Mindless mindfulness in the weight-loss industry

'Mindful eating' is nothing more than a mindless fad, says Dr Andrew Dickson.

Dr Andrew Dickson.

Mindfulness is everywhere. It is like a disease running rampant through society. It seems to have pervaded almost all spheres of life including work, study and personal development. Perhaps, unsurprisingly, it is also flavour of the month in the health and weight-loss industry.

Popular weight loss magazines like Healthy Food Guide regularly cite ‘mindful eating’ as an important factor in weight loss and it is also features regularly in programmes like Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig.

Mindful eating proponents all follow a similar pattern. They focus on the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ of eating to supplement their usual business – what to eat. In particular they promote ‘awareness’ and ‘acceptance’ while asking people to not judge themselves too harshly when they ‘slip up’. 

It seems to me that the turn to mindfulness in the weight-loss industry deserves particular attention. I have often derided those trained in the scientific method for practicing social science without a licence because they apply scientific ideals to what are human issues. They do not give due consideration to the underlying mechanisms of power, control and desire.

I want to focus here particularly on desire, and think about this in relation to the call for mindfulness by the wider health industry. One of the first tenets of mindful eating is ‘full awareness’ but expecting that someone can, and should be, fully aware is patently illogical.

What psychoanalysis has shown since it was first practiced by Freud more than 100 years ago is that those things that we are not aware of are critically important to the function of our psyche. It is not simply a matter of summoning these into awareness, they are unconscious for a very good reason.

As an example Susie Orbach writes of the various reasons that people may be large in her 1977 book Fat is a Feminist Issue. One of these relates to childhood trauma, specifically suffering as a child may cause some people to ‘wear’ their size as a barrier to prevent attention as adults. This is just one example of many many potential unconscious reasons for body mass, let alone all of the environmental factors that contribute to it.

The weight-loss industry of course just sees these ‘victims’ as potential consumers, by virtue of their mass. Weight-loss promoters would happily invite them into their eight-week programmes and ask them to make all attempts to be ‘fully aware’ without considering the potential consequences of this in terms of promoting yo-yo dieting and psychic suffering.    

Possibly more problematic is the suggestion that mindfulness can help you accept yourself. Putting aside the paradox that sits at the heart of the claim (that you should accept yourself, but only if you’re attempting to lose weight), accepting yourself is the dream of the idealist. This is a total misappropriation of Buddhist doctrine. Accepting the self is a never-fulfilled lifetime task for those who dedicate themselves to it. It most certainly does not happen during a short-term weight-loss exercise.

Another core aspect spouted by the proponents of mindful eating is the demand to be non-judgemental. The irony of saying this in connection to a weight-loss programme is breath-taking. Fat activists fight constantly to not be judged and yet fat people remain one of the most marginalised groups in our society.

If those promoting mindfulness actually respected it conceptually, they would recognise the paradox of associating it with an attempt to lose weight. We should take The Times columist Giles Coren seriously when he describes the turn to mindfulness we have seen recently in our society as “cynical 21st century capitalist techno smegma”. I would add “mindless” to the start of his colourful phrase – purely for ironic emphasis of course.

Dr Andrew Dickson is a senior lecturer with Massey University’s School of Management. His research takes a critical view of the weight-loss industry. His Twitter handle is @AndrewDickson13

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