Clean, Extreme and Nightmarish Dream - The Rise of Extreme Dieting Regimes and the Perfectionism Movement
by Richard Boyd, Body Mind Psychotherapist, Energetics Institute, Perth, West Australia
The press recently fired up around claims by celebrity chef Peter Evans or “Paleo Pete” as he is often referred, concerning statements attributed to him on social media that dairy foods remove calcium from human bones. This claim alarmed the medical community and drew criticism of Peter that he was influencing a large audience of his fans towards extreme and distorted thinking in relation to dairy foods via his Paleo Diet philosophy.
The origins of this new wave of dieting philosophies based on a purist approach to foods and lifestyle can often be traced to an underlying ethos of perfectionism. One of the biggest issues in our digitally washed society is the curse of perfectionism.
Perfectionism by its nature robs any sufferer of their humanity and creates an enduring and pervasive distortion around what it is to be OK and accept oneself. Perfectionism promotes an idealised reality that there is one form of being and doing that we all should aspire to, and it’s an extremist all or nothing goal so you are perfect or you are nothing.
A key facet of perfectionism is body image and how we look. Today we are increasingly told that how we look defines our “personal brand” and we are constantly bombarded via social media with perfectionistic, touched up, air brushed stories and images of supposed role models of the new standard way to be.
All our advertising is dominated by perfectionistic images that are designed to expose a gap between who you are now and where the promoter’s product, service or experience will take you. The new nirvana is available for a price.
The power of social media perception drives the successful promotion and acceptance of extreme dieting and digital channels facilitate the entrepreneur who has as a business model yet another fad diet and the merchandising and sales that spin out of these diets.
As an extension of the body beautiful and the obsessive drive of perfection to get all things just so and right is what we eat. The food and diet obsession takes great day to day prominence in the pantheon of all those things we must constantly attend to in order to arrive at, and maintain the perfect state.
This belief system has created an industry of diets and perfect eating theories and their resultant lifestyle level eating rituals. We have now gone beyond diets as a tool to lose weight or gain health, and morphed them into cults and self-identifying narcissistic brands no different from say sexy tech brands such as Apple (pardon the pun!!) or any other glamour association.
Just think of the Paleo diet movement and how obsessive their devotees can get to promote and defend a simple diet concept. Adherents to perfectionistic ideals of any genre are rarely able to receive any incoming objective information without filtering it out and rationalising why their truth is better or the only truth.
Another example is Kate Mills who featured in a Perth Now website article who also fits the mould of a young perfectionist trapped in the web of an obsessive dieting lifestyle. Kate is a 21 year old WA student and aspiring model, who spent much of her time obsessively researching, planning and preparing ritually clean eating meals, at the expense of having a rounded life of socialising, having fun, and making any choices that would compromise the rigidity and absoluteness of eating only clean foods.
Kate found that she did forgo attending parties and functions that offer dirty or non-clean foods, sauces or ingredients, and instead sat at home on the internet researching alone, and munching on raw cake or Zucchini pasta. She also found she MUST do her 10km power walk and nervously checked her stats to make sure she was ever bettering yesterday’s statistics. The drive towards perfection is relentless, unending and demanding.
Perfectionistic minds tend to wire themselves to accepting only incoming information that confirms their obsessive reality, and will filter out any discordant information that challenges their deeply held belief, however distorted that belief may be. This is also true of any addict who is in denial they have an addiction or problem, and in this common ground of mind process we find how validly we can consider perfectionism as just another form of addiction.
If we put aside the overall problem of perfectionism itself in all its aspects of behaviour, and focus on obsessive dieting as a symptom we can find how harmful it can be for those who somehow find they adopt dieting and food as an obsessive focus in their mind disorder. The term Orthorexia is one term used around this type of obsessive clean dieting philosophy that has had a viral run on social media of late.
American doctor Steven Bratman is attributed to who coined the condition Orthorexia and defined it as an unhealthy obsession with eating healthy food or a fixation on righteous eating. The word is based on the Greek word “orthos” which means “right” or “correct” but Orthorexia is not yet a recognised medical or psychological condition in mainstream circles.
Orthorexia is the glamour child of the perfectionistic disorder when applied to eating and diet. The obsession inherent in this dieting belief system is that adherents must eat only the most organic, the most virtuous, the most ethically traded, healthy food if you want good health.
Clients I have worked with over this issue found that social media kept bombarding them with perfectionistic healthy bodied, smiling people images wrapped around a generic gateway term of “clean eating”. For many it turned out to be the gateway to hell.
If you consider online Instagram and Facebook communities as influencers in the lives of followers, then for the average person of low self-esteem, such followers are often vulnerable, and searching for a solution to that low self-esteem. Perfectionists are normally riddled with anxiety as they moment-to-moment try to create perfection and focus critically on what is wrong with themselves rather than what is right with themselves.
This unrelenting aspect of perfectionism drives their anxiety as they fear criticism or being uncovered as a fraud or being less than capable, which is part of the story they tell themselves as that is who they really are. An aspect of mind around this issue is unconsciously their mind may start focusing them obsessively on some object or idea that provides either an attempted solution to becoming perfect, or rationalise a behaviour as creating a safety outcome that gives them more control of life and themselves.
For instance many Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) sufferers have as their ritual or focus a theme based on dealing with a threat or fear. For instance constantly checking locks is about irrational fear of intrusion, and constantly cleaning is about the fear of germs and disease.
OCD in the context of perfectionism tends to become more about a moment-to-moment comparison of themselves in reality to a fantasy held internal image they also hold about who they want to be, supported by media with its constant reminders of fantasy aligned images just like the one they now aspire to be.
All OCD sufferers have internal and/or external triggers which activate their OCD and for perfectionists there is no shortage of external triggers in our perfectionist narcissistic society to keep them activated into anxiety about their shortcomings. This anxiety in turn activates OCD behaviours as compensating attempts to bridge the gap between their current flawed state and the fantasy perfect image they aspire to.
This treadmill is one that has no stop button. When applied to clean eating and perfectionistic diets supported by an obsessive online audience connected through Instagram or Facebook, you now have a perfect storm for a digital cult to arise.
Cults are many varied and are typically are only spoken of in terms of religion or New Age or Supernatural belief systems. However the group think and cultural forces that play out on obsessive social media forums tend to generate the same set of issues for individuals who get drawn into their web as those who get involved in actual cults.
Every one of us seeks to find meaning and purpose. It is a deep unconscious impulse that often finds expression through belonging to an idea which constellates through a team, a group or by actions and behaviours aligned to the beliefs and values of that idea. We each find meaning and purpose in our own pursuits, hobbies, passions and endeavours or lifestyles.
A person who has low self-esteem or a fragmented or weak self-identity may find meaning, purpose and identity through joining a group aligned to a cause or idea. In that group they may also find fellowship, support, mirroring of their new self through others equally indoctrinated, and a positive rush that confirms they have indeed found their place and position in life.
When that idea behind the group is positive (e.g. Cancer charity or stamp collecting), it is not likely to influence that person toward extreme behaviours or create issues for themselves or others if they become obsessive in their engagement with that group. In many other groups there may be an inherent risk that over-identification with the group, its followers and its ideals, could lead to serious consequences.
A perfectionist based eating or self-image group is surely one that could wreak harm on the very people who are likely candidates to feel affinity and join the group. Perfectionism becomes a self-generating problem in the sense that it is like an ever tightening whirlpool of destructive behaviours that fuel the next step in the problem.
The health effects of such conditions such as Orthorexia go beyond just the physical as it has effects that we see in people with addictions. Any addiction will tend to create over time an outcome where the addict starts to focus just on their object of addiction, and relationships, mental, physical, and emotional health will suffer, distorted thinking will result, self -justification and rationalisation will arise to allow the addiction to continue.
These addiction symptoms are also found in Orthorexia sufferers who will also like addicts then start to create social isolation and feeling guilty when not following their self-inflicted demands around food. Long term effects can include illness, disease, nutritional deficiencies, and mental and physical breakdowns.
In the case of Katie Mills she eventually was diagnosed with anorexia and she spent 5 weeks in Hollywood Private Hospital but recovered. She now adopts a middle of the road appreciation of life and eating but is aware of her mind’s tendency to want to wander towards perfectionism.
Part of the problem is that perfectionism is a treadmill with no circuit breaker. One becomes caught in a never ending spiral of dressing, eating, adorning, speaking, creating, achieving and becoming perfection. Each attempt and each effort is never enough and creates stress, frustration, anxiety, anger and negative self-talk when the mind finds the 1% of that effort is not at the level of acceptance.
The other 99% of attainment is minimised, overlooked, remains uncelebrated and untrusted, and quickly the person moves on to the next task or meal. There is no room for happiness in such a mindset or way of life.
This endeavour is not some form of healthy striving as its not grounded in reality and it is based on an unattainable goal. The striving can only end in depression, despair, lower self-esteem, deeper negative self-talk, risk of illness or suicide, loss of choice and freedom as the “rules” of that group or idea become rigid and absolute.
Some adherents are not obsessive in these groups and with ideas and so adopt the regimes with a healthier balanced approach but it is the overly perfectionistic sub-group who I speak of in these paragraphs. In 2003 researchers at Duke University coined the term “effortlessly perfection” to describe the subgroup I speak more about.
This double illusion term (perfection being possible at all, and perfection somehow potentially being effortless to achieve and sustain), is a new level of madness in this hell. The term speaks loudly of narcissistic perfectionism which is probably a better term as least its context is contained within it being part of a personality disorder (Narcissism).
Kate Giles in a recent LinkedIn article wrote that this term is applied to women students in prestigious Universities who faced the challenge of the “perfect trifecta”. Kate described the trifecta as being comprised of “being academically successful, well-rounded and physically beautiful at all times”.
This holistic context by which aspiring over-achievers would need to meet the grade would naturally leave them open to adopting perfect or idealised diets and thinking around food and the body. The treadmill is everywhere, every time, every way and so perfection ceases to be a trait and now becomes a total state of being.
The mirage of perfection demands the aspirant adopt control as a primary tool of self-discipline and of external perception management. Perfectionism is at the end of day carried through a false self, a contrived social mask that presents the attempted curated expression of perfection.
If one looks at Barbie as the famous archetypal doll of the perfection cult then it is easy to see how women in particular are groomed from a young age by images, messages and demands of being this sort of false self. In the same moment they adopt a false self then they have to reject their real self as bad, flawed, ugly or unlovable and set themselves up for low self-esteem and a poor body image.
Look at the modelling industry which perpetrates such ugly archetypes in female models. Here we find the sexualised Barbie is very much alive, and enmeshed with creepy trend of youth that gives the impression of paedophilic overtones in the type of archetypal models that the fashion industry uses. The images arising from photoshoots are often photo shopped into perfection so the illusion is propagated all around us and sold to us as some sort of reality.
In our society the archetypal unhealthily thin female models are key selling tools across all segments of products, services and experiences in society. Any women looking on is likely to compare themselves to these photo-shopped illusions, feel bad or less than, and so begin or perpetrate the continuation of a downward self-image spiral.
As women encounter these images everywhere and every day these images unconsciously become normalised inside themselves as benchmarks and conclusions about what is beautiful or sexy or successful. Given that the average Australian model is only 80% of the average Australian female size then the distortions around the continual use of such models is one obvious driver towards women developing eating disorders, and going on perfectionistic diets which I began this article with.
Dr Marilyn Krawitz who is a senior lecturer of law at the University of Notre Dame in Fremantle, advocates that there should be federal laws which mandate the use of warning on published images where it has been photo-shopped, and additionally that the modelling industry should come under regulation to force their adoption models who are a set minimum weight and body mass index (BMI).
It can be argued that our media companies abuse women through mind violence. What I mean here is that the oppressive and false images that assault the senses of women who stumble upon them everyday are quite intimidatory.
They are intimidatory as they are likely to cause a negative result, and are demeaning, misleading and create harm, with a linked effect that women may start to hate their bodies and self-harm them through toxic diets and exercise obsessions.
There is a causal link between such images and depictions and use of unhealthily thin models in the behaviour of a significant percentile of women. The studies around these links exist and have been reported but the whole media industry refuses to self-regulate despite via their marketing having bland statements that endorse only “healthy” models, and promote positive role models through advertising.
Social media is simply an extension and a mirror to this craving for perfection via narcissistic self-projection and our own contrived messages and photo-shopped images of unreality. Social media have given us tools to become that perfect personal brand that demands we share how perfect our life is, our experiences are, our partners are, and how we are somehow special to be at some touted great event, or in the company of some great person or celebrity.
The treadmill wheels just keep on spinning and spinning with the lost souls who cannot get off their self-generated obsession. A recent article estimated that uber-fit, perfection aspiring, Ken and Barbie fitness gurus, are now key influencers who are part of the fact that fitness and healthy food makeup over half of all social media posts online in the key digital channels of Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest.
These gurus include Kayla Itsines, Ashy Bines, Emily Skye , Aaron McAllister, and are part of a global $85 billion dollar online industry rife with merchandising, endorsements, diets, challenges, and key underlying themes of perfection that are disguised by seemingly healthy exercise and eating messages. Sex sells and we see the skimpy exercise workout clothing and the exercises to create that perfect sexy apple rounded butt, or the perfectly toned sexy healthy body.
The numbers in this industry are huge. A search of the obsessive “clean eating” term on photo-sharing app Instagram will return over 22 million hits. Published statistics in the food industry reveal that 7 million Australians follow a low-carb diet, which is not in itself that surprising given the rise of obesity in our culture and the resulting advice for adults to exercise more and to adopt less carbs in their diet.
But if you add to that the fact that over 4 million Australians claim to live gluten-free and then 2 million claim to be vegetarian, with another 480,000 being of a vegan lifestyle, plus another 240,000 are dedicated followers of the paleo diet regimen, then you can see how diets and food are prominent in the minds of the population.
The online diet and health industry is huge and the revenue numbers staggering. Australians are estimated to spent about $7 billion on weight loss measures, including diets in 2015. Australians spent $8.5 billion on gyms in 2015 and also $1 billion is now spent on various forms of clean eating oriented foods, books and technologies.
These large numbers are comprised of both online and offline marketed products and an exhaustive body of knowledge and opinion in the area of food and diets that is contradictory. This contradictory information is not helped by the fact that even amongst mainstream health bodies who over time overturn the mainstream position on such things as fats, proteins, sugar, salt, oils, and alcohol. We swing between such things being pronounced as being healthy and then later unhealthy over time.
The clean eating world is full of “coaches”, and self-healed advocates who claim to have had major illnesses and then recovered due to clean eating (think of the Belle Gibson fraud). One such person is Ella Woodward, aged 25, who recovered from a rare illness after adopting a new plant-based diet and now promotes to her followers such things as sweet potato brownies.
Clicking away online you also encounter Tess Ward, aged 25, who authors a cookbook called The Naked Diet which replaces the conventional chapter headings — ‘Breakfasts’, ‘Starters’, ‘Mains’, ‘Puddings’ —with ‘Pure’, ‘Raw’, ‘Stripped’, ‘Clean’ and ‘Detox’. Then there are online coaches such as Madeleine Shaw, who describes herself as a ‘holistic nutritional health coach’ who believes in ‘enlivening the hottest, happiest and healthiest you’ and offers a ‘chia seed egg substitute’ to use in day-to-day recipes.
These advocates may not be harmful in themselves but other make edgier medical claims despite having no formal qualifications to do so. Ella Woodward recommends raw, rather than pasteurized, coconut water, which is tinted pink ‘because of all those antioxidants’ and is one of many in the clean eating movement who warn about the dangers of dairy produce and cow milk.
Interestingly Ella Woodward presents the same new science about cow milk as “Paleo Pete” Evans does, which she says, “can actually cause calcium loss in our bones”! The rationale to this claim is drawn from the unproven Paleo and Clean Eating philosophy that milk causes the pH of our bodies to become acidic which triggers a natural reaction in our bodies to bring the pH of our blood back to neutral.
When we drink milk, she says, calcium is drawn from our bones in order to rebalance the acidity it causes, which can result in a calcium deficit. Mainstream medical and nutritional professionals debunk this ungrounded and unscientific advice but note that self-justifying, bizarre and extreme claims are inherent in the various clean eating movements.
It is not surprising that online fad diets find an audience who are eager to follow and adopt their “facts”, given that consumers no longer trust mainstream medical opinion, and find contradictory advice being released over the years by research bodies. The marketing of the alternative dieting movements is also slick and perfectionistic in representation, and sites online often are presented with photo-shopped and airbrushed models who seem full of health, life, and sexiness.
Photo-shopping not only is rife in this industry but also is the common influencing technique of the comparative before and after photos of what happened when some poor unfit, overweight, socially unacceptably dressed soul, did their version of transformation and emerged with a tight body, healthy glow, big smile, in designer wear, and now living the life of their dreams!! The buy-to-health industry claims many online victims with these sort of smoke and mirror campaigns.
We do not get to see if the touted clients additionally had gastric banding, cosmetic surgery, kept that new look beyond 6 months or if it existed at all, or was in reality a half way reality photo-shopped up to its optimised marketing proposition. Meanwhile the brand personas behind the business tend to hang out in regular beach shoots in the latest skimpy bikini, or at some exotic location.
Any scandal in their industry is merely sidestepped and airbrushed out of the conversation online. Look at Belle Gibson who sold the whole healthy eating franchise via books, apps and digital guides to over 2 million followers, based on a selling proposition that healthy eating had cured her at least 3 times from cancers and tumours.
Belle is a self-admitted fraud whose empire came crashing down after Fairfax press came investigating. This wake-up call has gone unheeded as there are other versions of Belle Gibson out in the digital universe with the extreme diets, or the healthy eating movement, or the obsessive exercise movements making claims that appear to not have any scientific evidence behind them either.
Yet the best influencers in this market are estimated to be worth up to $100 million per year to the owners and holders of their claimed intellectual property via sales and subscriptions, endorsements and influencing payments to push third party products to the audience of followers. The profit motive would seem to be the main driver behind quite a few of these online movements.
The health and food industry requires no real professional qualifications for someone to setup a set of digital channels and start banging out blogs and offers to the world. If Belle Gibson can achieve fame with her extreme proposition then you and I could conceivably do so as well.
For the average person online the compelling lure of someone who has a large following in say clean eating or a food fad is that they are legitimate. Unfortunately popularity does not guarantee that the advocate is either right or safe.
The rise of online influencers who are advocating an extreme diet or fitness regime based on perfection as either an overt or covert theme is apparent. Their appeal and alignment to a person running a perfection obsession within themselves is unfortunately a match made in hell.
The physical dislocation of digital business channels from their audiences means that the negative impact of their site or following on any one member may not be seen or felt. The social media channel itself will be moderated and curated toward a perfect positive experience for all those who click there.
The downsides and the bad experiences with whatever is sold or promoted there will not be seen or experienced by the audience. It will all seem to be a wholly positive proposition to the unthinking person who lacks adult critical thinking when they view such forums as the total story or picture.
As they say in stock market circles DYOR (Do Your Own Research). However the vulnerable do not want the facts as they often want to be saved and find the solution to their perfection dilemma. Blind faith replaces adult critical thinking in these circumstances as it does in cults.
The other symptom of our perfection obsessed online lives is the strange attraction to the ugly or the perfect ones who have lost all their looks. What I mean here is if you look at many news feed sites they will all have a headline and link entitled TEN CHILDHOOD STARS WHO ATE TOO MANY PIZZAS GROWING UP, or 10 HOLLYWOOD CELEBRITIES WHO GOT FAT OR ARE NOW UNRECOGNIZABLE.
Clink on any of these links or buy any copy of the magazine “NO IDEA” (oops!! I mean “NEW IDEA”) and you will enjoy a visual feast about poor goddesses such as Meg Ryan or Goldie Hawn or Macauley Culkin who are presented in the most unflattering poses. This voyeurism and trolling is but one more form of obsession with the body beautiful and the cult of perfectionism and its counterpart of shaming those who are not or no longer perfect.
In between are online trolls who target those who are in the public eye who they feel should be shamed, attacked and/or booted off whatever public platform they enjoy. Notice how female media celebrities like Tracey Grimshaw, Samantha Armytage, and Caroline Wilson get targeted for their looks and figures by trolls and even by other media personalities.
The Caroline Wilson example involving Eddy McGuire is interesting for Sam Newman who is one of her most vocal critics appears to go to great lengths in grooming and Botox to fight off the natural elderly biological state he in reality is. He appears to reject and cover up his own true self and projects this hatred onto a woman like Caroline Wilson who is a professional journalist and media commentator and who is literally comfortable in her own skin.
At the end of the day it is all about being in balance or as the Buddha would say it is about taking the middle path or middle road, which inherently is not extreme, or at either end of any spectrum. Extremism in any form tends to bring suffering with it and so clean eating and perfectionism are but yet two more manifestations of suffering we can fall into.
There are some online resources you can access if you identify with this article. A summary are included below. I have included the following checklist authored by the eatingdisorderhope.com online site to highlight possible behavioural symptoms and extreme thinking in the area of orthorexia.
Signs someone might be suffering from orthorexia
Common behaviours to be aware of include the following:
- Elimination of entire food groups in attempt to have a “clean” or “perfect” diet.
- Severe anxiety regarding how food is prepared.
- Avoidance of social events involving food for fear of being unable to comply with the diet.
- Thinking critically of others who do not follow strict diets.
- Spending extreme amounts of time and money in meal planning and food choices.
- Feelings of guilt or shame when unable to adhere to diet standards.
- Feeling fulfilled or virtuous from eating “healthy” while losing interest in other activities that were once enjoyed.
These extreme behaviours go beyond usual attempts to live healthily or adopt lifestyle changes because they can negatively influence a person physically, emotionally, and mentally.
As orthorexia progresses and develops, it can truly mimic damaging effects seen in anorexia and bulimia, such as malnutrition.
The Butterfly Foundation support help line: 1800 33 4673.
Contact the Energetics Institute for more information about Depression, Anxiety, and other body-mind states of being that affect yourself or someone you love and interact with. Richard Boyd is an experienced Body Mind Psychotherapist and the Director of the Energetics Institute in Perth, Western Australia