By Erin O’Brien
Right now I am sitting at my computer in rural Northern California writing while free internet radio plays Sylvan Esso. I am sipping raspberry leaf herbal tea for women’s health. Water coming straight from the tap is clean and tastes wonderful. Sunlight streams through oak trees that surround my sweet cottage lighting up my surroundings. My dog, Junebug, sprawls out in our cozy red chair looking slightly bored but content in her post-breakfast stupor.
Thirty-two years ago, in 1984, I was a tiny baby, just four months old. I was born into a middle-class, third generation Irish family in San Francisco. There was no internet. There was not even a family computer yet. At my house, there was no television. We had a large phone hooked up to a landline. We also had a radio with a cassette player and a record player. My father boasted a substantial tape and record collection. He also played music with friends and family. Mandolin, fiddle, guitar, and old Irish folk songs were sounds of my childhood.
The products in our home were simple and useful, an environmentally conscious choice during what was called the decade of greed, materialism, decadence, and excess. The anti-establishment rebellion of the 1960s was long over and the 20th century American culture of materialism became stronger than ever before, both a cause and effect of President Reagan's unrestricted free market policies. Despite this wave of Reganomics, access to goods and services were still limited without the Internet and modern technology. Many large companies did not yet have marketing departments. The concept of branding was still new. And, to buy products, we had to drive to a store or place mail orders from a magazine.
The foodie landscape had been transforming steadily since WWII and was changing rapidly in 1984. Many married women went to work during WWII, sparking a change in ideology about women’s place in society and whetting the appetite for many women who had found freedom in their mobilization. By the 1950s, there were more women than ever before in the workforce. Women heading to work coupled with a widespread popularization of convenient new kitchen appliances and an emerging culture of materialism set the stage for the packaged food industry and TV dinners. Inspired by airplane food, TV dinners with single use aluminum trays were introduced in the 1950s by Gerry Thomas. Apparently Gerry was not a fan his own product. As a passionate foodie, he continued to cook gourmet meals at home using whole ingredients. But his legacy lived on and profited, notably changing the landscape of the American mealtime experience and adding more garbage to our landfills. Thirty years later, in 1986, the microwave-safe TV dinner was launched. By 1986, nearly every household had a TV as the centerpiece of their living room, paving the way for success. Needless to say, dinner time practices started to look very different.
By the time I was born, packaged food was widespread, the supermarket defined the grocery shopping experience, and the fast food industry was growing rapidly. Whole Foods was just founded in 1980 as a small vegetarian food market. Costco just opened the year before. Walmart was quickly acquiring supermarkets around the USA, but had not yet expanded to California. Fast food was quickly becoming the hallmark of American cuisine. Although the popularization of fast food restaurants was already well underway reaping 6 billion dollars of revenue in 1970, their place in the market was just taking off with new innovations. The double drive through at fast food restaurants was new and offered more convenience and even faster food. McDonald's had just introduced breakfasts and added the “happy meal” to the menu. By the time I was three, one quarter of all breakfasts in the USA were from McDonald's. By the time I was in school, fast food chains had a presence on my elementary school, middle school, and high school campuses. With globalization and a world market, fast food companies have now accrued more than $110 billion annually.
Writing this today makes me feel ancient, but I am relatively young. No internet? No cell phones? No Costco? Big companies without marketing departments? Life was different back then.
And, well, many parts of life were the same. My body, a female body, was already a subject of mass marketing campaigns rooted in a deeply rooted history of idealizing and perfecting the woman’s body. The ideal woman in Western culture has changed over time, ranging from plump and voluptuous white woman in the 19th century (a sign of wealth and abundance) to skeleton thin white woman in the later half of the 20th century (a sign of self-control). Although there are lingering effects from each decade, times have changed.
Fast forward to 2016. There has been push back from women around the world. Role models range from Beyoncé to the first lady, Michelle Obama, to J.Lo to Facebook COO, Sheryl Sandberg, and comedians Amy Poehler and Tina Fey. A woman is running for president. We are making headway. And yet, there is still so much work to do.
Looking back through history, we can understand a bit more about the work we still have to do today. Perspective brings awareness and, at the very least, offers an interesting display of changing images over time. A 19th century painting by Renoir illustrates the ideal female body in the 1800s.
Fast forward to the 1950s and ideal changed drastically. Model and actress, Marilyn Monroe, was the sex symbol of her time. She was a size 14, considered plus-sized in today’s modeling world, though still slim in comparison to many women in the USA today.
The idealization of super-skinny supermodel, Twiggy Lawson, ignited a new wave of thin-obsession in the 1960s. The adolescent baby boomers took the hit (my parent’s generation). So by the time I was born, in 1984, the glorification of the waify, ultra-thin woman was well underway. And the two generations of men and women before me had been socially conditioned to idealize the thin female body. Just like the girls and women of my generation, many women fought to control their appetites.
Added to this thin-obsession was the fitness revolution, popularized by Jane Fonda. Aerobics and pumping iron became all the rage. Then the diet industry capitalized on our thin-obsessed culture, bringing in millions and now billions of dollars per year.
The stage was set for the 1990s and early 21st century: fast-food, TV dinners, packaged food, nonfat everything, giant supermarkets, mass media marketing straight to your living room, a movement toward the thin ideal, the fitness revolution, and the quick fix allure of the diet industry. Looking back, the fact that our culture was simultaneously pushing easily-accessible convenience foods and the thin ideal is strange, fascinating, and ultimately destructive. The result? Mass confusion about nutrition, body image, health, and wellness.
I am 32 years old today. A lot has changed since I was born in 1984. We have had a black president in office for eight years. The 21st century civil rights movement continues with #blacklivesmatter. And now, a woman is running for president. Nevertheless, we are living among one of the most divisive, disturbing elections in history, where women are being disrespected on national television, racism and discrimination are part of proposed policy, and fear is in the air. There is so much to say about this subject, but not all of the current debates are relevant to this article. The fact that a woman's place in society is at stake here is very much relevant.
The 21st century is defined by new levels of efficiency, entertainment, and accessibility to information. Technology has changed rapidly, growing at explosive rates every year, speeding up communication and creating more avenues for marketing. There is more potent, consumer profiled advertising than ever before. Citizens around the globe are using the wealth of free information online, including the good, the bad, and the questionable. Fast and intelligent computers speed up communication, research, entertainment, and business transactions. Internet, websites, apps, podcasts, and business software have changed the landscape of the workplace and home. Smart cell phones make communication, information, and entertainment available at all times. Social media builds connections, networks, and information sharing opportunities.
Alongside technology, the health and wellness industries have taken off in the past three decades. With the many positive effects of technology comes the downside. We are experiencing more stagnant lifestyles with more screen time than ever before. In response to declining levels of health and wellness, fitness centers and exercise programs have sprung up everywhere. The diet industry reaps 64 billion annually. There have been a recent surge of health and wellness entrepreneurs, myself included, ranging from fitness instructors to corporate wellness consultants. There are many opportunities for exercise, including large fitness centers, boutique studios, and a large network of trails to walk, bike and run.
Environmental catastrophes and global climate change are major issues, oftentimes shoved under the rug in the face of other crises around the world. We are beginning to see the larger effects of climate change and environmental problems. Back when I was a college student at UC San Diego just 10 years ago, I learned that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch was the size of Texas. Now the Great Pacific Garbage Patch has doubled in size and is projected to double again in the next decade. Despite growing concerns, we continue to live beyond our ecological footprint. That said, there are alternative environmental movements growing more mainstream. Hybrid and electric cars, tiny houses, green household products, improved recycling and composting systems, drought tolerant yards, global restoration projects, and environmental education are making progress in the 21st century.
National and global health remains at the top of our concerns. The landscape of health and wellness has changed with the rise of new and old diseases and illness. A growing number young people have depression and anxiety, yet there is more education and less stigma about mental illness than ever before. Eating disorders and unhealthy weight (obesity, overweight, underweight) have skyrocketed, yet there is more information, less stigma, and more opportunities for treatment. 22 million people, 9.3% of the population, were diagnosed with type 2 diabetes by 2014. This is a shocking 4x increase since I was born. Cancer mortality rates have steadily been on the rise since the 1950s. Heart disease has maintained its #1 status as cause of death in the USA.
Global health efforts have made their impact, though there is still work to be done. Communicable disease still account for the majority of deaths in developing nations. Research shows people are living an average of 6 years longer (but not necessarily healthier) than they were in 1990, yet there is still a life expectancy gap between wealthy and poor countries of approximately 16 years for men and 19 years for women. Due to global health efforts, this disparity has improved since 1990. Regardless, the health and wealth divide between the rich and the poor within and between countries has steadily grown over the past several decades.
So here we are in 2016. There is so much to talk about. I am aware I have not covered it all in this article. The purpose of writing all of this today is that knowledge is power. Understanding where we have come from as a society and the factors that have influenced the present helps me to accept myself as I am and create a joyful relationship with food, my body, and life in the present moment, free of old stories and facts that I learned throughout my 32 years of existence.
We can see there is more helpful information than ever before about preventative health and wellness, yet this is coupled with continued, growing confusion about what to eat, what substances to avoid, and how to stay healthy. As I mentioned previously, despite the wealth of information and treatment options out there, eating disorders, unhealthy weight, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer are still on the rise. Given the context we still live within, there is no surprise that millions of people struggle to stay healthy, sane, and fit in body, mind and spirit. The proof is in the pudding. We still spend billions of dollars each year on diets, fitness classes, nutritional counseling, weight loss programs, and treatment to heal and/or improve ourselves so we will be happy and healthy and loved. We are still so confused.
No matter how confused we are as a result of this massive growth of recent decades and contradicting information about our health and wellness, there are solutions to the problems we face. We live in potent times. We have a powerful vantage point on the past and the potential to learn from our history. Alongside our confusion comes an incredible opportunity to revolutionize our personal and community wellness so we all develop lifelong habits that create lasting health and happy, fun-filled lives. Together, moment by moment, we can transform our personal worlds, our communities, and the world at large. But this effort takes all of us first looking at our own lives and then using our creativity to find solutions that are both emotive and action-oriented.
Over the course of the next few blogs, I will continue to examine emerging inquiries of life in the 21st century and highlight innovative solutions to problems we face. In the meantime, I would love to hear from you! What are some articles, practices and actions you find useful in your life? Respond in the comments section below or email me at Erin@SoulFood.Yoga.