While attempting to sustain the newest fad diet, appearance-conscious American consumers often attempt to satisfy their deprivation-induced cravings by turning to protein bars, sugar-free cookies, and low-carb breads. As they scan through the health food aisle at their supermarket, they notice an array of brownies, chips, and other products that would normally be off-limits to them while on their diet. These treats, however, are labeled “all-natural” and “clean.” The consumer immediately recognizes that, unlike the snack aisle and its dirty, processed products, these snacks are acceptable to their diet. However, the truth is that no organization is ensuring that those cookies are really all-natural or clean, as these terms have no regulatory definitions. These labels are essentially useless, as they convey nothing about the product’s nutritional value or ingredients. Then why is it effective to portray a cookie as “all-natural?” Is that “clean” donut different from any other donut? At some level, these advertising devices are derived from our culture’s obsession with “natural” healing and the moral attributions we connect to food. Our imagination of diet, health, and personal agency has been shaped by decades of implicit and explicit social conditioning, arguably beginning with the arrival of naturopathy near the turn of the 20th century.
Naturopathy was a form of alternative medicine that emphasized living in accordance with “nature’s laws.” Founded by Benedict Lust in 1902, naturopathy proposed that the body could be healed through natural means without the use of pharmaceutical drugs. Subscribing to the belief in the Unity of Disease, which posits that a single cause of disease manifests as different illnesses, naturopathic philosophy argued that the body could naturally heal itself if the patient maintained sufficiently healthy habits, thereby placing the onus of well-being upon the patient. One of naturopathy’s early advocates, Henry Lindlahr, explained that, contrary to mainstream American medicine, naturopathy was a preventative form of healthcare and argued that it was “more advantageous to prevent disease than to cure it.” In this vein, naturopaths emphasized the necessity of “natural” and nutritious foods, advocated for a balanced diet, and criticized fad diets as overly restrictive and lacking nutrition. As the head of the American Naturopathic Association, Lust emphasized the value of leading a healthy lifestyle instead of solely caring for the body once issues arose. Naturopathy took a relatively holistic approach to health; in addition to habits supporting physical well-being, naturopathy’s Christian leaders also emphasized self-regulation and “positive spiritual well-being.” Habits, such as eliminating waste, eating a nutritious diet, and constructing a positive mental state, were claimed to increase “vitality,” a term naturopaths used to describe overall well-being. Evacuation was so integral to the naturopathic framework that early 1900s vendors marketed “internal baths,” claiming their product “assists nature instead of forcing her.” It was certainly, as the same article noted, “a most interesting method.”
Detractors would likely have agreed that naturopathy was “interesting.” A 1914 New York Times headline described this “vaguely defined art of healing” as just another “healing cult.” This skepticism painted naturopathy as an ineffective and unsafe form of medicine, one that was “too complicated, and at the same time too simple.” Critics argued that naturopathy lacked structure and principles that truly distinguished it from the era’s mainstream medicine. Naturopathy, they claimed, simply recycled outdated practices and beliefs that mainstream doctors had relied upon centuries prior and made an ill-defined distinction between natural cures, such as herbs and physical therapy, and unnatural treatments. To mainstream practitioners, the name naturopathy was misleading, as nature was integral to all forms of healing in some capacity. Even the pharmaceutical drugs naturopaths railed against were, in a sense, natural, as they were simply naturally occurring substances in an isolated state. While naturopathy as a movement dissolved in the 1950s when the spiritual emphasis disintegrated, some of its philosophical remnants persisted, and perhaps intensified, as time progressed.
Naturopathy was a turning point in the way Americans understood their health and cemented much of their prior beliefs about the necessity of a “natural” lifestyle. One of the most, if not the most, important developments from naturopathy was its emphasis on self control and individual agency in an individual’s health outcomes. Historian Susan Cayleff notes that, because of the simplicity and focus on behaviors as the key to health, “responsibility for health was ultimately up to each individual.” Prescriptions for moderation, discipline, and industriousness implied a degree of personal failure or inadequacy if one were to get sick. Lindlahr went as far as to describe the failure to take preventative measures against illness as “allow[ing] people to drift into disease.” While this perspective might have been reasonable based on the belief in the Unity of Disease, its persistence in contemporary times has led to the notion that the undisciplined consumption of “dirty” foods compromises not only one’s health, but their moral character as well.
As the wellness movement gained steam in the 1950s, some of the ideological pieces of naturopathy persisted and gained additional implications. Health became conflated with physical appearance, and leaner, “fitter” bodies were automatically assumed to be healthy. Consequently, because health was tied into morality through naturopathy’s emphasis on controllable habits, appearance became a salient indicator of morality and a person’s degree of self-control. A conventionally Eurocentric “fit” appearance not only signified health, it now also signaled virtue. Nowadays, we see these beliefs in the self-care and diet spheres; nearly any perceived physical imperfection, be it skin blemishes, a stigmatized body size, or lack of muscle tone, can be treated and corrected. However, since everything is apparently curable, the persistence of a flaw can be assumed to mean that the individual was too lazy, undisciplined, or simply morally inferior to fix it. Every physical imperfection and illness is seen as a moral stain on a person’s character. These beliefs are not only clearly misguided, they are destructive to our self-concept and our understanding of health and wellness. They ignore the critical roles our environment and our genetics play in determining health outcomes and imply that the failure to correct and prevent any health or appearance-related issues not only ruins our well-being, it also ruins our character.
Today, food might be the domain that most clearly illustrates the moral attributions we relate to our health choices. Shelves are stocked with foods labeled “clean” and “guilt-free,” implying that the alternatives are “dirty” and “guilty.” Eating “dirty” foods suggests a failure in discipline and self-control, and, by extent, a degree of immorality. The moral evaluation of food is further seen in the marketing of “all natural” or “whole ingredient” products. Because Americans have historically perceived the natural as healthier than the unnatural, natural foods may be seen as superior, with their selection holding greater moral value. These attributions and the underlying moral connotations food and health have in American culture fuel our dysfunctional and destructive cultural endorsement of diet culture, fatphobia, and fitspiration. Beyond the common distress, embarrassment, and frustration everyone feels with these constructs, these norms manifest pathologically. Orthorexia, along with other eating disorders and body image disorders, is exacerbated by this toxic and illogical cultural norm. Ironically, although naturopathy criticized the Eurocentric diet culture that continues to pervade American discourse, its philosophical emphasis on personal responsibility and its dichotomization of good “natural” foods and bad processed foods ultimately perpetuated another era of fad dieting.
As absurd and meaningless as our food advertisements have become, they do shed light onto our cultural understanding of health. Marketing food with terms like “clean,” “pure,” and “sinfully delicious” plays into the idea of “good” versus “bad” foods and emphasizes the need for making the “right” choices. Yet what these phrases actually promote is an unhealthy relationship with food and feelings of inadequacy when we make a “wrong” choice. The conflation between morality and diet has confused the public, leaving our society vulnerable to the subliminal messaging of food manufacturers, the diet industry vultures, and your poor mother, confused and having a nervous breakdown in the cereal aisle as she tries to make the “good choice” for her child.
- Susan E. Cayleff, “Nature Takes the Right Road,” in Nature’s Path (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016), 52. https://doi.org/10.1353/book.44947 ↑
- Henry Lindlahr, Nature Cure: Philosophy and Practice Based on the Unity of Disease and Cure, 1st ed. (Nature Pure Publishing Co., 1913), 2. http://hdl.handle.net/2027/chi.64439185 ↑
- Cayleff, “Nature Takes the Right Road,” 61-62. ↑
- Cayleff, “Nature Takes the Right Road,” 53. ↑
- Cayleff, “Nature Takes the Right Road,” 54; 63. ↑
- “Ever Take an Internal Bath? It Is the New and Scientific Nature-Cure for Many Ills.,” Washington Post, April 29, 1912. ↑
- “Healing Cults Seek Shelter of Laws: Christian Science, Naturopathy, and Chiropractic Bills Rushed through Senate by Tammany,” New York Times, 1914. ↑
- “Chiropractors and Naturopaths Defeated.” JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association 103, no. 20 (November 17, 1934): 1541. https://doi.org/10.1001/jama.1934.02750460045014. ↑
- F. M. Lehmann, “Nature Cure,” British Medical Journal 1, no. 4759 (March 22, 1952): 653–54. ↑
- Lehmann, “Nature Cure,” 54. ↑
- Cayleff, “Nature Takes the Right Road,” 53. ↑
- Lindlahr, Nature Cure, 2. ↑
- Stein, Richard, and Carol Nemeroff. “Moral Overtones of Food: Judgments of Others Based on What They Eat.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 21 (May 1, 1995): 480–90. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167295215006 ↑
- Cayleff, “Nature Takes the Right Road,” 61-62. ↑