Clean eating: an aesthetically pleasing can of worms

Clean eating is a wellness phenomenon that has taken over dashboards everywhere. To eat clean has become the raison detre for many young females, if their social media activity is anything to go by. By what are the implications for a population of young women striving toward a state of cleanliness, synonymous with both internal and external purity? Masked by the empowered tone of postings by amateurs and wellness bloggers alike is an excessive anxiety toward the disorder emblematic in foods which fail to meet new criterions of cleanliness.

Mary Douglas famously argues that our visceral fear of dirt stems not from an anxiety over its lack of hygiene, but the context of its placement in a social system. For example, dirt is tolerated in contexts where it is expected, (ie. the garden bed) however once dirt transgresses out of this expected position this is the moment where discomfort occurs. Funnily enough, there is nothing about dirt itself that is inherently “dirty”, rather it is whether or not it follows the social doctrines of its placement.

To ramble now on clean eating, there is nothing to suggest the purpose of clean eating involves striving to consume foods that are necessarily “hygienic” – the conventional meaning of the word “clean”. Clean eating instead involves a re evaluation of the meaning of the term to suit a more metaphorical pursuit of wholesomeness which would be difficult to explain to someone who naturally took on the traditional, verbatim definition of “clean”. I believe there is some interesting discourse work at play here by the community that recalls Douglas’s re-evaluation of the cultural relativity of dirt. Foods contained within the clean eating diet are not prioritised due to their hygienic status but for the fact that they follow certain social rules.

The first of these is that these foods are of a certain nutritional value, verified by a number of different sources. I am not in a  position to question the diet’s nutritional content, however I would like to point out how the definition of “clean” has been refigured as something that fits into accepted social codes of nutrition and health. I speculate that the other of these is the aesthetic value of certain foods contained within the clean eating diet. It is difficult to explain the sum of things making up the clean eating aesthetic but a few common motifs include wholesome boards and bowls containing brightly coloured foods garnished by attractive condiments, smoothies presented in fashionable milk bottles, smiling attractive girls in work out gear holding vegetables and so on. What I edge toward is that for foods to be considered “clean” they also must follow certain aesthetic as well as nutritional rules to truly be validated within the social system.

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