Department of Anthropology, Ben-Gurion University, Beer-Sheva, Israel.
The present article focuses on women's humor about dieting in a culture where women are expected to diet. Participant observation in an Israeli Weight Watchers group, interviews with female dieters and qualitative text analysis were used to generate four main themes relating to the variety of ways in which diet culture affects women's lives: 1) Diet culture ideology; 2) Diet culture, food and social interaction; 3) Diet culture’s rules of practice; 4) Diet culture and consumer culture.
The findings show that diet culture does not have unlimited power over women. It affects many of their beliefs and consumer choices, but has far less impact on their everyday behavior. Women would rather have their cake (be slim) and eat it too. Since they can’t have it both ways, diet humor enables women to eat the cake and joke about it.
The appearance of diet humor is viewed as resistance to the power diet culture exerts over women. Findings show that resistance is weakest in regard to the basic ideological concepts of diet culture and its expression through consumer culture. Resistance is strongest when diet culture conflicts with the dieter’s social network, and attempts to change eating habits and exercise patterns.
Keywords: dieting, women's humor, Israel, culture, body, fat, anthropology,
(1) “Why was the first woman in space envied by women around the globe?” “She was the first woman who was weightless.”
The above joke is a pertinent example of the widespread influence of diet culture. The goal of this article is to examine the humor surrounding diet culture, and to answer the question of whether diet humor can be seen as resistance to the various ways in which diet culture exerts power over women.
Diet culture is the cultural force disciplining the female form and regulating its size. The power of diet culture can be seen as a dynamic or network of non-centralized forces (Foucault, 1978). Though diet culture pertains to both sexes, its influence is far more significant for women than for men (Chernin, 1981, Goodman, 1995, Wolf, 1990). The cultural ethos of dieting is an example of a power structure that works “from below”. Prevailing forms of selfhood and subjectivity are maintained through individual self-surveillance and self-correction to norms. Diet culture encompasses the range of practices, beliefs and images that work together to direct women towards the disciplinary goal of body regulation. Under the “tyranny of slenderness” (Chernin, 1981) women are forbidden to become large or massive (Bartky, 1998). In order to possess bodies of the desirable size, women must maintain strict control of their food intake and expenditure of energy.
My central argument is that diet humor is a mechanism used by women to acknowledge social norms, while acting in a manner that may contradict those norms. In the case of dieting, humor serves as a vehicle of resistance to the oppressive régime of dieting, while maintaining face and establishing solidarity with other women.
Diet humor is important because it indicates the existence of resistance – that women do not adopt the dictates of diet culture blindly. Instead they carry on a constant debate with the demands made of them, rejecting some as ridiculous, but accepting others. Humor allows women to maintain a constant process of negotiation, while never thoroughly committing to the diet régime.
This article examines dieting as a cultural phenomenon practiced by women from all walks of life, who uphold the dominant cultural values in a cultural climate in which dieting is expected and praised in mainstream culture. While many research efforts are directed towards studying extreme eating disorders, such as anorexia and bulimia (Andersen & Yager, 2005; American Psychiatric Association, 2000; Nicholls, 2005) normative dieting is accepted as a logical reaction to what is being called the "obesity epidemic"(Koplan, 1999).
This article attempts to understand why so many women diet, or talk about dieting, even though it seems that none enjoy the practice and many complain about how unfair its expectations are.
This article was based participant observation in an Israeli weight watchers group supplemented by a series of interviews with Israeli women, and analysis of humorous diet texts collected from a variety of sources.
Participating in a commercial diet group and interviewing its participants highlighted the connection between diet culture and consumer culture. This particular location was selected because the participants – female university students and young professional women – reflected a group that was immersed in Israeli popular culture and practiced the dominant cultural values. In addition, these women enjoyed a degree of personal and financial independence and had been exposed to feminist ideas – factors that were important in explaining their informed choice to join a diet group.
During my 18 months of participant observation in the group I noticed how even women who were participating in a group whose sole purpose was to lose weight constantly joked about dieting, giving rise to my question: if they wanted to be here and lose weight, why did they keep making jokes that depicted dieting as ridiculous?
Feminist theorists hypothesize that diet culture arose as a backlash against feminism (Wolf, 1990). As women gained greater political power and economic freedom, diet culture arose to divert them from these goals by forcing them to waste resources on the endless task of “being beautiful”. Diet culture is closely linked to consumer culture (Bordo, 1995, Featherstone, 1991) and the capitalist market (Turner, 1991). Its images are constructed by advertisers and by the mass media, which is financed by advertising. Purchasing and using a range of aggressively marketed diet ‘products’ carry out its practices.
Diet culture in Israel is a cultural import, superimposed over existing traditional customs. It does not replace other cultural demands made of women – first and foremost, their expected roles as wives and mothers (Berkowitz, 1997). It presents an additional expectation that may conflict with other aspects of their lives. Israel is considerably affected by American and European culture. Though situated in Asia, Israelis often see themselves as ‘Westerners’, and try to adopt customs and trends they associate with the West. Many elements of popular culture – most importantly television, fashion, music and food – are imported from the United States and Europe. These elements are infused with value systems and ideals that interact with Israeli culture (Raz, 1999). Diet cultures’ images and products have been imported to Israel through various channels and are abundant in Israeli popular culture.
The existence of diet culture messages in popular culture does not entail automatic adoption of these ideas and practices by Israeli women. There are a variety of reactions to diet culture that range from strict adherence, to indifference. This article will demonstrate that diet humor is a form of “negotiating” the gap between conflicting social demands.
Diet culture conflicts with the reality of varied female figures and sizes. The practice of dieting conflicts with women’s traditional roles and with attempts to change women’s place in society.
Diet culture seriously restricts women’s food choices and eating behavior. This presents a problem since women are the main gatekeepers of food into the household (McIntosh & Zey, 1999), and use food as an important vehicle in social interaction (Counihan, 1999). Diet culture creates a significant difference between how and what women are supposed to eat, and how they feed their families and offer food in hospitality – sometimes causing irrevocable conflict between the two.
Diet culture places additional strain on women striving to succeed in the public domain, by defining thinness as the only acceptable form. Large women cannot “embody” success (Tavris, 1995). Studies show that obese individuals are discriminated against when they seek jobs and while on the job (Goodman, 1995, Gustafson, 1988). Focusing on appearance also weakens women’s power in the public sphere, diverting attention from their professional qualifications to their physical attributes. Most women cannot totally reject or ignore the dictates of diet culture because of the social benefits bestowed on those who conform (Bordo, 1995).
1.1 Humor as an aspect of culture and a form of resistance
Humor is a performative pragmatic accomplishment involving a wide range of communication skills including, but not exclusively involving, language, gesture, the presentation of visual imagery, and situation management. Humor aims at creating a concrete feeling of enjoyment for an audience, most commonly manifested in a physical display consisting of demonstrable pleasure such as smiles and laughter (Beeman, 2000).
Diet humor enables a unique view into diet culture because humor is neither culture-free nor situation-free. Humor is part of culture and the cultural settings, circumstances, individuals and language in which humor occurs all influence it (Kanaana, 1990). Humor can be seen as an index to a culture, a glimpse into the collective unconscious of a group no less revealing than dreams are of the individual unconscious (Freud, 1960).
Humor can teach us about the accepted norms in a society. As humor is based on the social knowledge of the performer and the audience, and the breaking of conventions, if the person listening to a joke is not familiar with the convention the joke relates to, it loses its humorous aspect. In learning about how the behavior humorously related to deviates from the norm we learn how people are supposed to behave, and the possible consequences awaiting those who deviate.
The analysis of humor in this paper is based on the relief theory (Shurcliff, 1968) which maintains that humor functions to release psychological tension. People who are dieting experience myriad negative emotions: frustration, loneliness, guilt and confusion, to name but a few. Joking about dieting releases the tension and enables the joker to feel better without actually changing their situation. This is possible because humor is an accepted cultural response to difficulty and conflict.
Humor is a way in which people deal with a large variety of issues. Jokes are often an outlet for serious concerns and problems bothering the members of the group. In this way the inner workings of a culture may be exposed through its humor, including ideas that are socially unacceptable and never expressed publicly in any other form (Abu-Lughod, 1990, Bilger, 1998).
In this article I suggest that women's humor on dieting can be viewed as resistance to the dominant cultural norms surrounding dieting. Though humor seems harmless it often serves as a form of social criticism. Freud (1960) views jokes as a release from control, during which the unconscious is allowed to bubble up without restraint. In this capacity, humor can be construed as a mechanism through which social structures may be challenged but are eventually reinforced. Even so all jokes have a subversive effect on the dominant structure of ideas, since their form consists of a victorious tilting of un-control v.s. control, of unofficial values over official ones (Douglas, 1975). While jokes do not pose an actual threat to the order of society, they represent a temporary suspension of the social structure; the strength of their attack is entirely restricted by the consensus on which they depends for recognition. A joke works only when it mirrors social forms; it exists by virtue of its congruence with the social structure (Douglas, 1975).
Humor and jokes are useful for seeing where “cracks” appear in adherence to norms, and the acceptance of certain values. I suggest that while jokes are not outright rebellion, they can be seen as a form of resistance to dominant norms. Humor is commonly expressed through discourse and wherever there is discourse — socially and culturally produced patterns of language which constitute power by constructing objects in particular ways — there is resistance (Foucault, 1984). Humor serves as a powerful form of resistance by subverting the social norms. It mockingly highlights values and conventions of accepted behavior. Therefore humor can be used to illuminate mechanisms of the power it resists (Foucault, 1978).
Humor as a means of responding to and battling domination has long been recognized as a tool of the oppressed. Woman's struggle against this oppression, however, takes on unique form in that it is most often characterized by both a desire to shake off domination, and a desire to avoid alienation and atomization. Women's humor seeks to maintain relationship even while it attempts to destroy the cultural status quo. Thus it seems at times ambiguous, ambivalent or inconsistent (Naranjo-Huebl, 1995).
Almost every woman who has theorized on women's humor has had to address the stereotypical assertion that women lack a sense of humor (Naranjo-Huebl, 1995). While at first studies by predominantly male scholars asserted that women did not or could not understand or perform humor, there is a growing body of new research and literature on women's humor (Bilger, 1998; Bing, 2007) that exhibit how in humor studies, as in many other fields of research, women's experience was disregarded until female scholars took to the field. Current studies show the richness of women's humor in a variety of areas relevant to women and this article adds to these by highlighting how women joke about dieting, a subject that weighs heavily on the minds and bodies of women (pun intended).
Diet humor refers to a variety of issues, all of which are part of a larger framework – diet culture. By looking at the themes in diet humor it is possible to see the variety of forms in which diet culture exerts its power. It is also possible to pinpoint the elements of diet culture that diet humor avoids, and use them to explain the seemingly conflicting behavior that allows women to participate in some elements of diet culture while rejecting others.
In the next section I present a qualitative analysis of diet humor – supplemented with interviews with women who practice dieting – which exposes the connection between humorous examples reflecting women's feelings of frustration, difficulty and dismay caused by dieting, and the ideological, practical, social and consumer aspects of diet culture. Before that I outline the research methods and conceptual assumptions on which this article is based.
2. Research methods
Data for this article was collected through 18 months of participant observation in a Weight Watchers group in Beer-Sheva, a city in southern Israel. Interviews were carried out with 25 participants in the group (who were all women) and other dieters, and examples of diet humor and other diet-related items were collected from newspapers, television and the Internet. Interviews were transcribed and humor was analyzed and compared with women’s statements of how they felt about dieting. The purpose of this was to see if diet humor actually reflects women’s resistance to diet culture. In this article the original Hebrew comments were translated into English by the author.
A qualitative analysis was used to uncover the themes and subcategories emerging from the text. The primary texts (interview transcripts) are thus produced where reliability of method (of sampling, interviewing and analysis) and the generalizability of analyses follow through from the validity of data. The resulting texts were then coded according to the four-step analytic process recommended by Marshal and Rossman (1995, p.111): (1) comparing units of meaning across categories for inductive category coding; (2) refining categories; (3) "delimiting the theory" by exploring relationships and patterns across categories; and (4) integrating data to write theory.
The main analysis technique employed is that of discourse analysis (Francis, 1999). Discourses are perpetuated by social structure and practices (Foucault, 1978). By analyzing discourses we can deconstruct or open up the text to different readings. As the 'self' is not coherent – but is positioned and positions in multiple, shifting discourses – instead of studying the 'thought' of a person (as though they have a coherent personality which can be studied), discourse analysis studies spoken and written texts, in which discursive constructions can be identified. Discourse analysis is not unproblematic. While discourse analysis is useful for 'opening up' or deconstructing responses, it is theoretically unable to privilege one reading over another (Francis, 1999). However, despite the disadvantages, discourse analysis can be used as an effective tool for commenting on the social processes which constitute structures of oppression.
In this article the content of diet jokes encountered during my research are analyzed, as are statements made by women supporting or contradicting the ideas voiced by the jokes. The cited jokes are similar in content to conversational comments encountered during fieldwork and in interviews. This article views these jokes as reflections of actual criticism that women have of diet culture, which signify a different attitude towards dieting than that promoted by diet culture ideology.
The jokes were chosen because they express the same sentiments as the conversational humor, yet are still clear when cited out of context. These jokes caught my attention precisely because they reflect actual comments that aroused laughter in group conversations. After I began to notice them, I found that diet jokes appeared in many places. Numerous examples of diet humor appear on the Internet, and also in books and in newspaper comic strips.
3.1 The difference between "Fat Jokes" and Diet Humor
While collecting data for this study it became necessary to discern which items can be defined as diet humor. Many attempts to find examples of diet humor on the Internet and in other texts produced jokes that mock obese individuals. Although the same key words are used, these jokes are very different from the jokes that belong to diet humor. For the purposes of analysis, humor pertaining to diet behavior and overweight people has been divided into two categories: 'diet humor' and 'fat jokes'.
Diet humor, which I will discuss at length later on, ridicules the diet culture, its practices and rules. Jokes in this category demonstrate understanding and compassion towards people who are dieting. The jokes relate to the process and conventions of the diet culture as ridiculous and irrational.
Fat jokes, on the other hand, ridicule people who are overweight. They portray them as abnormal; equate their size with various items of immense proportion, attributing their condition to undesirable personality characteristics.
Fat jokes are oppressive because they strip those who are overweight of normality, dignity, sanity, and morality. They banish them to the fringes of society and then proceed to expel them from the human collective by comparing them to various animals (pigs, cows, elephants, etc.).
Fat jokes categorize all people who are overweight as aesthetically offensive. For example:
(3) I have a great diet. You're allowed to eat anything you want, but you must eat it with naked fat people.
Fat people are excluded from the “normal” category and are marginalized by society:
(4) Jon – “Garfield, it’s time to put you on another diet”.
Garfield – “Do you know what a diet could do to me? I could waste away to normal”. (The Merriam Webster and Garfield dictionary).
Fat jokes emphasize that fat people do not fit conventional standards. Fat jokes imply that fat people are not only different but also pose a threat as a potential obstruction or danger others. For example:
(5) You know your diet isn’t working when you’re refused entry to Venice because it’s already sinking. (Burgess, 2001).
Fat jokes also pass moral judgment on overweight people. They attribute certain psychological characteristics, depicting the large person as immature, greedy, gluttonous, and constantly preoccupied with food.
It is impossible to examine diet humor without acknowledging the influence of fat jokes. Fat jokes are part of society’s pressure to conform to the 'thin ideal'. One classical anthropological approach to humor argues that humor supports the social order, keeping people in their places (Sherzer, 1990). Fat jokes promote the normative body dictated by the hegemony; while diet humor outlines the conflict between the hegemonic ideal and its physical realization.
3.2 Themes of Diet humor
Four main themes arose from the analysis of data collected in this study, relating to the variety of ways in which diet culture affects women's lives:
Diet culture ideology.
Diet culture, food and social interaction
Diet culture’s rules of practice
Diet culture and consumer culture
Diet culture influences people through many different channels. It encompasses many aspects of everyday life while using a variety of mechanisms.
3.2.1 Diet culture ideology
(6) Inside me there's a thin person struggling to get out, but I can usually sedate her with four or five cupcakes.
Our first theme is diet culture ideology. Diet culture influences people by creating and maintaining an ideology system that justifies its existence. Diet culture attempts to influence women by promoting cultural icons of thin women as beautiful and desirable. The image of the thin person is perceived as being as happy, successful and fulfilled.
Diet humor rejects the idolization of thin people:
(7) A Woman's Random Thoughts: “Skinny people piss me off! Especially when they say things like, "You know sometimes I forget to eat." Now, I've forgotten my address, my mother's maiden name, and my keys. But I've never forgotten to eat. You have to be a special kind of stupid to forget to eat”.
The above statement highlights the gap in perspective between the ideal image created by diet culture and the way women actually relate to people who fit this image. Diet culture displays people who seem naturally and effortlessly thin as the norm to be emulated, yet women who are involved in dieting find it hard to identify with them.
Dieters discern between naturally thin people and those who have worked hard to become thin. They don't believe in people who claim they can "eat anything they want" and stay thin.
The women I talked to were annoyed by images of women that are supposed to be “naturally” thin, because these women are assumed to have never suffered the frustrations of dieting and having an imperfect figure. Women who were dieting were annoyed not only by models but also other by women who were “naturally” thin:
Shamira (24): “There was this really thin girl at my base who used to eat huge meals from Burger Ranch. She used to drink her tea with four teaspoons of sugar. I saw her not long ago. She’s still thin. I have some really thin friends who eat all the time and never put on weight. They cry about not putting on weight, even if they go to a hotel and eat cakes all day”.
Although most women are not naturally thin diet culture ideology maintains that every person can be thin if enough effort is devoted to the process. Diet humor reflects on this assumption:
The first joke in this chapter chooses to reject the possibility of becoming slim. This might be an acceptance of the “facts of life” after years of unsuccessful dieting, or a realization that given the refusal to change certain eating habits (like having four or five cupcakes) the individual will never be thin. Another response to the “thin person trying to get out” motif:
(8) Outside every fat person there’s an even fatter person trying to close in. (Kingsley Amis, in: Exley, 1992)
This again recognizes that the thin ideal is not easily achieved, and failure (getting fatter) is more likely than success.
Diet culture not only tells people how to eat, it also tells them how to feel about their eating habits and their bodies. People who fail to conform and diet, or who diet and fail to lose weight, are expected to feel shame, frustration, disappointment and eventually desperation. Diet humor relates to these negative feelings. People on diet are often made to feel shame. For example:
(9) The “Real” rules for dieting: “If you eat something and no one sees you eat it, it has no calories”.
Eating secretly helps to avoid social criticism (Orbach, 1978). Although women do not necessarily conform to diet culture practices, they may feel guilty about their transgressions.
Diet culture deems eating for fun unacceptable, a potentially harmful activity, which women should feel bad about. This joke resists that basic assumption:
(10) A Woman's Random Thoughts: “I read this article that said typical symptoms of stress are eating too much, smoking too much, impulse buying and driving too fast. Are they kidding? That is my idea of a perfect day”.
Diet culture tells women that they do not eat because they want to, but because they are suppressing other feelings. Part of ‘diet talk’ is the need to “apologize” for eating and for wanting to eat. Diet humor resists the diet culture premise that eating is bad. It retorts that women like to eat because eating is a pleasure.
Diet humor resists the diet culture premise that eating is bad. It retorts that women like to eat because eating is a pleasure. Women frequently praised food at Weight Watchers meetings, saying that they rarely eat to compensate for other feelings (stress, loneliness, anxiety or some other problem). They usually eat because something tastes good or smells good or looks good:
Galit (36): When I eat spaghetti Alfredo I can eat a whole pot full. I love it. It’s not worth it to eat just one cup. Dieting takes all the fun out of eating.
Sigal (28): I love to eat. Eating is my greatest love.
These women reject the belief that eating is bad. This undermines the commonly repeated notion that people are overweight because they substitute dealing with emotional problems with eating. By announcing that they choose to eat for eating’s sake, women reconnect with traditional cultural norms which encourage eating.
Even so Diet culture eventually triumphs. All the women I interviewed admitted that, though they did not want or expect to look like models – they wanted to lose weight.
3.2.2 Diet culture, food and social interaction
(11) The Real Rules for Dieting
1. When you eat with someone else, calories don’t count if you don’t eat more than they do.
2. If you fatten up everyone else around you, then you look thinner.
Keren (27): “My mother still won’t let me eat sweet stuff, even though I explained to her that according to the Weight Watchers diet I was allowed dessert if I saved up for it. She did not agree. Last week we had dinner at my parents’ home and she brought out two plates for dessert. One had fruit on it and the other had small cakes. “The fruit” she said “is for Keren and Dad (who is a diabetic) and the cakes are for Dror (my husband) and me”. She made me so mad. She didn’t even ask me. She just decided for me that I couldn’t have cake”.
The second aspect of diet culture dealt with by diet humor is the status of eating and dieting in social interaction. The dieter is socialized into diet culture by the family (Nichter, 2000, Orbach, 1978) peer groups (Nichter, 2000), the media (Peach, 1998) public health agencies and diet companies.
People who participate in diet culture do so because they are conforming to social expectations. The main reason for dieting lies in the social benefits that can be gained by becoming thin, and the social approval awarded to those who are visibly trying to control their weight (Bordo, 1995).
Diet humor reacts to the pressures applied by various social agents. Eating is a social activity, and plays an important part in social interaction. In many societies the exchange of food is a profound way of making social connection (Counihan, 1999).
The joke below is an example of the way in which food is often shared as part of a relationship:
(12) Conversation between two young women:
– Brian took me to lunch and we had a salad. Then we split a strawberry yogurt after work. Now he wants me to come to his place for steamed eggplant and broccoli juice."
– If you don’t like him, why don’t you just tell him no?
– I can’t. I'm losing weight.
Eating together defines connection in a relationship, but dieters experience a “double bind”, because they cannot always share their food with their friends or partners. The above joke portrays a rare example of sharing low calorie food during courtship. But this is not the rule. Women who diet often find themselves cut off from their partners and other non dieters, because the food served on most occasions is high calorie, requiring dieters to eat differently from others:
(13) The toughest part of a diet isn't watching what you eat. It's watching what other people eat.
To eat differently from others is to be set apart. In the large woman’s case she is told that she has no right to eat the "fun" foods as thin people do (Goodman, 1995). For the dieter there are no “special occasions”. The good dieter is supposed to refuse pleasure foods even though he or she may long to eat them.
Smadar, (32): “My mother in law gets really upset when I won’t eat most of the fatty food she makes for Friday dinner. She says to me: “There is no diet on Shabbat. Today you can eat whatever you want”. Which means – I can eat what she wants me to eat. She doesn’t understand about calories. She says “What, you can’t have one small boureka? I made it for you specially”.
This refusal causes disconnection from others, while eating together has many real or imagined benefits:
Jokes reflect the reality that if people are critical of how much a woman eats, she can avoid criticism (or at least have a defense ready) if she does not eat more than they do. In the second joke – the speaker may not be slim, but if her companions are fatter, then she is the one closest to the ideal. These jokes reflect the very real need to receive social approval. They also demonstrate acceptance of the fat-thin hierarchy – that it is better to be thin (or thinner) than fat (or fatter).
Many people coping with the diet culture experience conflict surrounding their eating, in the form of criticism from friends and family members regarding their weight and eating habits. The influence of family members is prominent in diet humor:
(14) Although I knew I had put on a few pounds, I did not consider myself over-weight until the day I decided to clean my refrigerator. I sat on a chair in front of the appliance and reached in to wipe the back wall. While I was in this position, my teenage son came into the kitchen. "Hi, Mom," he said. "Watcha doin', having lunch?" I started my diet that day.
Diet culture does not always create conflict. Dieting may be an activity that the whole family shares, as implied below:
(15) A diet is the modern-day meal in which a family counts its calories instead of its blessings.
Dieting can be a shared social experience as women and girls engage in dieting ritual with particular stages and repeated behavior (Nichter, 2000).
Lily (47): “I make plans with friends to lose weight together all the time. Once I planned to lose 10 kg. So a friend and I agreed to diet together and walk every night. We’ve been making plans like that for years. We never get around to actually losing weight, but it helps to know there is someone with you”.
Diet humor reflects these pacts to diet together. In the cartoon strip “Cathy” the main character shares the same expectations of dieting and the rules of eating with her friends and her mother:
(16) Cathy: “Are you going to finish your dessert, mom?
Mother: “Heavens no! I had no business ordering it! I thought it would be a tiny piece! Look at the size of this! The portions are so huge! Who could eat all this? That’s what’s wrong with this country! “Grande” this. “Super-sized that. Excess! Excess! Excess!
Cathy: “Want to switch?”
Mother: “Sure!” (They exchange what is left of their desserts).
Cathy: “Secondhand calories don’t count.”
Mother (to waitress): “Was there any sauce with this?”
Dieting together with a friend or family member helps relieve the feeling of social isolation that refusing food may cause. Because eating is a social experience, dieting is harder when the eating creates conflicts with others’ expectations, and is easier when it is shared. When eating with other people who accept diet rules, the dieter is no longer the exception, but the norm.
Diet humor arises pertaining to the social situations where conflicts occur. This is not surprising, since one of the definitions of humor is the situation where there is a breaking of convention. Not following expected rules creates tension in social situations, and it is this tension that diet humor tries to resolve.
3.2.3 Diet culture’s rules of practice
(17) The Real Rules for Dieting
Cookie pieces contain no calories. The process of breaking causes calorie leakage.
Foods that are frozen have no calories because calories are units of heat. Examples are ice cream, frozen pies, and Popsicles.
Anything consumed while standing has no calories. This is due to gravity and the density of the caloric mass.
Things licked off knives and spoons have no calories if you are in the process of preparing something.
Maya (22): “I gave up on calories a long time ago. I just eat small amounts of what I like. I try to avoid things like bread. Who has the energy to count every bite and write it down?”
The third aspect of diet culture that diet humor relates to are the diet rules of practice. Diet culture tries to control dieters through a set of fixed rules. The rules define the types of food that may be eaten, the amounts, the frequency and the setting in which eating takes place. Engaging in physical activity is recommended.
Diet humor regarding the rules tends to make fun of the strict regime, suggests alternative rules and diet plans, and reinforces subversive behaviors by enlisting pseudo-scientific rationalizations.
There are many items of diet humor concerning diet rules, significantly more than about other aspects of diet culture. Diet humor regarding practice is mostly about adapting the rules to fit the dieter’s former lifestyle. This may mean bending the rules, or rewriting them. It views the rules as something that stands between the dieter and the joys of eating. For example:
(18) Cooking Terms: A Calorie – basic unit of rationalization used by a person before taking another helping of a certain food.
The diet humor critiquing the rules of practice thus disconnects the rules from their purpose. Through the eyes of Diet humor it seems that the only purpose of diet rules is to make the dieter’s life miserable. If a certain foods or behaviors do not correspond with the proper diet rules – diet humor creates “loopholes”. The above “rules” are the diet humor’s version of how to count the caloric value of different foods.
These rules protest the inconvenience of diet rules. Counting calories reduces eating from a pleasurable experience to a chore of calculation and deliberation. Here diet humor suggests alternative rules that allow the dieter to continue her or his previous eating habits.
This list of "real rules for dieting" reflects the reality in which the dieter may choose to ‘forget’ to register calories, or ignore the calories of certain items. Counting calories is not a popular practice with the women I talked to.
Diet humor also mocks the practice of following standardized menus. "The Toddler Diet” suggests flinging half to three quarters of your food portion across the room at every meal. There is also “The Bachelor Diet” and “The Feline Diet”. They assert that, since most bachelors and cats are thin, people should eat as they do in order to lose weight. These include suggestions such as eating cold pizza at three a.m. or refusing everything but the most expensive cat food. These can be viewed as jabs at the “experts” who tell other people what to eat.
This type of joking narrative both embraces diet culture ideology – that losing weight is desirable – and mocks its methods and scientific narrative. It can also be seen as a rejection of the way science is used to convince people to lose weight.
Diet humor opposes diet rules that label certain foods as taboo. Women I talked to mentioned their favorite foods that dieting forced them to avoid. The most prominent example of this type of food was chocolate, which featured as a forbidden pleasure. Diet humor has many examples of jokes permitting and recommending chocolate:
(19) This is for Women's eyes only: THE RULES OF CHOCOLATE
· A nice box of chocolates can provide your total daily intake of calories in one place. Isn't that handy?
· Chocolate covered raisins, cherries, orange slices & strawberries all count as fruit, so eat as many as you want.
· Q. Why is there no such organization as Chocoholics Anonymous?
A. Because no one wants to quit.
Diet humor asserts that there are some foods that make life worth living, and that avoiding them is neither acceptable nor practical:
Tamar (56): I think diets should start putting chocolate on the menu. Let's face it; no one ever went off their diet because they were tempted by the lettuce. I can't resist chocolate for long, no matter how much I would like to lose weight.
Another aspect of diet culture practice that generates a lot of humor is exercise. Diet culture maintains that one of the main contributors to weight loss is an increase in exercise.
(20) The advantage of exercising every day is that you die healthier.
Sarah (34): I’ve started a diet now. I exercise every night. I walk for an hour. I’ve just been feeling terrible lately. I haven’t exercised in about six weeks and I’ve been eating more than usual”.
Examples of diet humor portray exercise as an unpleasant and painful necessity, forced on the individual by diet culture. For example:
(21) The only reason I took up exercise is so that I could hear heavy breathing again.
Diet humor relates to the extreme discomfort caused by exercising, especially for those who are overweight:
(22) I gave up jogging for my health when my thighs kept rubbing together and setting my pantyhose on fire.
As with other aspects of diet humor regarding practice, many jokes disengage the connection between the efforts of exercise and their presumed results. These jokes mock exercising as pointless or just absurd.
Some jokes may personify the body as a separate entity and locate the source of trouble in the “body’s” refusal to cooperate:
(23) Reasons not to exercise: I have to exercise early in the morning before my brain figures out what I’m doing.
These jokes disconnect the mind from the body, implying that the body is willing to comply with the social demand, but it is the mind that will not cooperate. The division of mind and body may also serve as a psychological tool for those who are overweight – disconnecting and disassociating themselves from the unacceptable physical form.
Jokes may not have any other layers but reflect a simple rejection of the imperative to exercise. They voice clear and undeniable refusal to conform to diet culture demands:
(24) Every time I get the urge to exercise, I lie down till the feeling passes.
(25) The only exercise I get is jumping to conclusions.
(26) I'm in shape. Round is a shape.
Most of the women I interviewed automatically connected dieting with exercising. They believed that exercise was necessary for weight loss, but admitted that they often neglected exercising and felt guilty about it.
Exercise also serves as a link connecting diet culture and consumer culture.
In the following joke the main action taken is making a financial commitment:
(27) Reasons not to exercise: “I joined a health club last year, spent about 400 bucks. Haven’t lost a pound. Apparently you have to show up”.
This joke shows that advertising manipulates people into enrolling in exercise clubs or buying exercise equipment; even though they actually hate to exercise and will seldom use what they paid for.
3.2.4 Diet culture and Consumer culture
(28) Margie’s Rules of Dieting: “When you do not recognize a food object in your refrigerator, you can bet it was once one of those "delicious, fat free, sugar free, high fiber snacks" you bought on your first day of dieting”.
Sivan: “The worst commercials are the ones that show tiny blond girls eating tons, while men look on in astonishment and admiration. There was a McDonald’s commercial that showed this thin blond woman eating a huge burger in five bites. Then there was a Burger Ranch commercial in which a girl with blond curly hair ate four portions of food (four burgers, chips, onion rings) in twenty seconds. The men in these situations looked impressed. If I ate that much in public I would definitely be laughed at. These are women that in real life must live on lettuce. But the advertisements create an impression that it’s possible to eat fattening food and still look like that”.
This contradicting image, created by consumer culture media, of thin women eating high calorie fast food without suffering its consequences in terms of weight gain brings us to the last theme of Diet Humor. The above advertisements signify consumer cultures' worst bind –women are cajoled to purchase and consume whatever advertisers are trying to sell – often high calorie snacks – while maintaining the body of a model. This can only be accomplished by… guess what? buying other products.
Diet humor relates to participation in the diet culture through the purchase of diet products and fashion. Diet culture is a sub-category of consumer culture. It reifies the body as a commodity and then proceeds to sell the individual a variety of items in order to cultivate the body and perform the practices prescribed by diet culture.
Consumer culture reinforces diet culture by constantly supplying the individual with new items that must be purchased. These include diet products that are supposed to help the individual fulfill the goals of diet culture, and fashion items that serve as a reward for those who comply with diet culture’s standards for the ideal body. Fashion is important for displaying the ideal body and drawing attention to it, thus commodifying the body as the ultimate possession.
The category of diet ‘products’ includes special food, dieting literature (books or magazines), exercise equipment or exercise clothing, or enrolling in a program that provides weight loss or exercise services.
Diet humor in this category challenges the qualities and effectiveness of the “magical” diet products. Its main purpose is to show that dieters are not taken in by false advertising and hollow promises. The truth is that though many dieters are convinced by advertising to buy a diet product that does not necessarily mean that they actually use them, or use them in the way they are supposed to be used:
(29) During one of our weekly weight-loss classes, the group leader was extolling the merits of the program's prepared-food products. She raved about the rich, delicious flavor of the imitation chocolate fudge and the nondairy pops, assuring us that we could eat them without the least fear of ruining our diets.
The woman next to me nodded her head emphatically and then whispered, "They're even better when you spread peanut butter on them!"
This example illustrates the fact that paying for one diet culture product (the diet group) is just the beginning of payments the dieter is about to turn over to the diet culture industry:
(30) The “Real” Rules for dieting: If you drink a diet soda with a candy bar, the calories in the candy bar are canceled out by the diet soda.
The joke, combining a diet soda and a chocolate bar, is a "real life" example, justified by a humorous explanation. This joke refers to the ‘magical’ properties of diet drink that “erase the damage” of other items.
Compare this with an actual advertisement for a diet product called Tibetan tea, currently being marketed in Israel. It states plainly: “In order to lose weight there is no need to change your eating habits, just drink a cup of Tibetan tea with every meal and the unwanted kilos just disappear””. Just like magic. It seems as if the joke is based on real life “facts”.
Buying dieting products is a way of adhering to diet rules. Diet products are often advertised as guilt free, which gives rise to the assumption that women should be feeling guilty when they do not use these products. The very act of purchase may serve to absolve women of other “dieting sins”. This is possible because consumer culture is performed through the act of purchase. Actually using the product may be far less important than owning it. Its value can be derived from mere possession. Buying a product is the ‘magical’ alternative to a scientifically balanced diet based on the laws of cause and effect.
Diet humor highlights the ways in which consumer culture manipulates people into buying products they do not necessarily need or want. Diet humor shows how people keep being enticed into spending money. Women explain their motives as “easing their consciences” and taking action. In effect it seems as though they are purchasing products to maintain a commercial connection with diet culture, even while they are breaking the rules of practice.
Another aspect of consumer culture that has a close connection to diet culture is the fashion industry. The variety of fashionable clothing available to women depends very much on body size. The ability to find suitable and fashionable clothing is important for women’s self image. Young Israeli women considered 38 the ideal clothes size (Menah, 2002), though studies show that 67% of Israeli women between the ages 25-45 wear size 42 and up (35% wear 42-44, 20% wear 46-48 and 12% wear 50-54 (Tzoref, 2003). Even so, in many shops in Israeli fashion shops it is impossible to find clothing in sizes larger than 42.
Diet humor highlights the connections between the diet industry and the fashion industry:
(31) If not for chocolate, there would be no need for control-top pantyhose. An entire garment industry would be devastated.
This example demonstrates the kind of attention the fashion industry gives women who do not fit its standards. Instead of providing larger clothes, it profits by creating garments (control-top pantyhose) to constrict the female form so that it fits into the small sizes that are available. Diet humor criticizes the wide gap between fashion and women’s actual size:
(32) A Woman's Random Thoughts: “I know what Victoria's Secret is. The secret is that nobody older than 30 can fit into their stuff”.
Another example of diet humor on this subject is seen in the cartoon strip Cathy, published in the Jerusalem Post. In the cartoon Cathy demands that all the bikinis be removed from the store and destroyed. She asks: “Bikinis look good on 1% of the female population, why do they take up 80% of the swim-wear department? How are the other 99% of us supposed to feel?”
Clothes sizes and the difficulty of finding suitable clothes were points of frustration in the lives of women I interviewed:
Shamira (24): “You go into a clothes shop where the sizes are between one and three, and there are a few shops where you can find 4, 5 and 6. It might be size 42, size 6. And you think, size six is six times bigger than size one. You are six times bigger… four sizes over normal”.
This tyranny of fashion is a constant reminder that if women choose not to participate in the diet culture they are closing the door to other aspects of popular culture. Diet humor does not have many examples of jokes on this subject, although frustration and the difficulty in finding clothes were frequently mentioned in women’s conversations.
The reason for this could be that other aspects of dieting – like eating chocolate – have pleasant connotations. They connect to a shared social experience – sitting down and indulging with a friend may serve as a bonding experience. On the other hand failure to find clothes is a frustrating situation which is out of women’s control. When deciding to uphold diet rules or ignore them, the dieter is in charge of the situation.
Not fitting into the largest size of a desired outfit reflects a situation in which the individual is powerless; she is not allowed the choice to adopt fashion, or to ignore it. Women may be willing to laugh at their naughty behavior, assuming they can change it at will, by not at frustration they cannot solve. There is no laughing about fashion if the joke is always on the dieter.
My informants wanted to buy fashionable clothes and were sure that if they lost weight, they would be able to do so. Instead of seeing the fashion industry as inherently flawed, they internalized its dictates and strove to change their bodies to comply with existing fashion standards.
4. Discussion and conclusions
‘Diet humor’ is an aspect of diet talk (Nichter, 2000) that appears both in casual conversation and in the form of structured jokes and cartoons. ‘Diet talk’ serves as a method of signaling basic awareness to the norms of diet culture. When women engage in “diet talk” they may establish a rapport as “fellow sufferers”, commiserating about the difficulties of dieting, the unfairness of social expectations or the necessity of conforming to the norm. As humor is a double edged sword (Meyer; 2000) diet talk may be used to conform to the norms or reject them, but its very existence acknowledges their influence and importance to the participants. Even those who boldly denounce dieting are signaling that they are not merely eating freely, but doing so in contradiction to diet culture rules, and so position themselves inside diet culture as (temporary) “delinquents”.
Diet humor is a reflection of the basic difficulties experienced by those actively participating in diet culture. It ridicules the diet culture by denouncing irrational demands and inhumane expectations. This element may be seen as resistance precisely because those who participate in diet culture use it. According to Foucault (1978) resistance appears as the effect of power, its self-subversion. Where power is evident, there are also signs of resistance to that power. I suggest that diet humor serves as a mechanism of resistance to the power exerted by diet culture, and may be used to highlight the mechanisms through which diet culture imposes its value system and its rules on women.
Every third woman in Israeli society is overweight (Elyankov, 2000), these figures are similar to those found in the USA and other developed countries. Some feminist critics have suggested that women’s humor may serve both as a survival skill and as an emancipating strategy for women in a sexist society. Women’s humor may provide a foundation for women’s social solidarity, voicing controversial ideas in a socially acceptable disguise (Bilger, 1998).
This article has shown the variety of ways that humor may be used to reject and reinforce dominant cultural values. Diet culture controls women through several rings of power; ideology, social ties, rules of practice and consumer culture, but where there is power, there is resistance (Foucault, 1978).
Diet humor enables women to speak out against the oppressive diet culture that “occupies” their very bodies and imposes itself upon their lives. Joking about dieting both reinforces the diet culture and excuses breaking its rules. Because it is socially unacceptable to reject diet culture’s ideals openly, women utilize diet humor as a method of expressing ideas that contradict the dominant discourse.
Diet humor is also a mechanism used to establish solidarity between women, referring to a shared problem. It is also an avenue of self-criticism and apology for their adherence to these norms.
Abu-Lughod (1990) cautions against romanticizing the subject of resistance as signs of the ineffectiveness of systems of power, and of the resilience and creativity of the human spirit in its refusal to be dominated. Instead she suggests examining how power relations are historically transformed, and how – by adopting certain forms of resistance – individuals may become enmeshed in a different but nonetheless subjecting form of power.
It is important to understand that diet humor is part of the diet culture. It is not a counter path. In relating to the diet culture, it does not reject the hegemonic ideals. Diet humor does not try to overthrow the system, but rather attempts to make it more bearable for the dieter. Diet humor reflects resistance by protesting the injustices and difficulties of diet culture, but it does not offer a way out.
Resistance to the diet culture’s rules without rejecting its ideals creates a situation in which women diet sporadically. As a result, these women never achieve the desired outcome of dieting, and become enmeshed in an endless cycle of guilt and frustration.
The question arises: why is there resistance to dieting in a group which people have joined with the pronounced intention of losing weight? Why do people voluntarily participate in cultural rituals they find ridiculous?
The answer is that while the influence of diet culture is strong, other social conventions regarding the consumption of food are even stronger. Women who join diet groups truly want to lose weight, but they do not truly want to stop eating their favorite foods or to restrain themselves during occasions where eating is a means of participation. They do not really want to take up exercise. All they want is to be thin. Women around the world are hopefully awaiting the invention of the magical diet pill that will allow them to eat anything they want, never exercise and still look like super models.
Diet groups attempt to undermine a lifetime of conditioning with one weekly meeting. Although for a while they may have some impact, for most of the participants they are ultimately unsuccessful. The leader of a Weight Watchers diet group does not brainwash the women in her audience. She tries to convince the group with reason and helpful suggestions. Some members simply listen quietly and ignore the majority of what she says; the bolder participants may joke with her, contradicting her “helpful tips” with humorous comments about the joys of eating.
The group I observed at BGU in 1999-2000 was disbanded by Weight Watchers shortly after, when the group leader moved away. After I left Weight Watchers in 2001, and over the course of the next three years, I regained almost all the weight I had lost. I recently rejoined another group in Beer-Sheva. From the group of over 30 women who participated in the Weight Watchers group I observed in 1999, only 3 are currently at Weight Watchers. They too have recently returned after a period of neglect. This is sad proof that the only ones who benefit from the frustrating and futile cycle of dieting are the companies, to which hopeful dieters pay their “fat tax”.
Women who ignore the conventions of diet culture may gain freedom over their bodies and way of life, but they do so at the risk of being deemed unattractive and unfeminine according to the dominant discourse. Taking back control of our bodies is an important step towards ensuring women’s independence and equality, but to do so without establishing new conventions of accepted appearance and food consumption may come at the price of being delegitimized and marginalized, losing access to other forms of social power. Women do not resist diet culture openly because being overweight is not perceived as resistant, only as weak and unattractive.
Diet culture’s ideology constitutes the individual as being responsible for her body, which in one sense is liberating. But in exaggerating the individual’s ability to shape her body, build self-esteem and succeed in the wider world, more powerful structural forces and social expectations are overlooked. Placing full responsibility in the hands of each mere mortal is not only an “unbearable weight” (Bordo, 1995) but also fails to recognize the connections between culture and personhood. Diet humor blatantly exposes this connection. By disconnecting cause and effect, diet humor echoes the feeling of futility that many women experience regarding dieting. I personally identify with the following joke:
(34) I've been on a constant diet for the last two decades. I've lost a total of 789 pounds. By all accounts, I should be hanging from a charm bracelet.
Dieting is an exercise that ultimately proves ineffective. Most women who lose weight regain it (Peach, 1998). They feel that dieting is constant, but its rewards seldom, if ever, materialize, and all too soon disappear.
Women are influenced by diet culture but they are not blind to the ways in which they are pushed into accepting its norms. I agree with Bordo (1995) who wrote that most women do not choose dieting ignorantly, passively pressured by the surrounding culture. It is a conscious decision, based on an understanding, though not necessarily an agreement, of the cultural mechanisms that favor slim people. From my personal experience, while I carried out my participant observation I also lost 17 kg. I can admit that after the first year I'd gathered enough data for my thesis but thought (to paraphrase on a joke quoted earlier in this article): "I can't leave now, I'm loosing weight".
Diet humor is a result of the internal conflict between adhering to social norms in order to pursue other personal goals, and rejecting the value system they reflect. The dieter who mocks the diet system may be trying to solve her own cognitive dissonance, while indirectly justifying her course of action.
Give n the choice, my informants would rather lose weight than be fat, but few go the distance and follow the inconvenient diet rules to the letter. During the period of my study few of my informants actually lost weight, and even fewer have maintained the lower weight over time. Even so, they did not abandon the hope of weight reduction, and most will continue adhering to a discursive diet regime.
Dieting sporadically and talking about dieting are culturally accepted responses to the conflicting pressures of diet culture, consumer culture and female roles in Israeli society. In this way women acknowledge the cultural expectations, while maintaining the lifestyle of their choice. Women would rather have their cake (be slim) and eat it too. Since they can’t have it both ways, most of my informants decide to eat the cake and joke about it.
Notes: This article is based on my MA thesis submitted in 2003. I would like to thank Professor Fran Markowitz for supervising my work.
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