In a tragically auspicious moment of social media scrolling, a video of a nutritionist I follow appeared on my phone as I lay flat under the misty monsoon sky of Salalah in swimwear; I wasn’t going to jump in the pool, because it would be too cold to come out of. My skin had been absorbing the humid air as the small screen I held hovering over my face spit out audio calling an end to the normalization of bloating—because bloating, the woman on video announced in a tone that sounded final, was not normal. This was declared unquestionably, like a fact of God. Here I was, in another bout of complicated body dysmorphia in which I both love and hate my protruding stomach, in a sticky swimsuit, listening to the dogma of uncontextualized fact.

I want to be generous. I can see she’s trying to say many things, that discomfort should not be the way in which you constantly find yourself, that food has its complicated origins in nourishment and survival, and that a body bloated is, in some ways, a symptom of it at odds with its mere responsibility to digest. Even more generously, the nutritionist’s conviction is trying to alarm us at how we might be socially conditioning ourselves to muting our bodies and its physiological relationship to modern consumption habits.

But I also want to engage. I want to have a conversation, and say that the nature of any relationship to food is itself a modern product. Food, now, can come from anywhere, and anything. Excessive bloating can be a symptom of something abnormal that ought to be checked out, or it could be a body’s particularities in its lived experience, such as the runner’s inoffensive dependence on bread as a food. None of this is particularly natural.

Neither is this video—purporting information that is meant to be helpful—existing in the ether, where the impulse to engage, or to give feedback, is reduced to the function of a comment made on a qwerty keyboard, with no body language or intention translated except by means of a character limit of 180. Knowing something is ecological—it depends on the company we keep, the articles we read, whether we pay attention to our surroundings while walking in a city or if we tune them out. What I know, and what you know, are necessarily different. Bloating may not be normal, but neither are the ways in which we, producer and social media consumer alike, are coming to that conclusion with a false sense of shared understanding. So when I find myself troubled and turned off by well-meaning advice, it’s because even biology needs social and cultural context. Who, what, where, when, and why remain the critical components of telling a story.

The abundance of kinds of information and of seemingly contradictory facts that don’t engage with one another reproduces mistrust and anxiety. Glucose is bad, a study shows why, and a biochemist who brands her identity with bright colors presents this in a convincingly lucid manner. Then, a doctor, whose certifications exist boringly, responds—noting precisely what the study doesn’t reveal. Both of their cases make sense. But that’s where they end, in so far as providing us with a complete picture. We’re fucked because objective knowledge only works when we first know when glucose is bad, who it’s bad for, and under what conditions, and also: are we addicted to sugar because of mass industrialization or is it an anecdotal version of evolutionary theory? There are so many things to consider, and a lack of context collapses that depth.

But misinformation is a beast bred by online narrativizing as well. Context provides a fuller picture, but not necessarily an accurate one. This dangerously enables us to rely on narrative as a way to make sense of senseless things, the way conspiracy does. Stories have a way of feeling true because of their finality. Diet Coke, which is good, is bad for you. Vaccines are biological weapons, and the private interests wrapped up in their dissemination is telling. These tales give us a once upon a time, and they give us a the end, conveniently doing the work of making sense and erasing the possibility of an alternative, stickier, and more complicated version of reality. Endings are good for making memories out of sweet things, but not for knowledge. In real life, things fluctuate. We change, we change back, and we change forward. 

July 03, 2023 — Yasmeen Khaja

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