When 'Healthy Eating Tips' on Cereal Boxes Are Just Body-Shaming in Disguise
Don't believe the hype
It was just a routine shopping trip. Once again, I’d asked my mom if she could pick up some cereal on her way home from work. I would have gotten it, but sometimes I’m too tired or down to go myself. I have disabilities that affect my mood and energy levels. Also, it’s just convenient if she’s already out. I love cereal, especially the Millennial classics; when I can find Waffle Crisp, I'm in heaven. But breakfast cereals with nuts, dried fruit, and "oat clusters" are my absolute favorites. It’s like a new adventure (or the same, always-exciting one) awaiting my taste buds. I love the different textures, the combination of flavors, the hints of cinnamon or honey, plus I just really love oats and nuts. My mom came home and placed the grocery bag on the kitchen counter. Excited, I rinsed a clean bowl and spoon and grabbed the box out of the plastic bag.
As far back as I can remember, I’ve always loved reading food labels: cereal nutrition facts, “enlarged to show texture,” ingredients, and the little things on the back that tell you what the brand is all about. Also, sometimes games and trivia. Occasionally I Google the ingredients in cereal. Mostly, though, it’s like holding a Wikipedia article in my hand—just something interesting to read. This time was no different. I tore into the cereal, poured my milk, and turned the box around to read as I chewed.
But what I saw, instead of a crossword, was a series of “congratulatory” messages: “Let’s hear it for willpower” and “a way to conquer temptation.” My mom had purchased a box of Special K, and I was furious. (At the box, not at her.)
Up until a few years ago, I spent a lot of my life wringing my hands over my size—I am fat. I started gaining weight at around four years old and have been gaining gradually ever since. Not too far into elementary school, I started receiving the Message: There is something wrong with my body. I am not cute. I need to shrink myself, to lose weight.
Though my family wasn’t perfect, I am grateful that they weren’t, for the most part, pushy about it during my younger years. As I entered my teen years though, I found myself being “encouraged” to diet.
I remember when our first lady, the wife of the pastor of my church, helped me start an HerbaLife diet that consisted mostly of gross shakes. When it seemed like my face was just a smidgen thinner, my mom was so excited. I never lost much, but once I gained it back she’d sometimes lament the slightly thinner version of me. I began to lament, too, telling my friends as we shopped for clothes that my fat body was shaped like a sausage. (It’s not.) I held onto a cute pink and gray sporty outfit that I hoped to be small enough to fit into one day. That day never came.
Once I got to college, I became too focused on coming out, developing my leadership skills, and having a good time to really focus on dieting, but I still had a goal. When I left college, I tried again. And again. And again. Facebook Memories won’t let me forget my multiple attempts at “resolutions” and “getting healthy.”
Since that time, I’ve been able to recognize my patterns of disordered eating and my distorted body issues. I discovered intuitive eating and Health at Every Size and haven’t looked back since. But the Message is still there. It’s everywhere. Even on cereal boxes.
In a culture focused on health—sometimes, ironically, unhealthily so—it makes sense that the foods we buy would jump on the bandwagon. And the history of breakfast cereal is marked by perceptions (as well as marketing campaigns) of its healthy properties. Inspired by the conviction of his Christian beliefs, Dr. James Caleb Jackson invented Granula, a graham flour-based breakfast product that had to be soaked in milk overnight to be edible. Though it didn’t win over many people, Jackson believed that, in addition to combating what he and other religious members considered rampant vices, it would aid digestion. Charles William Post advertised his cereal as being able to cure appendicitis and raise one’s IQ.
As our knowledge of food science, nutritional science, and human biology has increased, what “health food” marketing looks like has changed. Products often cite a study or two that supports their claim for including, omitting, or limiting certain ingredients or nutrients, and they often reflect the increased awareness of specialized dietary needs. But as the industry behind “the most important meal of the day” has capitalized on various health food trends, it has contributed to the perpetuation of diet culture.
From calorie restriction and food-group elimination to obsessive exercising and weighing, diet culture is all around us. Studies continue to show the detrimental physical and mental health effects of dieting, but the multi-billion-dollar diet industry manages to keep it chugging along. Weight loss programs like Jenny Craig and Weight Watchers, the latter of which is over 50 years old, offer special diet foods, consultants, plan manager apps, support group meetings, calorie-counting and points systems, and other options. The promise is that, if you stick to it, you will lose dress sizes and gain confidence. Gimmicky products attract desperate customers with assertions of “burning belly fat” or being able to “eat what you want and still lose weight.” And of course there are plenty of fad diets and “healthy lifestyle change” plans. The diet industry has many faces, some more harmful than others, but all with the same purpose: to push the lie that most people can lose weight and sustain that weight loss, and that doing so will most assuredly lead to a certain happiness that can only be acquired through thinness. It’s a great image to sell. However, the diet industry is successful over the long term precisely because a high failure rate, combined with the constant dark cloud of fatphobia and worship of thin bodies, ensures hordes of customers.
During my first semester of graduate school, I was one of the few students actually living on campus, along with my roommate, who was also studying adolescent education. Like me, she’d had an almost life-long struggle with her weight. Sharing the same little room together, coming from similar backgrounds, and studying under the same program, we had many discussions over the three months we lived together. One of the things she often talked about was her body, her relationship to food, dieting, and her experiences with how she was perceived.
I never told her, but over time it made me angry—for her. And with even more time, it made me angry for myself. I realized just how utterly messed up the Message was. I realized how pervasive it was. I realized how badly it had damaged me, and after that revelation I was determined to put an end to its effects. Of course, until the culture shifts, it’s impossible to completely escape it.
Enter the cereal box. When I saw those messages of “empowerment”—the ones that claim you can drop a size if you just replace most of your meals with cereal—I scoffed in disgust. I immediately put my guard up, protecting myself from creeping thoughts of self-doubt and the temptation to fall for the Message again.
I finished my delicious cereal, slurped up the milk, and put my bowl in the sink.
Fuck you, cereal box. I’ve already learned that there’s no such thing as “willpower,” and I’m fine just the way I am.