Communication

You are what you eat. Perhaps you've heard this phrase before? Whether a prominent slogan in television advertisements for breakfast food, the name of a popular diet, or the title of a diet game show, the phrase is increasingly communicated as an age-old truth. The message is clear: our bodies and our food can be substituted, one for the other. The implications of this food–as- body metaphor are taken quite seriously for communication researchers who study the impact of media messages. Why this focus on such a seemingly trivial phrase? The words imply a simple exchange: our personal diet for something much more complicated--who we think we are. In the United States, a country where food and its consumption are more about symbolism and less about survival, the phrase you are what you eat deserves a closer look.  

How has your body become equated with what you eat? Why is this association important to advertisers, diet gurus, and beauty industries? More importantly, what is the link between your body and your food, its production, distribution and consumption? Advertisers and marketers want us to believe that we are what we eat so that they might sell us more than a hamburger or box of frozen food. We eat at McDonalds™ because we associate it with happiness and good times, or simply a busy lifestyle. We eat Lean Cuisine™ and imagine ourselves a few pounds lighter.  

Few of us know where our food came from, how it was grown or raised, how far it traveled to get to us and what has been added to it to make it appear colorful and blemish-free. Instead, we are taught through the media to view both our food and our bodies in terms of appearance and not to search for deeper meanings or connections to the source of our (and its) value. For women in particular this metaphorical linkage has had profound impact. Women have been objectified in terms of their bodies, and food has been the symbolic weapon of choice. The battle over women's, and increasingly men's, bodies is largely fought through images and metaphors. Recognizing the history behind the symbols and their political usage is useful if we are to create healthier alternatives for ourselves and our children.  

Resistance to becoming what we eat, or what the media and diet and beauty industries tell us to buy and eat, can take several forms. Some of these may be transformative, but some can be deadly. Deliberately not eating is one route of resistance for young adolescents and (primarily middle class, white, Western) women. This route has proven popular and dangerous. Still, until recently anorexia has been primarily a private and secretive act. The advent of the Pro-Ana movement has raised some interesting questions about the position of anorexia as a collective movement. When Pro-Ana advocates argue for the celebration of thinness by posting advice on dieting and pictures of celebrities and others who are very thin, they are publicly resisting those authority figures who insist that such thinking is dangerous and disordered. Communication researchers who study media and body image often look at how what is framed as neuroses may be a rational teenage response to an irrational environment of mediated perfection. Ultimately, however, anorectic behavior as a reply to the food-body connection only makes the relationship between the two more powerful. Young women concerned with body image seem to be crying out: you are what you don't eat.  

If food is symbolized as body, then we might also inquire into its connection to who we are. The self, or the idea of the individual person, developed in Western culture as something separate from a physical body. The connection of food with bodies can be traced to the ancient Greeks who wrote of regimens of diet and exercise for the purpose of bettering the self as a citizen in democratic society. Self-care as performed through diet became associated with moral goodness and, thus, with social worth. For philosophers and scientists, this development allowed for reflection on the state of civilization and the prospects for its advancement. Groups of people were distinguished by habits of diet and bodily appearance. Eating and manners, ways of cooking, places for consumption, and the types of food one ate were signs of propriety and status in society. Correspondingly, body size also indicated ease of access to food and its associated comforts. The thinner the body, the less successful one was perceived to be.  

Although the correlation between body size and beauty for women has fluctuated historically and culturally, it has remained a primary social marker. For white women, especially during Victorian times, starvation became a sign of purity of spirit and closeness to God. Today, some vestiges of this connection remain in the equation of food or dieting with the body. In this manner, the morality of the food-body connection is closely tied to the value of the self. For example, if I only eat light, lean, or low-fat foods, I must be a good person. Alternately, one might reasonably associate high-fat, heavy, or dense foods with pure evil. Simply, we invest food with our deeply held beliefs about power and status in society and so when we choose foods to eat, we act on or perform those beliefs. On a larger scale, access to healthier foods occurs much more readily in middle to upper class neighborhoods than it does in the inner-city. Correspondingly, food labeled as organic, healthy, and pure are more likely to be found in the mega whole food stores of suburbia than in a neighborhood bodega or convenience store.  

One important way we can resist the pervasive body-food connection is to seek alternative metaphors. Historically, we can find understandings of food based on its cultivation and growth that mirrored wisdom about human relationships to the earth and to each other. We were what we ate because we grew what we ate; we knew the ideal conditions for the growth of our food and its relationship to our survival. As green movements and programs for environmental sustainability grow in popularity, we have the opportunity to replace the food as body metaphor with one that connects our food to the conditions of its production, sensitivity to the resources used in its distribution, and careful attention to its consumption. Mediated images of perfection are seductive and seemingly everything can be bought and sold, just as symbols of food and body can be exchanged, but ultimately our bodies and our souls will pay the price.

About the author (s)

Leda Cooks

University of Massachusetts-Amherst

Professor