Rachel Cooke

The ori­gins of clean eat­ing

The Observer Food Monthly - - CONTENTS - OFM

Peo­ple talk about or­thorexia, an eat­ing dis­or­der that takes the form of an ob­ses­sion with healthy food, as if it were a new thing – or, at least, an ill­ness that has bro­ken cover re­cently, en­cour­aged by those who spend their days post­ing pic­tures of their fan­tas­ti­cal beet- and cashew-based di­ets on Instagram. But as Laura Shapiro re­veals in her new book, What She Ate: Six Re­mark­able Women and the Food that Tells Their

Sto­ries, the con­di­tion has been with us for decades – some­times in plain sight. It was back in 1959 that He­len Gur­ley Brown, fu­ture ed­i­tor of Cos­mopoli­tan and best­selling au­thor of Sex and the

Sin­gle Girl , first walked into the Los An­ge­les health-food store on whose shelves she saw the (ter­ri­fy­ing) fu­ture.

Gur­ley Brown was then feel­ing rather glum: David Brown, her movie ex­ec­u­tive boyfriend, was re­fus­ing to marry her, and she had just fin­ished an as­sign­ment at the Miss Uni­verse Pageant at Long Beach, which had done her ego no good at all (all those younger, pret­tier girls). Need­ing a pick-me-up, she swung by a place she’d heard peo­ple rav­ing about, Lind­berg Nutri­tion, and by the time she left, she was a con­vert: to vi­ta­min sup­ple­ments, to soy-flour pan­cakes and to the Seren­ity Cock­tail, which com­prised, among other things, pineap­ple chunks, cal­cium lac­tate, vanilla, pow­dered milk and brewer’s yeast.

At this point, she was not in­ter­ested in di­et­ing so much as in want­ing to im­prove her phys­i­cal and emo­tional health (Gur­ley Brown had al­ways been rake thin). But this soon changed. Al­though David did fi­nally pro­pose, her new sta­tus couldn’t al­ter the fact that she was near­ing 40, a num­ber which filled her with hor­ror – and so the starv­ing be­gan. Ex­cept that she didn’t quite let on that she was SPE­CIAL 24 Septem­ber 2017 EDI­TION starv­ing, not at first. She al­ways cooked for David, a hot break­fast and din­ner ev­ery night, and she liked to tell peo­ple how “scrump­tious” she thought this or that dish was; once her writ­ing ca­reer took off, she even pub­lished a (ghost­writ­ten) cook book. Thus, she main­tained the il­lu­sion that her ap­petite was per­fectly healthy.

In fact, her diet was ex­tremely re­stricted. Sure, she was a great one for tins and pack­ets: the times were dif­fer­ent then. (She was de­voted to Jell-O, though it had to be sugar-free, of course.) But much of what she ate will sound weirdly fa­mil­iar to any­one ac­quainted with so-called clean eat­ing (as will her con­vic­tion that any­one who dared to crit­i­cise it was sim­ply “jeal­ous” of her fig­ure). She liked to feast, for in­stance, on such “sat­is­fy­ing” and “de­li­cious” treats as prunes, dried apri­cots and un­salted al­monds. Mean­while, many nor­mal foods be­gan to seem ac­tively dan­ger­ous, and they had to be avoided at all costs. Other peo­ple were wel­come to eat brown­ies, but if some­one at a party hap­pened to hand her one, straight into her hand­bag it would go (or, in an emer­gency, be­hind the near­est cush­ion).

All this sounds des­per­ately mis­er­able and un­pleas­ant. Com­bine the as­pi­ra­tions of a 60s host­ess with a mor­tal fear of food and you get some pretty weird stuff; the mind bog­gles at the thought of av­o­ca­dos stuffed with orange ice (even as I’m typ­ing this, I’m won­der­ing whether some pout­ing blog­ger isn’t about to try it: “so amaz­ingly re­fresh­ing, and lac­tose­free, too!”). Ill and ex­hausted as she must have been, main­tain­ing the fic­tion it was just won­der­fully good luck that those foods which made a girl “sexy, ex­u­ber­ant [and] full of the [sic] joie de vivre” were also the ones that hap­pened to keep her “slen­der” was too much even for her. Slowly and surely, the smoke­screen fell away.

If the “in­cred­i­ble salad bar” in which she “sim­ply rolled around” ev­ery night of her hol­i­day sounds ex­actly the kind of thing you’d read on Instagram, her frank ad­mis­sion of a week­day diet con­sist­ing only of tuna, cot­tage cheese and an ap­ple has a ve­rac­ity that, how­ever pa­thetic and trou­bling, seems al­most touch­ing in the age of the on­line chick­pea moun­tain (“I eat so much,” blog­gers in­sist, wav­ing a loaded plate you feel cer­tain they will never empty).

Of all the anec­dotes Shapiro dishes up, my favourite is the one with which she ends. Once, she writes, Glo­ria Steinem – Gur­ley Brown’s favourite fem­i­nist – begged her to say some­thing pos­i­tive about her­self, some­thing that re­flected the se­ri­ous, com­pli­cated per­son she re­ally was. “He­len tried her best,” writes Shapiro. “She re­ally did.” But in the end, all she could up with was: ‘I’m skinny! I’m skinny!’”

Com­bine a 60s host­ess with a fear of food and you get some pretty weird stuff


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